Camino de la Muerte, “Death Road”

Posted by on Sep 15, 2013

Camino de la Muerte, “Death Road”

I‘ve been busy doing tours in Bolivia, so although they say it’s cheap; when you’re taking four day four wheel drive tours through Andean landscapes or three days hikes from the eternal snow of 5,000 meters down to the jungle… it still is very reasonably priced for what you’re getting!

After the Choro Trail and a night in muggy misty Coroico, I returned to La Paz to cycle Death Road, a famous Bolivian high-mountain descent on bicycle. The infamous road gained its name and reputation from the numerous fatal accidents that occurred along its many kilometres of torturous turns lined by sheer cliffs and that fall hundreds of meters to the forest covered valley below. Until 2006 this road was the only connection from La Paz to the towns to east, handling all through traffic despite being only a narrow dirt road. Over the past years Bolivia has undertaken massive civil works in road construction in some of the most difficult and mountainous terrain on earth. High quality highways now cut, carve and climb their ways to the high passes connecting the major cities of La Paz, Oruyo, Potosí, Sucre and Cochabamba dramatically reducing transit times. Such a highway now replaces the infamous Camino de La Muerte (Death Road) which now remains as a popular tourist cycling attraction. I applaud the government’s efforts in investing in national infrastructure like roads and the newly announced intention of connecting to the South American Fibra Optic Ring as a means to bring Bolivia out of the stone age of internet connectivity – being notably the worst in South America and as such, among the worst in the world.

Waking in the freezing dark of a La Paz morning I was left to shiver for a further 40 minutes in the foyer of the hostel before the tour company ‘Altitude Cycling’ passed by to collect me. We collected 5 more eager participants, waited for some (probably hung-over) no-shows before beginning the climb out of La Paz to the pass at 4,700 meters where we were to begin the descent on bicycle.


Behind the lead guide…I flew down the mountain, surrounded on all sides by a thick mist that hid the spectacular vista and precipices from view. Mud flew, drenching my backside and covering my shoes and sun-glasses.


Surrounded by the same wintery landscape and freezing winds that had marked the beginning of the Choro trail trek 5 days beforehand, jackets, trousers, protective gear and bicycles were handed out. These were the genuine dual-suspension bikes from Goma and Specialized equipped with shimano groupsets and disc brakes. The initial descent followed the paved highway and as the only cyclist in the group I found our progress frustratingly slow as the group moved at the pace of the slowest rider or often stopped for a catch up when I wanted to whistle down the smooth turns! But I won’t complain. Around me snow covered peaks glistened in the morning sun. Below the road could be seen descending in many tight switch-back curves or sweeping around the side of the mountain. Cloud hovered below in the folds of the mountain creating a truly surreal vista.


It all became wet as we entered the cloud, stopping for a breakfast before leaving the road and beginning the wet, dirt Death Road. Here the group necessarily split (often stopping for a regroup and group photos) as it was evident some just couldn’t make the pace and others (eh hmmm) were nashing at the bit to let rip! Behind the lead guide (one stayed behind at the back), I flew down the mountain, surrounded on all sides by a thick mist that hid the spectacular vista and precipices from view. Mud flew, drenching my backside and covering my shoes and sun-glasses. We maintained the outer edge (closer to the edge) as is the custom among cycling groups as a safety mechanism against cars driving up the other way. After some re-grouping stops me and the guide descended rapidly out of the cloud to the sun and heat of the lower altitudes. In the distance I could once again see Coroico, perched on the side of the hill overlooking the valleys and mountain we were now descending. On the final descent the front guide removed all reservations. Here the road was steeper but there were no great falls off the edge and so we careened madly down the rocky road, overtaking other groups and skidding around corners (with the more adventurous of the other groups)! More than once I felt the back wheel give below me in the corner, but, with my weight centred (not sitting) and the counter-intuitive knowledge of steering with the slide and not against it, I succeeded in staying on the bike. Anyone who has ridden a motorbike will know this technique.

Well, that was it. 55km of descent, from 4,700 meters down to 1,200 meters. From the freezing treeless snow covered heights and bitter winds to the humid heat and sunshine of the valleys. We stacked the bikes on top and piled into the van for the short ride to our lunch destination with a swimming pool and showers all included in the cost of the tour. After an hour of relaxing, eating and chatting, we made the three hour van ride back up to La Paz. A thoroughly enjoying experience. The only thing which could have made it better was clearer weather on the inimical stages of Death Road. But as a single speck of insignificant mankind, my desires for clement weather fell on deaf ears of the awesome power and temperamental nature of the alta montaña.