I almost wimped out of cycling the Death Road. Even before I got to La Paz, I was well aware of the 19 cyclist deaths since the road became a thrill-seeking tourist’s hot spot. Then I kept hearing stories about the accidents that seemed to occur on a daily basis. One girl was taken to hospital for a dislocated shoulder and another had to be winched back onto the road with a rope while she clung to the side and dangled like something from a Roadrunner cartoon!
Against my better judgement, I signed up to do it – and on the festival of the ‘Day of the Dead,’ no less. I told myself I’d take it easy and be careful, and perhaps even ride in the back of the bus for the scariest sections.
No way did I want the last picture of me (dressed as a pink-haired witch on Halloween) to be posted all over the media as news of the twentieth casualty passed back to my friends and family…
So, I booked with one of the pricier tour operators with the best reputation and safety record. ‘We’ve only had one death’, boasts the company ‘Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking’, pausing a moment for you to question whether that’s an achievement, before telling you it was a guy who had a heart attack. I just hoped the heart attack didn’t happen as a result of skidding off the edge…
The guy in the office who sold me the tour was covered from head to toe in scabs and bruises from a recent bike accident on Death Road. For some reason, this doesn’t seem to put anyone off! Maybe the staff even figured that the real risk of danger would attract a lot of nutcase adrenaline junkies.
The day tour with Gravity costs Bs750. Although it’s more than many competing companies, it includes a lot of nice extras:
- They give you a T shirt and a buff with the company logo (I managed to wangle a pack of bad ass playing cards too)
- They make a CD with photos and videos of your group
- You can pay an extra 220Bs to do some long, high zip lines if/when you finish the Death Road
- Gravity is the only company that brings its cyclists to Senda Verde – an animal sanctuary with monkeys, bears, tropical birds, caimans and many other species
- At the sanctuary, you also get a meal and a hot shower (towels provided!), all on Gravity
The bikes used by Gravity are awesome. I’ve hired bikes in Ecuador and Peru so far on this trip and they were pretty poor quality. Gravity’s bikes have double suspension and thick wheels built especially for downhill biking. A hard hat and gloves are mandatory, and you can ask for shin and elbow pads if you want them as well.
I arrived at Alexander Café, the meeting place for Gravity’s Death Road trips, at 6:45 in the morning. Gradually, the rest of the 14-strong group trickled in and we got to know each other a bit over breakfast. At 7:30 we were packed into a sort of extended mini bus which had all our bikes stacked on the roof. Our guide introduced himself as Rylan and asked us to each tell the group our name, origin and an embarrassing story…It wouldn’t be fair to share those here, but let’s just say there was a lot of giggling, which lightened the mood and helped us forget our nerves.
Rylan handed out a bunch of protective gear before we got to the start point, to save time. When the bus stopped, he assigned a bike to each of us and gave us a little one-on-one instruction.
We then had time to practice on the flat before the ride began. As we were about to set off, Rylan handed around a bottle of potent alcohol and we each had to pour a little bit on the bike tyre and ground, then take a vomit-inducing swig, as an offering to Pachamama to keep us safe.
The first hour or so was easy cycling on a wide tarmacked road, although there was quite a bit of traffic. It was a good opportunity for us to get to know our bike, and I suspect also for Rylan to figure out which members of the group were reckless or shit. Luckily, we all passed the test.
There were plenty of stops so that everyone could regroup and anyone who needed something from the bus or wanted a break could sort themselves out.
At each stop, Rylan would also tell us what to expect from the next leg of the journey. On the tarmac, there was a drugs test as well as a check point where everyone had to pay Bs25 towards road maintenance (landslide repair, etc).
Following this was an optional 8km uphill climb. They usually ask the whole group how many would like to do it and the majority wins. Since it’s really high altitude and we didn’t want to be too late back to La Paz, we decided to skip it, so the bus gave us a lift to the start of the real Death Road.
Just one look at it had me wondering what the hell I was doing. It’s only 3 metres wide in parts and the 400 metre drop is pretty menacing. We started off slowly, testing the tyres on the gravel and, at times, huge rocks.
They were good. Occasionally a pebble would fly off to the side, but we had all been instructed to keep at least a bus length of space between us, so no one was injured by flying rocks.
One of the other tour companies had a massive group of about 40 cyclists and it was obvious they’d been given less instruction beforehand.
Every time they overtook, they didn’t tell us they were passing, and at one point I witnessed a girl fly right over her handle bars, only to be run over by her friend!
There were a few snack breaks and photo opportunity stops. The Bolivian guide Christian also took photos and filmed us going by. Rylan tipped us off that if we cycled by really close to him, we would look like we were going faster, so many of us sped by within inches of his face.
The only ‘accident’ I was involved in was potentially killing a beautiful butterfly as it slapped into my face when we raced down the very final segment.
Going through the town, we were told to watch out for children and chickens. Apparently, if you hit and kill a chicken, you have to pay a 25Bs fine – but then you get to keep it, so if you know how to prepare one for dinner, you’re quids in!
We all arrived at the nature reserve in one piece. Our group had had no accidents and we all really enjoyed the experience. I was sad to part with my bike and I didn’t even feel too much pain from the seat for such a long journey.
We gathered in a restaurant hut surrounded by macaws and monkeys and tucked into some free pasta and a small complimentary beer. I’d originally asked Gravity if I could stay the night at the refuge and travel back with the next day’s group, but it turned out they’d forgotten to make a reservation and the bank holiday meant it was full of locals. It worked out in the end though, because I got back to La Paz by about 8pm, had a really fun night in the hostel and met a bunch of people to travel to the Amazon with.
Just before leaving the bar, the next evening, I bumped into Rylan again and asked him if he’d managed to kill anyone that day on the road. It turned out a couple had been cycling too close together and the girl had crashed into the back of her boyfriend, come off her bike and dislocated her shoulder, which just goes to show that you have to be careful even if you’re with a reputable company with lots of guidance and safety equipment.