Death road, Bolivia

Death road, Bolivia

Death road: To ride down, or to ride up? That is the question.

Not to ride at all, is out of the question entirely.

Not to ride at all, is out of the question entirely.

 

Riding down Bolivia’s famed “Ruta de la Muerta ” aka the “Death road” has a tick box beside it on most lists of those visiting Bolivia. So much so that well over a hundred of tourist ride down the road on mountain bikes on the daily. The occasional moto and one or two trucks also make the trek. There is a much newer and safer paved road that has been built now, leaving the “Death road” as mainly a tourist attraction. The sharp drops and narrow road don’t take much imagination as to how the road got it’s name though.

The road rules are reversed here, riding down death road leaves you riding on the left in any passing situations, pushing you right to the edge. Riding up the road gives you right of way, including the advantage of pulling to the relatively safer “wall side” of the road while passing. Which way to go has been the subject of debate with several motorbikers I’ve met along the way.

Here’s the thing: I liked the ride down a lot. In fact I liked the ride down so much that I rode back up. Down was better.

 

After arriving to La Paz, I decided the first clear morning I would get up early and head for Death road. There had been weeks of rain, and I didn’t want to ride in the wet. Less is more for my still weak left shoulder.

Getting to the road wasn’t without challenges, I still hadn’t been able to buy gas, and then there was the standard road hazards.

 

Not at all a surprising sight.

Not at all a surprising sight.

 

Purchasing gas was was still a chore. I finally got lucky on my second try of the morning for 6 BOB/L (about $0.90). More than the 3.74 local rate, but much less than the 10 Boliviano/L official tourist rate.

 

On the road out of town, this station will be on your left, and sold me gas.

On the Yungas road out of La Paz, this station will be on your left, and sold me gas with no problems.

 

The road to the "death road" alone is worth the ride.

The highway to the “death road” alone is worth the ride.

 

The scenery heartily reminded me of the Rockies in Canada...

The scenery heartily reminded me of the Rockies in Canada…

 

...but with far more Llamas and Alpacas

…but with far more Llamas and Alpacas

 

The "death road" isn't the only road in these parts worthy of exploring.

The “death road” isn’t the only road in these parts worthy of exploring.

 

Scores of tourists on downhill mountain bikes try out their borrowed wheels before beginning their decent, much of which is actually on beautifully paved highway.

Scores of excited tourists on downhill mountain bikes try out their borrowed wheels before beginning their decent, much of which is actually on beautifully paved highway. One of the guides kindly provided me a map.

I needed that map. I still kept thinking I had missed the turn, really though you can’t miss it.

There's a pretty noticeable giant yellow sign.

There’s a pretty noticeable giant yellow sign with the word “Death” on it.

 

The weather was a bit foggy to start, but not raining as it reportedly had been for days, so I decided it best to take advantage of the weather break and ride down before the clouds changed their minds.

 

Known by all, observed by some.

Known by all, observed by some.

I had the whole road to myself. The fears of having to “keep left” on the cliff edge while passing were moot. I passed only two pickup trucks and a couple motos the whole way down.

 

Though I can see how being forced to ride right at the edge could feel ominous.

Though I can see how being forced to ride right at the edge might feel ominous.

 

Not too far into the ride, the clouds started to lift

Not too far into the ride, the clouds started to lift. Perhaps I just was starting to ride beneath them.

 

Many corners have guard rails. Not this one.  However the road at that point is so wide that you would never need to ride out near the edge anyways.

Many corners have guard rails. Not this one. However the road at that specific spot is so wide that you would never need to ride out near the edge anyways. Great for photos.

 

A long walk back to take that photo too.

 

Not as long of walk as this one...

Not as long of walk as this one…

 

...or this one.

…or this one.

 

Stunning waterfall collection.

Stunning waterfall collection.

 

Met Chris, from Germany, riding up on his Yamaha 150.

Met Chris, from Germany, riding up on his Honda 150.

 

A truly beautiful ride, even more so when the sun comes out.

A truly beautiful ride, even more so when the sun comes out.

 

you must pay 25 Bolivianos to pass this road.

You must pay 25 Bolivianos to pass this road.

 

First sticker on window! Super sized little girl smile for the win!

First sticker on window! Super sized little girl smile for the win!

 

A couple streams to cross for good measure

A couple streams to cross for good measure

 

Trinket booths and restaurants await all the cyclists at the bottom.

Trinket booths and restaurants await all the cyclists at the bottom. Vacant for now, but not for long.

 

The change in climate was dramatic. From riding at the snow line near freezing through the pass out of La Paz, to 25 Celcius heat at the bottom of Death road in the jungle. I enjoyed the riding so much I pulled a u-turn and started my way back up!

 

The first of many cyclists I would encounter on the ride up.

The first of many cyclists I would encounter on the ride up.

 

It was on the ride up when I finally encountered the true danger on Bolivia’s “Death Road”: The cyclists.

Take a couple hundred tourists who may or may not have ridden a bike recently, put them on vastly varied quality of used downhill mountain bikes, and hurtle them down a rocky gravel road with at-best 2 foot high safety barriers. Repeat daily.

The fastest cyclists I encountered were the safest, I felt. Perhaps because they might have had more riding experience, perhaps they just learned quickly but regardless they reacted quickly, and appropriately, when we crossed paths.

The more nervous riders, notably female this day, were not as quick, or appropriate in their reactions. I met two different girls in almost identical situations. I would come out of a corner, honking my horn the whole way through, and on exiting the corner encounter a girl 20 meters away with two hands full of brakes. Skidding all over the place, panicked faces, they would swerve and slide to their right, one of them riding right into the cliff wall beside them for a final stop. Both looked distraught as I passed. They weren’t having fun.

I think these are the tourists who add to the death tally, the ones who maybe didn’t want to ride the road in the first place.

Riding up the death road meant dealing with the hoards of these cyclists riding down, and their respective support vans. True, I had right of way and could take the “safer” left side of the road, but the potential interactions with cyclists around every corner kept me on edge. Most bikers would stay left, some would swerve right. Some would simply stop right in the middle of the road. I was likely the first other vehicle they had seen the whole ride, so I’m sure they were more focused on picking their line than anything else. I certainly was when I rode down. At least the support vans were all predictable.

 

Cyclists in the mist

Cyclists and their support van in the mist.

 

Water break

Break from dodging cyclists

Cyclists or not: I still enjoyed the ride up. The views are fantastic in each direction and it’s simply a fun road to ride on. In the end the weather was constant all day so either way would have been fine. If you’re debating which way to ride and have to chose one way only: Ride down. With cyclists coming around any given blind corner on the way up, I found the ride down more relaxing. Either way you ride, it’s an experience not to be missed.

 

Hooray for survival!

Hooray for survival!