At the starting point of the Death Road

At the starting point, temperatures were cold enough for me to see my breath @2021 Annie Elle

One of my favorite things about living in South America was the ease at which I could travel around the continent. One of the more appealing attractions to the adventurous side of me was the Death Road in Bolivia. I had already booked my tickets for La Paz when two friends spontaneously asked to join me, so I happily accepted their company, withholding the primary mission from them until later.

La Paz, Bolivia

Once in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia and the highest capital city of South America by elevation (13,313 feet above sea level), and checked into our hotel, I casually mentioned how long I’d been waiting to bike the Death Road. Their hesitation didn’t surprise me – after all, this narrow road winds around the mountains connecting La Paz with a small town called Caroico in the Las Yungas forest. The 43 miles can only accommodate a single lane of cars, and many of the turns are sharp, which led to over 300 deaths per year until the new highway was built. The name stuck, however, and has been turned into a popular adrenaline-junkie destination for travelers in Latin American.

Eventually, the two friends came around and I briefly scoped out a few shops in town before settling on a tour operator. Like many others, these companies charge up to $100 USD per person for this day trip, providing top-of-the-line bicycles with a double-brake system (front and back tires) along with other gear and protective equipment we’d need.

The Death Road Begins

At 6am the next morning, I dragged my friends awake and we met up in front of the bike shop in town to board our van along with four others, similarly sleepy but ready for action. As we bumped along in the white van, I took note of how many layers we were all wearing. I had no less than five layers on, as the guides warned us that we’d start our descent from the top of the Andean mountains which can sometimes have temperatures low enough for snow.

We jumped out at the starting point, a wooden map greeting us with a route drawn out for the bikers to mentally prepare. A wooden snake curved around a railing, and I perched my elbows on it to take in the breathtaking view. The lush greenery down below stretched from both sides of the mountain down into a canyon and wrapped around the thin brown strip I could make out. The guides, pulling on red jumpsuits covering them from head to toe, yanked out our gear from the van. A large yellow and grey jumpsuit went over my four layers on top and jeans, then one of them had to help me strap on the clunky knee pads, a pair of elbow pads and heavy helmet tightly secured under my chins.

I positioned myself alongside the others in a rough semicircle around the guides as they called out instructions and hand signals for the turns we would be making. The van would drive behind the group, carrying everyone’s backpacks, change of clothes, and snack packs and water. A guide would lead us from the front, and the second would be in the middle of our group. As the enthusiastic four other bikers wheeled themselves to the front, I lingered in the second half along with my two friends, just in front of the van.

The guide started off, with one last glance, and with a lift of my feet, the journey began. For the first few minutes, it didn’t seem nearly as terrifying as people made it out to seem. The road was filled with rocks but there was ample space to navigate around them, and it wasn’t as steep as I had anticipated. However, as time passed, the pebbles became larger stones, which became still larger rocks with jagged edges that were harder to avoid. The three bikers in front kept in a tight line right behind the lead guide, and I did my best to hang right behind the second guide.

Taking a Break…

By the time we reached our first stopping point, I realized I had barely taken in the sweeping scenery since the bulk of my attention was focused on dodging obstacles in the road and clutching the brakes as I continued picking up momentum. I had seen the three bikers in front skid a few times going around a sharp curve, and the guide walked over to check on them. The second guide tapped me on the shoulder, and motioned for me to look up. A high, skinny waterfall was cascading over the edge of the cliff above us, spraying the route just ahead in a beautiful line of blue cutting across the swaths of green and brown.

The group continued on as I started sweating into my helmet. The further down the group went, the more I could feel the change in temperature. My hands started to cramp as I had to consistently keep clutching the brakes to stay at a reasonable speed, and the regular bumps and rockiness of the road was beginning to take its toll on my rear end.
The snack break was a welcome pause in the journey, and I gratefully accepted a ham sandwich with a juice box. As I wharfed down the simple meal, having worked up an appetite, the guide explained that the flowers behind us on the railing were for the deceased who plunged over the edge to their deaths. The macabre history of that site was a stark contrast with the spectacular view in front of my eyes.

Before the guides pushed off again, I desperately needed to shed a layer. The warmth was noticeably weighing me down, and several others did the same. Not long after setting off, my friend just in front of me came to an abrupt stop. She searched the ground all around her as I pulled up next to her. In her concern about keeping valuables on her, she had kept her wallet in the large pockets of the jumpsuits – which had no zippers or buttons to close them – instead of the van with the backpacks. I walked back up the road a few hundred feet, but could see nothing. One of the guides took the van back to search while the rest of us waited, and I reassured her that I could lend her enough money to last the rest of the trip if it wasn’t found.

The guide returned empty-handed and the group continued on. A few moments after the next mini-break, my second friend took a sudden fall, slipping off her bike sideways and landing arms first, scraping up her inner wrists. I spotted her jumpsuit out of the corner of my eye, since we were the last two in the group, and quickly hopped off to help her. Hastily, she brushed herself off and pushed me to keep quiet about her injuries since our group was already delayed.

Death Road Completed

The final stretch was the longest by far. I had a locked claw grip in both my hands from the non-stop braking, and my muscles ached with the bumping and jostling of every bone in my body. I was determined not to give up, however, as the guides had given all the riders the chance to opt out at any time and ride in the van – they would transport the bikes on top, and reassured us that it wasn’t uncommon for people to finish in the car.

The sweltering heat of the tropical jungle at the bottom of the journey was the most welcome change in temperature I’d ever embraced. By this point, it was close to noon and I could feel my hunger gnawing at me in combination with tight muscles and cramped fingers. Nonetheless, a swell of triumphant pride swelled in me as the road flattened out and the guide signaled to the van to pull over. I joined the others in a chorus of cheers and sweaty pats on the back as I started dismantling the protective gear.

Our group squeezed into the van for a short ride to a nearby guest house where other groups were already lining up for a buffet lunch that was included in the package. As I heaped on piles of rice, beef and tomato, I peered around at the other bikers, marveling at the wide range in age. Many were over 50 years old, and one woman, I overheard a couple saying, was in her 70s, and refused to give up.

The other bikers jumped immediately into the pool by the outdoor sitting area, but all I could think about as I slowly munched on my meal, appreciating every bite of the savory Bolivian dish, was the trek it took me to earn the commemorative tank tops that read “I survived the Death Road!”.

Written by: Annie Elle

 Annie Chen picture Annie is originally from Los Angeles although she’s worked and lived abroad for the last 10 years. Currently living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, she’s traveled to over 100 countries and enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and volleyball when she can.

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