This was a big one. We’d read pretty much everything there is to read about the route, researched agencies and listened enviously as fellow backpackers had retold their encounters with Bolivias infamous Death Road. It’s fair to say it was top of our list for Bolivia. We couldn’t wait. Before we get cracking on our account though, a bit of background is needed.
Until around 5 years ago Death Road was the only route available for those wishing to travel from La Paz to the jungle regions of Bolivia. It’s a 67km ‘road’ that winds through the Yungas Forest starting at an altitude of 4600m and finishing deep in the forrest at an altitude of 1400m. So that’s over 3000m of descent on a road that is predominantly a gravel track a little over 3 meters wide. And then there’s the drop. At times this is vertical and as high as 130m to the Forrest canopy below. To this day, an average of 3 cyclists a year are killed and in the past 50 years there have been over 250 documented deaths. So you see where the name comes from.
Our day began by being herded into the back of a van at 6:30am and being driven 2 hours to our starting point. It was freezing cold, cloudy and pretty drizzly but all the same the landscape was incredible. At an altitude of 4600m, we were up in the clouds surrounded by jagged peaks with snowy caps. This was the setting in which we had breakfast, after which, we were all freezing cold and eager to get going. We subsequently suited up (2 layers), strapped on our knee and elbow pads and got acquainted with our bikes (Trek 3400 mountain series – for those who are interested). The briefest of safety talks followed – their advice: 1. Don’t fall off 2. If you are going to fall off dive away from the edge – and before we knew it we were off.
The first 1000m of decent was pretty straight forward. It was on wide, quiet roads and the gradient was shallow and constant. It gave us time to get used to our bikes and once we did, we could get up some real speed! Well some of us did..
The real hair raising stuff came later. After around 18km the smooth paved road gave way to a gravel dirt track. Almost immediately road became narrower, the gradient more varying and the drops began to appear. Every so often the vegetation would give way to reveal the vertical cliff face that you were cycling less than 3 metres away from. It was a stomach churning sight.
It wasn’t long before we were passing gravestone after gravestone. British, Irish, German, pretty much every nationality was represented to dates dating back as recently as 2014. They were everywhere. And you can see why. The track is covered with boulders that if you hit, you will fall off. The corners are sharp and narrow and if you take them too quick.. you will fall off. The rocks and gravel are slippy when wet and if you break to hard you lose all grip in an instant. Add to this that you’re never further than 3m away from a 100m drop and you see why the road gets its name.
50km later we arrived at the bottom and were treated with ice cold canned beers being sold by a kid who can’t have been older than 6. I maintain he will go far in life.. best business idea ever. We all lapped them up before heading to a hostel with a pool where we rested our aching bones and enjoyed the free buffet.
All in all Death Road was everything we hoped for and more. It’s terrifying and stomach churning but at the same time it’s unforgettable and aw inspiring. You’d love it if you’re one those there for the pure adrenaline rush of going down as fast as you can but you’d also love it if you prefer to take your time and enjoy the scenery, which is some of the most stunning we’ve witnessed on our trip.
The experience is made all the more special by the fact that, at home, we have so few experiences like this to enjoy. The British death road would have speed limits, wardens and safety fences. The safety talks would be 2 hours long and the health and safety waver forms would be 50 pages long. You’d be obliged to pass a cycling proficiency test before entering the road and there’d be strict punishments for those who went too close to the edge. All in all, we just have the nasty habit of sapping the fun out of everything.
Bolivia most definitely doesn’t have that problem.. and we bloody love them for it. Take note England.
La Senda Verde
By lucky coincidence our Death Road trip finished a 10 minutes away from an animal sanctuary we had planned on visiting, La Senda Verde. So instead of taking the van back to la Paz with the rest of our group, we were dropped off on the middle of the jungle where we somehow managed to hail a taxi to the animal sanctuary. The journey there was almost as bad as Death Road – a narrow dirt path with a massive drop that wound down to the base of the valley.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by the park owner and shown to our room.. or should we say our mansion. We were the only tourists, along with a group of 4 Americans (the most typical American tourists you will ever see – full beige outfits with matching utility belts, socks and sandals, massive cameras. Almost as entertaining to watch as the animals) and we subsequently had an entire 8 bed house nestled in the jungle to ourselves.
On our first day we were given a personal tour of the entire refuge and taught of the sad stories of many of the animals who were subject to human trafficking before their arrival at the sanctuary. These range from bears being used as show pieces in Asian restaurants to a capybara being kept as a pet on the 5th floor of an apartment block. All in all the sanctuary cares for over 650 animals from 50 species ranging from capuchin monkeys to incredibly rare Andean bears. The animals were dispersed in cages across a huge site that were connected by a series of caged walkways for which access was predominantly restricted, although we did manage to get up close and personal with a few.
The rest of our time at La Sende Verde was spent wandering the jungle paths around our house and observing the abundant wildlife. It was an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable break – much needed after Death Road!