Life is a Highway (Death is a Road in Bolivia)

It’s admittedly old news by now, but Saturday #16 was a very low-key day for me. I had something a little more interesting on the docket for the next day and I simply wanted to rest up. Those who read my Facebook status updates might recall what I did on that particular Sunday but for all others I have a four-word clue: World’s-Most-Dangerous-Road.

It took longer than expected to get my hands on the photos and videos that others shot for me on Sunday, October 19, but at long last I can now post an illustrated account of the day.

On Friday, October 17 a group of five of us went to the La Paz offices of Barracuda Biking to sign a stack of indemnity forms. By paying cash two days in advance we got the benefit of a guaranteed booking, offset by two full days to really think about what we were getting into.

Swiss friends Marcel and Steffi are always up for an adventure but a second couple had to drop out at the last minute due to illness. (Fortunately they soon recovered and did the same ride with the same biking company a few days later.)

In the two days between signing on the dotted line and the actual ride we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that thousands of people do this every year and only a handful actually meet their maker. Okay, maybe 20, 30 or even 50 die in a very bad year, but that number is waaaaay down from the average of 300 who died annually as recently as 2006 when this was the only road between La Paz and Coroico. Since a new two-lane paved road was completed the mortality rate has dropped dramatically. In fact, it continues to drop year over year. As I often told bettors when I was was a racetrack handicapper, “the trend is your friend.”

We were up at the crack of dawn on Sunday but since none of us were exactly sure how to get to the meeting spot on foot, it was decided that we’d simply hail a cab.

“‪Calle Tarija 211, por favor,” I told the driver in my abysmal Spanish. ‬

Ten minutes later, after barely slowing for any of a dozen red lights and taking the wrong way down several one-way alleys at three times the posted speed limit – one of which had several stone steps – it occurred to me that my Spanish may have been so poor that the cabbie understood me to say, “She’s in labour; get us to the hospital right away!”

One minute we were flying down cobblestone streets with lazy dogs and church-bound ladies leaping out of our path in the knick of time and the next minute the cab had come to a screeching halt and the driver was motioning to a narrow alley. He grunted something that sounded vaguely like, “Here Calle Tarija.” But who knows, he might have said, “Hope it’s a boy.”

“That guy was crazy,” exclaimed Steffi once her feet were planted firmly on the sidewalk.

“Did you see the old lady crossing herself as we flew down that one-way street?” asked Marcel.

I remarked that it was a miracle we weren’t killed on the way to the Death Road. We had to laugh at the irony.

After walking a few blocks we found 211 Calle Tarija and the Barracuda van pulled up about 30 minutes later. We met our guides, Noel and Andreas, our driver, Aidan, and another rider, Sarah, who asked to join our group. I don’t know about the others but I felt a few butterflies in my stomach as soon as we got into the van.

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While vans equipped with rollbars may be cause for concern to some people, I found it vaguely comforting. Besides, strapped to the rollbar was a high-end boombox. I knew that I was in good hands the minute Noel plugged his USB stick into the boombox. His “favouites” playlist was almost identical to mine. I relaxed a bit as we drove to the eclectic sound of The Ramones (Blitzkrieg Bop), Cake (Short Skirt / Long Jacket), Coldplay (In My Place), Bahamas (Pink Strat), The Dandy Warhols (Bohemian Like Me), and Ram Jam (Black Betty). Ironically, one of the very few songs that Noel played and that I do not possess was a 1997 recording of ‘Canada’s Really Big’ by The Arrogant Worms. Why a 25-year-old Bolivian guy would have that song on his playlist is a mystery to me. I didn’t ask for fear he had plucked the USB stick from the blood-soaked pocket of dead Canadian bike rider.

As we approached the outskirts of La Paz we were forced to stop for a police spot-check. The driver dealt with the police while Noel headed to a roadside food stand. Andreas stayed with us and explained that Bolivian police regularly stop bike company vans to make sure they have “safe tires and breaks, a first-aid kit, and a… well… a body board.”

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Noel returned a few minutes later with a delicious looking breakfast. A dozen or more vendors were selling everything from Oreos and Chicklets to scrambled eggs and grilled rainbow trout from tables and ramshackle shacks that lined the road adjacent to the spot check. How convenient, I thought. While I’m sure kickbacks are built into the price of the food, none in our group complained when a good-sized portion of yogurt, fresh fruit, shaved coconut and a dollop of jam sells for 5 Bolivianos or about 80 cents CDN.

From La Paz we drove uphill for about 90 minutes on the “new” road that runs parallel to the “old” road. There’s no official signage but the old road is known variously as Grove’s Road, Coroico Road, North Yungus Road, Camino de las Yungas, Camino de la Muerte, Road of Death, Road of Fate or simply The Death Road. Whatever you call it, it’s the road the very official-sounding Inter American Development Bank christened “The Most Dangerous Road in the World” back in 1995.

By now you’re probably starting to develop a mental picture. If not, let me help you out. The mostly single lane road is a winding, downhill cow path, frequently hit by rock and mud-slides. There are few if any guardrails and sheer drops of up to 800m on one side. It was built during the Chaco War (1930s) with labour provided by Paraguayan prisoners. I’ll repeat that… Paraguayan prisoners. I’m fairly certain there were no civil engineers on those chain gangs. I also suspect that said prisoners craftily selected the most dangerous route between points A and B in hopes they might one day get the opportunity to push their guards over the edge.

I could feel my heart racing as we approached the starting point. It wasn’t the same feeling I had when I joined Glen Crouter for my first TV gig in 1995, but it was close. It was more like what I felt when I boarded a small plane in Las Vegas knowing full well that I would not be landing in the same plane. If you ask me, the real thrill of sky-diving isn’t the three minute free-fall or the few minutes spent gliding back to earth once the shoot opens, but rather the three or four hours of steadily intensifying adrenaline rush while you drive to the airport, take the training course, suit up, board the plane, climb to the appropriate altitude, and finally scooch across the floor to the plane’s open door.

I got that same “doors open” feeling when we pulled into the parking lot at La Cumbre Pass and Noel announced, “This is it!”

At an elevation of 4650m, I didn’t waste any time putting on my down jacket. Others got into rain suits provided by Barracuda. Some even donned knee and elbow pads. It was quite windy and in the thin mountain air it felt much cooler than the actual temperature of 12C.

Noel explained that we would ride downhill on pavement for 30 km, get back in the van for an 8 km uphill stretch, then stop to pay a nominal fee and obtain a permit before switching to the “old” road. The final 30 km section is where the fun really begins. Road conditions run the gamut from large puddles and deep mud to loose gravel, rather large rocks (known as baby’s heads) and fine dust that requires breathing through a wet bandana. The good part is that minimal peddling is required. In fact, you must ride with two fingers on the breaks at all times, cautioned Noel.

Before we hit the highway there were three final items on the agenda. First, we were instructed to stick to the left side of the road. On the Death Road the left side is otherwise known as the “cliff” side. This might be the only road in the Americas where traffic must keep to the left. It simply makes it easier for drivers heading downhill to gauge the distance between their wheels and the edge of the road. If two cars should meet, or if a large rock is in the way, that distance can be as little as a few inches.

Noel reached into his pocket and produced a velvet pouch that contained a small bottle. The bottle appeared to be same as one a Colca Canyon guide had offered as treatment for anyone experiencing altitude sickness. Noel said a little prayer and sprinkled a few drops of the “tonic” on the ground as a gift to a the “good mother” or Pachamama as she is known to the Andean people. Noel then passed the bottle around and we each sprinkled a few drops of the liquid on our front wheels before taking a small sip. Thankfully, 96% alcohol evaporates in seconds so swallowing wasn’t actually required!

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And finally, while straddling the bikes and just seconds from the start, Noel asked us to recite a special pledge that he claimed to be of the utmost importance. We all laughed when he got to the last line: “And I promise not to be a f _ _ _ ing idiot.”

According to Noel, who has over 1800 Death Road runs under his belt (and only one client death), you are “reasonably safe” if you pay attention to the road ahead. Breaking quickly is sure to send you into orbit since the modified mountain bikes have extremely sensitive disc breaks. Wipe-outs and head-stands rarely end well on The Death Road.

And as a final word of warning, Noel said, “Go ahead, whip out your GoPro when I’m not looking and take that 30-second video selfie of you in motion. You’ll get some spectacular footage… that can be shown at your funeral.”

I think that was the point when my adrenaline flow switched from an IV-like trickle to a whitewater-like torrent. I know it’s the point where I zipped my camera into an inside pocket. My heart was skipping every third beat and I had a heightened sense of full-out, eye-popping, try-to-not-pee-your-pants excitement!
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After what turned out to be a very easy 15 km stretch on paved highway we came to the first place of interest: a two-lane tunnel. It’s too dangerous to ride through the pitch-dark tunnel, explained the guide, so we will take the narrow, rocky bypass that winds around the side of the mountain. “And be careful – one at a time – single file,” he added.

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Here Noel explains that a blue speck at the bottom of the cliff is the remains of a bus that went over the edge on July 24, 1983, killing more than 100 passengers in what is said to be Bolivia’s worst road accident. And yes, buses with 100 passengers are common in rural Bolivia. Noel definitely had our attention at this point.

By the mid-way point it had warmed up considerably and I changed from my down parka to a light rain jacket. Once we had descended to an elevation of 3500m we started to encounter numerous small waterfalls and the occasional creek or pond that had formed on the road. There was no way around these obstacles so we simply barreled through them. Thankfully there were plenty of places to dangle legs over the edge of little embankments where a warm updraft dried wet pant-legs in minutes.

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The road leveled off and the traffic picked up considerably as we approached the end of the road near the town of Yolosa. At this point we were down to at an elevation of about 1200m and the temperature had soared to a muggy 30C. These are typical jungle-like conditions at the base of the Andes.

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We joked that the numerous Jeeps and beaten up trucks that passed us in the last few kilometers were probably sent out by the local bar owner. They kicked up so much dust that we were easy marks when offered warm showers and cold beer for a price.

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As all but the van driver downed a few cold ones, Andreas (right) asked how we would describe the experience. The words “gratifying” and “rewarding” were suggested but they didn’t exactly nail it. After a few more suggestions were rejected, Noel (left) said, “How about f_ _ _ ing awesome?”

These seemed like profound words coming from a grown man who was riding a rocking horse.

With apologies to Pachamama, we all agreed that “FA” pretty much summed it up. After all, none of us had been a “FI.”

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