Someone stopping by for a morning coffee at Café Alexander in central La Paz on 7:30 AM on Friday morning would have been greeted by an international group of groggy adventure seekers eagerly and nervously awaiting the day of mountain biking that lay ahead. Me and six others were a part of this group, arriving early in the morning to sign in with our guide, a goofy, always grinning Australian man named Marcos, and hop on the minibus that would take us to our destination. We were off to Coroico, but this time, via the old road, the Death Road, and on a mountain bike.
What now is a haven for mountain bikers and adventure tourism agencies, the Death Road used to be the only way to get from La Paz to Coroico. This two way road, less than ten feet wide in places, with the mountain wall on one side and an unforgiving precipice on the other, it claimed the lives of 200-300 people a year during its years in operation. Needless to say, this wasn’t a road built for a safe daily commute.
Now, tourist companies have capitalized on this commuter vacancy (although we did see a few random taxis and families in vans making their way up and down), and for the most part the only cars on this road today are the minibuses that follow the mountain biking tourists flying down the mountain road. For a brief, but informative look at the cycling attraction of the road, click here.
We walked into Café Alexander with only a vague history of this road in mind and our boisterous guide announced that here is where we should leave our fear and trepidation behind because the most dangerous thing we’ll do all day is leave the café and cross the busy street to the minibuses. Joking about the dangers of the ride was definitely the “comical” theme of the day.
We learned on the way to the start point that Marcos has been leading riders down Death Road for a year now. Some weeks he traverses the road six days in a row. He boasted that he only had one person hospitalized during that time (with punctured hands and a brain hemorrhage), and added that none of his riders number in the road’s casualty count. Inspiring words indeed.
Getting set up with our equipment: Helmet, neck band, jacket, orange vest, gloves and mountain bike.
We got decked out in our gear, which wasn’t exactly water proof, but provided an extra layer to buffer hard falls, and provided our guides and our group with a way of identifying one another.
According to Marcos, the most dangerous part of this journey is always other riders. He said that many other groups end up riding in packs down the narrow road, or, if riders are isolated, they swerve all over the place instead of keeping to the left as downward traffic is supposed to.
Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking Tours, the name of the organization we were with (and received a discount through BX), definitely seemed like the most organized and best run outfit. During the ride down we did indeed witness other groups swerving from side to side, and whole packs traveling together, potentially magnifying any fall to include most of the group.
Before starting down the road, Marcos gave us a run down of mountain biking technique and etiquette on the trails. He finished by declaring his most important rule, “Just don’t be a f!*%king idiot!”
The first part of the Death Road wasn’t really the Death Road at all. We began on the new road, joining the car traffic on the way to Coroico. According to Marcos, in the past year he’d never seen so many cars on the road as there was that day. It was Semana Santa, Easter weekend, and Coroico is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike during this time. In addition to the holiday, many people were headed to the music festival that we were going to in Coroico as well.
We set off through the mist at 10AM, faster riders in front, slower in back, leaving a minibus and half length between each rider. Down through the mist we went, peddling unnecessary on the steep incline. True to the tour company name, gravity’s pull was all we needed in our descent down the steep mountain grade.
I’d never gone that fast on a bicycle, and never been on a mountain bike, but felt at ease amidst the exhilarating ride. I kept Marcos’ last words circling in my head, “If you remember anything that I tell you, trust the bike.” I hunched forward, flicked the rear brake every now and then, and tried not to get too distracted by the powerful mountain views that surrounded us. Marcos had also affectionately told us with a big grin, “Don’t get distracted by the butterflies because they are trying to kill you.” Lots of feel good wisdom from this happy Aussie!
We cruised down the paved mountain road watching faster cars pass us by. Bolivian families packed in vans, minibuses loaded with Coroico bound vacationers, and huge tourist buses squeezed by us. At times, when traffic was heavier, we zoomed by these folks. That is, if we had space. “Bicycle lane” doesn’t really exist here.
In fact, traffic lines and signs seem to act more as reminders that traffic laws probably exist on paper, even if they aren’t a part of daily life. Passing on a double yellow is just the way one drives here, lanes being optional placeholders as long as there is no oncoming traffic. Even with oncoming traffic, and I saw this as we drove back from Coroico at the end of the weekend, it’s possible to be passing a car on their left over a double yellow and have an oncoming minibus passing you on your left. Just like we were told to trust in the bikes, one learns to trust in the Bolivian drivers.
On our way down we stopped at various turnouts every five or ten minutes for some more advice from our guide about any upcoming sharp turns or especially tricky areas. At one point near the end of the paved journey to the beginning of the Death Road, we stopped just outside a tunnel. Marcos informed us that bicyclists are forbidden to continue through the tunnel now ever since several riders had been seriously hurt by traffic while riding through it.
Our path went around the tunnel, on the first rocky, gravel part we would experience. According to Marcos, it would be a good time to get a feel for mountain biking, begin to trust the bike, and commit to the rest of the journey. With that in mind, we hopped on our bikes and took to the mountain path. Behind us, a group of what looked like local bikers cruised by us (and the sign saying ‘bicyclists forbidden) into the dark tunnel.
The first thing I learned in that short jaunt around the tunnel was to heed Marcos’ advice about not braking while turning. This causes the back wheel to slide out from under you quite easily. Instead, we were instructed to almost never break fully, just flick the brake a bit, let go, and turn the bike the direction you want to go. The bike will do the rest. I didn’t fall, but a little slip and sliding made a fast learner out of me. We reentered traffic on the paved road shortly and were cruising down the mountain on smooth ground once more.
We passed through a narcotics checkpoint shortly thereafter. This consisted of a large sign, then a seemingly vacant checkpoint area. We were instructed to walk through, and I expected at least some contact with a security person, but with none to be see, we obliged by walking through the area and then hopped back on our bikes. After about an hour, at 11am, we arrived at the Death Road start point.
A wet and misty start to the journey.
Last advice from Marcos: he lined up three large rocks and told us, when you can, go between the rocks, but when you can’t, just hit them head on and trust the bike. Don’t brake. Don’t turn. Just keep flying downward. Essentially, if you feel out of control, let go of control. Counterintuitive advice to say the least, but as we got a feel for our bikes, it must have saved many of us from many a fall. I know it did for me.
Half the time I rode up front with faster riders, and then spent some time in the middle and towards the back as well. I had my tire skid out on multiple turns during the ride, but managed not to fall. We got to this rest spot (see below) and were finally out of the mist that accompanied our ride to that point, disguising the sheer drops off to one side and the spectacular views all around us. While we had some granola bars and refilled water, it started to pour. We had started in the mist, then it gave way to rain, and we would get to the sun eventually. We definitely got our money’s worth weather wise!
The narrowest part of the journey awaited just after the rest stop in the rain.
Our group taking a rest on Devil’s Tail.
Little memorials like this lined the road all the way down.
Luckily we avoided any rock slides that day, although we had to navigate parts of the road covered in loose rock from recent landslides.
And sometimes a little water to navigate as well.
Having too much fun.
Part BX and friends of BX having a much deserved rest.
On the last stretch of the road we passed the start of the zipline course, which we would be driving back up for later!
A complimentary beer after our five hour ride. Tasted sooo good.
The zipline was an optional add-on after making it down to the bottom of the Death Road. Most of our group elected to keep the adrenaline going and opt for it. After returning our gear and being treated to a cerveza at the bottom of the route, we got harnessed up and driven to the first zip line point.
The first line was the highest up, at 300 meters, the second would be the fastest zip line, at 50+ mph, and the third the longest at 2,000+ ft. I’ve done two zip lines before, one in the Costa Rican jungle and another in Northern California. Both were longer courses than this one, although the Bolivian version had something the others didn’t: Superman.
The Superman harness.
As you can see from the photos normally you are strapped in and laying back with your feet in front of you. However, this outfit had another harness option where you can lie face down with your back to the line. Flying forward, looking down at the ground, with your hands out in front, and you have become a flying Superman. Since there were only two Superman harnesses, at each base point, those who wanted to do the Superman harness switched out of their normal one and jumped into the Superman style experience. I did on the last run, the longest one, and truly felt like I was flying through the air. Definitely the way to do a zip line!
After the zipline, we were taken to La Senda Verde, an eco resort and animal refuge where we had a spaghetti buffet, included in our Gravity experience, and rested for a bit.
From there we finally made the last bit of the journey to Coroico in minibus. We met up with some others who had opted to not do the Death Road at La Finca, the place where we were camping.
A relaxing night around the fire awaited and then a sleeping-in morning followed. Our lodging was a hotel/hostel, but had wide open grounds which made camping (40 bolivianos a night, less than $6) an option for us that we took advantage of. The place also had a large pool, a pool room, and lots of dogs running around!
On Saturday we took our time getting up, played some pool, swam, and headed to Coroico for lunch in the early afternoon.
Pique Macho for lunch, a traditional Bolivian dish. Essentially it is the Bolivian version of paella, a whole bunch of food (french fries, onions, peppers, cheese, eggs, various kinds of meat, and all drenched in a mysterious sauce) thrown together in a delicious and extremely filling way.
From there we headed to the music festival, which was in the hills outside of Coroico in the opposite direction from our camping area. We arrived around 6pm and found that not many people were there yet. We passed the time exploring the area a bit, learning to juggle and visiting with other festival-goers.
As night came, more people showed up and the music started flowing. We had a great time that night, had plenty of time to sleep in the next day, played some more pool, and then headed back up the mountain to our home in La Paz.
To top off the fun and wild weekend, the minibus that we took back to La Paz came with its very own parrot co-pilot. This little guy clung to the rear-view mirror the whole bumpy ride back, with the occoassional surprised chirp when we hit a particularly large hole in the road. I was amazed it held on the whole way, and it seemed quite at ease during the trip. Like us, he trusted this driver’s navigation abilities, and had long ago left behind any fear or trepidation he may have had about this crazy journey.
On the road back home.