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Lethal La Paz and the Death Road

BOLIVIA | Wednesday, 7 March 2012 | Views [1392]

Having spent less than 24 hours in La Paz before Carnaval, I decided to backtrack a bit and give the city another look.  It also helped that Hannah, Tijs, and Bethune from my Salar tour were all heading in that direction anyway.  My cold was still pretty bad, so I wasn't going to do anything too crazy (at least that was the plan to begin with...).  Bethune and Hannah convinced me to go on a little bike trip down the world's most dangerous road.  Downhill for 63km with a vertical loss of 3500m, you start in the frosty highlands near La Paz and end up in a jungle-like valley at the bottom.  What better way to get over a cold?  For 400 Bolivianos we got a pretty serious hard tail downhill mountain bike and lunch included.  An extra hundred would have paid for full suspension and my sore ass regretted my stinginess later.

A van picked us up from our hostel and then it was a short ride to our starting point.  Our guides seemed pretty experienced and gave us a thorough safety briefing before passing around a small white bottle.  We were to pour some of the liquid (which turned out to be about 98% alcohol) onto our front bike tire and then take a swig from the bottle.  This was to honour Pachamama (basically a Bolivian Mother Nature) and get some luck for our journey. The next four hours were spent hurtling down what was at first a full paved highway which eventually graded into a narrow gravel road with a 600m cliff on one side and a sheer wall of rock and vegetation on the other.  Occasionally the route was interrupted by moderate sized waterfalls pouring directly onto the road or by small landslides, partially cleared.  At one point I briefly lost control and crashed into a rock face along the road.  Better that side than the other!  Immediately after my little accident, a guy who was riding with another company came up to me screaming that he almost died.  I learned later that his bike had come apart and he had fallen part way down the cliff, with only some small bushes saving him from going all the way down.  Some of the less reputable companies were known to use shoddy equipment and I guess he was an unlucky statistic of that issue(or really lucky, depending on your perspective).  By the time we got to the end of the trip, the weather had warmed by 20 degrees and the wind and sleet had morphed into a humid, clear sky.  We stopped for lunch at a small hotel at the bottom of the road and had a bit of a wash before getting back in the van.  We now had to drive back up that crazy road.  Luckily we were allowed to stop for beers for the trip back, which dulled the fear somewhat as we bumped along up the narrow path (don't worry, the driver just drank soda!).  Our guide filled us in with some interesting information on the drive back, including the fact that 16 cyclists have died on the road, and dozens of people in vans and trucks over the years.  He personally lost an Israeli girl once when she tried to take off her goggles while still moving and lost control and went over the edge.  I was really glad he didn't mention any of this before we started.  I don't think I would ever do it again, but the rush of hurtling down the Death Road was absolutely crazy.

After the trip, my travelling companions all went their seperate ways and I was on my own again.  In my dorm at Wild Rover were three English gals and though I wasn´t quite 100% recovered from my cold, they convinced me to go out with them for the night.  We started at the in-hostel bar and moved on to the club after that.  Just as I was lining up to buy a drink, a fight broke out between a couple girls near the dance floor.  I stepped in to try help break it up and pulled one of the combatants out of the fray.  She was bleeding pretty badly from a cut on her forhead and I dragged her into the bathroom to clean up.  In the process I managed to get blood all over my arms and some on my face-  my friends were freaked out when they saw me until I assured them that I wasn´t bleeding myself.  After I washed up, I went to check on the girl and make sure she was okay.  I found her outside the club with her boyfriend and when I asked how she was doing, she basically told me to fuck off, so I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

After that night, I decided I had had enough of La Paz and left the next afternoon on a night bus to Cochabamba follwed by a second nigh bus to Santa Cruz in the far eastern end of Bolivia.  For once both my buses were functional and somewhat smooth.  Cochabamba, other than having the second largest statue of Jesus on a hill (smaller than the one in Poland but larger than Rio´s), was a bit dull.  At least the weather was better- by the time I got to Santa Cruz, the air was positigvely tropical! In my search for a hostel (the first three were full), I met a young Danish guy named Mikal and we decided to split a room to save on cash. He had just finished high school and was on his first trip abroad.  So adorable! (No funny business though, as I am pretty sure that crosses into cougar territory with the ten year age gap).

With a couple days in Santa Cruz to relax, I decided I had some time to organize a visa to Paraguay.  My ultimate goal was Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border and cutting through Paraguay seemed to be the most direct route.  The whole process ended up being much more.... interesting.... then I anticipated.   

Tags: bolivia, cochabamba, death road, la paz, mountain biking, santa cruz


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