Death road is found an hour or so out side of La Paz. It recieved its ominous name a few years ago and was made famous in the UK thanks to a Top Gear special. It’s dangerous and therefore famous for a number of reasons. Firstly the drop in altitude. Starting at around 4000m and finishing at 1100m, you can be in snow one moment and then very soon find yourself in tropical conditions. Secondly, its surface is mostly rocky with lots of loose stones and it’s not very wide. In places the road goes down to around three and a half meters. Oh and there are also drops of up to 400m and barely any crash barriers. To complete this dangerous concoction is that in the past it was pretty much the only way to get to the north of the country, which meant that every bus, truck and car had to travel it. This resulted in around 300-400 deaths a year and the road is full of crosses to the many people who tumbled over the edge.
In 2006, a new road was built and instead the road was handed over to the mountain biking crowd. As luck would have it, however, the new road is currently having problems and is shut during the day. Whilst most transport have rearranged to make their journeys at night, others have returned to the old road. As it was, it was fine and we saw very little traffic, but it definitely added to the nerves at the start.
After signing a death waver, I left La Paz on a minibus with ten other people and we drove up to 4700m. Now to be honest, I had signed up to do death road so that I could say I had done it. What I had not expected was the picturesque scenery that would be a permanent fixture on the ride. After putting on the various pieces of equipment, I was then handed the bike. Now, I can’t remember too many times that I have been on a mountain bike and it showed. Boy was that thing bouncy and as for the breaks…you did not want to touch them too hard! After a little practice ride, we had a saftey pep talk and made an offereing to pachamama (mother earth). This involved sprinkling 96% alcohol on the ground and bike before taking a shot. It kind of rendered the safety talk a little bit useless.
Then it was time to begin our descent. Now the start was just lovely. A beautifully paved road, with gorgeous mountain scenery. It was great fun flying down without a care in the world. Of course, that part was not death road. No it was more an extension of the practice ride. After a very rocky section around a tunnel, we arrived at the start and had another safety talk, before descending all the way to the bottom.
The road itself was fine, although I wouldn’t have wanted to have been anywhere near it when there was serious traffic. It would have been absolutely lethal. On a mountain bike, however, it was plain fun. Yes you had to be careful, in particular keeping an eye out for loose rocks, which were nickname baby heads. Catch one of those too fast and it was over. But other than that, it is just a fantastic ride in an incredible setting. Upon finishing the 3600m descent over 64km, I had a well deserved soak in the river with macaws flying over and a beer in my hand. Bliss.
As for the rest of La Paz. Well I have mixed feelings. The city itself is spectacular when seen from the cable car or various miradors. My favourite was the ominous sounding mirador killie killie. Other than the views, the city does lack sights though. The witches market is not what I had hoped for. Just a few old ladies peddling some tourist stuff alongside the odd dead llama (apparently it is lucky to burry one under a new house). I also went to the coco museum and tried to learn about the history of coco. It was a strange place with a bunch of images and information in Spanish. They do give you the information translated in English, however, I just found myself sitting on a chair and reading the pack rather than actually looking around the museum. Then there’s the altitude. 3600m odd with no acclimatisation, I immediately began to sympathise with all those people who fly into Lukla, Nepal and then hike up to Everest Base Camp. After fifteen or so days of acclimatisation, I remember blitzing it past them, but now here I was short of breath and struggling to get anywhere fast. It’s definitely a slower pace to sightseeing.
One sight in La Paz did leave me slightly confused. After getting off the cable car in a random area, I went for a little stroll through a market and upon turning a corner, I came across a traffic attendant dressed as a zebra. As a one off I would have put it down to someone playing a joke, however, it was the second sighting of a traffic zebra in two days and in very different areas of the city. And this was no ordinary traffic attendant; it danced, joked and said hello to everyone who went by. A very quirky side to La Paz, which unfortunately I can’t show on here due to the terrible internet speeds at the moment! It’s like dial-up all over again.