Sunday 28th April - Cycling El Camino del Muerte

El Camino del Muerte is a 61 km road which links La Paz to the Yungas and the Amazon. It ascends the cold Cumbre Pass at 4,650m and then descends to the sub tropical town of Coroico at 1,200m. It was given its terrifying name, the Death Road, by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995.
In its heyday around 200-300 motorists a year died as a result of veering over the edge of this narrow, no part is wider than 3.2m the width of a single carriageway, and precipitous road. It is not paved, subject to being turned in to a mud bath in the summer rain and in to a dust bowl in the dry season. The height of the road and the surrounding forest means that there is often fog and mist hampering visibility. There are no guardrails and the edge is crumbly with frequent landslides. It is the only road in Bolivia where it is mandatory to drive on the left meaning that the driver coming downhill can look down to see the edge of the road on the drop side, to make passing easier! At one time it was the only route in this direction out of la Paz, meaning that it took lorries, buses and cars in both directions.
Fortunately for us in 2006 an alternative road was finished, with proper carriageways and guardrails and this road now takes the majority of the traffic, leaving the Death Road for tourists and crazy downhill cyclists.
Naomi and Mairi had booked to do just that with a company called Altitude. I was to go down in the van, cycling not being one of my things (no sense of balance).

The Death Road pre 2006 courtesy of

We were picked up at 7.30am in Altitude's minivan. We stopped on the way at a notorious 'party' hostel, The Wild Rover to pick up a couple of guys. As soon as they got in they boasted that they had been on the raz all night and not slept. There was an Irishman called James and his Australian friend who was barely conscious. James made up for this by not drawing breath between sentences.
We drove out of town for about an hour until we reached a lake at the top of the Cumbre Pass. It was cold, there was frost on the ground.
James and his mate decided that they would go for a swim, more of a paddle, while we met up with another minivan and the bikes were got off the vans and prepared.

Mairi and Naomi at the lake

Everybody put on their protective gear and they were given their bikes. They all had to do a a short ride to make sure the saddles were at the right height and they were comfortable. The bikes were true 'downhill bikes' and not equipped for going up at all. So the plan was that they would cycle downhill, starting at the top of the pass on the new road. We would stop a little way down for breakfast, then continue on the new road until the place where the old Camino del Muerte branched off. We would then all go in the van to a suitable place on the Death Road as there was a little uphill first and start the cycle down.

Naomi and Mairi

The guides had detected (not difficult) that James and his mate were a little under the weather and they were told they could not cycle on the new road as there was too much traffic and they were a liability. The situation would be reassessed when we got to the Death Road. I had anticipated a quiet time in the van, taking pictures out of the window when there was an opportunity. Instead I was landed with a couple of moaning drunks who insisted they were perfectly capable of cycling.

The top of the Cumbre Pass

Ready for the off

View from the new road - sensational

Mairi comfortable on her bike

After breakfast

We all turned off the new road, the bikes were placed back on top of the vans and we drove along to the start of the proper ride. Fortunately breakfast had helped James and the Australian and they were now more sentient. I had been worried that they might have caused an accident involving someone else, but I was reassured that they would naturally space out on the downhill. So at least I was relieved of them from the van and they were given their bikes.
Their was a bit more safety talk at the top of the descent, time used for me to take pictures. 
The road had virtually no traffic on it, the only people we saw were other cyclists.

View from the top

The Death Road snaking round the hill

Start of the Death Road - sign saying to keep to the left

There was a dog there who was well known to the guides who fed him. Then they all disappeared down the road and I followed in the van.

When we stopped, and sometimes when we hadn't, I took a selection of photos on the way down. The mountains were covered in trees and looked green and lush, getting more sub tropical as we descended. Here are a selection of pictures from the way down.

Landslip seen from the van

The road goes under some waterfalls

The drop off

One of our guides - he was fit

One of the many crosses lining the route

Mairi passing the van

Sub tropical vegetation
We stopped a few times to allow the cyclists to regroup and rest.

Mairi waiting to go again
The last piece of road was apparently the most dangerous. We had had no injuries. James had broken three bikes and managed to go over the side on the last stretch but saved himself and stopped the bike descending a few hundred feet as well. So everyone was back in one piece.

Mairi coming in at the end


Naomi finishing
Although it wasn't really a race, Mairi came a very creditable second. Naomi arrived a little after unscathed and happy.
The van took all the bikes and us down to a hotel where lunch was provided and a pool where you could shower and swim. I did, but one end smelt a bit rank so I got out and re-showered! James admitted that he couldn't remember a thing from the first part of the morning and he was glad he had missed the first bit of cycling.

The next day we met someone with a broken arm from the Death Road (in the second week of a 3 month holiday) and another guy who had taken most of the skin from his forearm. Altitude were a really good company to go with. The safety clothing was top class and no one from our party was hurt in any way (apart from sore bums and hands).

Tomorrow is a less adrenaline packed trip to some pre-Inca ruins at Tiwanaku.


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