A dirt road not always wide enough for two cars clings to jungled mountainsides and frequently crumbles under the pressure of rain-drenched mudslides. La Carretera de la Muerte, or Death Road, gained infamy for the number of cars and trucks that fell from its narrow track, taking all aboard to their deaths.
On the crisp, clear morning of our ten year wedding anniversary, we mount bicycles and pointed our handlebars down Death Road’s incline.
The Death Road no longer lives up to its grisly fame. A new highway now skirts the mountain passes to which this road clings. Fully paved and wide enough for two directions of traffic, the new highway obviates the need for the old one, which has since fallen into a one-way road that still sees some cars, but sees significantly more pedal-powered tourist traffic.
“Ok, let’s go!”
Young and enthusiastic guides lead a half dozen of us down the new highway to where it intersects the Death Road’s dirt track. Beginning on the high Bolivian altiplano, our first thought is that we have underprepared for this stretch. Frigid air streams over our thinly covered fingers and thoughts of frostbite enter our minds. The climate will change as we descend, but will it change fast enough to stave off cell damage?
Could the Death Road be more breathtaking than the new highway? Pavement winds around the stolid stone faces of the Cordillera Real, the predatory teeth of Bolivia’s great mountains. Sheer faces offer climbers the chance to experience failure. The road’s tenacious existence, at right angles to the ancient rocks, is as improbable as it is ingenious. We saw few examples of great engineering in Bolivia. May this highway signal greater things to come.
As the pain in our fingertips surrenders to the numbing no-feeling of the relentless cold, we hang a right and the world changes in a visceral example of microclimate. Pavement yields to hard dirt, the temperature gives back a few degrees and we pause to appreciate our entry onto the Death Road.
Gone the grey, brown and golden palette of the Cordillera Real. Green strokes paint the new landscape. Vegetation reaches towards us from the mountainsides, grabbing limbs and obscuring the peaks above. Snow becomes running water and baptizes us all in its cascading path towards the great Amazon Basin.
“Stop here!” cry the guides. “Stand at the edge and hold your bikes up!”
We acquiesce to their corny poses, mugging for the camera on the lip of a beast that has killed before and holds no compunctions about doing so again. Fingers pull triggers, the barrels of cameras click dully and remounting our bicycles, we return to gravity’s pull, fighting it only as little as our nerves can stand.
At each stop, we strip layers until only our helmets and shorts hold back the sun’s rays. The road widens as it descends and our grips on the brakes loosen. Shocks rattling, we come to screeching halts in Coroico, the village that demarcates the journey from the Andes to the Amazon.
Every great physical outing deserves a refreshing end and ours terminates in cold beers, platters of rice and chicken and manipulative cats who would happily deprive us of it all. A bus arrives to ferry our bikes and ourselves back to La Paz. Conversations dimm to a low chatter on the ride back, as the valley’s shadows overtake us.
The sun that day sets on ten years of roughened hands gripping rope that holds the other fast to cliff faces. Ten years of shoulders straining to paddle kayaks against unfavorable tides. Ten years of pulling blistered ankles from worn hiking boots. Ten years of making a city of eight million neighbors our natural environment and of climbing its corporate and academic rungs. Ten years of man planning and god laughing as we try in vain to create new life, yet succeed in living our shared lives to their limits.
Tomorrow the sun will rise on ten more years of hardship and wonder and love and then ten years after that, until our stories are nothing but handprints on a cave wall, vague messages to future generations interpretable only as “we were here.”
Nuts and Bolts
- Bookings: Cycling the Death Road is one of the more popular tours leaving from La Paz, so booking a tour is rather easy. The majority of the tour operators offering this outing have offices on Calle Sagarnaga, just around the corner from the Basílica de San Francisco. This being a personal blog that I’m a little bit lazy about keeping up with, I’m writing this a good seven months after it happened and can’t recall which operator we used. Don’t worry, though, as this really doesn’t matter. We asked in about three places and since they all offered the same thing at the same price, we just went with the last one we were in.
- Cost: US$60 per person (as of June 2017).
- Itinerary: Tours leave pretty early, just before dawn and get you back into La Paz shortly after sunset, just in time to get a congratulatory beer and a bland dinner (Bolivia in general did not exactly provide a culinary experience worth writing home about).
- Best time to go: Winter/dry season. This runs roughly from June through August. The rainy season, running from September to May, includes heavy rainfall that can easily complicate all manner of travel conditions throughout the country, especially on dirt roads like this one.