From a country boasting the world’s highest capital city to being one of South America’s major coca growers, there are many ways to get high in Bolivia. But if adrenaline is your fix, look no further than the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road.’
Situated to the northeast of the capital La Paz, this narrow dirt track carved into the Cordillera Real mountain range of the Andes drops from a lung-punching 4,600m (15,091ft) through cloud covered rainforests, hairpin bends and unforgiving sheer drops to finish deep in the sweltering Yungas jungle at 1,200m (3,937ft).
To experience El Camino de la Muerte or ‘Death Road’ first hand, book a day’s mountain biking down these bone-jarring inclines with one of the tour companies based in La Paz. Gravity Bolivia and Xtreme Downhill are well recommended, as is acclimatising for a couple of days in the city before you go.
So why not play a round of golf at what’s allegedly the world’s highest course and tee-off at just under half the cruising altitude of a passenger jet. Depending on how bad your game really is, you can literally watch your balls disappear into thin air.
If you want a bed, it’s best to book in advance. The Loki hostel was converted in 2007 from a 20th Century colonial-style hotel and offers dormitory style accommodation and couple-conscious matrimonial suites. To complement the world’s highest Irish pub, Loki have also installed an Oxygen bar so punters can breathe flavoured air, play PS2 games and recuperate after they’ve climbed up the hostel’s three flights of stairs.
From there it’s just a short stroll to El Mercado de las Brujas, the Witches’ Market on Calle Linares. If you feel a pinch of good luck is needed on the ‘Death Road’ this is where spells sell. Witch doctors and fortune-tellers, adorned in their native Aymara dress of shawls and bowler hats, offer talismans as good luck charms or the burning of a llama foetus, in preparation for what may lie ahead.
If that hasn’t got you drooling, then try one of the many restaurants La Paz has to offer. You really are spoilt for choice here, so use your instincts and follow the locals. Café Sol y Luna is a good place to regroup before you head back to the Loki hostel bar for the evening.
Down and Out.
Depending on the alcohol/altitude ratio from last night there may be no need to shower, so join the Bolivians for a traditional morning snack and grab a salteña or four at one of the many street-stalls. These freshly cooked pastries filled with meat, egg and olives, ooze with spicy gravy once broken open which is why they’re usually sold out before noon each day. Wash them down with a squeezed juice of your choice from one of the many Vitamin C peddlers at their stalls. If that doesn’t kick-start your day, then maybe a 65km bike ride with a 3,600m descent will.
La Cumbre is at an altitude not unsuitable for skydiving in most countries, so it’s wise to combine layers of warm clothing with the high-visibility overalls and helmet the company has provided. It’s final adjustment day along with the recollection of the last time you’d actually ridden a bike, but luckily this trip is all about gravity. Just hang on, right?
Reaching speeds of up to 60km/h down the water-laden asphalt road that snakes through the barren and rugged valley below, icy-cold winds and heavy fog test your resistance. Hunkering down in the saddle is a futile attempt as the trusty rented mountain-bike transforms into a high-speed douche.
Rolling up to Police checkpoint Unduavi feeling wind-battered and jet-washed after 15km, now is not a good time to hear the next stage is an ascent. With the gravity aspect of the trip temporarily out the window, use the altitude and pedalling combination to instil some warmth again.
Only another 5km and the trade-off from icy mountain gales and tarmac to lush vegetation and narrow cliffs signals the official beginning to the ‘Camino de la Muerte’. Arriving in the small village of Chuspipata stop briefly to bless Pachamama (Mother Earth), and befriend any stray dogs that wander by.
The local belief that these dogs possess the spirits of Bolivians who’ve died on this road runs strong, and in any case, it’s always a good back up if your Talisman is sleeping on the job.
Still swathed in cloud-cover, the sheer drops to the left don’t seem so daunting. Plunging down the narrow dirt track deeper towards the sounds of the rainforest below, the pace quickens as you get a feel for the terrain.
Leaning into a right-hand hairpin bend gunning the mountain-bike along the track, loose gravel suddenly spits out from beneath the rear wheel. In a scene unfolding quicker than you can possibly react to, the sensation of the back end sliding out from beneath you is heightened by the fact that on your left side is the 300m drop into the void below which is where you’re heading. Dangerously close to the edge, the tyre miraculously finds traction again, digging in and kicking back onto its original path.
During rainy season from mid December to the end of February, tour operators make fewer journeys because of treacherous conditions on the road. Until recently this potholed track had been the main thoroughfare from the Yungas region to La Paz, and with no heavy trucks and buses frequently using the route to compact its unsealed surface, things can go wrong, and fast. Overcook it and you’re toast.
Roadside shrines and crosses offer a sobering reminder of tragedies from the past along with the mud, debris and sections of washed-away track all adding to the eerie, beautiful terrain. Take some time and cool off under the San Juan waterfalls that cascade onto the road and the forests below.
Leaving cloud-cover behind, the climate and drop in altitude signals that it’s tee-shirt weather again. The landscape flattens out and the track widens, bringing fields of coca, bananas and coffee into view. Mosquitoes, tropical heat, the odd landslide and you, are on the menu down here so bring some repellent for the final leg of the ride.
The sight of the support vehicle you left in the morning, that homing beacon justifying you ‘made it’ comes into view and with a grimy, sweaty sense of achievement it’s another satisfied customer clutching a ‘Death Road Survivor’ tee-shirt who heads home. But this is about more than just a complimentary garment and a filthy neckline, it is the realisation that ‘I got very close to the Edge, and that’s as near as I ever want to get.’