Canadian brother and sister Philip and Jayne Davidson are traveling on motorcycles from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia. This is the latest entry in their travel blog. Read their adventure so far, and see where they are right now, here.
Death road: To ride down, or to ride up? That is the question.
Riding down Bolivia's famed "Ruta de la Muerta " aka the "Death road" has a tick box beside it on most lists of those visiting Bolivia. So much so that well over a hundred of tourist rides down the road on mountain bikes on the daily. The occasional motto and one or two trucks also make the trek. There is a much newer and safer paved road that has been built now, leaving the "Death road" as mainly a tourist attraction. The sharp drops and narrow road don't take much imagination as to how the road got its name.
The road rules are reversed here, riding down death road leaves you riding on the left in any passing situations, pushing you right to the edge. Riding up the road gives you right-of-way, including the advantage of pulling to the relatively safer "wall side" of the road while passing. Which way to go has been the subject of debate with several motorbikers I've met along the way.
Here's the thing: I liked the ride down a lot. In fact I liked the ride down so much that I rode back up. Down was better.
After arriving to La Paz, I decided the first clear morning I would get up early and head for Death road. There had been weeks of rain, and I didn't want to ride in the wet. Less is more for my still weak left shoulder.
Getting to the road wasn't without challenges, I still hadn't been able to buy gas, and then there was the standard road hazards.
Purchasing gas was was still a chore. I finally got lucky on my second try of the morning for 6 BOB/L (about $0.90). More than the 3.74 local rate, but much less than the 10 Boliviano/L official tourist rate.
Scores of excited tourists on downhill mountain bikes try out their borrowed wheels before beginning their decent, much of which is actually on beautifully paved highway. One of the guides kindly provided me a map.
I needed that map. I still kept thinking I had missed the turn, really though you can't miss it.
The weather was a bit foggy to start, but not raining as it reportedly had been for days, so I decided it best to take advantage of the weather break and ride down before the clouds changed their minds.
I had the whole road to myself. The fears of having to "keep left" on the cliff edge while passing were moot. I passed only two pickup trucks and a couple mottos the whole way down.
A long walk back to take that photo too.
The change in climate was dramatic. From riding at the snow line near freezing through the pass out of La Paz, to 25 Celcius heat at the bottom of Death road in the jungle. I enjoyed the riding so much I pulled a u-turn and started my way back up!
It was on the ride up when I finally encountered the true danger on Bolivia's "Death Road": The cyclists.
Take a couple hundred tourists who may or may not have ridden a bike recently, put them on vastly varied quality of used downhill mountain bikes, and hurtle them down a rocky gravel road with at-best 2 foot high safety barriers. Repeat daily.
The fastest cyclists I encountered were the safest, I felt. Perhaps because they might have had more riding experience, perhaps they just learned quickly but regardless they reacted quickly, and appropriately, when we crossed paths.
The more nervous riders, notably female this day, were not as quick, or appropriate in their reactions. I met two different girls in almost identical situations. I would come out of a corner, honking my horn the whole way through, and on exiting the corner encounter a girl 20 meters away with two hands full of brakes. Skidding all over the place, panicked faces, they would swerve and slide to their right, one of them riding right into the cliff wall beside them for a final stop. Both looked distraught as I passed. They weren't having fun.
I think these are the tourists who add to the death tally, the ones who maybe didn't want to ride the road in the first place.
Riding up the death road meant dealing with the hoards of these cyclists riding down, and their respective support vans. True, I had right of way and could take the "safer" left side of the road, but the potential interactions with cyclists around every corner kept me on edge. Most bikers would stay left, some would swerve right. Some would simply stop right in the middle of the road. I was likely the first other vehicle they had seen the whole ride, so I'm sure they were more focused on picking their line than anything else. I certainly was when I rode down. At least the support vans were all predictable.
Cyclists or not: I still enjoyed the ride up. The views are fantastic in each direction and it's simply a fun road to ride on. In the end the weather was constant all day so either way would have been fine. If you're debating which way to ride and have to chose one way only: Ride down. With cyclists coming around any given blind corner on the way up, I found the ride down more relaxing. Either way you ride, it's an experience not to be missed.