June 10-11, 2019 El Camino de La Muerte (Death Road) Revisited
Uyuni – as small as a town as it is – has an airport! Marvelous! I was able to fly to La Paz in 45 minutes. It’s probably one of the smallest airports I’ve traveled through for one of the shortest flights I’ve taken. I flew Amazonas Airlines. The flight actually departed about 30 minutes early! Everyone must have checked in early. Once in La Paz, I noticed immediately how much it had changed. I was in La Paz fifteen years prior in 2004 for a climbing trip. At that time there wasn’t much happening, a serious lack of infrastructure and wide open expanses. Now La Paz seemed more akin to Dhaka, Bangladesh – shops at every corner, a lot of hustle and bustle. And a lot more tourists. I checked into the Hotel Sagarnaga at around 11:00pm. I had a big day the next day – I was tackling the World’s Most Dangerous Road. It would be a descent of around 12,000 ft in one day on a mountain bike on a road that narrows to one lane in places!
The next morning I had a hearty breakfast at the hotel and walked about 10 minutes to the Higher Ground Cafe where we were to meet the guide. The guide Neil was there along with the other clients. It would be a small group of about seven people. We hopped into a van and met the driver Cesar and the lead guide Rodrigo. Then we took off for La Cumbre (The Summit) which is more of a high altitude pass. That’s where we would start our amazing descent.
Once at La Cumbre we got our bikes – mine was a fairly decent full-suspension Kona. It was mandatory to wear the gloves and helmet that were provided. The company offered long pants and jackets, but I had my own bike kit along with some mountaineering outer layers. I preferred to wear my own clothes and got hassled a bit for not being a team player 🙂 But I would be the only one not complaining about my butt being sore – thank God for bike bibs!
It was a crystal clear day and quite warm – so very different from the ride conditions fifteen years ago. At that time it was snowing at La Cumbre and we had rain along the ride. Made for some very exciting conditions.
The ride would be about 64 km (40 miles) long and the first 20 km would be on asphalt. The last 10 km of these would be an uphill and we were given the option of hopping in the van for this. I love climbing, so I was not going to take the easy way out! I was joined by only one more rider. Usually if less than 50% of the riders want to ride the uphill, they make everyone get into the van. But in this case the guides made an exception and the two of us got to ride it! The ride uphill was great because I got to take in some amazing views. I also shed all my outer layers – it was a relatively warm day.
After 20km we were finally at the official Death Road entrance. This is where it was going to be super fun.
Bye-bye asphalt, hello gravel! It was going to be a very rocky, windy ride. The road is windy and good control of the bike is mandatory. If you miss a turn, the consequences are severe – you plummet thousands of feet into oblivion.
I was at the front and bombed down the road every chance I got. This was a real mountain bike ride! It was very different from my ride in 2004. In 2004 this road was the only road between La Paz and Coroico so there was heavy traffic. When cars came head to head at one single lane spot, one car would have to back up to make room for the other (one hugging the mountain, the other’s wheels barely on the road, partially over thin air!) It was nerve-wrecking to watch. Also navigating through the crazy traffic did seem quite dangerous. Now they’ve built an alternate modern highway connecting the two towns and so there is very little traffic on the Death Road. Just the bike tour companies and may be a few picnickers. As a result the road is not that well-maintained and super rocky – making for a super technical descent down a fireroad. I was loving it! My ride time decending 12,000 ft was about 2 hours ! I did not brake much 🙂 However I had to wait for everyone else at stops. It’s good that everyone goes at their own pace for safety and the stops allowed me to peer over the edge and gape at the sheer drops we were riding by.
As we descended the terrain kept changing. We were soon in tropical conditions. It was getting warm and there were waterfalls literally on the road and riding below them was a welcome cool-off!
And there were also some small stream crossings.
We descended all the way into a wildlife sanctuary called Senda Verde, just before Coroico for a nice shower and a delicious pasta lunch. Then we took the vehicle back to La Paz. I survived the word’s most dangerous road twice! It is actually one of the safest rides I can imagine. Just go at your own pace – too much braking can actually be more dangerous, especially at corners. Brake before you enter the corner (gently) and let her ride! It’s a simple thing called Physics and the Law of Conservation of Momentum 🙂