My feet froze—literally, like ice—as I climbed out of La Paz into the treeless peaks that act as a barrier between the Andes mountains and Bolivia’s sub-tropical region that spreads toward Brazil, then all the way to the Atlantic. The night before my departure I had handwashed clothes in an attempt to leave city sins behind—the smell of bar smoke, a day-old beer stain on my favorite pants—and enter nature as pure as possible. But bike travel is anything but predictable. Soon the clean clothes that hung drying from my trailer had been dusted, soaked in rain, sleeted upon, and sun baked into a mud mess of knotted sleeves and dripping collars. I was more animal than ever, and this Wild Thing look seemed appropriate given my surroundings. Plains rolled in unison with the sky as society’s buildings and signs and even cars shied away from the high-altitude cold; far below the road ancient craters filled with melted snow formed lakes that looked like tiny puddles covered in mist. Besides the white lines that divided the asphalt into two uncolliding paths, green, gray, black, and dirt were the only color combinations as far as the eye could see, and if it wasn’t for the fog it felt as if forever was not far from the horizon. Sheep were filthy, wearing dirty wool that hung in clumps off their bodies like oversized shawls. Hundreds of alpacas dotted the rocky hills that curved gently up and away from the plains, content to their islands of sun-deprived grass, oblivious to the cold, staring at my coasting silence with black marble eyes. This was the scene as I reached 15,080 feet, the highest point I had witnessed in South America.
Vans full of tourists passed as I slowly pedaled higher. Each was a different tour agency carting travelers to El Camino de la Muerte to defy death itself, their tools top-of-the-line mountain bikes, a t-shirt a trophy to confirm their courage. The bike guides threw thumb-ups from passenger side windows. This made me feel warm and fuzzy. In hindsight, they probably thought me crazy or clueless and were rooting for the underdog, not because the Death Road was dangerous beyond control, but because they knew soon impossibly steep climbs would test my limits and those of my non-top-of-the-line, very un-mountain bike (no offense Surly), that I would be alone like an echo should a fractured arm cushion a fall, that the direction I was going would be difficult for Lance Armstrong, let alone a fully-loaded bike tourist who takes his mini-vacations off the bike as serious as his riding. Knowing none of this, I threw back a thumb, a smile, and pedaled onward.
After four hours of rain, sleet, fog, frozen socks, and brake problems I arrived to the famous road’s entrance: an unmarked, unpaved turn-off with no ominous Gregorian chants to make me think twice or even ghosts beckoning me to return from whence I came.
In fact, I would have missed the turn-off entirely if I hadn’t asked a man with a mangled foot and quiet demeanor where I could find “El Camino de la Muerte.” Confusion overwhelmed his face; his wrinkles wrinkled. He looked as if he yearned for his previous silence and wanted nothing more than to escape my question with a hobbled sprint down the road. “Whaaaaaaaaaaaatttttttt?” he screamed in reply. Add hard of hearing to the mix. I repeated my question, louder. He understood my high-decibel Spanish, but not the meaning of this so-called death path. The locals don’t refer to the road that has thrown so many of their loved ones and friends off its cliffs with such a devious, pre-packaged name.
Wikipedia claims in some obscure and exaggerated past an estimated 200 to 300 travelers died yearly. Drivers used to prayed on this very spot, made food offerings to dogs that embodied guardian spirits, and kissed their families goodbye as if every routine run was the last. Sometimes buses disappeared for days. Entire families ceased to exist in a heartbeat. Tragedy is forever associated with the road’s dangerous curves that drop thousands of feet onto rocks below. It is not a tourist attraction to those who live in the area.
The tour agencies of La Paz’s well-trodden Sagarnaga Street flashed into mind, each with a sidewalk banner “Death Road Tomorrow” greeting passersby in English. Cyclists stood beside a sheer cliff drop holding bikes atop their heads like trophies; death adjectives were bolded in harmless bubble font. This man knew nothing about the lucrative industry just two hours away that brought foreign names like Shimano, Kona, Giant, Rock Shox, Francois, Jamir, Hiroshi, Sven, and Billy to his village by the busload. I realized I had bought into the hype.
“Where does the road to Coroico begin?” I asked one more time, trying to keep things simple. He pointed to pavement that I assumed was the new road constructed with aid from several international organizations that donated millions of dollars to put an end to what was once the most statistically dangerous road in the world. “I’m looking for the old road,” I specified. The man’s patience was running visibly thin; all emotion vibrated his wrinkles. The deep trench across his forehead couldn’t hide that it felt it was dealing with an idiot. “But the new road is paved,” screamed the man almost pleadingly. Despite his weathered appearance, his logic was sound—it was a very nice looking road. “Yes but…,” I continued, now familiar with the tug-of-war process of explaining illogical things—like biking across South America—to sensible people. With utter resignation and a twitching disgust (now in his smile lines) for my failure to understand that I didn’t have to bike the old unpaved road, that a new smoother, more efficient road existed to the same destination, he pointed to the down-sloping rock path that disappeared into the trees.
At first I photographed the gravestones, then I got tired of taking out my camera at every curve. I assumed the deaths were vehicle related, accidents of inches where loose gravel sent into air a front wheel, then the back, until half a bus or loaded truck tottered dangerously on the edge, leaning slowly toward the abyss with a crumpled tin and scraping metal soundtrack inaudible below the passengers’ screams, before branches broke and failed to hold back the rolling motion that eventually gave way to free fall, rocks, a witness, the police, a few lines in the newspaper, and years of silent agony in the form sleepless nights and gloomy calendar days that would have, should have been birthday celebrations. I imagined it all in vivid detail beside my bike on the mere ten foot space between a gravestone and the cliff responsible for its presence.
Then I came across an epitaph in Hebrew. I envisioned a different ending—death by bike. This flight off the cliff seemed more real. I cut the daydream short and focused instead on the squiggly engraved lines, as if I stared long enough they’d suddenly speak to me. Later when I arrived to Coroico, the city where adrenaline junkies laugh at death and toast survival, a gentleman told me a statistic that I have yet to confirm. To date, around 20 cyclists have died on the road, recklessly falling off the cliff during races or bouts of excessive testosterone. According to this gentleman, all were Israeli.
Weary villagers and unofficial death counts aside, I recommend biking the Death Road. The scenery is straight out of Avatar. Imagine the Grand Canyon primed in moss, then painted thick with vines. Stir in rocks and flowers to slow down hurried travelers. Add tropical vegetation that hangs from walls. Throw trees like darts into the cliff sides. String innumerable waterfalls like Christmas lights across the roadway, then tilt all downward to a 20 degree slope, making pedaling unnecessary. Next time you find yourself wanting to stare death in the face in Bolivia, go ahead, jump on that bike and fly….
…or just enjoy the photos and ignore the fact that I’ve tried to turn a beautiful ride into drama where no drama was found.