Since we started our South American adventure, I’ve been trying to challenge myself to do things that scare me as much as possible. From paragliding in Colombia, to white water rafting and sandboarding in Peru, to jumping out a 17th floor window dressed as Batman with Urban Rush in Bolivia, I’ve been facing fears and having fantastic experiences all over the continent, so mountain biking down Bolivia’s Death Road seemed like the next logical step.
Afraid of heights, not confident on a bike, and badly affected by the altitude, I knew I wasn’t the best candidate for cycling a road responsible for 200-300 deaths a year, but I had no idea it would prove as much of a challenge as it did. We did the day tour with Altitude, a fantastic company with lovely staff who really looked after me. They’re slightly more expensive than some competitors, but the bikes and equipment are all pretty new and in great condition, and having heard some horror stories about wheels coming off and poorly built bikes, I’d say Altitude are worth paying extra for; safety and peace of mind over a saving are important for such a dangerous activity.
We had an early start at 7:15am, setting off in a cramped minibus with about ten others, plus two guides. About an hour and half later, we stopped beside a lake to get kitted up. The equipment for Death Road was a lot more intense than our other experiences mountain biking: knee and arm guards, thick, plasticky trousers and matching jacket, racing helmets and gloves. With everyone in matching gear, we looked like a formula one pit stop team, but the decent equipment definitely made me feel a little safer.
The first part of the day started on a relatively empty, tarmac, mountain road which wound above a stunning valley between sharp, rocky cliffsides. We set off, and I was immediately overtaken by the entire group. I was going as fast as I could confidently go, zooming along at the edge of the road and frantically trying to ignore the drop to my right, but pretty quickly I was left so far behind I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me, which completely shook my confidence, leading to me buckling behind my fear instead of fighting it.
At our second stop, the start of a dirt track alongside the road which was practice for the actual Death Road, I lost control of the bike as I hit the gravel, and almost fell off, only just catching myself – right in front of the whole group, who were waiting for me. Nerves shot, I cycled cautiously along the rest of the road, sinking into terror at being told that the whole of Death Road would be the same surface, something I’d not anticipated. Our two previous mountain biking experiences had been entirely on tarmac roads, so I’d stupidly assumed Death Road would be the same, and started panicking at the thought of riding downhill on a surface I was completely not confident on.
We stopped for breakfast at the entrance to the national park, and paid the 25Bs entry fee, before bundling back into the minibus (difficult in our very restrictive clothing) and driving to the start of Death Road itself. Sam, now realising I was terrified, offered to cycle at my pace, but I quickly noticed how bored he was crawling along with me and let him cycle on ahead. The road was terrifying; a narrow track of loose gravel and rocks, winding along the edge of a stark grey cliff, with a sheer drop beside it down into a misty valley. It would have been stunning scenery in other circumstances, but cycling over the difficult terrain with my hands gripping the handlebars and fighting to retain control over the bike, all I could see were the crosses, shrines and flowers that seemed to stand on every corner, marking some poor soul who had plunged over the edge.
The bubbling feeling of panic within me, coming out as teary eyes and raking, shaky breaths, was almost crippling. The most frustrating thing was that I wanted to be enjoying myself, I wanted to be going faster and not feeling any of the fear that was keeping my fingers firmly on the brakes and making me on the brink of sobbing, but instead I was shuffling down Death Road hating every second and hating myself for being so weak.
The last straw came when I hit a rock and lost control of the front wheel. If I’d been going an faster I’d have fallen, but luckily I caught myself with my feet and, panic-struck, instantly burst into tears, crying even harder from the embarrassment as the guide came over to check I was ok.
Luckily, Christian was the nicest guide in the world, and really looked after me. He let me get back on the bus, telling me that after twenty minutes or so the road got a little smoother and flatter, and should be easier for me to cycle on.
He was right. I stayed on the bus for the rest of the steep, difficult section, with the driver cheering me up by stopping the bus under a couple of waterfalls for a wash, then I got back on the bike. By the time I had, the sun was out and the grey sky had cleared to blue. The air smelled of pines and was filled with colourful butterflies, and with the road much wider the drop was easily forgotten. It was flatter, too, with a couple of uphill sections, and although still gravel it didn’t feel as loose. I went at my own pace, and stopped berating myself for being so slow, enjoying the scenery and the sunshine, and determined to enjoy the rest of the trip.
It was so much fun! Once I’d pulled myself together and gotten back on the bike, I had a change of mindset, and actually really enjoyed myself. The last section was steep again, but headed downhill into the valley through a bright green woodland, so there was no sickeningly high drop to spin my head, and although I felt afraid I didn’t let it crush me.
By the time we reached the bottom, I felt I’d really earned the ‘Death Road Survivor’ t-shirts Altitude gave out. My fear had nearly beaten me, but I’d managed to get back on the bike and keep going, which was a really good feeling. I just wish I could have enjoyed the whole trip as much as the last hour, because the experience really shouldn’t have been as frightening as I let it.
My reward for such hard work, not to mention for so much sweat under the heavy plastic protective gear in the heat, was the delicious pool at a hotel in the valley, where we spent an hour and a half relaxing in the sunshine at the end of the biking. A big buffet lunch was served, and I ate after swimming, then simply sat by the pool dangling my legs in the cool water and chatting with the others in our group, feeling so much better.
Fear is a frustrating thing, which can really ruin a trip if you let it. The hard part is to not let it beat you, to keep going and tell yourself “I can do this”. For me, Death Road was one of the toughest challenges yet: when all I wanted to do was stay on the bus and cry, I got back out and kept cycling, finally able to ignore the fear and enjoy myself. The whole experience was both very awesome and very terrible, and I was lucky to have such awesome guides to take care of me! I just wish I could have enjoyed the experience as much as everyone else did.
We paid 450Bs (about £45) with Altitude, which included transport, two guides, decent equipment and bikes, breakfast, lunch, a free ‘Death Road survivor’ t-shirt and a CD of photos taken by the guide.
Tours start around 7am and return about 5pm, with collection and drop off at your hostel.
Don’t let my experience put you off, I don’t know anyone else that was afraid as I was on the road, and everyone else who has done Death Road absolutely loved it!
However, I don’t recommend this tour to anyone who suffers from a strong fear of heights or who is not confident on a bike.
Wear: leggings or light, loose trousers (thick trousers are too heavy under the plastic trousers they give you, sports bra, t-shirt, light jacket just for the initial bus ride, trainers.
Take: shorts and t-shirt to change into, swimming stuff (towels and soap are provided by Altitude), suncream, insect repellent, water.