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Alternate Routes · South America · bolivia · Bolivia · Jānis Stirna

Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

Author: Jānis Stirna0 COMMENTS

Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

Trains, buses and a boat along the Amazon River, making a substantial circle around South America - it all was carrying me closer to the epic end-of-the-world on December 21 that I had planned to meet in a Mayan temple in Mexico.
The Death Train

It's hard to imagine a more symbolic vehicle for starting this journey than the legendary "Death Train". It takes passengers from Quijarro town near Brazilian border to Santa Cruz and has been dubbed this way not because there is any danger involved in taking this particular route. It's because people are bored to death to the point that they would better kill themselves than endure this travel at the speed of snail, which seems to never end. It takes 16 long hours to overcome the distance of just 400 km with train rattling and jolting up and down along its rails. Another, more official version about this nickname is that it is related to the time when victims of the yellow fever epidemic were carried along this route.
Entering Bolivia from Brazil, you will cross Pantanal swamp - a vast area of wetlands about half the size of France. Then the route leads across arid, half-abandoned areas with ramshackle buildings scattered here and there, revealing an overall poverty of this country. Rather loud and hard to endure background music of Bolivian rhythms of the 80s inside the train and its ceaseless jolting gives no chance whatsoever of having a nap.

The train stops at many stations during the journey. I use this time for smoking with locals lavishly casting condemning glances at me. It turns out that Bolivian President Evo Morales, a passionate skeptic of European culture, deems all the activities pursued by Europeans who once conquered this country blameworthy. Oftentimes they are even restricted, and it refers also to smoking.
After arriving at the Bolivian city Santa Cruz, I still have to spend six sleepless hours waiting for my bus to the Bolivian capital La Paz.

The driving manner of a guy at the wheel makes it impossible for me to close my eyes during the entire uncomfortable ride to La Paz. Moreover, a large portion of the road winds along the very edge of a cliff. According to the local driving etiquette, the right of way is given to uphill traffic, and these vehicles are also keeping closer to the cliff wall. It is different, however, with larger automobiles - they are entitled to stay close to the cliff even on their way down.

Strangely enough this strategy is observed also on perfectly normal flat roads. Drivers may suddenly start making weird maneuvers, which go against any logic. Such improvisation and inadequate usage of mountain driving tactics lead to a total mess and traffic jams. Then they would use any chance, even driving along the opposite lane, to get ahead at least for a meter or two.

Unfortunately such a behavior on roads is far from everything you have to beware covering long distances across Bolivia. Just 150 km before La Paz I allowed myself to have yet another smoke, right next to the bus door. It took only few minutes, but as I returned to my seat I discovered that my laptop, iPhone and a photo camera had vanished, and no one had stepped out of the bus, except me. No one could give any answer to my question ¿Dónde está mi bolsa? (Where is my bag?). With a driver's permission I searched belongings of all the passengers and even peeped under the skirts of two fleshy Bolivian ladies, but to no avail. My equipment was gone. La falta de pasajero! (The passenger's own fault, so to say!)
When I entered the Policia Turistica station there were five more people who had suffered similar losses. One of them had even managed to lose his camera while it was "safely" hanging around his neck. He had drowsed off for a minute, evidently just enough to wake up and discover an empty camera strap. Somebody had snipped his precious piece of equipment off with a pair of scissors!

The trip to the cheapest country of the continent turned out to be the most expensive for me, therefore I sincerely advise anyone taking a similar trip to keep their eyes open at all times!

Foto: Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

Everything is Possible, Nothing is Safe. La Paz
The city of La Paz seems sitting in a bowl, which is located on a plateau over 3 km above the sea level. The wealthiest citizens are living closer to its center, while the ones who are less well-off can enjoy the beautiful view down on the city center from the surrounding mountain slopes. The city was founded in 1548 by the Spanish conquistadors, and some old colonial style houses are still standing in the shadow of modern skyscrapers and telling the story of those bygone times.

Foto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

It's better not to expect a huge cultural enjoyment in La Paz - all the culture and colors are in its people. Just observe them and enjoy! The very essence of people living in the mountains can be observed in a marketplace. No prices of any goods are shown, giving space for fervent haggling. Of course, foreigners are charged at least ten times higher price than local people, and the most skillful hagglers are the already mentioned big Bolivian ladies. They are almost always wearing traditional Bolivian dresses and English bowler hats.

Foto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

Another cultural peculiarity is fighting. Bolivians even have their own fighting festivals. People engage in fist fights, and any blood that is shed is considered as a sacrifice in hopes of a fruitful harvest. It doesn't matter who is swinging fists against whom - it may be women against women or men against women. Fans are sitting in a circle, sipping their beer and cheering up fighters who are pulling each other's hair. God likes it that way!


Bolivia Tinku fist fight festival. Amazing footage!


Cholitas Wrestling in La Paz


Skateboarding was an important element of my trip. Even though locals do not fully understand this activity, I still had a chance to meet some local skaters, although we couldn't skate together. Just a single kickflip at the height of 3 km required five minutes to get my breath back. For unaccustomed lungs of western people it is just too much, and even a simple climbing a flight of stairs requires considerable efforts.
The city boasts yet another very special attraction fully matching the local saying - Todo es possible, nada es seguro (everything is possible, nothing is safe). Clad in a sleek Spiderman's costume, you have an exclusive chance of climbing a façade of a skyscraper, head first, all the way down from its 18th floor!

Foto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

Cycle the Death Road
Yet the most extreme entertainment is a bicycle ride down the world's most dangerous road - Bolivian "Death Road", leading from La Paz to Coroico. Despite the large number of fatalities, daredevils are venturing down this road since 1930s.
Before setting off, you have to sign a waiver that you are doing it at your own risk and pay a fee of 100 dollars. Everyone is given a bicycle, a very good one, by the way, and high visibility vests and jackets. They become very handy both in cold weather of high mountains in the beginning of the route and also down in the jungle. Another tradition before this ride is taking a sip of almost 100% alcohol and drizzling a little bit of it onto the front tire of your bike and on the earth. After this ritual for success is done, the ride from the height of 5000 meters may start.
There are few companies in La Paz offering this entertainment, for example, Gravity assisted mountain biking.

Foto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

Beginning of the route, covered by asphalt, is relatively flat and allows getting used to the riding conditions, but soon the dangerous segment starts. It's a three-hour ride on gravel, requiring relentless focus and tension of muscles. As you make turns, you have to lean towards the inner side of the road, while a steep and rocky slope remains at its outer edge. As you hit a pebble, your bike jumps, adrenaline surges through your veins and you grip the handlebars with all your strength, until your fingers ache.
Experienced and reckless riders dash ahead, right after the guide, while others follow each at their own speed. Overtaking is allowed only in few, comparatively safe places.
Keeping up with the fastest, you can reach the speed of 50 to 60 km/h. According to unwritten rules, you have to go down along the external side of the road as quickly as you can to avoid crowding and to be able to give way to vehicles that might be coming uphill. Riding next to each other is not allowed.


Bolivia's Death Road - Top Gear - BBC

The entire distance is covered in segments, and a certain amount of time is given for each one. In the meantime, statistics of accidents are discussed and crosses along the road serve as a grim illustration for that. There are many intriguing stories entwining this road, for example, about BBC Top Gear episode that was filmed here and a famous overtaking attempt on a particularly narrow section of this road.
A vast view over coca plantations, a huge satisfaction and some peaceful time at a café at La Senda Verde Cabins and Animal Refuge, once set up by European hippies, await us at the bottom. This small paradise with animals and tropic climate lures us to stay longer, and there are people who really do so. Some hang around for a few days, while others decide to stay for a month or longer and help taking care of animals.

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Piranha Hunt
Bolivia is the cheapest place for exploration of the Amazon basin. Tours are organized from La Paz to a small and colorful Rurrenabaque town, lying in the jungle to the north of the capital. It can be reached both by air and by road, covering the distance of 400 km in 12 hours by jeep with the road winding along the edge of the cliff. Such a journey means jolting with your eyes wide open in a car, bringing up a thick cloud of dust that you can barely see a cliff in the distance of just two meters.
Rurrenabaque is a fantastic place for exploration of jungle flora and fauna. The time when rivers dry up and turn into narrow streams gives a perfect chance to observe the region's rich and diverse wildlife. There you will see many colorful birds and capybaras - the largest and the friendliest of the rodent species in the world. There are armies of caimans, cobras and anaconda snakes. Anacondas eat cobras and then snuggle in swamps to digest, while Europeans are coming to watch them.
Such tours are organized by many tour operators both in La Paz and Rurrenabaque.

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Simple lodges - small cabins built on poles with just a roof and an open-air mosquito net wall are built in the jungle right next to the river, swarming with crocodiles.
It's inhabited also by freshwater dolphins, and it is safe to swim with them - piranhas and caimans wouldn't come close to you because dolphins feed on them.

Foto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death RoadFoto: Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

In the morning, equipped with bamboo fishing-rods, we go to catch some piranhas. The deeper in the river, the larger they are, so we try to wade deeper into the water. Fish are very swift and aggressive. Meat attracts them momentarily, and as you notice the slightest movement, you have to pull. Grab a piranha firmly from behind by gills to avoid it biting your fingers. Your catch is cooked right away and you can enjoy it, but it tastes like an ordinary river fish, just this time you can keep sharp teeth of a fierce fish as souvenir.

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