The world’s most dangerous road, Camino de las Yungas or ‘Death Road’ as it’s affectionately nicknamed, is a big attraction for backpackers travelling through La Paz. Bolivia’s known for its perilous roads and high number of car accidents, and this particular route, connecting the city to sleepy village Coroico, around three hours away, was deemed so dangerous they were moved to build a new road between the two places. Mountain bikers and the tour agency collectivos following closely behind are now its only traffic.
At first, I had no interest in the tour, mainly because I was stuck in my hostel trying to keep food down for the first week in the country. But also, I had never mountain biked or particularly desired to before and didn’t see why I would try it now because the gringo trail demanded it of me.
I was more interested in Coroico itself, one of Lonely Planet’s top picks for Bolivia which is recommended as a place for relaxation and ‘extreme hammocking’. I liked the idea of a relaxing few days, book over my lap, able to recover fully from my illness away from the noise and bustle of the city.
The day we leave La Paz marks the Day of the Dead, the holiday which sees Bolivians and many Latin American countries celebrate the lives of lost loved ones. On a recommendation we head to the cemetery which sprawls beneath the city’s teleferico red line. Graveyards here are very different to those at home. Bolivia has towerblock graves, patchwork walls of square headstones. Ladders rest against nearby trees to reach those on the higher tiers. Many are glass fronted, with space before them to place flowers and other fond offerings. I see food, plastic toys and gifts which would perhaps be considered inappropriate in the UK. Some of the headstones even have delicate shades over them, similar to those above old fashioned shops, as if to shelter the occupier from bothersome weather. They’re beautiful and touchingly maintained.
And on this day, there’s something even more unfamiliar here. Something you’d never hear in an English graveyard: the pleasant sounds of music, happy chatter and children’s laughter. The rows are alive with people, tending to the graves of their relatives, sitting on the floor beside them with whole picnics spread out before them. Bands play and flower sellers crowd the outer walls.
We have such a terrible attitude to death in the UK. It’s a somber subject to be tip-toed around, save for those few obligatory phrases prepared in reaction to others’ bereavement. We then fall silent and let each other deal alone with our own grief.
But here, there is joy in death, not silence – a chance to celebrate the lives that were. Next year, I’ll be celebrating the day of the dead back at home – and not by painting my face like a sugar skull for Halloween. Maybe if we had a day like this we could begin to change the way we think about death.
I see more of La Paz that day than at any time during the preceding week, locked in the gringo fortress of Loki.
Because of the holiday, the rest of the city – usually alive with people – is deserted. Probably for this reason we find a very cheap taxi all the way to Coroico. In fact, it’s such a good price I worry briefly for our safety when we first duck inside. The driver is less than friendly. He seems to be in a tremendous hurry, impatient with us and driving needlessly fast.
When we first arrive we face the obligatory wondering between hostels to find the best price, loaded with our backpacks. One of our inquiries sits at the top of a steep road and the effort of climbing there begins to resurrect some symptoms of my illness. When we eventually choose our room, not in the place on the hill, I collapse on to the bed nauseated whilst the others go out to explore. Bolivia has not been kind to me so far, and true to form, as one illness comes to an end with the aid of anti-biotics, I now seem to be developing a cloying sort of head cold. I make another visit to the pharmacy.
Coroico is a rather sweet little town, with an abundant view out on to distant vibrant hills of rolling green. But the holiday and the low season mean we find it empty and uninhabited for those first few days. And for the most part, this suits our purpose. I find time to write in its various cafes and Caroline sits with me learning Spanish in a companionable sort of productivity.
We spend one morning walking to the cascadas near the town – three waterfalls about an hour away. At the last of them and hot from the walk I end up peeling off my clothes and jumping into the water. The path there is not exactly the meandering, overgrown hike we’d imagined, but an unvarying slog along a flat, dusty and rather unremarkable road. But the view out on to those distant hills remains spectacular and we make friends with passing dogs.
After discovering we can’t do the death road tour from here, there’s nowhere to do laundry in the town and the Wi-Fi’s conspicuously lacking, we decide to head back to La Paz after four days of our hillside paradise.
Now with restored health and new energy for the place, we spend the following day walking around the city and exploring the trendy Sopocachi district, crossing off a few errands on the way, including extending our immigration stamps and finally booking our death road tour for the following day.
After hearing so many positive reports from fellow travellers I’ve been converted to the idea of the day of perilous biking. I try not to think about the fatality statistics as I pack my bag the night before. I send a few messages to loved ones as a precaution.
We leave early the next day for the tour, driven up to the highest point of the road which stands at 4,650m. We watch the heavy and chilling clouds of mist swirl ominously around us and hope the altitude alone is responsible for them. This weather turns that first hour or so of easy cycling on steady tarmac into a far from enjoyable experience. The rain soaking though the florescent and over-large overalls we’re given, my hands numb and frozen beneath their gloves, I shake my head that I’ve actually paid money to endure this experience. I resort to singing old musical songs under my breath to distract myself from my aching hands and the rain attacking my face and weighing down my clothes.
We stop for breakfast where I warm and cheer myself with a combination of coffee and hot chocolate, buying fried eggs and vegetables from a woman on the side of the road. After this, I’m reluctant to put my soggy gloves back on and return to the damp saddle of my bike, but things considerably improve as we turn on to the rougher terrain of the road itself to leave the cold and the majority of the rain at the top of the hill.
My cycling experience is not extensive. Due to my parents’ indifference and the general unsuitability of our local London streets, I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was well into my teens. Save for a few brief periods of enthusiasm, since that time I’ve cycled seldom and remained unconfident and distinctly wobbly, especially in the presence of cars. For this reason I took a series of road safety courses last year in an effort to get myself fit to dodge the commuting traffic of London’s mornings and save myself £130 a month on my tube ticket. These provided some of the skills any person with a normal childhood would have learnt early on, such as being able to take one hand off the handlebars or look backwards without altering your course. But I still feel inexperienced and nervous as I feel the bike jolting beneath me on the rocks of the new road.
I haven’t quite mastered the art of standing up on a bike either, which would have been particularly useful for my first time mountain biking. But I decide that today is a good day to try and perfect the skill. I find it surprisingly easy, gaining confidence and standing up whenever I can, racing faster and pressing ahead of the others.
That moment reminded me of the last skiing holiday I went on. Mastering the meandering technique of cutting through the mogul fields of the steeper black runs for the first time, I was skiing faster and with more precision than I ever had before. The activity seemed seamless and effortless and there was a huge smile spread over my face as I dived down a steep connecting run in the morning sun and gained speed with the sharp turns its narrowness necessitated. And in the glow of my own self-assurance with a snowboarder carving loud and close behind me, I fell on to my wrist, spraining it and leaving it immovable in a support for the next two months.
Such was my feeling on death road, brimming with over-confidence, just before I heard someone coming close up behind me, panicked slightly, lost control and fell from the bike on to my thumb. Initially I made to pick up my bike to continue, but I suddenly noticed my whole arm shaking unnaturally and especially my left hand, my thumb extended unnaturally. My knee too began to hurt and I found it bloodied under a menacing graze. Our guide forbade me from cycling further and I sat in the van for the rest of the road with my knee elevated and my thumb wrapped in bandage, feeling rather pathetic.
This isn’t the end of the drama though. As we’re driving along we see Shing and Caroline stopped on the road, their bikes abandoned, looking pale and shaken. Another cyclist had tried to overtake Shing on the outside – cliffside – and had fallen over the edge, bike and all. Rushing terrified over to the side, Shing saw the guy metres below, caught on an unlikely ledge, unharmed. We see him later still cycling.
We’re all rather exhausted as we take our showers and buffet lunch at the end of the road, too tired even to swim in the pool at the hotel. It’s weird to see Coroico glinting on the hill above. The bus back to La Paz is long and mainly silent, people sleeping into the windows of the mini-van. It’s our final night in the city as tomorrow Caroline and I head east to Cochabamba. I end the day feeling a bit beaten up, bruised and generally quite thankful for my survival.