Thursday, 7 August 2014

La Paz, Bolivia: Part 1: El Camino de la Muerte - Death Road!

La Paz, officially Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of The Peace), is Bolivia's other capital city. In the 19th century all of the government and power slowly relocated from Sucre to La Paz. Although, La Paz isn't the official capital of Bolivia, parliament and all government functions (except for the Supreme court of Bolivia) reside there. It is still considered the highest Capital City in the world.

La Paz is broken up into 2 cities, La Paz and El Alto (The High). The centre of La Paz is in a bowl completely surrounded by mountains on all sides with the suburbs built up the sides of the mountains and El Alto being the city on top. La Paz and El Alto are regarded as two separate cities but there is no empty space in between. The combined population is almost 2 million (combined it is the most populous city in Bolivia, when separate El Alto is 2nd and La Paz is 3rd). The altitude ranges from 3,200m in the centre of La Paz to 4,100m in El Alto.

As cheap as Bolivia is I somehow still ended up on the least luxurious bus... good sales people! After the 14 hour bus ride with mainly Bolivians I was finally in La Paz at 6:30am. I wandered in the direction of traffic to find the centre.  I passed a couple of hostels along the route of my search for proper coffee and WiFi. After coffee and cake I checked into one of the hostels I had passed.

The week of celebrations leading up to Bolivian independence day was in full swing. The street was full of marching bands for the next 4 days.

The rest of the day just involved 1 mission: Book Death Road for tomorrow!

El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road)
Until the 20 year completion of the new road in 2006 it was estimated that 300 people perished annually over the cliff drops of up to 600m.

I was picked up from my hostel about 40 mins later than the 7.30am pick up time (damn marching bands!).

1 of our 2 Vans

Once the vans had collected everyone in our group we drove to a flat area below our starting point to put on our gear and test the bikes... A girl went over the cliff and died the day before so I was quite nervous. Injuries occur daily but deaths by going over the cliff is only about a once a year occurrence.

After testing the gear we hopped back in the vans and drove up slightly higher to just over 4,600m in altitude... It was time!

We had 3 guides: 1 lead (snapping occasional photos), middle (snapping the majority of the photos), and one rear to stay behind the slowest person.

The Start

Our Group - Mainly French and English
The first section of our ride was 30km of downhill on a modern 2-3 lane road. Once I got used to it I was flying. The group had separated quite a lot but 3 of us were racing behind the front guide while overtaking many trucks and buses... no need to peddle, gravity does all of the work.

We stopped quite a few times for everyone to catch up.

1st to arrive and waiting!

The others starting to pull in

Me on the left!

After completing the 30km downhill section of the new road it was time for breakfast/morning tea (provided). We then loaded back in the vans and skipped a 5km flat section before turning off onto what remains of the old death road... Things were about to get serious!

In front of us was another 30km of down hill. This time on an uneven rocky 1 lane dirt road with a cliff that has drops up to 600m on our left.

We stopped pretty frequently in the beginning. I took the first few parts in between stops pretty cautiously before getting comfortable. After that I was going as fast as I could and jumping over small ditches in the road. I was only slowing down for right hand corners, for obvious reasons, while pushing it around left hand corners. The front guide just keeps pushing faster and faster when someone is behind him (it was easy work for him). As the sections got longer so too did the time the front guide and I would be waiting for the next person.

Me giving a thumbs up in one of the early sections

Not a good place to fall
The funnest part was overtaking the groups in front of us. There isn't a lot of room on these roads so you pick your spots and yell out "On your Left (or Right)!"

We had one drink stop along the way to remove some sweaty clothes and put on mozzie repellent due to the massive drop in altitude. We were heading into the amazon.

We finally finished at 1,200m in altitude in the amazon (3,400m less than where we started from). This was my lowest altitude in about a month.

1st place! Even after a stack that involved me jumping over the handle bars.

We Finished!

We drove to a resort area with swimming pools, showers and.... an all you can eat lunch buffet included in our tour!

I was dropped back off at my hostel at 6.00pm. I decided to walk to the bike company to collect my shirt and DVD with photos and videos before they shut at 7pm. I was considering leaving La Paz after my first 2 nights (this turned into 2 weeks).

The First Shirt I earned in La Paz

Death Road was one of the funnest things I did in South America. It's a must do and it's actually not very scary but over 60km of downhill while dropping 3,400m in altitude is incredible.

I don't usually give businesses a plug in my blog but I would also strongly recommend Vertigo as the company to use. They only have duel suspension bikes, are on par for price with the cheap companies whilst being half the price of another well regarded company with equally good bikes. All of the guides are Bolivian (the lead guide had almost perfect English), they regularly check your bike at every stop, especially the breaks, they had 2 spare bikes in case something went wrong and probably the best vans out of all the companies.

I slept very well that night.

Next Stop: Still La Paz... So much more to do!

Lessons Learnt:
Travelling doesn't stop me from being competitive and wanting to win.
The last few weeks had acclimatised me pretty well to 4,000m.
I knew I was back in a major tourist destination (not a good thing).

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