Day 83 – 23 May 2015
There is NO way I’m doing that! NO WAY!
I won’t readily admit to a fear of heights. I can ride a ski chairlift no problem. I can walk across an unstable suspension bridge high in the mountains no problem. I can even skydive no problem. But there was something about the thought of riding a bicycle (which, as you know by now, I’m not a particular fan of anyway) down a rocky narrow road without barriers that has earned the nickname of DEATH ROAD that made me cringe with an adamant NO THANK YOU.
So noone was more surprised than me when I found myself inquiring about Death Road tour outfitters upon my arrival in La Paz. As I got geographically closer to La Paz, I started to meet other travelers that had “survived” and they all said the same thing – it was “the BEST” thing they had done in South America, that I couldn’t skip it. At first, I ignored them, but their voices began to get louder in my head and I knew they were right. If I didn’t do it, I would always wonder if I had missed the best South America had to offer.
So as I waited in line to book the tour that would end my life, I met Dave, who had already purchased his death ride and we agreed to go together. We chose the ill-fated tour company, Barracuda, being the cheapest option at $75 for the day.
The next morning, we congregated with the rest of our group, which included me, Dave, 5 guys from Brazil, and 2 guys from France. Yes, that’s right, I was the only girl in a van full of guys. No room for being scared – I had to charge ahead as if I was a testosterone-filled 25-year-old guy!
Before we began, our guide passed around a small bottle of something that tasted like pure rubbing alcohol. We had “to take a shot” (but it was more like touch it to your lips and gag) and also sprinkle a little on our brakes and tires because that would protect us from certain death on the cliff. Of course.
The first part wasn’t too bad. It was a wide paved road with a shoulder. It seemed there was a lot of hype about nothing – this was EASY!
But before I had a chance to get too confident, the road took a more menacing turn. The pavement turned to gravel and the shoulder….well, there wasn’t one. Our guide explained that if any traffic were to approach we would be expected to stop and stand on the cliff side until the vehicle passed. After a most-important brake check and some final instructions, which included “don’t take a f-ing selfie!”, we were on our way.
Right out of the gate, Dave had a bit of an unsettling moment when his front brakes failed. Fortunately he noticed right away and was in a safe place to stop where he could wait for help. The monuments where accidents had occurred dotted the road and our guide enlightened us with stories of tragedies nearly every stop.
One adventure junkie had tried to ride his bike and base jump off one of the cliffs, but the cliff wasn’t quite high enough for a base jump and he hit the ground before he could open his parachute. He survived with a broken arm and a cut tendon in his knee. One guy pedaled off a ledge while he was adjusting his GoPro. And yet another woman died while trying to film her boyfriend with her cell phone.
My mantra was slow and steady, but as the day progressed I started to relax and had to admit I was having a blast. The views were remarkable, my bike was comfortable, and the band of guys I was with were a ton of fun.
The 40 mile ride seemed as if it was over in the blink of an eye. Nevermind that my rear was feeling pretty sore and my forearms were aching from gripping the brakes, but then I could finally let go of the nerves and relish in our accomplishment. We finished at a jungle lodge near the town of Coroico where we could take a dip in the river and eat lunch.
Little did I know that the adventure was not quite over. During lunch, our guide told us that it was our assistant guide’s birthday. They were celebrating this momentous occasion by taking shots of Cuba Libre like it was during Prohibition. Then they asked if our driver could also have a shot. Wait a minute…..did I just hear that correctly? We are currently at the bottom of Death Road. We need to DRIVE back to La Paz on this same road with our DRIVER!! Many of the tour operators choose to drive back on the new road (a road that has since replaced Death Road as the main traffic thoroughfare), but our tour company wanted to drive back on Death Road because there is less traffic….for a REASON. Now, in no way was it acceptable to me that our driver take a shot, but everyone else hesitantly said it was ok (keep in mind, they are all guys and it would have been completely “uncool” for any of them to say no). My complaint is not with my fellow riders, but purely with Barracuda and my tour guide who put us in such a dangerous situation. The question should never have been asked in the first place.
The guide proceeded to get so drunk that he passed out, but not before grabbing at me inappropriately and making unprofessional remarks. Fortunately, my new biking friends recognized there was a problem and protected me from the guide’s advances like I was their sister (or princess as I think I was called a few times). Lesson One: Barracuda sucks. Lesson Two: Brazilians are really good at protecting their women and they look good while they’re doing it. *wink
Overall, I had the time of my life and I can say with certainty that Death Road has been one of the best things I have done in South America thus far, but a word to anyone considering this epic adventure – DO NOT USE BARRACUDA! Your life is in their hands!
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