The Death Road:
Now I should start by saying that it's not me who proclaims this to be the most dangerous road in the world. Many, many people unfortunately had to lose their lives before the death road, was officially named. For a visual taster, just type the 'worlds most dangerous road' into youtube and you will be greeted not only by videos of people plummeting to their deaths in buses, but also of somebody cycling down it, so you can see exactly what it involves. Who knows, it may even tempt you to take it on yourself? Or after you hear what I have to say, possibly not....
Now there are a load of rumours about the number of people who have actually died on this road. What I can tell you, is that it's definitely well into the hundreds, quite possibly thousands, but we certainly aren't talking tens of thousands. The road has actually become a lot safer, since the opening of a new road running a few miles parallel to the death road. All public traffic now runs on the new road, which has dramatically reduced the number of deaths p/a. Our guide informs me that the figure of deaths now sits at around two per year, which considering the amount of tourists attempting this run each day, is not actually that bad.
There were about 12 of us in our group and we all met in the pub at about 7.30am. Practically the first thing the guide said, even before an introduction was "who wants a shot then?". At that point I knew it would be a fun day, even if he was joking... i'm still not sure if he was or not, but nobody took him up on the offer, it was 7.30am after all. We jumped in the van and headed up to 4700m, all of us exchanging our horror stories that we had heard about the death road. At the top it was very cold, misty and icy, not exactly perfect cycling conditions then. We each got provided a bike, of which mine was called 'stinky', but the bike was top quality. Double suspension and hydraulic brakes, eased my fears a little. The guide got us round in a semi circle and gave us the pep talk, which basically consisted of him telling us to watch out on the road because "Bolivians are fucking crazy" and always stick to the left side, because contrary to normal South American driving, which is on the right side, on mountains you always go down on the left. The reason for this is so that drivers can lean out the window to see how close they are to the edge. It's a rule that makes sense, but it's not great to hear that we were going to have to cycle down the majority of this mountain 'cliff side'. I haven't even ridden a bike for about 8 years, let along ride one down a cliff.
All that was left of our 'safety briefing' was for us each to drink some 96% alcohol. Okaaaay, so maybe the guide is a piss head after all. Everybody had to do it You tipped a bit of your shot on the bike and ground as an offering to Pachamama (mother earth) - this is a strong Bolivian tradition. The rest of it you knocked back. It's a stomach warmer I tell you.
Luckily the first part of the run isnt actually the death road, it's just a fast, steep concrete road. It gave everybody a chance to get used to the bikes and I found this bit really fun. Naturally I was busting a gut, along with the other lads, trying to keep up with the instructor, who considering this was our 'acclimatisation stage' was going hell for leather. I'm not sure exactly how fast we were going, but after we overtook a few lorries, I assumed, pretty fast. After 30mins or so of the concrete road, we came to the entrance of the death road. This is the point where the road narrowed, significantly and it got bumpy as hell. It wasn't just a gravel track, there were some pretty massive rocks on it too which you had to try and avoid. At points the road was no wider than 2.5m. Now this may sound like quite a lot, but as I quickly found out, at the speeds we were going, with a sheer drop to our left, 2.5m is not that wide.
If I told you we slowed down now we were onto the death road proper, I would be lying. Maybe at first we took it a little slow, but after a minute or two it was straight back to standing up on the bike, peddling as hard as possible and just trying to roll with the bumps so to speak. I obviously slowed down for corners, but it was definitely faster than I would have gone if I was on my own, I mean damn, there was no way I was gonna get left behind... I cycled as hard as possible to stay with the front pack. It was some serious adrenalin pumping stuff. I was just careful not to get carried away looking at the incredible view, cause its stunts like that which would have got me killed and is one of the most common reasons for tourists dying on this road.
It wasn't long before we had our first casualty, as I rounded a corner I saw a girl crumpled in a heap on the floor, directly under a mini waterfall. Not a good idea trying to turn sharply on a bumpy gravel track, underneath a waterfall. Still, at least she didn't go over the edge. After the second pit stop I saw her head and arm bandaged up, but she was still well enough to continue. I personally think she just couldn't ride a bike as by the time we got to the next stop I heard she had fallen again and this time hurt her arm pretty badly. Don't worry though females, it wasn't all bad women drivers - one guy did fall off and cut his hand open too, proving that some men cant steer properly either ;-)
After stopping for some cracking photos (next to where Top Gear were filming a couple of years ago), it was back onto the road. The cold and ice was gone, being replaced by a quite intense, almost jungle heat. Off came the thermals and thick trackies and it was down to shorts and t-shirts. We had gone from 4700m to 1100m in just over an hour, which hopefully gives you some idea of how steep the road is and how quickly we were getting down it. By the time we hit the end of the course, everybody was pretty buzzing. The adrenaline was just subsiding when I swiftly cracked open a Judas - A 7% Bolivian beer which is really quite tasty and definitely hits the spot. I had made it down, unharmed, without falling off, in fact the closest I came to stacking it was losing the back end of my bike once, thankfully not when I was close to the edge.
For the next couple of hours we basically just got on the beer, some people went swimming in the river and played some killer pool, but before we knew it, everybody was back on the bus to start our ascent back to the top of the mountain, and if people thought the dangerous part was over, they were very, very much mistaken. That part had only just begun...
We had been in the bus for no more than three minutes, when i heard the guide shout "beer stop" from the front. Jesus, I thought, I know the bus is half full of English tourists but we have just been on the smash for two hours, these Bolivians are worse than us. Not one to miss out on an opportunity though, I stocked up with four beers and it was back on the bus! Next thing I know the guide has pulled out a 2L bottle of bubblegum vodka and he starts dishing out shots. "Everybody must drink" was the command and he starts passing these shots round. At that point it was all quite surreal, we had Red Hot Chilli Peppers blaring out the stereo full volume, every thirty seconds or so the whole bus was screaming as our crazy bus driver (obviously wanting to get back to La Paz in time for last orders), was throwing the bus round the corners of the death road. People were hanging out the window, seeing that we had a gap of a mere foot or so between us and a 300-400 metre drop and loudly stated that we are all going to die. I'm pretty sure I heard somebody praying behind me!
A few minutes went by and "more shots" was the cry from the guide. We all had another round of shots...and "a shot for the driver" somebody shouted. Next thing you know the driver takes both hands off the wheel, one hand pumping his fist into the air, as the other hand knocks back a shot of vodka. Everybody cheers. Yep, we definitely are going to die tonight. Just to make things more exciting, a game was introduced, which the guide called 'shake it up', I wasn't familiar with this game but it basically worked on the basis that every time the guide shouted 'shake' we all had to switch seats. If you refuse to switch or sit in a seat you have already sat in, you have to do a shot, along with eating a sachet of mustard. "Shaaaake" he shouts. Now I would have loved to have been watching from the side of the road as our bus zooms past, at a speed far too fast for a road as notorious as this, whilst 14 people are trying to clambour over each other to get into a new seat. Next thing I knew, the guide who had been sat at the very front of the four rows of seats, was now sat next to me on the back row. I saw the glazed look in his eyes, as he looks up, cradling a half empty bottle of vodka and smiles. "Shot?" he says.
Just to shit us up even more, we stopped every now and then to look at the graves by the side of the road. "This is English corner" the guide announces. Apparently every time somebody dies going over the edge of the mountain, they name that corner after the nationality of the deceased. In the 'English corner' case, a couple of years previous, two guys had been racing down a section far too narrow, the guy next to the wall crashed into his mate and the one who was cliff side went over the edge and died. Before long we had come across a load more corners such as this, including 'Japanese corner'. "That girl was trying to take a picture whilst cycling" the guide said with a straight face. Well, that makes sense, I thought.
Anyway, back on the bus, more drinking was on the agenda. The guide, now back in the front seat (which somebody promptly pointed ou and we made him eat a sachet of mustard), was now well and truly pissed. He found it hilarious to cover up the whole windscreen with a sun shield, blocking the drivers view, just as we were rounding a corner. Through the passengers screaming I could hear the Swedish House Mafia song 'don't you worry child, heavens got a plan for you', coming from the radio. How very apt... I couldn't help but laugh at this point, it was absolutely crazy - Not only were we the sole tour group that was driving back up the death road (all the other tour companies were driving back on the new road), but everyone was hammered, we still had at least a couple of hours to go and it was starting to get dark. Madness!
Believe it or not, even with the pending darkness, there was still the occasional van or truck that was on the death road, that we had to try and negotiate. At one point as we were boosting it up the hill, another van comes swinging round the corner and headed straight for us. There wasn't space for both of us to get passed.. yet more screaming from the passengers. There were three people who were sat on the floor with their backs to the driver, so they were facing the rest of the bus. I will never forget the look of fear on their faces, as they couldn't see why we were all screaming. All they knew was some shit was about to go down and it didn't look good. I'm pretty sure those three at the front were screaming the loudest...and I didn't blame them. Thankfully we didn't crash and burn and managed to brake just in time, before a head-on collision.
After another round of 'shake and shots', one of the English blokes shouted from the front of the bus that the driver had a half finished bottle of beer on the go, on top of the shots he had consumed earlier and this was apparently the last straw for a Dutch girl, who immediately started crying. Part of me felt sorry for her, I mean this was some pretty insane stuff that was going on right here, most definitely dangerous, but another part of me thought, this is Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, doing probably the most dangerous activity in South America - What else did she expect? Still after this little episode things calmed down a bit and the driver duly switched to Sprite. Or Sprite and vodka possibly, who knows!
The mood wasn't sombre for long though - some of the group were adamant about doing the Harlem Shake on the death road, which picked things up and got everybody going again. By the time we reached the top of the death road, safely back on to the normal concrete carriageways, I was ruined. I think everybody was. It had without a doubt been the most intense bike ride of my life, followed by the most dangerous car journey of my life, all washed down with a ton of booze and a great laugh with some cool people. The guide himself, who by this point had chundered due to excessive alcohol consumption, stated that we were the best tour group he had "instructed" in over four years on this circuit and you know what? Even in his condition I think he was telling the truth. Personally I thought it was immense and I don't see how it could have been more fun if we tried. Yeah it was crazy at times, but then I did tell you Bolivia was crazy!
Cochabamba is a city often missed out altogether by tourists. For us however, it was the perfect half way point between La Paz and Sucre. It has to be said, there isn't a huge amount going for Cochabamba, but still plenty to occupy you for a couple of days. The biggest attraction and something that i'm positive none of you reading this will be aware of (unless you have visited the city yourself), is that it has its very own Christ the Redeemer! Not only does it look strikingly similar to the one in Rio, but this one is actually a couple of feet taller and is the largest statue of Jesus Christ in the world. Furthermore, in another parallel to Rio, it sits at the top of the hill overlooking the whole area. In fact the only difference really and probably the reason why nobody knows about this statue, apart from the fact this one was built about 70 years after the original in Rio, is because the weather in Cochabamba is not exactly fantastic and it hasn't got a beach for hundreds of miles. It just doesn't quite have the same impact. Still, it did mean on our visit to the top, we had the place to ourselves and got to enjoy great views of the city in a bit of privacy.
Aside from visiting this somewhat undiscovered gem, our time in Cochabamba was spent sipping cocktails and checking out a number of artisan markets. Then, before we knew it, we were on the bus again and this time to a place I had been looking forward to seeing, since the very beginning of planning the trip ...
The stunning city of Sucre, is somewhere we had heard was a great place for travellers to chill out for a while...and it's easy to see why. A Unesco Cultural Heritage site, its packed full of beautiful plaza's, cosy cafe's, friendly people and some awesome restaurants. The feel good factor of the city is also helped by the fact its got a better climate than the chilly altiplano of La Paz.
Before I start banging on about Sucre though, let me tell you about the bus journey there, as it left a whole lot to be desired. Firstly, we were forced into getting a night bus. Not a problem in most South American countries, but Sarah and me had decided not to do so in Bolivia for two reasons. A) The buses are a pile of crap. Maybe not quite as shocking as Nepalese buses, but they're still pretty bad. B) Bolivians, as you will probably have started to appreciate, love getting pissed, especially at night. We had been warned about the bus drivers drinking at night and when driving over mountains, it obviously just makes it even more treacherous, but hey, it turns out, if you want to get to Sucre from Cochabamba, your only option is the night bus.
So here we are sat on our bus and we had been on the road for no fewer than 15mins, when the bus pulls up outside the off license and the bus attendant runs inside. I strain for a look at what the guy is holding when he runs back out to the bus, I couldn't really see, but rest assured this is Bolivia, so no doubt the guy is holding some strong liqueur. Brilliant! But if I thought that was the biggest problem we would encounter that night, I was wrong. What we didn't realise, is that between Cochabamba and Sucre is basically one huge mountain. So all night long, you would just sway from one side of your seat to the other. I actually got to the point where I was having to hold on to my armrest really tightly, just to stop myself falling out of my chair. Picture yourself trying to sleep on a rollercoaster and you get the general idea. By morning, I hadn't died, but I reckon I had slept for a maximum of one hour. Not great, especially when you're arriving in a new city at 5am. We weren't supposed to have got there till 7am, but after our drunk bus driver had recorded a PB on the white knuckle ride of the mountain roads, we arrived two hours early. Thankfully we were welcomed into our hostel with a big smile from ze German owner, even at 5am in the morning. Top bloke!
After a good old sleep we spent the next few days relaxing... and eating. We got straight back on tripadvisor, found the best restaurants in town and had a real good time. At one particular French style bistro I chowed down on a fillet steak, in a caramelised onion & whisky sauce, with a glass of vino tinto, for £6, whilst Sarah got an awesome thai green chicken and apple curry. Boom, that's what i'm talking about. Needless to say, we went back twice!
We also got a recommendation from the guy we had booked our quad biking tour with, for a motocross event that was taking place just outside the city centre, so we thought we would pop along. It was one of those places where we were the only two tourists out of hundreds of people, but they often they end up being the best events - The non-touristy experiences when you get a tip off from the locals. I had never been to anything like this before and the standard was pretty good. We got to see a couple of wipe outs and it was a decent atmosphere and a good afternoon.
Even just walking around town, there was a lot to see and do. Sucre is home to some great colonial buildings and to make sure you safely arrived at each destination, were some friendly zebra-crossing zebra's, busting out some moves on the road, whilst halting the traffic and ensuring you got across the road okay. The kids loved it and so did a few of the adults, to be honest.
Our last day in Sucre, was quad biking day. Something I personally had never experienced before and was really looking forward to - It didn't disappoint. We had a bit of a shaky start as it was so bumpy on the road, Sarah was finding it hard to keep the quad from going over the edge. It was pretty sharp inclines on rocky terrain and at some point the road got so narrow I felt like I was back on the death road. After a while though the road flattened out a bit and we could start properly busting through the gears. It was intense stuff, the quads had some seriously decent acceleration and before you knew it, you were flying along the road at 70km/h and drifting round corners. It was a real good thrill and personally I cant think of a better place to off road than through the Bolivian mountains, with remote little villages where the children come out to wave at you as you drive past. The scenery was brilliant and it was also nice to see Sucre from outside the city. We got back to town just in time for a couple of beers before we grabbed our bags and started our journey to the highest inhabited city in the world - Potosi.