I am not a mountain biker. At least I didn’t think I was. I am, however, a bit of a risk taker. Nothing too crazy, but I will step out of my comfort zone once in a while.
But mountain biking? Not really my thing, thanks.
Then I went to Bolivia. La Paz, specifically.
This is where I learned about Yungus Road, more commonly known as Death Road, or El Camino de la Muerte.
Built in the 1930’s, this precarious road was the only connection between La Paz and the northern part of the country. It rose to notoriety in the 1990’s after a series of consecutive accidents left many vehicles unrecognizable at the bottom.
Death Road is now considered one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Having two way traffic on a one lane dirt road, carved into the side of a mountain, with a straight drop on one side, and zero guard rails will do that, I suppose.
Fortunately, a two lane paved road has now been built and most vehicles now use this route. Some locals do still use the old road, because it connects to some of the more remote towns in the countryside.
More commonly, the old road is used mostly by vehicles of the two wheel kind, and is incredibly popular among thrill seeking backpackers.
As it turns out, I am one such backpacker.
Let me tell you, I researched this idea to death (unintentional pun, but it fits, so I’m leaving it. You’re welcome).
Which Tour Company?
I heard consistently awesome things about Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking so it was an easy decision on who to book with, should I muster up the courage to go through with this.
I didn’t book anything ahead of time, because what if I chicken out? Instead, I booked in person, the day before.
Gravity Assisted’s office is at 940 Linares in La Paz. Now, I am the first to admit how directionally challenged I am. (I can barely get myself around the block without a map). But, I seriously struggled to find their office.
Look for a small doorway into a courtyard. From the street, you’ll see a flag above the doorway with their name, but it’s high up and very easy to miss. Once in the courtyard, Gravity Assisted is on the second level.
When I sign up, I am fitted for gloves, helmet and bike size, as well as t-shirt size. I am also given a list of things to bring with me. Basically, they are telling you to bring a change of clean, dry clothes, and toiletries, so you can shower before sitting down to eat at the end.
The next morning, I’m suddenly very aware of the fact that I have zero coordination or balance, and I’m convinced I’m going to roll right off the side of the mountain and become a statistic.
The meeting point is at Sol y Luna Cafe at the corner of Murillo & Cochabamba. As people arrive, the excitement is palpable, and the guides are just as excited. It’s such a great atmosphere already.
The bus leaves at 7:30am sharp. If your hostel isn’t serving breakfast that early, not to worry – Sol y Luna has a breakfast menu. You can eat in or get it to go and eat on the bus, since it’s a one hour drive to the start of the ride.
Also, the tour guides hand out snacks, sandwiches and water throughout the day, so you really don’t need to bring much in the food department.
The guides for my group were Rob and Simon. We also had a driver (who was great, but whose name I forget – sorry driver guy). This team was absolutely fantastic!
Rob is not a native Bolivian, but he is very experienced and has been doing this ride for years. Expect a high energy, supportive and friendly, all around awesome guy.
Simon, who is also very experienced with Death Road, is quieter, but also a great guy. He rode ahead of us at times so he could get photos as each rider passed by. Don’t expect clear, amazing photos, as this is just a small point and shoot camera, you are zooming by on a bike, and may be in questionable weather conditions, but at least you get a few action shots of yourself.
As we are leaving La Paz, we pass a truck that is towing half of a mangled bus. Guess where it was coming from?
What in the actual hell have I gotten myself into?!
A very obvious nervous tension ripples through our bus. Rob refocuses our attention by handing out riding gear. He also gives us a souvenir buff (like in Survivor). For my gear, I am given what I believe is a women’s small, and I’m absolutely swimming in it. (In Gravity’s defense, I’m basically the size of a fourth grade kid, so nothing ever fits me). Don’t worry if this happens to you as well, it does not affect your ride too much.
The pants and jacket are fairly heavy, protective, and cover everything. Your clothes underneath will not get ruined. Your shoes, however…don’t wear your Sunday best, let’s say that. The jacket has a water bottle holder and an inside pocket for your camera. Everything else stays on the bus and is completely safe.
The ride starts at an elevation of 4,850m. By the end, you’ve covered about 65km, give or take, and are now at 1,900m.
At the starting point, the team goes over some important rules, what to expect, what not to do, all that jazz. Then, the bikes are unloaded, and you have a few minutes to ride around and get acquainted with your bike.
The bikes, by the way, are absolutely fantastic! They are in perfect condition. The shocks, brakes and tires are top notch and brand new.
We group together one last time, and do a good luck ritual. A bottle of, “chichi de colla”, which is a local drink, is passed around. Bolivian moonshine, basically. As the bottle is passed around, we each spill a bit on our bike (for luck to carry us through the ride), a bit on the ground (an offering to show respect to Mother Earth), and then took a sip.
Me, graceful and classy as always, tried to only take the tiniest of tiny sips, but instead ended up pouring half of it down my throat.
I guess I wanted shots at 9am? So gross!
Then we’re off…
The first twenty or so kilometres is tarmac on a public road. I was really nervous and convinced I was going to fall off, get hit by a truck, and die.
I don’t overreact, you overreact.
Don’t worry about keeping up with your group if you’re not comfortable going at their speeds. There’s always going to be a few people who want to fly through things as fast as humanly possible. While I’m not the slowest in the group, I’m also not at the front, leading the pack.
Through the whole ride, there is always a guide leading, and the other guide is behind you, if if he’s not off taking photos. Plus, the bus is also always at the back, and will never pass the last rider, so don’t fear being left behind.
The lead guide stops every few kilometers to give everyone a chance to catch up, and also to explain what’s coming up in the next section. This also gives Simon a chance to get ahead of us for photos.
After the tarmac comes the gravel. I slide all over the place at first, and am completely intimidated. But once I get used to it, and figure out how to control the bike and let the suspension do most of the work, it was really – REALLY – cool.
The scenery. Oh my god, the scenery. You guys, it’s unreal. No photos will ever do it justice. Isn’t that always the case with beautiful places though – you have to go and see with your own eyes, to really ‘get’ it.
As for actual riding, there is minimal pedaling involved for most of it. As amazing as the bikes are, it is crucial that you be very comfortable in your ability to control a bike.
I’m surprised at how fast I gained speed and how easy it is to lose control. I know, I know…it’s downhill. Just be aware that things can get real serious, real quick.
Also, if you are nervous and stiff, with locked joints, and sit on the seat for the whole ride, you will be VERY sore the next day. Again, it is imperative that you understand the bikes suspension and let it take most of the impact. This will save you.
There is a stretch of about seven kilometres that is uphill. Not a steep incline, but definitely harder than the downhill we had been doing up until that point. We had the option to ride in the bus, or bike it. I got cocky because hey, I’m fit, I can handle stuff, so I joined the few who decided to ride it.
Turns out, no, I cannot handle stuff. Not at all. What I failed to take into consideration was:
a) the weight of the bike,
b) the weight of the extra gear I was wearing, and, most importantly,
b) the altitude.
I got about 800m in, and knew there was absolutely no way I could do the entire uphill stretch. I’ve never been put in my place so fast before. And by a mountain!
I ended up walking the bike, in the rain, waiting for the bus to catch up to me. Not my finest moment. But I don’t regret trying.
At the end of the ride, we hang out at this little rest area. This is where you get the t-shirt you ordered when you signed up. You order in your size and color, and it comes pressed, in a sealed package (they fit a bit small, but are awesome quality).
What Should I Wear?
December is the start of Bolivia’s rainy season, and I rode on December 23 (Merry Christmas to me!). At one point, the rain was coming down pretty good, but we were given rain jackets, so we stayed completely dry underneath.
Considering the ride goes through almost every weather type possible, I had no idea what to wear. How exactly do I prepare for this?? In the end, I figured layers were my best friend, and I was right.
I wore leggings, a t-shirt, a hoodie, the inner shell of a 3-in-1 North Face, and Adidas runners. And then on top of all of that, I had on Gravity’s riding gear. I was never cold. The opposite, in fact. I took off the hoodie and North Face very early on.
By the time we got near the bottom, it was much warmer. Hot, almost. Most of us took everything off by this point, wearing only our own clothes with Gravity’s helmet and gloves, which is the mandatory minimum.
The Zip Line Option
Another option you have when you sign up, is to go zip lining at the end.
I’ve never ridden down a mountain, I’ve never zip lined, and I’m terrified of heights. Let’s do it! (I was on a face-your-fears kick that day.)
Obviously, I can’t compare to other ziplines since this was my first time, but I loved it! It was a great end to an awesome ride.
Once at the rest stop, you are fitted into a zip line harness depending how you want to ride. You can go down on your stomach (superman) or sitting up. I chose superman for better views.
The ride to the start was actually quite fun, because the whole scenario was ridiculous, once I stopped to think about it…
Three of us are strapped up into zip line harnesses, limiting our mobility. We willingly hopped into the open bed of a truck, driven by locals we just met three minutes ago, none of us speak Spanish, and we have no idea where we are going.
It’s only about a ten minute drive. Once there, you are paired with one of the guides, who will ride behind you, in seated position, so all you have to do is enjoy the view.
There are three zip lines, and you do one after the other. I took a video of the first line, but can’t post it, because all you hear is me yelling and swearing. Whatever. We all have involuntary reflexes when fear kicks in.
The last line finishes right near where we left the group.
Finishing The Day
From there, we all hop back on the bus and take a short ride to an animal refuge.
This is where all the items they told you to bring come in handy. Everyone heads into the locker rooms to take a hot shower, which felt amazing after the day we just had.
Then, we regroup in the dining area and sit down to a late buffet lunch of pasta and salad. The guides hook up the camera to the TVs so all our photos play as we eat. It is an awesome ending to an amazing day.
The drive back to La Paz is about three hours, depending on traffic. By this point, it is a serious struggle to stay awake, the day is SO tiring, but definitely try to stay awake until the sun goes down, the views as you drive are amazing!!!
All in all this was absolutely incredible. Do it if you get the chance, I promise you won’t regret it!