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Camino de la Muerte: My ride on Death Road


The 64km
'Road of Death' claims
the lives of around 150
locals and tourists

The 64km 'Road of Death' claims the lives of around 150 locals and tourists

Panoramic view of La Paz, Bolivia

Panoramic view of La Paz, Bolivia

Sarah and her
team defy the altitude
and dizzying challenge
ahead of them

Sarah and her team defy the altitude and dizzying challenge ahead of them

Bolivian woman

Bolivian woman

Vehicle on Mountain Road

Vehicle on Mountain Road


The 64km 'Road of Death' claims the lives of around 150 locals and tourists

Sarah Ryan braved Bolivia's Camino de la Muerte, the world's most dangerous highway

The fog rolled in over the Bolivian Andes and a clap of thunder put the fear of God in me. I heard someone mutter, "when the weather is bad, they say most accidents happen".

I couldn't help thinking, bravado is one thing, stupidity another.

Ten minutes earlier, I was gazing over the snow-covered peaks of the majestic Huayna Potosi, the highest mountain in the highest capital city in the world.

Now, through the thickening mist, I could barely make out the faces of my fellow travellers.

Our intrepid group was made up of a pair of 20-something Germans, hardy types with beards; a gung-ho Australian; a gangly but tough British teenager, and me, a not-so-rugged Irish girl, quivering with the cold and the fear.

Marco, our guide, shouted over to me in a thick Quechua accent: "Sarah dear, you've got your knee pad on upside down."

It was an ominous start to the beginning of my mountain bike ride down the notorious Camino de la Muerte, or the Road of Death, and one of the craziest must-do activities on South America's Gringo Trail.

In 1995, the Inter-American Development bank christened the nerve-racking route 'The Most Dangerous Road In The World' after 26 vehicles took a nose-dive over its heart-stopping edge in less than 12 months.

Since the road was constructed in the 1930s, more than 20,000 souls have lost their lives, with an average of 150 plunging to their deaths into impenetrable jungle each year.

Stretching 64km in length and just three metres wide, this hair-raising unsealed dirt track hangs precariously from a portion of the Andes from the Bolivian capital, La Paz, to the Yungas. It's a stretch of steep forest on the eastern slopes of the Andes near the border with Peru, where hairpin bend after hairpin bend was chiselled out by Paraguayan prisoners of war.

It's still a fully functioning road, due to the empty coffers of the Bolivian state, although the main route from La Paz has been replaced with a slightly less treacherous sealed highway.

Just after sunrise, a minibus picked us up from our shamrock-laden hostel, the Wild Rover, proud owner of the highest Irish bar in the world.

At 4,000ft above sea level, who's to argue?

Our bikes aloft a rickety roof rack, we put our faith in Pepe, our rotund driver, and Marco, who greeted us with a knowing smile.

The day had been billed as a 64-km session of downhill riding with a few small hills and some flat bits. As we set off, Marco asked if anyone had their iPod and wanted to play some music.

I volunteered mine and, as the journey progressed, the shuffle chose with serendipity a mix of tunes which happened to include AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell'. We were off to a great start.

At a soaring 4,750 metres above sea level, we set off from the windswept La Cumbre Pass, a short drive from the capital, beginning our five-hour descent to the subtropical jungle floor.

All the necessary kit was at hand: sturdy helmets, waterproof jackets, knee pads and gloves, and I had requested a double suspension bike out of respect for my rear end.

The all-important beginning to any trip down Death Road is an offering to Pachamama, the Goddess of the Andean people, or Mother Earth, as we might call her.

We toasted her with a mouth-scorching swig of the local, 98pc proof liquor and asked her to keep us safe from the dangers ahead.

The temperature had plummeted to a frosty -4°C and I could barely feel my hands as the rain started to seep through my so-called waterproofs.

By now, the rest of the group were way ahead, and there were cars and lorries whizzing towards me at breakneck speeds.

What was I thinking?

We stopped at the end of a dip in the road where Marco informed me of a small uphill ride for about eight kilometres before we got to the start of the danger zone.

"Uphill? I thought this was mostly downhill," I exclaimed.

"Dear Sarah," he said. "You don't have to. Most don't."

Of course, all the boys were determined to stay on their wheels but Pepe grabbed my hands, put them into his armpits to defrost, and then hurtled my bike on to the roof of the van.

Under normal circumstances, having your hands shoved into the armpits of a strange large man might sound a bit gross, but I was in no position to object and at least I had started to feel my fingers again.

Back in the minibus, I waved like a queen to my teammates, who were now powering uphill.

Feeling human again, I gazed on the unfolding scenery below from the minibus window as the clouds and mist finally started to lift.

A steep valley appeared with a towering cliff face and a dramatic drop into a mass of the greenest jungle foliage.

Suddenly, a cloud seemed to float along beside me, and I felt that if I reached my hand out of the van, I would touch it.

Of course, that might have been something to do with the effects of high altitude. After a while, the lack of oxygen can make you feel as if you're floating in the clouds.

We stopped for a snack of chocolate and fruit, another safety talk (sit upright, use your back brake, no free-wheeling or showing off), and then began our free-wheel down the Death Road-proper.

"Plenty of Kodak moments," Marco shouted as he cycled ahead of us, with Pedro moseying behind in the support van.

The sun blasted through and suddenly felt hot. Back on my bike, I started to enjoy myself at last, whizzing through the greenery at high speed.

In a distant curve a cyclist, from another group, had had an accident but was up and hobbling by the time I passed, looking shaken but not overly stirred.

Suddenly Marco asked us to stop, pointing to a small cross at the side of the road where an Israeli tourist had met her end. If that wasn't enough incentive to slow us down, nothing was.

It was just one of countless shrines that pepper this route with frightening regularity, marking the points where tourists and locals have fallen to their deaths in the valley below.

We got off our bikes and lay prostrate over the cliff face, contemplating the heart- pounding depths of the canyon below.

Further on, a cascading waterfall showering the route left us drenched with pure mountain water but, in the searing heat, we dried out in an instant.

On we went, navigating loose rocks, oncoming vehicles and the occasional speed-demon tourist who had broken away from their group.

By mid-afternoon, we finally arrived at our destination, the whitewashed town of Coroico. We were exhausted, starving, but exhilarated.

Out of nowhere, a mass of black insects rushed towards me, clinging to my legs. Marco dashed to the rescue and doused me in bug repellent followed by a layer of the local tipple, which eased the sting considerably.

Checking into La Senda Verde on the steaming Bolivian jungle floor, we celebrated our survival with a beer and a dip in the pool.

Marco presented us with well-earned souvenir T-shirts bearing the words 'I Survived Death Road' and a DVD of all the action he had recorded during the day.

One of these days, I might just pluck up the courage to sit down and watch it.

Weekend Magazine