Bolivia’s Death Road

12 Jun

Bolivia's Death Road

 

Nearly five kilometres above sea level, travelling 60 kmh+ down a highway in the Bolivian Andes, on a mountain bike competing with trucks, buses and cars, a solid rock cliff-face to my left and a 600m drop to certain death on my right, racing around hair-pin turns and surrounded by the most beautiful scenery when I take the risk to look…I have never felt more exhilerated or had so much fun in all my life!
This is mindblowing excitement at it’s best and I haven’t even hit the really dangerous section yet!

 

The Camino de las Yungas or going by its infamous name of Camino de la Muerte (Death Road) or The Worlds Most Dangerous Road, runs from La Paz through the mountains to the town of Coroico, 70kms away and drops from a cold and often snowy 4650m above sea level to a steamy, rainforest at 1200m.
Prior to building the newly paved highway, the North Yungas road served as the main road between the two towns, with high amounts of two-way traffic travelling its narrow, muddy and often unstable path.
Many cars, trucks, buses and cyclists have plunged to their death over the side of the cliffs with the worst tragedy occuring in 1983 when a bus travelling with 100 people aboard succumbed to gravity, everyone perished.

These days there is not as much traffic with the majority of users being tourist adventure seekers racing down the road on mountain bikes. Although there is still a small amount of normal traffic and even, as I found out, a 15 tonne grader climbing its path.

I chose the hands of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking to put my life in, as they are considered to be the safest and most experienced of all the Death Road tour operators.
Its New Zealand born owner, Alistair, is a mad mountain bike fanatic who started the pioneer business in 1998 after travelling the world. They use the best equipment and have the highest maintenance and safety record. Out of the 14 tourists who have died while biking the road, only one has been with Gravity Assisted, and technically it doesn’t count as they think the guy had a heart attack prior to riding off the cliff. We’ll put this down to genetics as opposed to getting the crap scared out of him while biking down the narrow, gravel road with massive drops over the side and flimsy, if at all present, barrier guards.

We meet Alistair and another guide at a cafe in La Paz with the other crazies who have decided to join the trip. I ask our red-bearded leader if he can tell which ones will be injured by the end of the day. He says he usually has a fair idea of who will be the competitive ‘cowboys’ and who will freak out and get back on the bus halfway down.
The group is divided into 2 and we set off. It takes about an hour just to climb the steep sides of La Paz’s natural bowl zig-zagging our way up the roads in our bus, we eventually stop beside a lake surrounded by snowy Andean peaks, it’s very pretty…and very cold.

We’re all given bright orange safety vests, windproof jackets, trousers, helmets and a souvenir multipurpose bandana/neck warmer/insect mouth-barrier. Each person is individually shown their own, very expensive looking mountain bike and instructions on how to use it properly.
I’ve never ridden a bike with both front and back shockies before so it felt a bit odd at first, but I later realised they are very much needed!
We each test out our bikes, riding around the makeshift gravel car park, it’s fortunate that the ride is mostly down hill as the altitude can affect your breathing quite easily, especially if you haven’t acclimatised.
Alistair passes around a small bottle of what smells and tastes like pure ethanol. In fact, we’re pretty sure it was. The tradition is to tip a little bit on the wheel of your bike for Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and take a small swig yourself. Yep, definitely pure alcohol.
The days journey is discussed, there will be 13 scheduled stops where they will mention what is coming up, what dangers there are and how to avoid them. Alistair says that what you look at is the direction your bike will head, so if you’re looking at the pretty view, guess where you’ll end up? I found this to be true when later staring at the giant rocks I wanted to avoid that constantly littered the path…look at the rock…hit the rock.
“Don’t ask me what that plant is,” he says, “what that mountain is called or if the insect that just bit you is poisonous. I know mountain bikes, I’m not a Botanist!”

Drug Check No.1

Drug Check No.1

Finally our group of 14 heads off. I find myself in the front 6 and keep up with the boys until the testosterone kicks in and they start to compete, eventually I end up in the middle of the group. A lot of the girls are way up the back trying not to go too fast. I, however, have just confirmed my love for dangerous things and all I can think of as I race down the road is “This…is…AWESOME!”. I have visions of buying a bike back in Australia and taking up a downhill mountain bike hobby. Then on one hair-pin curve I get major speed wobbles and can see myself heading straight for the rock wall on my left. I prefer this to the cliff on the other side. I know if I try to turn the wheel too sharply I’ll stack it and I try desperately to keep a firm grip and take a gentle wide curve. The rock wall gets closer but I’m relieved when I miss it…just.
At the first stop I ask what I was doing wrong and how to avoid them. Alistair mentions I’m probably sitting up too much and I need to lean forward while sitting further back on the seat, this will make me more aerodynamic and spread the weight more evenly over the bike. It works and fortunately no more speed wobbles, although I find myself going a little slower over the next leg.

Our next stop is at a drug check point, apparently the road is commonly used by drug traffickers moving raw cocaine to the cities.
The next leg is about an hour long and all uphill. We have the choice of riding or bussing it… I hop on the bus. With this altitude I know I wouldn’t make it.
This gives me the chance to take in the spectacular mountain views and the giant waterfalls that cascade down green cliffs. I openly laugh at the suckers who decide to ride the hill but really I admire them for giving it a go. They all look stuffed by the time we all get to the next stop point.
A quick snack of a banana and chocolate bar and we’re now introduced to the ‘real’ Death Road. This is the old road where the majority of accidents happen. It feels weird calling it a road though, it’s more like a track. Some sections would only be about 2m wide and the gravel more resembles a rock pit. Waterfalls tumble onto the road where you have to pass through them. Recent landslides are very visible where the naked earth hasn’t yet had time to grow new vegetation. Barriers are very few and far between and don’t even look like they could stop a square wheel. Vertical drops are constant and at times you can feel a weird, invisible pull to them.

A lovely day for flirting with danger

The group heads off and I notice I’m having a hard time of keeping to a safe speed. I’m constantly going too fast and permanently have my fingers on the brakes, by the end of the next section they are aching.

We pass many crucifix’s and memorials along the way. A few years ago an girl from Israel who was travelling with a less-than-reputable tour company, rode straight past her group who had stopped for a rest and straight off a cliff after her brakes failed.
An Israeli girl from our group had already stacked it and scraped her knee pretty badly so it was back on the bus for her. No doubt she had an eerie feeling when hearing about her fellow countrywoman’s story.
Shortly after, one of the British girls took a slide and landed on her wrist, it could be fractured so she joins the bus group. Two more minor accidents occur, one with the ‘cowboy’ in the group who thought the day was a race, but they continue on.

We decend into a cloud forest which decreases visibility slightly and makes me want to go slower but the downhill influence of gravity makes it hard to reduce my speed.
I’ve come to recognise a common signal in the group, when watching those who are having a near death experience. I call it the ‘Oh Shit!’ leg where it instinctively extends out at a high 45 degree angle when confronted with danger, to try and stabilise the bike.

We decend lower and lower into the humid jungle, peeling off the layers of clothes we needed up in the alti-plano and throwing them back on the bus which creeps along at the back of the group.
At the next stop we’re given a ham & cheese roll for lunch. Alistair mentions that during the next section we will be getting a lot more oxygen in our lungs, this will cause us to think we’re really awesome at mountain biking and can do anything. He says that once we start to think that we’re really getting the hang of this, slow down! It means you’re about to take a long ride over a short cliff.
After a short pee break involving a great Twister position and a mini-trek up a mountain to find a bush, we set off again.

“Passing on the left!” I hear, as 3 BMX riders from another group pass me. How they haven’t ended up over the edge going at their speed is beyond me. But it’s nice to see a bit of road etiquette.

Alistair’s local sidekick continually rides ahead and takes photos and videos of us riding through waterfalls or at particularly picturesque locations. Their crucial advice? Do not wave at the camera! Never take your hands off the bike! And always get off your bike on the right side. The chasm on your left should explain this.

At this point, I’m really enjoying the ride, there are sections where the rocks are so big that it feels like I’m in a Shake n Bake bag but overall I think I’m really starting to get the hang of this…wait a second?! Alistair’s words ring in my head and I make sure to slow down.

My whole body has been in a high state of awareness the whole time and subsequently my hands are stiffening after gripping the handlebars for so long and my calves feel like their on the verge of cramping, eventually the road starts to flatten out and I realise, after four hours, just how tired my body is when I have to start pedalling. We start to see houses, children playing in the banks and locals whose faces I can read that say; ‘what a bunch of idiots’.

Who doesn’t love monkeys?!

We ride into the tiny, one street village of Yolasa, avoiding the puddles that Alistair has told us do not contain water and dodging the chickens that roam about.
I’ve done it! I’ve ridden 64kms down a big ass mountain and it feels good! My legs think otherwise.
But it’s not over just yet as we have to ride our bikes to a nearby Animal Refuge where we are served a pretty good buffet lunch.

Gravity Assisted work with the Senda Verde Animal Refuge and it makes a great end to the afternoon. Firstly, they have hot showers! This is a brilliant idea and I feel so much better afterwards. A quick tour of the property shows us Toucans, Tortoises, Coati, Parrots and lots and lots of monkeys! A cute little Capuchin decides to climb on me as a Spider Monkey waddles past, its long arms flailing about.
A few people from our group decide to have a go at a local zip-line nearby which soars above the valley.

The danger isn’t over yet though. We still have to get back to La Paz and of course we have to drive back up the Death Road.

This is probably slightly scarier than riding down it as you have to rely on the driver to get you back safely and sometimes when looking out the window you cannot see the ground, just a very large expanse of air with tiny, tiny trees at the bottom.
At one point an oncoming vehicle drives onto the wrong side of the road which forces us to take the cliff side. Our driver yells some abuse as the rules are, whoever is coming down the hill has to drive on the cliff side as they need to be able to look out their window and make sure the tyres are still on the road.

Postcard Point

The sun starts to set and the clouds begin to roll in, covering the jungle valley and road below us. We are all starting to feel the aches and pains set in and I think we are all looking forward to a warm bed.
We make a quick pit-stop at Postcard Point, a picturesque ledge with a very sharp drop which encompasses everything the day is about. Plus it’s a great photo to scare your friends and family with.
Alistair goes above and beyond when he gets on the phone and organises an English-speaking Doctor at a hospital for the British girl with the suspected fractured wrist and even offers to go with her. He organises with another girl to share contacts he has in California where she mentions she wants to take up mountain biking.
It’s obvious he has built up a very professional and safe business where everything is thought of and they go out of their way to work with local businesses to share the tourist wealth around and support local communities. Although the Death Road is still the most popular ride, Gravity Assisted has spread its wings to include other locations in Bolivia and have also expanded into Peru.
They were the first operators to start the Death Road ride for tourists and there’s a very good reason why they are still the best with word-of-mouth playing a massive part.
If you’re interested in riding the Death Road, check out Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking.

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How to Reduce your Crime Target Rating

9 Jun

Carnaval in Rio - A pickpocket's wet dream.

So I had this pre-misconception about South America. Before leaving I told my mother not to worry when she gets the phone call or email saying that I had been mugged… it was inevitable, it would happen, she had to expect it… I was!

Well it never happened and from my own personal experience after travelling for 2 months through Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Chile I realised it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
Of course people are mugged and pickpocketed all the time in South America, tourists are targeted, and there is the odd occasion of taxi drivers colluding with others to kidnap you, take you to an ATM and demand all your money.
Now the fact I had no problem doesn’t mean you won’t, but perhaps the simple precautions I took made a big difference to being targeted by thieves. Most criminals will do a quick risk calculation to see if they’re likely to get away with their crime before committing, so make it hard for them!

 

Firstly, I always wore dark sunglasses. This allows you to observe your surroundings and dark lenses make it hard for thieves to know if you’re looking at them or distracted by the pretty parade going past.
Always observe and be aware of your surroundings and the people in your personal space. Many pickpocketers will distract you through a number of different means such as squirting liquid on you or even just a simple bump. Your immediate reaction is usually to deal with the unplanned disruption while the thief or their mate swipe your wallet or camera. Be aware and just keep walking!

Use locks, or if you’re worried about losing keys try safety pins, they take too much time to unpin for crims. If you have a loose strap from your bag wrap it around your arm while you have it on your shoulder. Tangle zip tags when zipped together. Place zips under the tightened straps on backpacks. Of course someone can get into your bag if they really wanted to, but for the on-the-go thief, a few extra seconds is a few too long.

Just about every airport in South America has a plastic wrap service where they will cling-wrap your luggage till it resembles the cat out of Bad Boy Bubby.

They say to carry your passport on you at all times, but I believe you have a better chance of losing it on the street than in a hotel room or hostel locker. The same goes for bank and credit cards, if you don’t need them, don’t take them out with you.

Carry a fake wallet and fill it with a few low value notes and train tickets. And girls, you realise you have an extra hidden pocket in your bra?! But if you do carry a wallet, don’t carry it in your back pocket and if you expect to be in a crowded area, consider a wallet chain.

Don’t wear flashy jewellery, even if it’s fake.

Carry your backpack on your front, especially in very crowded areas and watch where you place your bags, putting them at your feet is often not safe, at the very least put a foot through a strap.

If travelling on a bus avoid placing baggage in the overhead compartments, especially on overnight trips. Some South American bus companies take the precaution of filming all passengers upon boarding and even in your seat. These companies, such as Cruz del Sur in Peru, do tend to be safer overall, so use your own judgement if you intend to use the overheads with them. Put your arms through the straps if keeping it on your lap when you sleep.

If taking a taxi, have a look on Google Maps so you have a rough idea and direction of where you should be going. If travelling alone sit on the kerb side of the door, or if in twos, both sit on each window side to avoid any extra visitors jumping in. Look the taxi driver in the eye, let him see you read his ID. Reputable companies will have these.
Use ‘Radio Taxi’s’ if you can, it’s sometimes hard to know which is which, but I always look out for the roof sign, signage and phone number on the side of the vehicle. If you’re really worried, avoid the younger looking taxi drivers. Most good hotels and hostels will have up to date information on any latest taxi problems in the area.

Avoid walking home alone, late at night, or drunk for that matter. Drunk = easy target. Although I once walked home at midnight, by myself through a pretty dodgy area of Rio de Janeiro after the Carnaval parade, all the time saying in my head “You’re gonna get mugged, you’re gonna get mugged.” And you know what? I didn’t. Didn’t even have any dodgy people look at or approach me. Probably just lucky, but I was still surprised.

Watch out for ATM’s, see if anyone is watching you, try not to use the street ATM’s that aren’t attached to a bank, these are more likely to have card skimming devices attached to them. If there looks like an added piece has been attached, try not to use it. There are photos online if you want to see what to look out for, although some are very hard to detect.

Look like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Looking lost or whipping out that map makes you look vunerable, screams tourist and ups your risk rating.

And my last tip, try to have a Plan B for if it does happen to you. Figure out what you’ll do, how you’ll get money etc. Maybe keep a stash in your larger backpack. If you lose a credit card, know the number you need to call to cancel it and see if (like Visa) they will courier you a replacement card free of charge.

But all in all don’t allow it to consume you, it will eventually all become second nature and you’ll see what I mean when I say it’s not as bad as you think it will be!

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Kimonos in Kyoto

27 Jun

Night Hanami at Maruyama Park, Kyoto

A brief glance through the car window, but I saw her, glistening black hair meticulously styled, a pale white oval face of porcelain skin with a hint of pink on the cheeks, eyes lined with black kohl framed by eyebrows shaped into perfect cresent moons and her lips, small, dainty and painted red.
She was sitting in the back of a black taxi swathed in luxurious and very expensive hand-woven silk. For the briefest moment I saw a creature of fantasy, a woman of the night paid for her company, often within a group of Japan’s most powerful and wealthy business men.
Her night had just begun but she would be profit many times into the early morning for her services, entertaining clients with the skills she has perfected and been trained for. Continue reading 

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Shortest Overseas Trip Ever

26 Jun

One of Rottnest's many bays

Looking for an island holiday, with over 63 long, white, sandy beaches and 20 crystal clear bays to choose from, world standard diving areas filled with colourful coral and abundant with tropical fish, with distinct wildlife not seen anywhere else on Earth, an interesting history and that great laid back vibe, with fares from only $45 return?

Have you thought about Rottnest?

To most locals, Rotto is that sandy island full of those weird rat-like animals, off the coast of Perth that they may have visited once or twice with their school or family when they were young.

But after a recent visit, I have found a new appreciation for a unique and beautiful travel destination that is right on my city’s doorstep.  Continue reading 

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Holy Espagna, Batman!

26 Jun

It was Easter in Spain and I had flown down to Seville to witness one of the most interesting religious festivals in the world. The Semana Santa or Holy Week showcases multitudes of Catholic processions by those wishing to be cleansed of their sins for the year. Participants don long robes in the identifiable colours of their local church, complete with a very large pointed hood that covers the face so that they can only see through two holes in the front. Envision the Ku Klux Klan in various colours but without the hate crimes and prejudice. Their pointed hoods are supposed to hide the height of the person while their face is hidden so that people cannot identify the ‘sinners’.

The various sized groups walk through the streets of Seville carrying candles, banners and various antique relics from their church. Some go all out and place their revered statues of Mary and Jesus on giant, gold gilded floats covered in flowers, mainly red and white roses. I assume that those who have committed the worst sins get the punishing job of carrying these floats around from underneath!.  Continue reading 

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