Surviving Death Road

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My body was beaten down. Sore, sick, battered, and utterly exhausted from multiple illnesses and five days trekking through the mountains, I desperately needed to recover. So far I had spent most of my time in South America being sick as a dog. Unfortunately the next stop on my list wasn’t exactly an easy place to travel. In fact, I’d say I was heading into the most unforgiving country yet: Bolivia. I stayed on one more day in Cusco because I was simply too sick to move, but I was still trying to catch up with Anthony so I couldn’t linger too long. With my purse full of drugs, water, kleenex and puke bags, Sally and I set off on an evening bus from Cusco to La Paz. I was feeling absolutely terrible and we were only going to be increasing in altitude as the bus chugged on. I was miserable and couldn’t sleep and waves of nausea over took me. So far, I had not been car sick on this whole trip and so I was confused by the intense nausea rolling through me, but attributed it the other illnesses racking my body. The inevitable finally happened. Thank god I came prepared and had a bag handy, as I vomited my insides out, retching as quietly as I could in the middle of the night in the back of passenger bus cruising through the Andes. I felt relieved after, tied up the bag and laid back hoping that was the end of that. Sally snoozed on, oblivious in the seats across from me.

I caught a couple minutes of sleep here and there, but just prayed we would get there soon. The border crossing was a breeze and didn’t take long at all.  We had to stop and take a bizarre ferry of sorts to cross over Lake Titicaca. Luckily people who had done this before were guiding us since our bus driver basically just kicked us off and didn’t tell us where to go or what to do. The bus drove on to a long barge like raft with a motor on it and we watched it perilously rock back and forth over the large waves of the channel it was crossing. It was pretty incredulous, and I was sure the thing would topple at any moment. I wondered how many buses were at the bottom of the lake…

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Sally and I crossing Lake Titicaca, praying our bus would also make the crossing!

We all hopped on a small boat ourselves and were driven across and through the huge waves. Luckily it was enclosed otherwise we would have been soaked. We climbed back on the bus and off we went into the depths of Bolivia. Which was turning out to be simply stunning. The landscape was cold and rugged, beautiful and formidable. Huge snow peaked mountains loomed ahead of us and we headed straight for them.

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La Paz. Oh, La Paz! The sprawling cluster of city spread out, huddled within the folds of a valley of the mountains as so many of those huge South America cities are. The signature red brick dominated the buildings as it did in Medellin and I couldn’t help but draw the similarities between the initial aesthetic of the two cities. On closer look of course, La Paz is much more poor, dirty and undeveloped than Medellin but had all the more character for it. I loved La Paz. It’s busy, it’s loud and harsh and in your face. Although it does unfortunately smell overwhelmingly like piss. And when you walk around at night you understand why. You will see someone peeing in the street on every corner it seems. Street peeing: it’s rampant in La Paz. I only had three days here but I loved wandering around the steep streets (which was really difficult in my condition, my cold only worsening and my chest sounding like my lungs were collapsing).

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On day one, Sally and I decided to hit up the massive flea market- one of the largest in the world and see if we could find some treasures. Like Medellin, La Paz has a gondola on their transit system. Because of the steep streets, it allows access for citizens to otherwise difficult to reach areas. We took the gondola up, and I eased Sally as best I could while she battled her fear of heights. It took us right to the madness of the market. Huge is an understatement. It’s block after block after block, stretching for miles. And it has everything you could ever possibly imagine. Each booth specialized in usually only one thing and so would have a table of excess of one item. Entire booths for what looked like massive jumbles of tangled wire. Tires. Doll parts. Shoes. Stuffed animals. Socks. Leggings. Locks. Miniature hand powered sewing machines. It was actually quite absurd! I was so used to the other markets in Latin America where it was all hand made, beautiful textiles, but this was quite literally just a garage sale of exceptional magnitude; a whole lot of junk! But it was entertaining to wander through and look at, and Sally did come away with a steal of a deal on some boots that matched her killer green jacket quite well!

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There were a few food stands, but nothing compared to most markets, and Sally and I found one that served chicken and pork, traditional Bolivian street food and sat down. I asked myself what the hell I was thinking. I was so sick, and just threw up the night before. And everyone said if you get sick anywhere from food, it will be Bolivia! I had so many warnings not to eat the street food, but it didn’t look any worse off than all the other street food I’d seen in my travels so I buckled down. I didn’t eat the raw vegetables because if anything was going to be contaminated that would be it. I devoured the yummy boiled plantain, my potatoes and the chicken- which was so juicy and tender and bursting with flavour. I was impressed! Also, I think if you wash it down with a coca cola that will kill anything for you!

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After a couple of hours and seeing every useless thing we could ever need, we began to make our way back towards the train. On the way I saw a man pissed drunk, singing at the top of his lungs, while struggling to maintain upright on is chair, his arm clasped around his buddy who was attempting to fill his cup,  but mostly succeeding in filling the pavement instead. I saw a little girl near the fence squatting over, taking a poo. Bolivia is a shock to the senses alright! Sally had saved our bones from lunch (and tied the bag to her jacket in true hobo style) and we fed them to some of the street dogs wandering around. My dear friend Sebastien was arriving that night and I was so excited to travel around Bolivia with him! But sadly it meant parting ways with my dearest Sally as she had to race to Chile to catch her flight home in a couple of days and so would only be doing the one day Salt Flats tour, while we were taking the full three day tour. He arrived that night, and Sally hit the town while I went to bed early, feeling like a bag of shit, still battling my illness.

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The next day I bid a terribly sad goodbye to Sally and made promises to visit her one day in Australia. Seb and I went to book our excursions and decided we would be doing the Death Road the following day and then upon our return we could catch a bus right away to head down to Uyuni, where we would start our three day salt flats tour. Seb, Nicolas (a new friend from the hostel) and I hit the town to explore and try to find a place to get lunch. We wanted something cheap and of the local variety, and we ended up wandering for quite some time. I still took it slow, (the hills and altitude in La Paz can make even the healthiest person feel exhausted!) but I was starting to feel the slightest bit better- I was still mess, but I could tell I was on the road to recovery, instead of getting worse or simply having plateaued. We walked around the downtown area for a couple of hours in search of lunch. We saw loads of military men all over the place and saw them barricading off an area of town. After lunch we grabbed a smoothie and could hear what sounded like strange fireworks, but not quite. It was closer to what I assumed bombs would sound like, as if they were blowing up buildings to knock them down, or blasting rock like they do back home. Curious and curiouser… We began walking home and as we passed a shop with a TV blaring inside of it, we discovered the reason for the military and the sounds of bombing: there was a revolt going on right inside the city, only blocks away from where we were! The TV showed the people scrambling through smoke bombs, running and screaming, covering their mouths, their screams and actions those of the fighting and angry, not of the hurt and scared. Madness! It was so surreal to know this was only blocks away from us, and we could hear it, yet we still felt so removed.

That night, Sebastien and I went down to wander the witches market on calle de las brujas. You have to check this spot out when you’re in La Paz. Like many things in Bolivia it’s simply bizarre and perfectly wonderful! Booth after booth, shop after shop all filled with dead, preserved llama fetuses. I’m serious…  It’s tradition in Bolivia to give a llama fetus as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth)- especially when building a new home, on the first Friday of each month and in August. They say the fetuses come from miscarriages, still borns or when pregnant mothers end up slaughtered. I’m hoping this is true, but my god there are a lot of them!

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Bolivia was surprisingly superstitious and I loved this strange new aspect of Latin American culture that I hadn’t encountered yet. You could buy bottled essence of llama, tinctures to increase your libido, love potions, curses, amulets, emblems and a vast assortment of other strange and fantastical things cluttering the shelves of the shops. If you were ill, you could approach one of the woman, explain your symptoms and she would put together a tincture for you from the herbs and oils she had- each booth was overflowing with dried and fresh flowers and herbs of all sorts. It’s such a unique, strange and wonderful place to explore! After finding a few items as keep sakes, Seb, Nicolas and I went to an amazing pizza joint called Mozzarella (which I highly recommend!!!) for dinner. The pizza was perfect, and we went to bed satisfied and ready to tackle our big day of adventure tomorrow.

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We had an early wake up of 7am and grabbed a quick breakfast from our hotel, then hit the road with our tour. It was about an hour drive up, up, up. We started the tour at the impressive altitude of 4100 meters. But luckily it was all down hill from there! I signed up for the tour because I knew it didn’t require any physical effort, it was gravity fed mountain biking after all! I definitely was in no condition with my haggard lungs to be exerting myself. We got geared up with all the protective equipment, had our briefing and hit the road. The first hour was on pavement, a highway shared with vehicles, as a way to get us comfortable with the bikes and their handling. But the pavement allowed for fast, easy cruising speeds! We had perfect weather, the sun was shining down on us and the air was crisp and cool, but luckily not too windy. I blasted down the hill – the first few minutes I was a little tentative, a little reserved, as I got to learn the bike and how she handled and how it worked on the corners, but soon I felt comfortable and confident and let it rip. I stopped touching the break entirely and let gravity take me at its mercy.

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At one point I caught up to the front of our group and we all got stuck behind a bus. Our guide was with us and when it was clear, he wildly waved us ahead and screamed for us to “go go go!”. I peddled hard and whipped past, laughing maniacally at the fact that I just passed a bus going downhill on a highway… on a bike! And of course, I had to mimic my best speeding car engine sound as I passed (I found out later that I was definitely not the only now who did this!).  It was such a wildly exhilarating feeling, flying down the road like that, whipping around corners, losing a little speed and picking it back up again. I was sad when that part of our ride ended, it was so easy and so fast! I wish we had a speedometer so I could have known how fast we were cruising.

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After the pavement, we had to load up and hop back in the vans as there was a few kilometers of uphill before we got to the start of the actual Death Road. A bright yellow sign stuck out starkly against the vivid blue sky proclaiming that we had arrived at DEATH ROAD. The side of the mountain fell away precariously to our right and the vehicle hugged the left of the road. We unloaded the bikes again and got ready as our guides prepped us on the road and what was to come, this time on a gravel path. I was feeling excited, my adrenaline starting to pump and I wanted to keep near the front. It was undeniable. I had the need for speed! We mounted up and took off. I let myself get used to how the bike handled on the gravel as it was much different, your control less secure, but it only took a few minutes to feel comfortable and I let myself tear down the mountainside, catching up with the guys in front.

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It was indescribably amazing But I will try anyway…! The way the tires crunched through the gravel as it sped along, kicking up rocks, spitting them to the side as you rounded corners. The hydraulics working hard to keep you from bouncing off the bike and bruising your tail bone. The wind slipping under your helmet and whispering in your ears to go faster and tickling your face. Your breath coming in hard erratic bursts, sometimes holding it during those tense moments when you wonder if you’re about to lose control. And the constant pump of hot adrenaline racing through your blood as you will the bike faster and faster, gaining confidence, skidding around corners, standing on the peddles as you bump over huge rocks to avoid the jarring impact on your behind. It’s impossible to describe the rush you feel going as fast as you can down a mountainside, and one known as Death Road, at that!

It took hours to descend the whole way. We often stopped as a group, those of us in front, waiting for the rest who chose to take their time and play it a little safer. We stopped for several photo opportunities, and to grab lunch. I kept thinking about how fun this would be if you didn’t have to stop! If you could just keep racing down, faster and faster, to reach the bottom as quick as possible. I talked to a couple of people who ended up being the only ones in their group and so were allowed to race down the mountain with their guide at top speed without stopping. I was terribly envious! Towards the end of the road, it levelled out a little and you had to do some light pedalling, though nothing uphill. With my bad chest, even the level pedalling proved exceptionally difficult and I found myself gasping from the exertion. We finished the road with a nice last little downhill bit and stopped in a small town for a celebratory-nobody-died drink. We were all on cloud 9, especially those of us who had kept up pace with our guide and flew down at top speed. Everyone had smiles from ear to ear, flushed cheeks and we all babbled at top speed about our own experience and how much we enjoyed it.

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Death Road was so much more fun than I expected it to be. It wasn’t quite nearly as scary as I though it would be – don’t get me wrong, it’s scary in some parts, and when you’re going as fast as we were, it can be quite scary! But I think it has a reputation of being more frightening than it really is. I was expecting to be more scared than excited but it turns out I just ended up having the time of my life. If I ever return to Bolivia, I would do the Death Road again in a heartbeat, but in a small personal group so we could go down at our own pace the entire way without stopping. There aren’t a lot of excursions and tours that I would repeat, but Death Road was absolutely one of them. It opened me up to the world of Mountain biking and I know I’d love to try this extreme (and extremely fun!) sport more and more!

We packed everything up, piled back in the van and began the hour drive back into La Paz. We were on a very tight time schedule and had brought all of our bags with us since we would be getting dropped off at a bus station to catch our night bus to take us down to Uyuni.  We got dropped off and all I could think was that there was no way we were going to make it in time. We were going to miss our bus, and then in turn miss our tour which we had already paid for. We rushed to the bus station, realized it was the wrong bus station and were directed down the road. We walked as fast as my blasted 50lb bag would let me and arrived just as they were loading the last of the passengers on to our bus. I couldn’t believe our luck! The bus was running late, thank god!  We didn’t have any water or food, but we reserved ourselves to just settle in and cozy up for the night and try to get some sleep. It was an erratic and exhausting schedule we had set ourselves up with: up early that morning, biking all day with excessive amounts of adrenaline in our bloodstream, leaving us exhausted- catching a 9pm bus for the next 12 hours to Uyuni, arriving with just enough time to get breakfast before hoping in our four by four vehicle for 3 days of Salt flats tour. But hey… there ain’t no rest for the wicked!

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