<< Day 12: Rurrenabaque to Caranavi
Caranavi to La Paz via “El Camino de la Muerte”
One of the walls in our hotel had these beautiful flowers growing out of it:
Today was the final ride on our journey through Bolivia. We would be traveling another 6,000 feet or so up in altitude to reach La Paz. Along the way, we would be riding on “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”, named for its historically high mortality rate. Maurice told us that a few years ago Bolivia had completed a paved bypass road that all of the trucks use now, so the only people on the “Death Road” usually are tourists. I didn’t know if I was relieved or disappointed at this news.
Not too far from Caranavi, we started riding on roads that are very similar to the “Death Road”—one lane dirt roads clinging to the side of mountains, with the rule that you have to ride/drive on the opposite side of the road. The reason is safety. The road is constructed so that the cliff edge is always on the right if you are traveling up to La Paz. With normal side-of-the-road driving, the cliff edge was on the passenger side of the vehicles traveling up the hill, and too many truckers/drivers were misjudging the distance their tires were from the edge and going over the side of the cliff. The opposite-side-of-the-road rule allows vehicles coming down the hill (away from La Paz) to be on the cliff edge side, and to have the edge right outside the driver’s window so that they can see how close their tires are to the drop-off. At first, riding on the opposite side of the road was a bit unsettling. The roads were very narrow and winding, and the drop down was long. I was hoping that (a) I wouldn’t meet another vehicle going too fast from the opposite direction and (b) that all the drivers coming the opposite way knew that they were not supposed to be on my side of the road.
This photo is one of my favorites:
Across the way from the last photo above was this small house with a field of crops growing behind it. I was amazed that someone could plow a field at such a steep angle—one misstep and it seems like they would plummet down the hillside.
This is a typical type of truck that travels these roads:
Unfortunately, Maurice got a flat tire right away, so William and Olivier stopped to wait for the chase truck with him. He told Ben and me to go on and then wait after a while. Ben and I had such a great time riding the twisty roads together, with minimal dust from just the two bikes. We eventually stopped and waited for a bit: Me:
After a while, we headed onward, enjoying the amazing beauty around us. Occasionally, we would come upon a truck or a taxi. The taxis were scary because they were usually going really fast, and we had a couple of heart-stopping close encounters. We also waved to three other motorcycle travelers. The first two were traveling together, and the third was solo; all three were on large bikes with hard panniers and loaded down with items in the back. I was wondering whether their hard luggage and big bikes would be rattled apart on either the rocky roads after Caranavi or the pothole road to Rurrenabaque.
A town that we passed through:
We rode into one town, and a very big dog charged from the right side at me, barking and barking and lunging at my leg. Just as the dog came toward me, however, a large chicken ran out in front of me. So I’m riding along with a big dog to my right who looks like he is going to take my leg off, but I can’t get away because there is a wall to my left and a huge chicken in front of me flapping its big wings and running forward as fast as its legs can go. Ben saw what was happening and zoomed up to the dog, trying to chase it away with his front tire and by revving his engine. Finally, the wall ended, and the chicken ran off to the left, and I could speed forward. It was surreal, like it was happening in a cartoon. The funniest part is that there was a bunch of people hanging out in front of their houses on the right, and they were witnessing all of this (and of course no one called the dog off). I’m sure that I was great entertainment. We didn’t stop to take a picture of that town. The dog, at least, was not very welcoming.
As the road dropped closer to the river, we came upon this one lane tunnel. We could see the road coming out the other side to the right, so we could make sure that no one was coming before we entered the tunnel. The tunnel was pitch black, and you couldn’t see the light on the other side because the tunnel road had a right-hand turn in the middle of it. Even though I knew that no one was coming when I entered the darkness, it was still a bit unnerving.
We passed quite a few beautiful waterfalls:
Here I am on one of the wider sections of the road, with a big truck coming in the distance:
This is what the dust looks like from one of the trucks:
Right before these signs, the road markings indicated that we were supposed to switch back to riding on the right side of the road (and the drivers coming the other way would start driving on the opposite side). About a mile before we stopped here, Ben and I almost got taken out twice by speeding drivers (coming toward us) who apparently didn’t understand that they were supposed to switch over to the other side of the road.
At this junction, we turned off toward the entrance to the Death Road. Once again, the rule was to drive/ride on the opposite side of the road.
We could see the road snaking along the mountain ahead of us:
The views were incredible:
People had placed numerous crosses along the way to mark the passing of a beloved one on this road:
Here I am riding on the road (one-fourth of the way across the photo from the left):
This next photo shows one of the most dangerous parts; the road is extremely narrow and slippery, with loose rocks; and there are big waterfalls that pour water directly onto the road, and any vehicle passing by—it was pretty wild to ride through the falls.
I just have to shake my head in wonder when I imagine having two-way traffic with trucks, buses and cars on these tiny roads, with such a steep drop on the side. Today, however, the most dangerous aspect of this road (for me) was the multitude of tourist groups bicycling down the road on the wrong side, straight at me.
I rounded one corner, and there was a bicyclist heading directly toward me on my side of the road. She was still about 20 feet away, so I yelled, “You’re on the wrong side!” She yelled back, “I know!” But she didn’t move over, she kept coming. (In retrospect, I think that she was afraid of the drop-off on her side of the road.) I didn’t want to swerve over to the other side for fear that she would try to correct her mistake and swerve over too at the last minute. So I slammed on my brakes and stopped, just as she ran her front tire into mine. In trying to avoid injuring her, I had also pushed my bike down, so I was left in that awkward 45-degree angle where I was on the bike and holding it from falling on the ground, but I didn’t have enough leverage to hoist it back into the straight position. The bicyclist pulled herself together and rode off, leaving me struggling to upright my bike. Ben also had a head-on collision with a bicyclist, but no one was hurt.
Another view of the road:
Here is Olivier riding his bike in the distance:
In case you can’t see him, here is a close-up:
We rode up to greet the clouds:
Yeah, “it’s all good!”
We stopped to take a final photo of this magnificent road—a road that is so beautiful and quite an engineering accomplishment, and yet has caused so much tragedy and grief in its history.
We then connected with the new paved road into La Paz—very smooth and fast, with wide sweeping turns. The air grew much colder as we headed further up in altitude. Here I am passing through the last checkpoint outside of La Paz:
These buildings are at the top of the crater; we paused briefly before heading down into La Paz.
We arrived back at Maurice’s house in the early afternoon! Here we are: William, Marc, Maurice, Olivier, me and Ben.
Maurice generously fed us snacks and then pizza, as we packed up our gear and got ready for our departure. Our plane wasn’t leaving until late at night, so David invited Ben and me to walk to the downtown area of the Zona Sud for some coffee. Here is a view of the crater walls of La Paz as we walked:
The Zona Sud area is very different from the main downtown area of La Paz—it has many boutique retail shops that are high end, and our nice coffee shop could have been located in any major city in the world. It is also the only place in Bolivia where I had anyone ask me to give them some money. David and I in Zona Sud:
This trip exceeded all of my expectations. It was a journey filled with great riding, incredible sights and much laughter. It was also a true adventure. I met so many generous and warm people. Maurice was the ultimate guide—he did everything possible to ensure that we fully experienced the magic of Bolivia. David, Hugo and Rene, as well as the other riders in our group, all contributed to the fun.
<< Day 12: Rurrenabaque to Caranavi
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