Bolivia: Back from the Death Road

From downhill biking to climbing a volcano, the South American country guarantees you an adrenaline fest.  
Bolivia
Close to the Bolivia-Chile border, Salar of Uyuni, the world’s largest salt desert, is a magnet for shutterbugs looking for an illusionary photo op. Water on the 10,000-square-kilometre blinding white flat creates surreal reflections of the sky. Photo by: Antonio Salinas L./Moment/Getty Images

In Bolivia, the adventure starts as my aircraft begins its descent. At 13,300 feet, El Alto International Airport, which services capital La Paz, is the world’s highest international airport. Landing here was quite exciting for me—one moment I was flying over mountains and emerald lakes, and the next, above an array of short, flat, brown houses. Suddenly, I spied the tiniest runway one can imagine. As the airplane lost height, I held my breath.

To make the best of La Paz’s breathtaking views, I realised, one can turn to the host of adventure activities, from climbing mountains to biking or cycling down one of the world’s most dangerous roads; from camping by the beautiful Lake Titicaca—the world’s highest navigable body of water—to exploring rainforests.

My initiation was a downhill biking trail on the Death Road (also Yungas Road) that snakes down from La Paz to Coroico. It gets its name from statistics that emerged in the 1990s, which showed around 300 deaths on the route anually since its construction in the 1930s. When a new road connecting La Paz and Coroico opened in 2006, regular traffic was diverted. It was around that time that thrill-seeking backpackers took over Death Road, making downhill biking the most sought-after activity in Bolivia.

Bolivia 1

Mercado de Hechiceria or Mercado de las Brujas, also known as La Paz’s ‘Witch’s Market,’ sells a mysterious melange of knick-knacks like herbs, dried animal charms and folk aphrodisiacs. Photo by: Juergen Ritterbach/The Image Bank/Getty Images

After spending some time getting a grip of the special downhill bike on a smooth, paved practice-stretch, a short car ride took me to the starting point of the trail—a loose gravel-and-mud affair with an ominous signboard announcing the name. Dressed in protective gear, I listened to the instructor’s cautionary speech about the dangers lurking ahead, how to avoid them, and instances of fatal accidents that occur nonetheless. More psyched than dissuaded, I set out, tailing the tour leader in a single file. Once I started pedalling, I lost height quickly—around 11,500 feet within a stretch of 50 kilometres. Even without pushing, I frequently hit speeds of 30 kmph, as my hands and wrists mimicked every jolt and undulation through the violently vibrating frame of the cycle. For all my bravado, there was no denying the truth of the instructor’s words. It was a tricky and risky descent on a single-lane road without much barricading, and I was skidding, bouncing, and tackling hairpin bends on unsteady wheels. At a sharp S-bend, my concentration lapsed and I was forced to brake hard. I turnedto see my rear wheel halfway over the edge, inches away from slipping right off! Through the rest of the route, I prayed that I would make it without having to take the shortcut—a majestic 2,000-foot free fall into the Bolivian rainforests.

At the end of Death Road, I found myself in Yolosa, a humid village on the edge of the forest, from where a bus took me and my cycle back to La Paz. At Yolosa, you can check out local activities, like zip lining across a river or visiting the Senda Verde Wildlife Sanctuary. Death Road cyclists only get an abridged tour of the sanctuary, but volunteers from all over the world come to stay here—observing, feeding and caring for the animals. The zip line will take you 1,500 metres across a valley over Amazonian rainforests, gathering enough momentum to reach a speed of 80 kmph.

Bolivia 2

Chollita on Calle Jaen, one of the colourful colonial cobbled streets of La Paz, offers an aesthetic high matched only by the adrenaline rush of its surrounding activities. Photo by: Matthew Williams-Ellis/robertharding/Getty Images

If you love a good, edgy climb, start by climbing Huayna Potosi, one of Bolivia’s highest mountains, which also provides the city its picture-perfect backdrop. The almost 20,000-foot-high peak is popular among mountaineers and trekkers, but also accessible to beginners. The climb starts at the Zongo Pass and the first phase takes you to the base camp (16,830 feet), known variously as the High Camp or Campo Argento. This takes about four hours and is followed by the real ascent to the summit, which takes anything between five and seven hours of trekking across snow, ice walls, and glacial cracks. While mountaineers complete the journey in about 10 hours, average Joes take two days from the Zongo Pass to the summit and back. From the top, the views of La Paz, Lake Titicaca, the Cordillera Real mountains and the Altiplano—a high plateau between the eastern and western chains of the Andes—are what one might call Instagram-worthy.

For me, the next stop was Uyuni, a tourist town where I found myself amid strikingly white salt flats that are a hot favourite with travellers scouting for some fantastic illusionary photographs. Such is the pull of Salar de Uyuni, crowned the world’s largest salt flat for covering a breathtaking 10,000 square kiloemtres, that there are step-by-step photography guides on the Internet, explaining how to make the most of its visual majesty. The town itself is small, with little to do except hire a four-wheel ride and hit the flats.

I chose a two-day drive that started with a trip to the train cemetery, Cemiterio de Trens, followed by a stop at the local market and the Incahuasi Cactus Island. Then came the salt flats—flat, pearly land in every direction as far as the eyes can see, with only a few craggy mountains and cacti scattered around. The vehicles, loaded with tourists and their supplies, followed the tyre tracks made by ones before them.

Bolivia 3

The panoramic view of La Paz, Lake Titicaca and the high Andean plateau of Altiplano from the summit of HuaynaPotosí mountain is well worth the taxing ascent from Zongo Pass. Photo by: Mark Chivers/robertharding/robertharding/Getty Images

On the first day I wandered aimlessly, taking pictures, playing with the endless depth that the brilliant white of the landscape provided. My day ended at Coquesa, a village beside a brook full of flamingoes, where the main occupation is rearing llamas. Here, I witnessed one of the most colourful sunsets of my life, followed by a magical vision of the mountain sky peering down with a consortium of the brightest stars.

I was staying in one of the local houses at the base of the dormant Tunupa volcano, which one can climb after buying a ticket. The hike to the top appeared easy but turned out to be moderately difficult. Even with the sun beating down hard, it was a rewarding trek—the closer I got to the mouth of the volcano, the more fascinated I was.

The historic city of Sucre, about nine hours from Tunupa, is an ideal final spot. The first capital of Bolivia, it was founded by the Spanish in the first half of the 16th century, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. If time-travel is your brand of adventure, the well-preserved architecture of Sucre will thrill you more than any extreme sport. I chose to end my golden run by catching a football match at The Red Lion English Pub, one of Sucre’s many English watering holes.

Essentials

Getting There and Around

There are no direct flights to Bolivia’s capital city La Paz from India. Flights from Mumbai and Delhi fly to the El Alto International Airport with two or more stops and a European or Middle Eastern and South American gateway city. From the airport, private taxis taking you to the city centre are available for anything between BOB60-100/Rs580-960. It is a good idea to bargain for a steal rate.

 

Adventures ahead

A Brush with Death Road

The ‘most dangerous road in the world’ can be reached from La Paz as part of sundry conducted tours operating out of the city (BOB350-750/Rs3,365-7,220; includes transport to and from La Paz, bikes and protective gear, and one meal).

Zip it Right

For activities like zip lining at Yolosa village at the bottom of the Death Road, connect with adventure agency Zzip the Flying Fox (zzip the flying fox on Facebook).

Bolivia 4

The Death Road, infamous as ‘the most dangerous road in the world’, is a 64-kilometre dirt road running from La Paz to Coroico and is popular with thrill-seeking downhill bikers. Photo by: Tim Clayton-Corbis/Contributor/Corbis Sport/Getty Images

Climbing Huayna Potosi

Start at the Zongo Pass to tackle this grand mountain, located 25 km north of La Paz in the Cordillera Real range. You can take a cab from La Paz to Zongo Pass (2 hr; approx. BOB300/Rs2,900) or the slower and cheaper option of a bus from El Alto at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. After the climb, another early morning bus from the pass can take you back to the comfort of your room in La Paz. A convenient option is to book a tour from La Paz with a professional adventure company. Altitud 6000 Mountaineering (Altitud 6000 Mountaineering (Bolivia) on Facebook) and Andean Ascents (www.andeanascents.com) are good options.

Salt Safari  

Reach the tourist town of Uyuni by bus (regular and luxury), train, cab or flight from La Paz. To tour the salt desert of Salar de Uyuni, hire a four-wheel ride, which can cost between BOB250-1,000/Rs2,400-9,600.

Volcano Voyage

You can climb the dormant Tunupa volcano at the end of your salt flat safari, as a part of the Salar de Uyuni pacagked tours. It is best accessed from Uyuni or Tupiza. The 4×4 vehicles, part of the packaged tour, are good transport options.

  • Shrenik Avlani is a newsroom veteran on a break from full-time work since 2012. He uses his newfound freedom to travel, get fit and undertakes odd jobs, including writing, to pay his credit card bills on time.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?