Taking the “Death Road” to the Edge of the Bolivian Jungle – Ryan Wilson

Taking the “Death Road” to the Edge of the Bolivian Jungle
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson

Coming into Bolivia, it’s hard to know what to expect. Where Peru’s reputation is pretty much all happy people, ancient ruins, and fluffy alpacas, the stories you hear about Bolivia prior to visiting are a bit more of a mixed bag. Some are very positive, but one thing repeated pretty often (other than how bad the food is) is that outsiders aren’t quite as popular with the locals. Rather than the welcome party you get in nearly every village in the Peruvian Andes when you roll in on two wheels, the Boliviano response is a bit more tepid… At least that’s the reputation.

Either way, for one reason or another, many cyclists riding through South America simply race across the altiplano, check out the salt flats, and get to Chile as soon as humanly possible. For me though, the diversity of the Bolivian landscape and the opportunity to traverse rarely visited roads and trails make it too intriguing to not dive a bit deeper. So, for the next few months I’ll be sharing photos and stories from a variety of Bolivian locales, starting with the Cordillera Real and a mountainous region on the edge of the Bolivian jungle known as the Yungas…

After spending the vast majority of my time in South America so far at altitudes well above 10,000ft, and clinging to the always spectacular glacial cordilleras whenever possible, I figured it was time to switch it up a bit and make my way toward somewhere a bit warmer. Starting from the mountain metropolis known as La Paz, this would lead me up and over the frigid Cordillera before plunging 11,500ft down arguably the most infamous road in the world, known as “El Camino de la Muerte” or the “Death Road”.

Of course, probably the most “eventful” night of the entire trip so far happened before I ever even hit the famed stretch of road… When a calm evening camping in the Cordillera Real quickly morphed into an apocalyptic wind storm, sandblasting my tent with any kind of debris it could pick up from the ground nearby. In the process, constantly ripping out my tent stakes and moving me a good 15 feet over the course of the night. With no shelter from the wind nearby, I was left to simply spend the night bracing the tent walls until the wind calmed down.

7am… 8am… 9am… Sadly, that time never came. It just got worse and worse, to the point where I couldn’t even keep the tent from collapsing onto me with my arms and legs adding support from the inside… I’ve been through a hurricane before back when I lived in Florida, and this felt something like that except it was a cool 10 degrees below freezing outside, and I wasn’t in my cozy college apartment.

Eventually I decided I had to do anything to get of this damn mountain, so I balled up my tent as good as one can with everything in it still and just went running down the hillside, hoping to find something— anything to block enough wind to let me pack everything up. Of course, aimlessly running around a rocky mountainside with an ultralight tent filled with about 30 pounds of gear is NOT a fantastic idea, so before I knew it, I looked down and saw stuff pouring onto the ground and getting swept away with the wind… (RIP down booties). Sure enough, there was now a giant hole in the bottom of the tent.

After about a mile and a half of scrambling around and yelling my full vocabulary of obscenities at the earth, I found a small shack that blocked just enough wind to get everything sorted. My eyes were sore from a total lack of sleep along with a couple hours of squinting through dust and snow squalls, plus I was seriously dreading the thought of really assessing the damages to find out what else may have disappeared into the windy abyss out of my tent’s new trap door. Luckily, an impending descent of more than two vertical miles has a way of boosting your spirits pretty quickly, so these thoughts were pushed to the back of my brain before I knew it.

To be honest, when I first arrived in La Paz and saw the seemingly infinite number of “DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO SURVIVE THE DEATH ROAD?!?” mountain bike tour agencies all over the place, my tourist-shit-show concerns were pretty high leading into this section of the route. The road was at one point the main passage from La Paz to the Amazon, and with sheer 2500ft cliffs, constant thick fog, unstable ground, and two-way kamikaze traffic along a single narrow lane, it claimed 200 to 300 lives on average per year. That’s what earned it the ominous nickname, and gave it notoriety as deadliest road in the world… That is, until a wide paved road was built nearby. Now it sees almost no vehicular traffic, so the danger factor is pretty much limited to inexperienced tourists shuttling down it on crappy rental bikes.

Thankfully, I somehow managed to dodge most of the tourist herds, and had the vast majority of the 65km descent all to myself. In that context, I can say that this section is absolutely not to be missed. There aren’t many places where you can go from an actively snowing mountain pass to the tropical heat and humidity of the jungle in one shot. It’s definitely one of those experiences where you finish the day and your brain can’t really comprehend where you started it.

Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/23492965

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Follow Ryan on Instagram and at his Tumblr.

  • Peter Hedman

    Bravo. Incredible.

  • Matt Karwoski

    You’ve outdone yourself this time.

  • charlesojones

    Saying it again: Please write a book, (with gobs of pics too, of course).

    • I’m hoping to once this whole trip is over!

      • AdamBike99

        That would be awesome.
        I bet you could work with Jan Heine and get it published with BQ/Compass!

  • So did the tent survive?!

    • AdamBike99

      Do tell! I am already looking forward to your next chapter in this amazing tale Ryan.
      So many great photos, as usual.
      It’s a wonder that the ski lodge store has stayed put on the edge of nothing at over 17k feet up (#9)!

      • Yeah, it’s pretty crazy! Since it’s now abandoned (the glacier disappeared so the ski resort closed), I imagine it’s only a matter of time. Eventually they may just demolish it I assume.

    • Yeah, it took a lot of tape, but I got it pretty good I think. We’ll see though, it’s been dry since that happened. The only other thing is the poles took a bit of a beating, so I’m not sure how it’s going to hold up to the heavy winds of Eastern Bolivia and Northern Chile. We’ll see!

  • Ryan

    I can’t wait for the coffee table photo book series of all your travels, with commentary.

  • Pascal K

    your posts get better and better, every damn time. always excited when a new one goes up. keep on!

  • Holy shit, what a photoset. Brilliant stuff Ryan!

  • Definitely best yet!

  • Robin Sansom

    fantasmic!

  • Ace Metric Cycles

    truly amazing. where’d you go to Uni?

    • I went to a school for Audio Engineering (sound for movies/tv/etc) called Full Sail University.

      • Ace Metric Cycles

        Had an inkling. My shop is less than 3 miles away

        • Oh cool! Sadly I didn’t (re)discover bikes until I moved to LA.

          What’s funny is probably the single most mind-blowing moment of this entire trip was when I was in a tiny village in Peru, and I ran into random 60 year old local wearing a Full Sail jacket that just made its way down here somehow. Given the size of Full Sail (at least when I went), this felt like the equivalent of seeing someone wearing a varsity jacket from my high school.
          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/203457504a8d2a482972cb5ffd099c23dcd061eb08b6f70d4f3b3b3fd87b7a16.jpg

          • Ace Metric Cycles

            Cool! The reach of that place is ever intriguing. My uncle hyped it in ’93 when I was 12yo and living in New York (watched a VHS recruiting vid). Years later, through mutual firends, I became friends with the Heaveners. Now I have many friends that are graduates/teachers. Insane coming across the logo there, I can only imagine!

          • Chris W

            Reminds me of a interesting encounter I had a few months back. I had recently moved from Canada to a very small down in Northwest Germany and happened upon a guy in a donair restaurant wearing a varsity-type jacket of a Canadian minor hockey team I used to play for. It was surreal to see so I went up and asked him where he got it. Apparently it had made its way to Romania where this gent picked it up at a flea market or something (lost in translation here).

            PS – Can I pre-order a book right now?

  • Absolutely amazing, Ryan! Thanks so much!

    • Hell yes Ryan. These photos were some of your best yet, but the story might actually be your best yet. Thanks for that.

    • Thanks dudes! (cc @disqus_g2KMtHTS0V:disqus)

  • breed007

    I pity the next person that posts a photoset on here.

  • charlesojones

    Maybe best for another thread, but I’d really like to hear your perspective/experiences with your bike and your gear after extended travel in remote locales. Likes, dislikes, changes, problems, etc.

    • I’ve been super happy with my setup so far. The only significant change I knew I wanted to make was with my sleeping pad. I’ve been through probably 4 Therm-a-rest Neo Airs over the last few years, and had similar durability issues with the first one I brought here. A bunch of leaks patched, but eventually it developed a slow mystery leak that resulted in me waking up on the (frozen) ground a few times per night for about 4 months. Bought a Sea-to-Summit Insulated mat and it has been great ever since. Can’t believe I didn’t switch sooner.

      I’ll probably do a full post on this kind of topic at some point to break everything down.

    • He’s got a post about touring with technology. Something like this? http://theradavist.com/2017/02/gearing-up-for-life-on-the-bike-camera-and-tech-ryan-wilson/

  • Funniest bus ride in my life was on this road from Coroico in the basin back up to La Paz. Wish I could go back and do it again!

    • I can only imagine. How long ago was it? Pre-dated the new paved road I’m guessing? I got chills just thinking about being in a collectivo on it.

      • Paved? Not in 2000. It’s less scary going up as you always have the inside line. There was a horror storie about groups of gringo’s try to save a buck who paid a local to drive them down and they went over the side. My travelling companion needed to pee about 20mins in. Had to keep it together for 4 hours. Passing all those waterfalls didnt help. We hiked from La Paz to Coroica over three days, and I did a back country MTB trip with Alistair from Gravity Assisted a few days later. Loved that place.

        • Ahh ok, yeah, the dirt road is all still there. They just built a paved one nearby, so pretty much no one drives on the “Death Road” anymore. It’s only maintained for tourism now.

        • aEF WEGF

          Holding on for 3hrs and 40mins despite the insane moves from the driver and pokes in the ribs + laughter from my travel companion still remains as my greatest ever physical achievement. The Shaolin monk of bladder control baby!

  • DamagedSurfer

    Wow Ryan, yet again these pics are mind-blowing. Are these features exclusive to the Radavist or do you post them at Bikepacking.com and other similar sites? I feel they deserve as much exposure as the damn campsite that almost cost you your tent.

    • Thanks! These are exclusively here. This trip would definitely not be possible without The Radavist!

    • Right now, I pay Ryan to do these posts, exclusively for the Radavist.

      • DamagedSurfer

        Very cool. I’m stoked you are sponsoring such a trip and Ryan can actually get paid for his photography and journalism. This has become my favorite story ever featured on the site so kudos to both of you.

  • Fantastic as always. As other have stated, maybe the best combo of narrative and photos yet!

  • Charlie D

    Fantastic indeed.

  • Adam Leddin

    Totally totally awesome and riveting read thanks @ryanwilson313:disqus!

  • these photos – ouuf! so nice!

  • This…… is why I love bikes and the people who ride them! Thanks so much.

  • Big Jänet Romance

    amazing stuff as usual Ryan. maybe now with the Amazon X Whole Foods sprouted almond drone drops, I too can tour places like Bolivia!

    • Haha, do you know what did it to you in Colombia? I think I’ve gotten better at picking what I eat around here (or my insides have just made friends with the parasites at this point).

  • rusty

    incredible stuff Ryan!

  • Jan Heine

    I recall driving the Death Road in 1990, when it was still full of truck traffic. Even back then, I wanted to cycle it. Realizing that it’s now almost free of traffic makes me really want to go back. Thank you for bringing us your adventure!

  • Barrett Hoover

    Fantastic stuff man. I keep thinking that you won’t be able to top yourself… and then I’m proven wrong.

  • Harvey Wood

    I didn’t think it was possible, but you’ve somehow managed to up your game with this set Ryan! Some incredible photographs here!

  • Andy Moore

    Dang, what MAJESTY!!! I do hope these images grace a gigantic coffee table book one day. I know they’d inspire a lot of dreaming at the least. Even if folks aren’t quite as willing as you to pay for those views *in person*.