February 2016

Camino de La Muerte

I had already texted my friends and family informing them that unfortunately I would not be returning home, and that I would always love them despite being dead at the bottom of a deep, dark valley in Bolivia.

By: Charles Conchie
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Cornwall - United Kingdom


Ride a bike and follow the stony road
Photo: Olivia Wittman

As a man whose knees begin to buckle looking down the stairs, the prospect of cycling ‘the Road of Death’ was not an exciting one. I pictured myself hurtling down the gravel road toward the first corner, forgetting to turn in a moment of panic and flying off the edge to my death; or perhaps a pack of bloodthirsty alpacas would smell my fear from the mountains and pounce on me as I pathetically wobbled my way down. Regardless of how it came about, death seemed a certainty. If local men, with intricate knowledge of the North Yungas Road, had been claimed by it, what chance did a nervous little chap from England stand of surviving its hundred-meter drops? Well, believe it or not, I am not writing this from beyond the grave and I did in fact make it to the bottom in more-or-less one piece, save for a few minor scratches. It was not an experience I enjoyed at all, but that is not to say I would not recommend it. I am able to look back on it and see why some people may enjoy it; I have had a very nice time looking through the photos I took during it for instance, but if you talked to me as I was taking them, I would have told you fairly sharply to leave me alone and stand at least three meters away!


Paved road
Photo: Olivia Wittman

The first section of our cycle started in a snowy car park beside a lake in the mountains of the Yungas territory, about an hour and a half north of La Paz. This initial hour is wonderfully lacking in sharp drops and the road swoops down into a wide and long valley, flanked on either side by snowcapped mountains that descend into yellow brush-land at the base. At this stage of the ride we were still above the heavy clouds that descended later; the views were long and clear from the top of the valley where one could watch the road wind its way out of sight some ten kilometers away. Not only was this stretch of road relatively innocuous, I was shocked to the point of nearly crashing when I realized I was actually rather enjoying myself. It was an hour of smooth freewheeling on friendly asphalt as the road remains straight enough in long stretches for one to look up and enjoy the surroundings; I even cycled one-handed for a few seconds to show the other tourists that the Camino de la Muerte was no match for Charlie Conchie. Although it may seem ridiculous, I believe that after descending the later section of the road, you too will feel yourself referring to asphalt as ‘friendly’ for the first time in your life.


Keep pedalling!
Photo: Olivia Wittman

We stopped at around half past ten to have a breakfast in a small village perched on the side of the valley. I was then forced to sit down for ten minutes to come to terms with the shock of not dying yet. Perhaps the ‘Road of Death’ was just a nickname devised to tempt in tourists and make them feel as if they have achieved some amazing feat? No, I was horribly wrong unfortunately - my poor Spanish had meant that I missed the point at which the guide had explained that the proper ‘Camino de la Muerte’ does not start until the second hour of the ride so in other words, we had achieved nothing. We were bundled back into our car and driven for half an hour whilst I watched helplessly as the terrain became progressively bumpier and the cliffs progressively more terrifying. By the time we got out of the car I had already texted my friends and family informing them that unfortunately I would not be returning home, and that I would always love them despite being dead at the bottom of a deep, dark valley in Bolivia.


Enjoying the Yungas views
Photo: Olivia Wittman

The road was rough gravel throughout, and after ten minutes of slamming down on my handlebars whilst simultaneously holding on to them for dear life, I was in agony. Only three hours to go. Presumably the only reason some people enjoy heights is for the view you enjoy from the top of them, but as if to deliberately ensure my misery, a thick layer of mist prevented us from seeing anything further than ten meters away. Therefore, riding on the rough gravel meant my vision was locked on the ground immediately in front of my tire, and during the few breaks we had for food and water, a thick and stifling fog prevented any of the breathtaking vistas we were promised.

It was not an experience I enjoyed at all, but that is not to say I would not recommend it. I am able to look back on it and see why some people may enjoy it; looking back on the experience I can definitely say that it was a rewarding one (nothing is quite as satisfying as doing something you really did not ever want to do)

I am however being incredibly pessimistic in this description. Looking back on the experience, I can definitely say that it was a rewarding one (nothing is quite as satisfying as doing something you really never wanted to do). I will admit that when the thick mist did disperse during the last hour, I had come to terms with the height of the road and the agony of my hands, and I stopped every so often and looked across the wide, jungled valleys, thinking to myself, just once or twice, ‘This isn’t actually that 100% awful.’


We stopped at around half past ten to have a break.
Photo: Olivia Wittman

For those of you who, like me, feel dizzy beyond heights of three meters, I cannot promise you will enjoy yourself. In fact, I can fairly confidently say you will not enjoy yourself. But you will look back on it with a belly full of a complimentary buffet lunch and feel incredibly satisfied with what you have done.

The Importance of Trust
From the very beginning of our lives, we learn to trust our families. It is a vital stepping stone for building trust. We learn that we must trust that our family is always looking out for us and has our best interests at heart. If anything, I would say not trusting your family to begin with and dealing with the consequences leads to a greater trust.
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