That time we saw women beat up men and cycled the world’s most dangerous road.
Where? La Paz, Bolivia.
When? August 2018.
With whom? Martin.
I’d like to clarify with the title that the girl on girl action was a completely separate event to Death Road. We spent 3 full days in La Paz, and whilst we could still find things to fill our time, we felt like this was a good amount. It’s a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains. Some of our favourite views see the city filled with buildings ranging from cemetery shelves to corrugated iron huts to skyscrapers, framed by a majestic snowcapped peak.
There are two main markets to explore; one for normal shopping and the other is the witches market, selling souvenirs for whatever voodoo you want to try at home. The nightlife in La Paz is very interesting, and if we ever meet in person you should definitely ask me about this.
One evening we jumped on a cable car up to the top of the red line for 3 BOB, so cheap because the initiative was introduced to cut emissions, so it had to be cheaper than the local bus and it has the added bonus of no traffic. At the top is a mirador giving you spectacular views of the city for all your tourist needs. Around the corner from here is a big green house that looks out of place with its grandeur, colour and its size.
We walked in to be greeted with artwork that was worth big money, and then into the next room which had a wrestling ring. All the chairs were facing the empty ring as tourists found a spot to take a seat with the free popcorn. Eye of the tiger played on repeat as we waited for the show to start.
Cholita wrestling is now a choreographed show put on for tourists, but it grew out of an intriguing history. Back in the day, before Bolivia had laws against killing women, a group of them decided that they would show the men of their community that they were equally tough and so invited the men to take them on at wrestling. Then the women would kick some ass. Nowadays, you can only become a cholita if you inherit the title through blood, although you can opt out.
A strange show then ensued as two teenaged girls struggled to get into ring in their high heels and revealing outfits to perform a wiggle to warm up the crowd. The first round of the show was between two men, one dressed in a police stripper outfit, and another playing the bad boy character. Their moves involved somersaults, hair grabbing, and coca cola spitting. If you sit in the front row, you are definitely in the splash zone, as we found out.
We saw women wrestling women with a biased ref who was another character in the show. The whole thing was painfully amateur but oddly compelling. Martin and I would often catch each other’s eye and giggle at how poorly executed the moves were, but it was a brilliant evening all the same. If we weren’t so hungover then beer would have made it a smashing night.
The following day was our mountain biking day down Death Road. La Paz is famed for this road which weaves its way through the mountains and is so dangerous that over 100 people per year died on this road due to its narrow nature against 450 metre cliff edges and innumerable vehicles hurtling around its sharp corners. Recently, another road was built allowing the trucks a preferable tarmacked route, making Death Road safer with only 3 people dying on it each year. Some genius spied a gap in the market and set up tourist companies that take groups of fearless morons on bikes down this infamous road.
Enter Koren and Martin. There are a few tour companies that take you on a day trip to Death Road, the main ones are Gravity, Barracuda, Altitude and Ride On. All of them offer pretty much the same itinerary but the prices differ hugely. We chose Ride On because it was the cheapest and the only one to include breakfast, and it had motocross helmets which enclose your face, thereby providing more protection if you fall and hit your face. The BMX helmets that Gravity provided might warrant a trip to the dentist if you fall off your bike, which isn’t hugely unlikely on this road. The final tipping point towards Ride On was the smaller group sizes it offers.
The first part of the road is tarmacked and completely downhill. It gave us some great opportunities to pick up some speed. Unfortunately for me, weight is your friend if you want to go fast. Being the littlest of the group (and of most groups), I found myself going slower than my heavier counterparts which frustrated me hugely. At our first break, I asked our guide, Cello, how I could make myself go faster and he showed me the best sitting position for speed. It worked.
This part was a warm up for the dirt track that followed but allowed us to soak up the epic views of the valley with the meandering road weaving its way out of sight.
Once we got to the most dangerous part of Death Road, we were on a very rocky and gravelly path about the width of a small car, cycling through waterfalls that invaded the path. Sheer drops off the edge of the road gave some group members vertigo, and to highlight that this activity is no joke, Cello made a point of showing us the remnants of previous accidents where a bus or car had taken out all of the foliage down the cliff.
This did not stop us from riding like twats. Martin and I would wait for the group to go ahead so that we could pick up some real speed. I would deliberately pedal as hard as I could s to accelerate towards a sharp bend so that I could enjoy the skid over the slippery rocks, and we’d deliberately aim for the biggest rocks protruding from the road so that we’d catch some air going over them. I almost fell off twice with these antics and Martin did fall off but this did not deter us.
My favourite stretch was just after the waterfalls when my chain came off. It got caught on another cog of the bike so Martin and I took a fair amount of time to fix it while the rest of the group went ahead. This was our opportunity to hammer it, and we did. We overtook so many people from other groups, and it felt like we were constantly shouting “on your left” or “on your right” as we zoomed past with a cackle, baiting each other with who could keep in first place. I love having someone to do reckless things with but Martin and I are a very bad influence on each other.
Most tour companies do a long flat-ish stretch to end their ride, but our guide gave us the option of taking a steeper and therefore shorter route. This sounded way more fun, so we took him up on this offer.
At the end of our day we were given our survivor tee shirts which were included in the package, bought ourselves a beer from a local family who had some lying around, and drove to a hotel with a pool and an all you can eat buffet lunch. As you can imagine, we ate a lot.
Info: There are 30 plus biking companies that do this tour but given the danger of it, it’s a good idea to use a reputable one of the four that I listed earlier; Gravity, Altitude, Barracuda and Ride On. I can wholeheartedly recommend Ride On. The team of two guides and a driver went above and beyond for our group and our main guide was such a laugh. He knew what he was doing and helped us all out and he even taught me Spanish swear words. On the way back to La Paz he asked whether we wanted to stop to buy an ice cream, another snack, a drink, cocaine.. Our Swiss friend made a comment about being in front of the police, the response: *shrug* “This is Bolovia”. We were picked up from our host at 7.30am and dropped back at 8pm. The route is 64km long and starts from 4900m asl and goes down to 1000m asl. Ride On provided us with windproof jackets, helmets, sports jerseys, hefty trousers, knee and elbow pads, and of course the bikes.
I stayed in Loki hostel, which was fantastic. Staff were friendly and helpful and the beds were very wide and comfortable. The WiFi was even pretty good! On the 7th floor, there is an activity every night in the bar. We had a heavy involvement with flip cup during games night. Loki is a chain, I know there is one in Cusco as I stayed there in 2012 as had a great time there too.
Product of the week: it has to be Ride On. They were such a good tour company and this has been one of my favourite days!
Tip of the week: Trust the bike. Riding like a twat like I did is not compulsory nor sensible. It is called Death Road for a reason, and people die cycling it and more are injured. Slamming the brakes on isn’t always the answer though. It’s important to trust that the mountain bike can handle the rocks and uneven path. Often braking hard will cause more damage than good.