Posted on March 9, 2014
The Bolivian Death Road lives large in the minds of ADV riders. It was crowned the world’s deadliest road in 1995 and the nearly two decades since hasn’t tamed the curvy unpaved beast.
When we first left the United States, riding the Bolivian Death Road aka Camino de la Muerte aka North Yungas Road wasn’t on our itinerary, but somewhere along the way Nathaniel decided he wanted to do it. Somewhere along the way he got sucked into the macho idea of riding the death road and the fact that all the other boys are doing it.
I agreed to go, with some reservations, although I wouldn’t say I was afraid. However, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to do it if I was on my own.
We woke up early in La Paz and pulled on our riding suits before heading out into the crisp morning. The start of the death road is approximately an hour ride outside of the Bolivian capital and a giant yellow sign greets you on an uneven gravel turn out just off highway three.
We parked our bikes and then walked over to a bench-sign combo that gives a brief history of Bolivia’s most infamous 60km stretch of gravel. I learned standing there that the road was constructed by prisoner’s of war, it is often foggy along the route, and that ever since it earned the title of the world’s deadliest road it has been a huge tourist attraction (especially for mountain bikers).
The sign also spells out the rules of driving the death road. Because of its form you must keep to the left hand side of the road and vehicles moving up the hill have the right of way. Accidents usually happen when two cars meet at a narrow point and the uphill vehicle must back up- tires can easily slip over the edge of the cliff.
(According to wikipedia several hundred people die on the road every year, but I think those numbers are grossly inflated.)
We couldn’t see very far down the path because of the fog drifting around and after taking the obligatory photos of the sign and the entry point we hopped back on the bikes and headed off into the mist.Since we were heading downhill we were required to ride on the outer edge of the road. There are some guardrails (which we didn’t expect) that for some reason are never in the truly scary parts.
Most of the death road was not technically difficult riding, but the idea that around any blind turn could be a truck keeps you on your toes. Thankfully, we only met one vehicle going the opposite direction and it was on a portion of road where I could safely stop and let him pass.
For us, the most memorable part of the road was the portion where you ride on very uneven wet rocks beneath several small waterfalls (getting wet) and pass a solemn grey cross marking where people have died. The section is roughly 300m long and it is a narrow piece of work with a sheer mossy rock wall on one side and a lush green cliff dropping off the other into only god knows where.
The camino de la muerte was not nearly as tough as I thought it would be and if I had to make a list of the top 5 rides of the trip so far it would be on it.
Check it out:
Posted on January 30, 2014
After Bogota it was like Willie Nelson said “on the road again”, the miles just keep coming and we are going with them. From Bogota we were headed for Tatacoa (the desert we thought we were going to with the KLR riders), but ended up passing on through (a longer story of how we got lost and would have had to cross a river on a dingy is involved, but we wont go there) and kept on the road. It went Bogota, Espinal, La Plata, Popayan, Pasto, 500+ miles of riding to get to the border and into Ecuador.
The only glitch was in looking at Google maps and not realizing that even if a road is listed as a highway it might just in fact be a dirt, rock, pothole road that stretches on for 75 miles. That was the day of riding when we went from La Plata to Popayan, at the beginning of which Alex famously said:
“I think it will be all paved today.”
The scenery of Colombia has been just amazing, but it is hard to focus on when your going ten miles an hour and getting bounced all over the place. Imagine riding on a road that is going through middle earth (J.R.R. Token’s Middle Earth), the scenery is amazing, but I don’t think those hobbits put a lot of effort into smooth roads for their wagons. The next day was an exhilarating ride through the Andes to Pasto, at some points literally riding on the side of mountains and dodging trucks trying to get to a warm bed and a hot meal (because a warm shower is a little to much to hope for).
The next morning it was up early and off to the border, with a stop on the way at Las Lajas, where there is a cathedral built into the side of a mountain over a river. I had seen pictures before we got there, however the site impresses regardless the way few sites really do compared to photos.
As we pulled up to the parking lot, I saw another KLR with a trailer and the driver approached me before I even made it into a slot. The pilot is a Norwegian named Jørgen who is planning to ride to the tip of South America by the end of the year. He bought the KLR in Colombia, it had been in the country way beyond the allowed time and so he was heading to the border as well, with a plan to just drive across and then walk back and get a stamp before heading to Ecuador (the plan worked by the way).
After this is was time for lunch (cuy, which is a large guinea pig) and then off to another border crossing and our 11th country of the trip!
We made it to a little town called Otavalo, which was rumored to have a massive market on Saturdays. As we cruised into town it was apparent the rumors were true, as almost every street in the centro had stalls selling everything from bracelets and textiles, to food and spices. We high-tailed it to a hostel and then headed out to the markets to see what we could find.
The market covers most of the downtown, with the main square having many stalls that are stationary and then tons of tarps thrown up to create many nomad stalls. We spent the majority of the day watching all the gringos shopping and haggling with the vendors. While the market does cover a tremendous amount of space, most of the wears start to blur together without a tremendous amount of variety if you aren’t interested in textiles of some sort.
In the evening we met up with Jørgen who had made it to Otavalo and ended up having a meal of delicious street food: tamales, empanads, meat kebabs, and a hot strawberry drink to help fight off the chill at such a high altitude. A couple hours of good conversation with a fellow traveler before it was time to hit the sack for another riding day.The morning came and we rode at of Otavalo, headed to the middle of the earth (literally). There is a monument just north of Quito (elevation 9,350 ft) that marks Latitude 0, the exact center of the world, where you can stand in the northern and southern hemispheres simultaneously. The monument itself isn’t really impressive, and they have tried to do a good job of adding other attractions to keep peoples interests, but I wasn’t too worried about recouping the stiff $3.00 entrance fee.
What really struck Alex and I was that we had ridden from California to the center of the world. It marked a milestone in the trip and we were happy that we had done it together (without killing each other…yet). There are still miles to go and adventures to be had, but for the rest of the day we basked in accomplishment, now officially in the southern hemisphere.
Posted on December 7, 2013
Yesterday we planned to have breakfast in a cute town just outside Tegucigalpa Honduras and then make our way to a small town near the Nicaraguan border so we could cross early today. However, the gods of the Autopista had their own plans and although it wasn’t the worst possible day of riding it was probably the most dangerous day of riding we’ve had so far on this trip.We set off through the gridlock traffic of Tegucigalpa from our hotel and the only thing that made it bearable was that the sun hadn’t had the chance to bring the city to a simmer yet. Creeping along the one way streets it took us longer to go two miles than it did the next eight once we had escaped the city limits.
Santa Lucia (our goal for breakfast) is an adorable little town in the mountains just outside of “Tegus.” The town built into the green sloping landscape has a clean pond in the middle of it, a town square not much bigger than a basketball court, and a simple white church with a hilltop view of the valley that holds Tegucigalpa.
Unfortunately for us cuteness sometimes comes with cobblestones, which are murder to ride a bike on in Latin America. The stones are huge (typically much bigger than European cobblestones) so if one stone or a series of them have become seriously tilted it can throw your bike around. We finally found the correct cobblestone road out of Santa Lucia heading towards the hills and the rock quickly faded to a hard packed dirt road winding up and up and up.
Every once in a while we would pass a small grouping of houses or a few lonely chickens back-lit by amazing views. Dark green smallish mountains with fields and clouds and sunshine.
It was turning out to be a perfect ride, but around mile 20 there were some really deep indentations in the road from where water runs over the ground in rainstorms. I made it over them and kicked my bike down into first or second gear so that I could ride really slow till Nathaniel showed up again in my mirrors. As I was watching my mirrors I wasn’t paying much attention to where I was going and almost as soon as I saw Nathaniel appear in my mirror I felt my back tire start to slide out from under me in the gravel and I went down.
I clearly wasn’t hurt as you can see in the video and it only took us a second to get the bike back up, however once we did it wouldn’t start. At first I thought maybe the bike had flooded because some gas has started leaking out of it when it was on its side, but after letting the bike sit for several minutes and trying again that was clearly not the case. We decided the only way we were going to be able to get the bike moving again would be to try and roll start it down the hill.
In the process of pushing my bike up the hill and maneuvering it into position for our second attempt at a roll start, Nathaniel noticed that the back tire of his bike was going flat. When I couldn’t get my bike to roll start Nathaniel tried and got it running, which was awesome, however I was supposed to try and follow him slowly up the hill on his bike. When I threw my leg over it I realized his tire wasn’t just going flat – it was a pancake.
We spent probably an hour trying to fix Nathaniel’s tire, first using the goo we had and then plugs from a tire repair kit, neither of which were keeping air in the tire at first. We ran out of our compressed air and then I started asking people passing by if they had anything to inflate tires with in their vehicle.
I hailed a tuk-tuk driver over and asked him if he had one (assuming those little tires must have a lot of problems on these roads) and his passenger became very concerned for Nathaniel and I. We talked for several minutes about where a mechanic might be and how to get the tire inflated. The passenger ended up paying the tuk-tuk driver to take the boy he had been riding with back to their home and the tuk-tuk driver would then bring back something to inflate the tire with as he waited with us to make sure we were okay.
The man that stayed with us was incredibly nice. He was probably in his mid 50’s to early 60’s and he told us that although the area we were in was safe he wanted to make sure visitors to his country were taken care of. Although it’s not something that lives in our minds everyday, it’s worth mentioning Honduras is one of the most murderous countries in the world. It usually places in the top three in any given year above places like Uganda, Malawi, and the Congo.
The tuk-tuk driver returned in about 20 minutes and told us that after he filled Nathaniel’s tire we should follow him to a tire repair shop. He filled the tire from a hand pump and our friend that waited with us used pieces of plant alongside the road to stuff into the hole created by the nail Nathaniel had run over. I started up the road on Nathaniel’s bike after the tuk-tuk as Nathaniel roll started my bike and came after us.Up through the hills we went till at last we hit asphalt again and the tuk-tuk led us to a tire repair shop. They dealt with Nathaniel’s tire quickly and the mechanic eventually came to the decision that my battery was bad. As I type this from our hotel it’s nearly midnight and I will have to wait till morning to figure out what is really going on with it.
The men at the shop charged us $15 for their help and jumped my bike with one of their cars before Nathaniel and I headed off into the night. We avoid riding at night because the roads here are sprinkled with nasty potholes and a lack of ambient light makes them a lot darker then in the US.
Getting back to Tegucigalpa was the worst 15 miles of riding we’ve had on the entire trip. With low visibility in the dark we couldn’t ride fast enough to keep our face shields from fogging and because it was raining they were also covered in water droplets so anytime we met oncoming traffic light would catch in the droplets on my face mask totally blinding me.
It took us a really long time to get back to the hotel we’ve been staying at in Tegucigalpa. Until we got back to the city center I was in a constant cycle of opening my face shield to vent it, wiping the water off it, flipping my mask up and squinting into the rain when cars came, flipping the face shield back down, praying during the moments I was totally blind on the road that I wouldn’t hit a pothole. Plus, I always worried that if I stalled the bike we’d be stuck along a dark rainy road in the middle of Honduras, without a way to start it again.
We’re now back in the same hotel we spend the last three nights and hope to figure out what is wrong with the bike today.
Posted on October 31, 2013
What kept me motivated in the 11 hour ride from Guadalajara to Huamantla was that I knew once we arrived we’d have nothing to worry about. We’d be able to roll the motorcycles into a locked patio, a comfy full size bed heaped with blankets would be ready for us and my Aunt Sylvia would feed us something hot and delicious before we crawled into it.
These expectations were fully met when we rolled into town an hour or so after dark and after parking our motorcycles we were whisked off to my Uncle Andres and Aunty Sylvia’s home to be fed and make plans for the few days we would be in town.My Mom was really awesome to organize a pig feed for the family (with help from my cousin Cesar) and so the next day and half was spent doing little errands around town preparing for it.The biggest errand however was picking up the pig and having it butchered 24 hours before the party. (Nathaniel declined to watch the slaughter of the pig.)
As the time for the party approached on Tuesday things got busy around the house and then relatives started to trickle in… and they kept coming for hours. I think Nathaniel had to say ‘Mucho Gusto’ at least 100 times so it’s a good thing I made it one of the phrases he learned before we left California.
By the end of the night the 103 lb. pig was more or less gone and most people left in some state of dizzying food coma brought on by copious amounts of fried pork, tortillas, candy, rice, refrescos and beer.
During the party several of my relatives asked to take photos with Nathaniel (and by relatives I mean young females). I thought it was hilarious and Nathaniel fully embraced his role at the family gathering as ‘el güerro’.
My Spanish got the biggest work out of the trip (even tougher than dealing with immigration) as a bro-mance began to form between Cesar and Nathaniel. They used me to make jokes at each other back and forth for days and I told them I was glad they couldn’t directly talk to each other because then we would all be in trouble.After a few days of puttering around Huamantla and visiting my Grandmother’s grave we finally had to leave yesterday morning and push onward (to Oaxaca). In true Mexican fashion we had a contingent of people saying goodbye to us at 7:30 in the morning and a car carrying my Mom, Cesar, Uncle Andres and other cousin Mavy drove with us for the first 10 miles and said goodbye to us on the edge of the carretera.
Although we did a lot of family stuff I was really glad Nathaniel got to experience Huamantla and meet all the people he’s heard me talk so much about. It was fun yet exhausting and now we are looking forward to some low key adventures surrounding day of the dead.
For all you motorcyclists out there – the drive from Puebla to Oaxaca city is about 5 hours long and the last 2-3 hours are gorgeous well paved and wide mountain roads.
***Note: Nathaniel would like me to add a footnote that he does not agree with me using the photo of the pig slaughter in this post and he is afraid of it offending our viewership.
Posted on October 14, 2013
Something Nathaniel and I quickly realized on the Baja Peninsula is that it takes you twice as long to get anywhere as you would expect.
We’ve ridden about 500 miles in the past two days and they’ve been a long two days. Mex 1 runs through the center of a ton of small towns and they’ve constructed speed bumps and s-turns to keep trucks and tourist from blowing through at 70 mph.
Overall the asphalt has been wonderful and other than a few towns doing road construction a regular cruiser bike would be able to make the trip.
I’m sorry for the small number of photos on the blog thus far.
At the moment we are focused on making a boat in La Paz on the 15th which is why we haven’t had much time to stop and smell the tortillas.
We literally got up at 6:30am today – were driving by 8am and didn’t stop for the night till 4:30. Other than a quick taco/gas stop in Guerro Negro it was all riding. 250 some odd miles of gorgeous desert, rolling hills and a roaring engine.
There was this beautiful sweeping turn on the way to Guerro Negro and as I came half way around it I saw a flock of vultures eating something just on the side of the road.
They started to rise up into the air as I barreled down on them and I didn’t have time to stop. Realizing how disastrous hitting an animal the size of a vulture could be I may have yelled inside my helmet.
I let go of the throttle and flattened myself on my gas tank praying that extra foot of space was enough to go underneath them. It was – but it was a close call that left me rattled for a few minutes.
Today we leave Santa Rosalia and hope to get more than half way to La Paz.