Death as a tourist attraction

By Published On: April 1, 2005Categories: Travel3 Comments on Death as a tourist attraction

[Please note, if you are reading this and you are my mother, it might be best to skip to the next article]

Pull together a group of random gringo travellers, and you can be sure that within a few minutes, they will be indulging in a competitive game of traveller experiences.

"I went to this remote village in the jungle, right, where they had never seen white people before and I had to live off fried grasshoppers for four days." "Wow, well that reminds me of when I climbed this 6000 metre peak that takes four weeks to get to by donkey and I climbed it without any ropes, wearing flip-flops and near the top slipped and just avoided falling down a vast crevasse."

Tour agencies play along with this game advertising "the tallest peak", "the most remote jungle trek," the "scariest rafting trip." In La Paz, the big tourist attraction is death. On every corner, you can see a sign advertising a cycle ride "down the most dangerous road in the world."

They aren’t exaggerating. The cycle ride takes you down a treacherous road from La Paz to Coroico with a steep descent of 3000 metres in 35 kilometres on which an average 100 people die every year. The Inter American Development Bank officially named it the "most dangerous road in the world" and are currently funding the building of an alternative route.

Well, I somehow managed to avoid peer pressure when it came to smoking as a teenager, but after hearing the twentieth story of someone’s "wicked awesome trip" down the road, I sadly succumbed. So at 8am on Wednesday, I was winding my way up out of La Paz in brilliant sunlight, in a van full of Israeli tourists, to a wintry summit 4700 metres above sea level.

After an admittedly very good safety briefing and lots of checks on our bikes, we were hurtling down a good asphalt road with steep mountains, some illuminated by early morning sunshine, others obscured by clouds that rushed up towards us through our bike spokes.

Then after 30 kilometres, we turned a corner to find a track that looked like a donkey trail clinging to the side of a cliff. Dense cloud hid a staggering drop of almost 1000 metres to the left. It was hard to take in that this muddy track is a key thoroughfare carrying traffic both ways between the altiplano and the tropical lowlands.

I strangely didn’t feel afraid, as I whizzed down the track, my wheels bouncing off rocks, my hands shuddering as I clinged tightly to the handlebars and brakes, wheels skidding as we hit steep curves with towering rocks on one-side and sheer drop on the other.

Instead, I felt a surge of adrenalin, that somehow even overcame seeing a crumpled lorry way down below the road as we started to descend below the clouds.  And I even had time to take in the awe-inspiring views across precipitous mountains cloaked with dense green tropical vegetation and to revel in cycling through waterfalls that splashed down from big heights onto the road.

Occasionally, we would stop near the edge as two lorries would defy gravity and inch past each other on the track, their thick tyres hovering near a crumbling cliff edge.

Juddering and racing on down, we were stripping off layers as the altiplano winds were replaced by steamy tropical heat and the damp rocky road turned to a thin dust that penetrated everything.

All too soon, we had reached a scrubby town at the bottom of the valley full of lorries belching fumes and street stalls with the omnipresent coke signs.

My dust-covered body was humming with pleasure that lasted a much-needed shower and food. It was undoubtedly an "awesome, wicked" experience. But after coming down, I must admit the thrills are tinged with uncertainty like a strange aftertaste in the mouth. There is something strange about a desire to indulge in an experience largely based on the morbid fact that others (often people making an essential unavoidable journey) have lost their lives doing the same.

This contradictory mixture of emotions was captured for me half way down the mountain road. We had stopped at the side of the road, waiting for others to catch up.  Looking up I could see sunlight catching on a waterfall as it splashed down on the road. I was with three Israelis, laughing and buzzing from the adrenaline. They seemed strangely blind to a small rock on the side of the road that was engraved with writing in their native language hebrew. It was a gravestone, put up by parents of a young 23 year-old Israeli girl who had skidded with her bike over the cliff edge three years earlier.



  1. MB April 2, 2005 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Cool story. I hope you had fun.

  2. Laura April 6, 2005 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Glad you didn’t die. So are you an adrenalin junkie now?

  3. Francis April 10, 2005 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Your mother has read this and is now lying in a fit of vapours at my feet. What do you suggest I do?
    Glad you arrived in one piece at the bottom. And the scenery, from your photos, is dramatic to a degree. Reminds us of Madeira – but that is probably tame by comparison with Bolivia.
    We’ll send news separately. Love from anxious but admiring parents.

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