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Near Death on Bolivia’s Death Road

Death on Death Road 2 
Death Road, Bolivia

“I can stitch up your chin if you want,” the young woman told me as she pressed yet another alcohol-soaked cloth onto my bleeding face. A monkey peered at me from the window. I could hear the cries of exotic birds. My clothes were still covered in mud, and everything hurt.

“Have you…” I struggled to find the right words; I didn’t want to offend her or seem impolite. “Have you ever stitched a human face before?”

 ***

 The day started at a cafe in La Paz, where I met my guide and my fellow cyclists. There were six of us in all: me, an older Australian man and his wife (who would not be cycling), a lovely Irish couple I had also gone to Machu Picchu with, and a horribly obnoxious American I had met at Lake Titicaca. Our guide was a young Canadian, and he had been doing the tours of Death Road for a month.

 Death Road (formal name: the North Yungas Road) is almost a rite of passage for backpackers in South America; thousands of tourists cycle the dangerous road every year. Built in the 1930s, it connects La Paz with the Amazon rainforest in the north. The section nicknamed Death Road is a 69-kilometre (43-mile) mostly-downhill stretch of harrowing turns and 600-metre (1830-foot) drops. There are no guardrails, and the road is often the width of one lane. And yet, here I was, being fitted for my kneepads and helmet.

 I love adventure; I’ll scuba dive and bungee jump and like to think that I’ll try anything once. Death Road was just another thing to try; I actually didn’t give it much thought. 19 people have died cycling on that road, but for the thousands of people who successfully manage every year, I thought that number was quite low. Besides, my guide claimed, “Every accident is the fault of the cyclist.” People died when they tried to take photos while cycling, or by acting irresponsibly. I was taking this seriously.

 Right away I felt uneasy when we were given our helmets; we had driven for about an hour outside of La Paz, and had a long stretch of relatively safe cycling to start. I say relatively because this part was at least paved, although huge trucks were still whizzing by us, and there were plenty of times where injury and accident could occur. I had assumed that we would be given a full-face helmet as the pamphlet showed, but my guide told us that we would definitely regret that choice, as it was difficult to breathe in these helmets, and we would get very hot (though he did have a few in the van). As it was raining, he said that visibility would be low. Trusting him, and yet not listening to my gut, I took a regular bike helmet. He also informed us that we would not have wrist guards or uniforms, just an orange vest. I looked around at the other groups preparing to cycle; I had paid more, and yet there they were, full-face helmets, full-body uniforms, and given both knee-pads and wrist-guards. I didn’t like it. What was I to do, though? I had already paid in full, I was at the start of the road, and I considered myself a fairly experienced mountain biker. We set off.

 The first part was fun, despite the trucks. We stopped for a quick sandwich and got back in the van to drive to the real road, the start of the unpaved bit. By now it was raining heavily, and the fog made it so that we could only see about five metres into the distance. But one often feels invincible when faced with adventure. Out of the 100-odd people who cycle Death Road every day, one has an accident resulting in injury. With those odds, it couldn’t possibly be me, right?

Death on Death Road 3

When the fog lifted, it was indeed fun – we were going quite fast, but I trusted my bike and I trusted my instincts. I didn’t brake heavily or worry too much about the huge cliffs to my left; I just let the natural groove take over. There were puddles everywhere, and huge stones, but I felt I was doing well and navigating easily. We stopped often, and there were absolutely incredible views of the countryside. For something named Death Road, it was lush and full of life, with sweeping landscapes of green mountains.

Death on Death Road 4

Just past the halfway mark, it happened. I have replayed the incident over and over again in my head, but it never gets any clearer. It was raining, and the road was wet; the big rocks were now slick with water. All I can assume is that I went over one of these rocks the wrong way, and my tire twisted to the right. I simply lost control of the bike. Because of my biking experience, I knew not to brake (which would fling me over the handlebars) but I still ended up crashing to the ground at a speed of about 30 kilometres an hour. That doesn’t seem that fast, of course, but I crashed face-first onto a road comprised solely of gravel, pebbles, and stones. I get little snippets of the impact, freeze-framed shots of being in the air, of hitting my face, and then of sitting up, stunned, as the cyclists behind raced up to see if I was OK. I am so thankful that my wheel went right and not left, which would have sent me toward the cliff’s edge. I don’t even want to think about that scenario.

 The first thing I remember saying is, “My teeth.” I have recurring nightmares of losing and/or smashing all of my teeth out, and I’ve long thought that breaking a tooth while travelling would be such a terrible ordeal (well, terrible anywhere, but especially terrible in a country not known for dental care). I then remember not being able to see. This was because blood was pouring from my right eyebrow into my eye – I had sliced it open exactly along the brow. My chin was also aching, but I was mostly in shock.

Everyone immediately sprung into action, and when the van pulled up (it was following us the whole way) they sat me in it and assessed my injuries. I could still move everything, but I knew that something was definitely wrong with my right wrist, elbow, and knee, and that my face was cut open. Most embarrassing to me was that I couldn’t stop crying – even when I was trying to calmly talk about what hurt or what I wanted, I couldn’t stop the tears. I have never really been in an accident like that, so I suppose that was my way of dealing with the shock. I was trembling like a leaf.

Death Road Accident

Thankfully, Irish Kellie, who is a nurse, knew exactly what to do, and bandaged me up. The bandages on my face didn’t last long, and had to be replaced every few minutes: eventually we removed them, and I had to sit in the van applying pressure while everyone else continued on the tour.

Sitting in the van, I began to worry. I couldn’t close my hand into a fist, and my face was still bleeding profusely. We were hours and hours away from La Paz and the nearest hospital. I knew that I would be fine, but I have never felt so far from home and the people that I love. I tried to stay in good humour, though, and joked around a lot. I even asked to cycle the last few kilometres, but my guide wouldn’t let me. We eventually made our way to an animal sanctuary, where everyone else would eat and I would be looked at by the animal doctor. From there, we would head back to La Paz, though that was nearly a three hour journey.

 The veterinarian cleaned me up as best she could, and gave me some painkillers. As my face was still bleeding, she offered to stitch me, but I decided to wait until La Paz, opting for butterfly stitches instead (when the skin is pulled together on either side of the wound and taped).

 The ride back to La Paz was horrible; I was put on a van with a different group, as they were leaving earlier than mine. It took what seemed like ages to get back to La Paz, and the van first had to drop everyone off at their respective hostels before taking me to the hospital. As everyone had started drinking at the start of the return home, the van was soon filled with very loud and very drunk backpackers – not an ideal situation for a sad and bleeding person moping in the back. Had I not been injured, I’m sure I would have joined in the revelry, but at that moment, I just felt miserable. The only solace was that their guide, an Australian who had been doing the tours for two years, was really helpful, even coming to the hospital with me and making sure I was in good hands.

 The hospital in La Paz was very clean, and the nurses and doctors extremely kind and gentle. After many assessments, the verdict came in: sprained wrist, sprained elbow, and a hairline fracture of the jaw. At that point, seven hours after the accident, I was barely bleeding, so they taped up my wounds on my face instead of stitching me, though I probably should have received stitches. They also wanted to put my arm in a cast for one month, but I chose a sling and elastic bandages instead; as I was travelling on my own at that point, there was no way I could be in a cast and expect to lift my backpack.

Death on Death Road 5
After the accident (Kellie switched to a full-face helmet after my blunder)
 
All in all, the first week was the worst. My chin was oozing all sorts of weird liquids, and I was worried about scarring. My arm hurt, and my leg was throbbing; I couldn’t sit still for long, or sit on buses without extreme discomfort. There was a weird bonus to being injured, though: I became something of a legend in the La Paz hostel circuit at the time, and people came up to me saying things like, “Are you that girl who fell on Death Road?” I have never been hit on more in my life, I’ll tell you. Men were constantly asking me if I needed anything, or if they could protect me in the bar. Even though I had to drink the beers they bought me with a straw, I took all of the pity and pampering I could get.
 Death on Death Road 1
Hairline fracture of the jaw and I still manage a photo with my mouth open
 

My injuries eventually healed, and the scarring wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I bought Vitamin E oil and rubbed it on my chin every day, so today I am left with a fairly minor reminder of the accident on Death Road (a scar weirdly shaped like a cross, though I refuse to take that as any sort of sign from a higher power. Still waiting to see Jesus appear on my toast to make it official). Since I have been graced with Peter Gallagher-esque eyebrows, the scar is hidden there, too. Fittingly, I have always said that the number one trait I look for in a romantic partner is a facial scar, so I guess karma caught up with me.

The only lasting effect I have from the accident is the pain in my knee. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I actually tore my MCL in the accident; I didn’t discover this until returning to Canada and visiting a physiotherapist. It finally made sense why I was in so much pain, and why even walking for longer than half an hour made my knee ache. With exercise and stretches, I’m slowly strengthening that muscle again.

At the end of the day, I didn’t die (sorry for the misleading title, but “Minor Injuries That Never Actually Threatened My Life But Definitely Bruised My Ego On Bolivia’s Death Road” just didn’t have the same ring to it). I’m left with a traumatic story, but I can tell it with humour and humility. Would I still recommend Death Road? Sure, if you like adventure. I wouldn’t change much about that day, although I would have insisted on better protection. I went with a company called Gravity Assisted Biking, but after hearing reviews of Altitude, Barracuda, and others, I wish I had gone with another company.

My guide had said at the beginning of the day, “Every accident is the fault of the cyclist.” Do I believe I did something wrong that day last October? No, I don’t. It was raining, I was going fast, there were rocks everywhere, and I was riding downhill on something nicknamed DEATH ROAD. Sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes, though, that shit makes for the best stories.

Death on Death Road
Congratulations, you survived the world’s most dangerous road. Kind of. 
 
Have you ever been in an accident while travelling? Have you ever cycled Death Road? If you haven’t, would you?
 
 

 

50 Responses to Near Death on Bolivia’s Death Road

  1. Manda August 5, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    You’re very last picture made me die laughing! Oh the irony. I cycled the death road last October as well with it looks like the same company you did (I could tell by your lovely orange attire), and amazingly our tour of 20 made it out without any injuries, but then again we didn’t have rain. At least you fell into the gravel instead of of the cliff, because that would have been awful… to say the least. I admit there was quite a few times I “broke the rules” and cycled on the right side because I know how clumsy I am. And clumsiness + very steep cliffs is a bad recipe. Glad you weren’t hurt worse, and at least you have a great story to go along with it!

    • This Battered Suitcase August 7, 2013 at 3:10 am #

      I wish we hadn’t had the rain! It made things so much more difficult/dangerous. Thank you for your comment, I’m glad that your group made it to the end with no mishaps!

  2. Megan C. Stroup August 5, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

    So glad you are okay! If I ever do this, I will definitely research my companies and go with one you recommended. 🙂 I’m also impressed you didn’t let the mishap ruin your trip – way to work it, girl! 😉

  3. Jessie August 5, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

    I broke my wrist in an auto rickshaw accident in India. It was a bizarre and sort of scary experience going to the hospital there, and I now have a large scar on my arm, but overall I feel very lucky as things could have been much worse – my wrist healed just fine!

    Plus, I guess travel scars come with cool stories! 😉

  4. Rika August 6, 2013 at 12:51 am #

    Wow, what a story Brenna!! Glad you ended up being (mostly) okay…what a trooper. I haven’t had any major accidents while traveling. Although tearing around on roads with people who don’t give a shit, and through the jungle to my house on my scooter is probably dialing up the odds daily here on Roatan 🙂

  5. Angge August 6, 2013 at 2:30 am #

    I’m so glad you’re doing okay now, especially your knee. But it’s amazing how you handled this accident – with humour and positive attitude. Although it’s unfortunate what with your injuries and trauma, I’ve always admired people who’d do ‘challenging’ activities just so they could experience a place fully. And despite the discomfort after, you still have an amazing story to tell. And thanks for sharing them to us! I’ve had a number of small scars as well from traveling, mostly from biking lol(biking on sand in Bagan,Burma and while getting distracted by friendly kids in Cambodia) But hey, we’ve got great stories to tell. 🙂

    • This Battered Suitcase August 7, 2013 at 3:11 am #

      You’re right, we all have stories to tell…and it’s best to just look back and try to laugh! Thank you for your support.

  6. an-american-abroad.com August 6, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    You are such an incredible storyteller, Brenna. It’s why I am constantly heading back to your blog, and this post is no exception. Thank you for sharing this scary and honest account. I’m very glad to hear you’re ok!

  7. Alyssa James August 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Hey Brenna,

    You’re such a trooper! I think just reading your account of it is enough for me…as far as facing death, I think I’d rather live vicariously through fellow travel bloggers. 🙂

    Yours in Travel,

    Alyssa

  8. Christine August 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky to be alive! I would be too terrified to do this!

  9. Jay August 7, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    Ouch. I think I read the majority of this post with a grimace.

    There is nothing worse than medical issues (let alone emergencies) in foreign countries and while I’m not one to get homesick, those are the days that I am.

  10. katiesplate.com August 17, 2013 at 1:01 am #

    Oh man, that is crazy! I’ve never had an injury on the road (knock on wood), but as soon as I get sick it’s usually accompanied by a little bout of homesickness, so I can only imagine how you felt after this fall. I just discovered your blog and am loving the travel stories — good luck with the MCL recovery!

    • Brenna Holeman August 18, 2013 at 5:13 am #

      Thank you, Katie! Hopefully you’ll never have to experience an injury.

  11. Jaaw August 20, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    WOW you are so much braver than I would ever, ever be! Travel scar stories..earlier this year while living abroad in South Korea I woke up deathly ill…long story short I had to have 60 cm’s of my bowel immediately removed and spent 2 grueling weeks in hospital in Seoul, giving me a nice 6 inch scar down my belly button! Travel scars for the win? haha.

    • Brenna August 20, 2013 at 4:22 am #

      Um, holy crap. That is intense! I’m so glad that you were in a country like South Korea with fairly adequate health care. Travel scars for the win indeed!

  12. Hank Miller August 30, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    That’s the travel spirit. Ovation to your bravery !!

    • Brenna September 3, 2013 at 12:11 am #

      Thank you!

  13. Nina October 16, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

    Hey, I’m so glad you were ok after your fall and that you didn’t fall the other side which could have sent you over the cliff! I’m heading out to Bolivia in December and my husband wants to do that cycle but I’m pretty petrified about it as I am so clumsy and not the best on a bike! Is it really dangerous and how long does it take as I don’t ride that often so don’t want to end up still trying to get to the bottom at nightfall, now that really would be dangerous! We’ll done to you though for doing it! 🙂

    • Brenna October 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      I’m not going to lie – if you’re not comfortable on a bike I probably wouldn’t recommend Death Road. You need to absolutely trust yourself and your biking abilities. It is indeed quite dangerous, as people fall all the time; one person per day has a fairly serious accident (I was unfortunately the person on my day). While I was in La Paz I heard countless other stories. It is mostly downhill, so it takes a few hours. The entire thing takes the whole day, though, as it is outside of La Paz.

      If you are nervous on a bike and don’t ride often, I would not suggest doing Death Road. It is steep, rocky, bumpy, and yes, there’s a drop of 400 metres the entire time to your left.

  14. Syd November 11, 2013 at 3:38 am #

    But hey, you got a pretty great story out of it!

    I race mountain bikes and I agree, there is NOTHING worse than landing on your face. Knocked out two teeth, ripped up my gums and dislocated my jaw in 2011…….That said, can’t wait to try the Death Road (and the mountain biking in Sorata) when I make it to Bolivia. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use my own equipment though. The tour companies seem sketchy!

    In other news, I’m new to the travel blogosphere and just discovered your blog–so much fun! You have a great voice 🙂

  15. Ernesto November 28, 2013 at 2:29 am #

    Soy argentino. Hice la ruta de la muerte en marzo 2013 en camioneta, nunca en mi vida sentí tanto pánico. Hoy sólo se hace en bicicleta o moto, pero yo me mandé con la camioneta. Sólo en automotor o camioneta se siente emoción dado que tu vida corre serio riesgo, un pequeño error y te vas al fondo del precipicio. Sentía vértigo de mirar abajo, la calzada angosta, entra un sólo vehículo, gracias a Dios no crucé un sólo auto en sentido contrario al mío, llegué a Coroico pálido. Cientos de cruces tapizan el camino recordando a los muertos. El piso es muy resbaloso. En un momento dudé si no convenía volver hacia atrás pero tampoco había forma de cambiar la dirección. Fue un flash. Cerca de Coroico se ven los cultivos de Coca y las cholas secando hojas. Viajé desde Buenos Aires a La Paz con mi camioneta exclusivamente para hacer la ruta de la muerte. Una vez en Coroico seguí hasta Trinidad, en plena amazonia boliviana, por caminos intransitables y lugares inhóspitos. Hermoso país Bolivia.

  16. Glamourous Traveller December 10, 2013 at 3:29 am #

    My bf did the exact same road and had very similar accident. He was thrown of his bike when the suspension essentially collapsed (he’s a very good biker) and he was thrown close to the cliff edge.

    The worst part was, I was on the other side of the world and was wondering why I didn’t hear from him for a day or two. I remember reading his message to me saying “Please don’t worry, I got into a bike accident on the death road…”

    Needless to say, I am happy and glad that you came out (relatively) well. Don’t know if I would ever give it a try knowing two accidents “first hand”

    • Brenna Holeman December 10, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

      Oh no! That’s terrible. It’s always awful to get into an accident, but it seems even worse when it’s away from home. I can only imagine how worried you would have been…

  17. Jono Cusack July 10, 2014 at 10:43 pm #

    Just came across your blog as I was doing some research for an article on Death Road.

    Yeah, I can sympathise, three weeks I came off twice on Death Road. Second time left me with a broken leg in three places and four screws to hold it back together. Still, as you said, could have been much worse, we could have fallen to the left instead of the right!

    • Brenna Holeman July 10, 2014 at 11:09 pm #

      Oh wow, that is far worse than what happened to me! I’m so sorry that you had that accident but yes, it could have been far worse. I hope that you have recovered now!

  18. Aidan July 15, 2014 at 12:29 am #

    Sorry to hear about your accident, though it brought a lot of memories flooding back!

    I too had an injury on Death Road, only 4 months ago. I ended up with a fractured and dislocated wrist, which needed surgery and three pins inserted! I can definitely empathise with you. Fortunately I can look back (watch the video which captured it!) and laugh.

    Aidan

    • Brenna Holeman July 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

      It seems like there are so many accidents on Death Road… and yet tourists (including you and me) keep doing it!

  19. Frank August 5, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Wow, that really sucks – sorry to see that happened to you!

    Given how dangerous the Death Road can be on a regular day without terrible weather is seems that your tour company definitely didn’t equip your group right. My operator gave us the full gear, I thought I was in a race car outfit!

    That being said, it’s pretty easy to take a spill on that road, I almost went off the road into some trees at one point!

    • Brenna Holeman August 5, 2014 at 8:39 pm #

      Yes, I really believe that wearing a full-face helmet should be a requirement. You’re right, though, it is so easy to slip or get into an accident!

      Thanks for your comment…

    • Jono Cusack August 7, 2014 at 9:03 pm #

      I can’t believe that do it at all, really!

  20. Hannah Wasielewski September 17, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    I just recently went down the death road too. Although I didn’t have nearly as traumatic of an experience as you did, I thought it was really scary. The huge cliffs were just getting to me and I ended up finishing in dead last place. I used Altitude and liked it, but there were like 35 people in my group and the bikes weren’t in very good condition. This one guy’s front breaks didn’t work and he flew off his bike while his bike fell about 10 feet down the cliff before getting caught in a tree. I had heard that Gravity had better bikes and that’s why it costs more, but Altitude did have full face helmets for everyone! All I know is that was a one time experience, I won’t be doing that again.

    • Brenna Holeman September 17, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

      Wow, that’s scary. I honestly don’t know which company to recommend… only that everyone should be as careful as possible and really research the company they want to use!

  21. Dani Blanchette September 10, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

    This story is great. I love you how still recommend it for anyone who wants an adventure. I have yet to visit Bolivia or Death road but it’s on my list. I’m mostly worried about finding a bike small enough for me, that I can control (adult bikes are too big, I need a little kids BMX bike).

    But then of course, I have to worry about me trying to do silly tricks on a BMX bike. Because I like that stuff. 🙂

    Glad you’re ok and yes, this is an awesome travel mishap tale!

    • Brenna Holeman September 11, 2015 at 11:57 am #

      Thank you so much, Dani! Really glad you liked the post. Yes, I still recommend it and I would even consider doing it again (though with a different company). I’m sure you could find a company that has a bike in your size!

  22. Justdream March 20, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

    Glad you are ok !
    Hope I could be brave like you, you did a great job..

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