Death Road, Bolivia – a story of survival

​There we were, climbing to the peak of the mountain at 4800 metres in preparation for the exhilarating descent. The oxygen deprivation was slowly becoming visible as some of us panted for air at every word, others talked and walked slower to avoid exhaustion and some stopped every few steps to try and take a deep breath. We had been told never to try taking deep breaths in such thin air, but it’s the natural reaction. As we arrived we saw the two wheeled instruments laid out according to height, suits and helmets in front of them and most importantly a picnic of tea, bread and jam. We tucked into the marvellous feast before getting dressed and finding our allocated bicycles. We tried and tested them, looked at breaks, re adjusted seats and looked down at the long road that we were about to face. 56 km of road, downhill winding routes, meeting with other vehicles, waterfalls, narrow paths and cliffs so steep but beautiful that plunging to your death was not even a thought as we admired the breath taking views.

We straddled the two wheeled speed machines, posed for a few photos as we were poised and prepared for the descent. The guide started 10 metres in front of us. And off we went. The first section of road is smooth tarmac for 20 km which allowed us to reach speeds of nearly 50 km per hour on the bikes. The wind swept past each of us as we practically flew down the mountains. We didn’t show any signs of slowing down, not even for curves. It was seemless, it felt like we could go on forever on that road. Some of us howled in excitement, taking some of the paths with jumps, screaming in ecstasy, the adrenaline urging us to go faster and faster. It was freedom. At this point all the fear swept away. No one cared if they fell off the mountain, the only thing that mattered was the velocity that we could reach as we continued down the mountain.

The effortless ride soon gave way to the gravel path. The mountain bikes were more than prepared, good suspension and responsive breaks. However, the riders were tricked. We were comfortable on our tarmac descent only to be met by huge stones, landslides and a whole 36 km of road that made each of us sound like red Indians ahh-ing and tapping our mouths at the same time for effect. Our wrists soon began to ache with the continuous impact and struggle to break on the slippery gravel. The previous night’s storm began to show its remains, huge puddles, muddy paths, and all of us looked like we had an untimely accident on the bikes as the brown slime dripped from the top of our backs to the wheels of the bikes. We were not discouraged. This was going to be the most scenic part. We rode on.

Some of us started feeling aches on previous injuries, dislocated shoulders, bad knees, weak backs and broken coccyx, everything slowly but surely started to twinge as the suspension seemed to do little each time to ease the pain. Many couldn’t get up for long periods of time on the bike any longer. Others kept hitting big rocks which swerved the bikes slightly. Yet we were determined, all damned if we were to give up now so close to the end and so close to the buffet lunch and swimming pool we were promised at the start of this adventure. We continued, riding through waterfalls, getting absolutely drenched and dry within instants. We took each corner carefully this time, as the unpredictable nature of the road made us all slow down in pace. The last 10 km or so were flat, forcing us to pedal after all the hard work downhill. It was picturesque, sunny and the lush green mountains covered the path that was once upon a time brought death to many cyclists. Up until 2014 an average of 300 a year used to die on bikes and larger road vehicles. We paid our respects as we calmly made our way to the final stop. Exhausted and completely overwhelmed by the ride we stopped. We survived. We were death road survivors. 3 to 4 hours of cycling later and we were stood looking back at our challenge, a challenge we had overcome with sweat and what looked like shit on our backs. We did it.

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Woah, this is a very different post to what I have written before, and even if you didn’t like it I enjoyed it thoroghly. Combining my love of travel and writing into a creative piece was quite fun.

I have to say, some advice as always: if you are not a confident cyclist this could be quite tasking and at points intimidating. So do your research and watch some videos and see some photos.

Finally, if you are but still want to try it, hell just do it!

Lastly, this is from personal experience, if you had a case of travel tummy and the runs the night before, either be sure you can control yourself and are hydrated enough for it, or don’t do it. I was so determined to finish it that even feeling like death on death road (ha!) I still carried on.

Home Stay in Lake Titikaka

Towards the end of our travel time in Peru, we were gifted with the opportunity to integrate ourselves in the day to day life of the Aymara culture.
After visiting some of the floating islands, of which you will read later, we arrived at our home for the evening and were greeted by our host families. We then had a game of football against the locals which we lost and blamed entirely on the fits of hyperventilation caused by the altitude. We then put on our best traditional outfits to be taught and guided through a dance.

At the end of the day we followed our mother, Lucy, to her home where we had a wonderful dinner and helped clean the dishes. The room was simple but perfect for both of us and we had a restful night in preparation for the following day.

We were encouraged and excited to participate in the mundane tasks of the family, delving into their day to day lives. We helped feed the pigs and sheep, prepare breakfast and wash dishes as well as the laborious task of seiving through barley seeds. The experience was truly wonderful and enlightening as we learned about how this culture continues to live in the most simple way. 

I admire their plain lives, dedictated to the day to day and what the earth can offer them. I must say, I did appreciate the beauty in the simplicity and how it must be peaceful to live like this. On the other hand, I was also able to gain even more appreciation for my own life, as I have the opportunity to dedicate my time and part of my life to a career I am passionate about and in many ways, the things I think are basic items have suddenly become luxuries that I am incredibly grateful for. I am in awe of Lucy, who runs her house, farms her land, cares for her family and still finds the time to host us ignorant and bothersome travellers in many ways. Yet she does it all with such patience and grace. What an incredible woman. She made me realise that although that is not the life for me, there are many things that I can take from it and apply to my daily life. I feel that overall the experience has influenced me to search for constant improvement in my daily home life. It seems all the little things can positively impact on your routine.

I would encourage you all to really delve into your home stays, even if they are short there is always something you can take from it.

St Catalina Convent – Arequipa

I know what you’re thinking, another convent, another bible bashing building, preaching to the end of your tether that you should follow the light. How wrong could I be. Convinced that my time here would be like all other convents I have visited across Europe, I bit my tongue back not to look bored or sound furious at the ridiculousness of it all only to be shocked and surprised by my misjudgement.

St Catalina Convent in Arequipa really is a must in your travel time in Peru let me tell you. Firstly it is architecturally beautiful. Built around a church of the same name, the convent feels almost like a city within walls that has been built for a small community. It boasts the best of Colonial influence, from bright colours, high ceilings and sufficient space for families to live comfortably. The facilities are clean and their irrigation system genius. They bring water from the mountains through a series of canals to the convent and re-direct it back to the river, guaranteeing that their crops flourished and homes had plenty of water for consumption.

The convent has divided its facilities so that young members, refugees and sisters all have separate quarters. This in itself is an innovative concept as most are of shared facilities. However, this is not the only thing it is renowned for. St Catalina offered women of the 16th century and onwards an opportunity to truly control their finances, household and lives.

Women of wealth would move here and bring their great dowaries which would fund their home and life. They could then care for a family under their household or their slaves, giving them prosperous lives. They were allowed to build businesses which helped them control their finances without the opinion or meddling of any man. Finally the convent educated woman to be autonomous, and those who were raised here had the chance to leave but would be welcome open heartedly should they choose to return. The convent was seen as a major economical advantage to the city and contributed greatly to the growth of Arequipa.

The convent really was a haven and community which gave many women the chance for independence.