My First Time on Horseback and Mountain Biking Through the Road of Death in Bolivia

Let’s go back to the most adventurous moments of my time in Bolivia: Horseback riding through the altiplanos in Tupiza and Mountain Biking through the Road of Death.

This story is set in 2014 during my first South American trip, in a town called Tupiza in Bolivia, close to the border with Argentina. Famous for its red canyons, which resemble those in Arizona, its environs are characterized by dramatic red escarpments which jut ruggedly skyward from the rough, gray terrain. Green agricultural land adjacent to the Tupiza River provides a welcome respite from the otherwise arid, thorny surroundings. The town itself looks like an old wild-west town, you really don’t feel like you are in Bolivia at all. Even though the city is located at a high altitude, the landscape is uniquely filled with red rocks and canyons.

Beautiful town, straight out of a wild-west scene.

Tupiza is accessible via bus from Villazón from the south (near Argentina and Tarija) and Potosí from the north, as well as via the north-south train, which serves the mining settlements and runs the same route. From Tupiza, various towns in the local mining districts are accessible, as is the Salar de Uyuni, but I’ll tell you more about these attractions and locations on another post.

I arrived and stayed a couple of days in Tupiza, and from there began the legendary Salar de Uyuni tour, which was four days straight of navigating through the altiplanos and the high desert all the way to to the salt lakes of Bolivia. It should be noted that this is the world’s largest salt flat, at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi), which is roughly 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States.

The path seemed simple enough at first.

Let’s begin with my first time on horseback. It was quite the riveting ordeal, so much so, I still remember this time of my life quite vividly. It was a thrilling experience, and since then, I have ridden horses many times, including after my Heureka conference in Georgia two years ago. However, it was this adventure in Bolivia that has made me have much respect for horses and their immense power.

When I arrived in Tupiza, I booked the horseback tour with a guide, and there was an Israeli girl who also booked the trip with me, she was quite the experienced rider; needless to say I was not. To make things more interesting, I ended up getting quite the peculiar horse. I still remember his name, Lucky.

This is Lucky, my first horse. He enjoys long walks through the desert and making pit stops for snacks every few meters.

He was quite odd, and his identifying trait was that he always wanted to eat. Again, at this time, I wasn’t knowledgeable or experienced around horses. So it was a challenge that my horse didn’t want to do what I wanted him to do, he just wanted to eat. Every 5 meters, it went straight to the side of the road to munch on bushes. This happened throughout the whole horseback ride. Keep in mind that at the time, I didn’t have the proficiency or the skills to handle the horse correctly so we just did what he wanted to do.

This was my whole time with Lucky, I wanted to go somewhere, and he preferred to eat – a constant struggle for power, which I ultimately lost. It really took me a while to get used to being on a horse and being able to direct it more-or-less. Despite the battle to manage Lucky, we rode through the beautiful landscape of big red rocks and unique stone formations. I don’t remember too much of the scenery, but here are some pictures from the trip!

 

Lots of interesting moments during this excursion.

What I do remember is that at one point we had to cross the river, and my horse sat in the water, in a swamp-like area, going under until the water covered most its body – I got soaked.

A bit later, the guide made the horses gallop a little faster, which the Israeli girl was happy about – she could finally get some speed with her horse. I, on the other hand, was actually quite glad to go slow and didn’t really want my horse to go any faster. But my horse was basically following them, and there was nothing I could do. In reality, it wasn’t going super fast, but I still was having trouble staying on the saddle at that speed and didn’t want to push it. I was happy the sprints were only lasting about 15-20 seconds, and then we were back to a slower trot. I should note these short sprints were excellent preparation for what was to come.

So, after a full morning of riding (we had been riding for about 4 hours), we stopped to take a break for some lunch and to visit some sights, take pictures of the beautiful landscape and visit stone formations – the normal tourist things. After the break we began our journey home, and this is when it happened…

This is Lucky playing nice before things get a lot more hectic!

We were riding calmly along with the path home; we had a river on the right side, and on the left side, there was the forest. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a pack of 10+ dogs came running from the forest, barking really loud (these were not small dogs either), so naturally, I got a bit scared, and my horse did too. At this point, Lucky completely lost its mind and broke into a furious gallop going as fast as it could to run away, with me on the saddle unwillingly going for the ride.

These were probably the three longest minutes of my life. I really thought I was going to die on this horse. I mean, Lucky was running like crazy, easily doing 60 km/h. I should note that since then, I have never ridden a horse as fast as this first time on Lucky. It was running and running for at least 3-4 minutes at full speed, all the while I was having a tough time staying on the saddle.

My guide even made a few attempts to try and stop us, but Lucky was just too fast. We ended up leaving the Israeli girl and the guide far behind (they managed to control their horses), Lucky and I, on the other hand, just ran and ran and ran. It was an arduous task for me to stay on the saddle, I was flying up and down in complete disarray.

By this point, I was definitely in panic-mode, trying hard to hold on to the reins on the saddle trying to stay on the horses back. I tried, to no avail, to stop my horse, but he really didn’t hear or follow any of my orders.

The sights were really unique and unlike anything I had ever seen before.

To my luck, I had the hungriest horse in the world… and thankfully, he couldn’t eat and gallop at the same time. So he decided to stop on his own accord to grab a snack at a bush nearby. Of course, I took this opportunity to jump off immediately in a controlled and safe manner. When I got off, my hands were blue from holding on to the saddle so tight, I was just glad I didn’t fall off.

After I got off, I just waited for our guide and the girl to find us. It actually took them about 10 minutes to catch up with me since Lucky had galloped so fast and for quite some time. After the ordeal, I didn’t want to go back on the horse; I had had enough. So, to continue home, I just guided him by the reins as we walked back to the starting point, which thankfully wasn’t far, only about a half-hour walk. By the time we got back to where we had started, I was done with the horse and was just happy to be alive.

I mean, imagine it, this was my very first time on a horse, and it galloped so, so fast. I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden a horse, if you have, you’ll probably laugh, but for me, it was quite a scary first equine experience. Nonetheless, I am proud to say it wasn’t my last time on horseback.

Since then, I’ve ridden horses in Georgia and many other countries… but it was this first ride that made me have much respect for horses and their power. I should note it’s not an activity I do voluntarily; I only do it when it’s necessary or if it’s a really cool excursion, with an excellent guide, and especially if it’s a good and obedient horse.

This horseback excursion is pretty much the most vibrant memory I have from Tupiza, and it marked the beginning of my Salar de Uyuni tour, which I’ll tell you more about in another post.

Despite the stress of my first horseback ride, these will be memories I’ll always remember.

Now, let’s talk about the other adrenaline-inducing experience I had while in Bolivia: mountain biking on the Yungas Road, also known as the Road of Death.

The Yungas Road is a cycle route about 60 km long, which links the city of La Paz and the Yungas region of Bolivia. It draws about 25,000 tourists per year and is a major tourist attraction of La Paz. Many tour operators cater to downhill mountain biking, providing information, guides, transport, and equipment.

The road is considered dangerous because of its steep slopes, single narrow track, lack of guardrails, and usually rainy and foggy conditions; for these reasons, it has the nickname “Road of Death”. Unlike in the rest of the country, traffic on this road drives on the left-hand side, which allows the driver to better asses the distance of their outer wheel from the edge of the way.

This road has massive cliff drops to the side, basically, if you go off the way, you’ll fall several hundred meters, which means you’re pretty much guaranteed to die. Other forms of transport, like buses, make the route up and down, and sometimes the driver will make a mistake, and the bus will end up tumbling down the cliff. There are also tourist deaths, not only from cyclists (which often ride on this road) but also silly tourists who want to take a selfie by the cliff and end up falling to their death.

Things like this still happen quite a lot, even though an alternative new route was built during a 20-year period ending in 2006. The modernization included enlarging the carriageway from one to two lanes, asphalt paving, bridges, drainage, guardrails, and the building of a new section between Chusquipata and Yolosa, bypassing the most dangerous parts of the original road. However, the old road is still used by adventure companies to mountain bike downhill. Which is quite a thrilling experience, I know first hand!

This is the perfect segway to tell you about my mountain biking experience on this road. During my visit to Bolivia, I was with a couple of people, and we decided to take the mountain-bike ride down the Road of Death.

This is the only photo evidence I have of this thrilling and daring experience.

The excursion started by taking a bus up the road, and at the top we prepared for the trip by getting into our suits and other protective gear, hoping that if we fell, it wouldn’t be too bad. We started biking on the new road, a little later there was an exit that branched off onto the Road of Death. This stretch doesn’t actually lead to La Paz, it leads to a town that is famous for its monkey reserve, there is even a hostel built in the trees with lots of monkeys around… Sadly, I didn’t make it there, after the excursion was over I just took the bus back to La Paz. But yeah, I still had to manage most of the Road of Death, which was actually quite fun.

Once the paved road ended, we began to go down the unpaved stretch, and as I said before, its quite narrow, not even 3 meters wide at some points, quite scary as you can imagine. Let me put it this way, if you drive too much to the left or loose control while there is a car coming, you won’t be able to stop, and you will likely fall 300-400 meters (maybe even more) off the side of the cliff. With this in mind, I decided to keep the speeding to a minimum and go down very relaxed.

In fact, the horse in Tupiza was much faster than me on this road. I still had moments where I went with a fair bit of speed, but mostly, I managed to enjoy the scenery and take some pictures of the landscape, which was quite lovely.

However, at one point, I wasn’t able to control the bike and fell, but I didn’t get hurt too badly. I was lucky not to fall off the cliff, and actually, at the point where I fell down we were already quite close to the end of the journey. We still had to go down a couple of meters, but it wasn’t like having to go down for hundreds of meters. So I chose to fall at a spot that wasn’t so dangerous, where the street was a bit broader and less scary, but still, I fell on the Road of Death and survived to tell this story!

I should mention that for most of our trajectory, we were going downhill in the haze. The stretch of the road we covered was around 4,000 meters in altitude, and it goes to this jungle town, which is down at about 2,500 meters, so we covered 2,000 meters in elevation in approximately 1 hour of riding. I was going at cruising speed, but other people on the excursion were going down speeding like crazy. Thankfully, everyone survived, and nothing terrible happened, although I thought for sure some people would not make, just from the way they were riding.

So, these were the two adrenaline-inducing excursions I had in Bolivia. This was the same trip where I saw the mines, the prison in La Paz (which you could still visit back then), and my incredible journey through the Salar de Uyuni, but I’ll tell you more about Bolivia and those stories on another post!

From Tupiza, to the altiplanos and El Salar de Uyuni.