A short distance from La Paz is a road to Corioco. It’s known by many names – the North Yungas Road being its official title, but World’s Most Dangerous Road or Camino de la muerte – The Death Road are also thrown around. Technically there’s a road in Iraq which has more deaths, but those are mostly due to IEDs and shootings as there’s, you know, a war going on.
4750m up, on a bike, preparing to ride the Death Road. Not your average Saturday.
This road however had an average of 100 motor fatalities a year, as vehicles (or bicycles) leaving the 60km or so of narrow, winding road plummet several hundred vertical metres in a most definitely one-way trip. Built by Paraguayan war prisoners, their standard of work was lacking somewhat; leaving a one-lane mostly gravel road with the occasional waterfall, slip or rock keeping it interesting.
The goggles, they do nothing!
None of this was particularly comforting to any of us (least of all Andrew; not a fan of heights it turns out!) as our group met in La Paz early morning. We’d been kitted out for bikes and gear the previous afternoon, making sure our front and rear brakes were the right way around (different for Americans, and getting those confused at the critical moment could end tragically up here).
Oh good the fog has lifted. Argh! bring it back, bring it back!
At the top of the road our bus of 12 stopped and we had our briefing. It consisted of a lot of ‘don’t look down, don’t hit the front brakes first, don’t look down, don’t race too fast, don’t look down, and listen to everything we say, and don’t look down’. It occured to me that aside from the brief cycle in Mendoza on Mr Hugo’s wine tour, I’d not been on a mountain bike in years. A quick test cycle around the bus quickly proved to me that cycling at 4750m above sea level is exhausting. Briefings over, we headed to the first paved part of the road and started downhill.
At first this seemed quite good. There was thick fog, meaning you couldn’t see down the sides of the cliffs. The downside of this, however, is that we we also realised this meant you couldn’t see the giant trucks coming out of the fog ahead towards you.
We had a guide at the front and a guide at the back. One had been commissioned by a game company to take 600 photos of the road for a future racing game – so he knew it like the back of his hand. The other worked for the UN 5 days a week, and did this on Saturdays ‘for the relaxation’. So at least we knew we were in good hands.
A sobering reminder
Short segments initially kept the group together, with each stop giving us a chance to catch our breath, and find out about the next segment. And after the first segment, I was feeling more confident – this was certainly doable, and actually quite fun! On to the second segment, a steep downhill part with hairpin bends. I’d resolved to keeping within range of the front riders, and gave chase immediately. I’ve not been so fast on a bike in my life, and the feeling as I overtook a semi, looking into the cab was quite something. This was awesome!
The camera is deceptive, those are surely faces of bravery
All too quickly however, it became real as we paused at the end of the segment, to notice one English girl was nowhere to be seen. After a few minutes she and the back guide came slowly crawling in. Coming down the steep slope she’d hit the front brake first and too hard, “superman-ing” over the handle-bars and skidding along on part of her face and elbows. To her credit – as it must have been hurting like crazy, she had continued cycling on determinedly.
There’s a stretch of 8km of uphill after the paved part. Our guide suggested so strongly that he bordered on insisting that we put our bikes on the truck, rather than try to ride it. Unaminously we agreed, and were glad to do so after we saw two cyclists from another company attempting it – and struggling hard. Even the slightest exertion is felt at this altitude, and a serious uphill would have been difficult at sea level, near impossible here.
The drugs checkpoint
After this you enter the national park, where a search for drogas might occur, given the abundance of drugs that Bolivia is known for. It didn’t, and the guards waved us on after we paid the park entry. Now came the serious part, the gravel road. I started off down the segment, and immediately the grating began. The shaking, sliding, rocking as the bike hit the stones, jostled on the worn tracks and cracks formed and slipped on the sand. I had no idea how I was going to finish this.
End of the first gravel segment and I stopped in near shock. My arms ached already. The English girl by now had started getting dizzy, and they feared concussion – and given where she was it certainly wasn’t a good idea for her to continue. She and her friend were taken to hospital in La Paz in the van, leaving ten of us.
That slim horizonal strip is the road
We continued on. I got used to the gravel, the constant shaking, the bumping and keeping an eye for rocks ahead I managed to generally keep pace with the front group. There were three speedsters up front, all quite mad, then I was usually fourth or fifth at the end of each segment, while Andrew also gained confidence and was up in sixth or seventh. While I was very concious of the drop – I’d go slow on the outward stretches, and then as the road turned in towards the ‘safe’ side, I’d pedal hard to gain ground. For any future riders, your speed doesn’t matter. We had speedsters and slow-but-safe people, but the regular segments mean you all catch up and keep together. The front riders don’t mind one bit, as they get to cycle hard and then pause to breathe and take in the view, and chat about the bit they’ve just done. The weather started clearing and we could see the huge drops off the side, but while we shivered at the thought, the views were amazing.
The standard view: thin road, big drops
Two thirds of the way down there are some more uphill parts. Barely. In fact anywhere else they’d be considered flattish. But at altitude I barely managed to finish them; incredibly thankful when we hit downhill again. And then as I rounded a corner, one of the speedsters was in the ditch on the right, several metres from his bike. I asked if he was ok as I passed, and he waved me on. At the next checkpoint, however, more riders caught up asking if we’d seen the bone sticking from his arm(!). So he and his friend were rushed off in the other group’s van, while we had a good rest and derobed, getting rid of our heavy gear and switching to t-shirts as the temperature warmed. So we were down to eight.
Exhausted, relieved, on a high
We ended with a video/photo op as we pushed through a waterfall, down past kids who waved from houses and dogs running by. We dodged cars coming the other way, and streamed down together through and into the final destination – Corioco, at 1200m – our lungs were almost breathing normally again! Exhausted, but on an absolute high. Only to find we had to pedal on a bit further to La Senda Verde – an animal shelter for animals rescued off the black market, quite a problem in Bolivia.
Volunteer and a monkey at the refuge
A shower has never felt so good, and lunch was amazing, followed by a walk around the shelter. None of these animals will ever be reintroduced to the wild – some are injured, some quite messed up, so this place is set up for volunteers to look after them, even to just spend time with them. Two volunteers – Aussie and English girls showed us around and explained the setup.
And then something went wrong. Some of the animals have been badly treated in the past, and therefore may have a thing against certain demographics – perhaps kids, women, who knows. And as one American girl walked in, a monkey ran at her, jumped, and sank its teeth into her forearm. Screaming and tears ensued, but at least it had been checked for rabies. Probably the last thing she expected on the day she cycled the Death Road.
Driving back up at speed
Our day was not over, however. For me, having control makes all the difference. So when we loaded up the bikes again and went back up the road in the van, teetering on the edge in the partial light, only briefly slowing to toot as we rounded corners at breakneck speed, was far scarier than any part of the cycle ride downhill.
We were thankful to reach La Paz again in one piece, and tired, crashed early, as we had a bus ride in the morning. But what a brilliant day, and despite his original misgivings, Andrew too was stoked to have completed the Death Road. A day of non-stop adrenaline, Bolivian jungle and an experience like non other!