I’m panting. Out of breath. My brain boils inside my helmet. Sweat pours from all orifices and stings my eyes. My legs burn from the hard terrain and mile-long flat. I can see him just ahead of me. Not long now and I can take him. He disappears round a corner. I follow his dust cloud and the ground in front of me drops steeply. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for.
I stand up on my pedals, push hard and rock my bike violently from side-to-side. Within seconds I’m in amongst his dust. I can taste his sweat. “Overtaking on the left!” I bellow as I smash past him on the outside. I look down over the edge of the cliff and see a distant green canopy that stretches on for ever. It’s the most beautiful sheer drop I’ve ever seen. To fall would be fatal. Welcome to Death Road.
The Gringo Trail
La Paz, third largest city in Bolivia, is the often touted as the ‘highest capital city in the world’. This isn’t true. It’s the highest seat of government in the world. It sprawls across a bowl-like valley in the Altiplano plateau – the widest expanse of the Andes mountain range – and, in places, reaches as high as 4100m above sea level. The altitude sickness is dizzying. The night-time lights on the hillsides are dazzling.
La Paz was the second stop on a rapid jaunt across South America: from Lima to Rio. I was following one of the many Gringo Trails – popular routes and destinations in Central and Southern America frequented by young backpackers. Death Road is just one of many gringo spots on the Gringo Trail, easily reached from La Paz. The number of backpackers I met in Peru travelling the opposite way (from Rio to Lima) who told me about Death Road made it obvious Death Road was a hot spot for gringos like me.
I’d latched on to a friend’s trip at short notice and hadn’t done much research about the places I’d be visiting. So my interest was piqued the moment I heard the words ‘most dangerous mountain bike route in the world’ from another backpacker. I couldn’t let the opportunity to ride the (supposedly) most dangerous road in the world pass me by. I booked my place on a Death Road tour the day I arrived in La Paz.
After learning my lesson in Machu Pichu – a sleepless night with underwear full of creepy crawlies and nowhere to poo or shower the next morning – and considering the lethal nature of Death Road, I booked my tour through my hostel instead of the laundrette next door. I wanted some peace of mind riding full speed down the most dangerous road in the world. But even a recommended company can’t help the faint-hearted: one of my group opted out of coming with us when push came to shove.
The Death Road
Death Road – or Yungas Road, which is its proper name – was awarded the prestigious title of ‘world’s most dangerous road’ in the mid 1990s. It’s about 60km long and one of the only roads that links La Paz and the northern Yungas region of Bolivia. Hence ‘Yungas Road’. Because of its position as one of the only travel routes between the two regions, its usually full of traffic – cars, buses, trucks, bikes, and sometimes pedestrians. The road passes through the mountains and often-treacherous weather conditions exacerbate already-treacherous road conditions. And until recently, much of the road was single dirt track.
In the past 20 years, close to 20 thrill-seeking travellers have died riding mountain bikes down Death Road – practically one a year. The number of local fatalities is far higher, with the biggest tragedy coming when a bus full of people went over the edge. It’s easy to see why Yungas Road has become known as Death Road.
Despite major redevelopment of the higher mountainous sections about a decade ago, some of the lower road is still single dirt track and is shared by all kinds of traffic. It’s this precarious section of the road that backpackers are referring to when they say ‘Death Road’.
Descending Death Road
The morning of the tour starts with a bleary-eyed bus journey into the mountains. We’re soon away from the madness of the city roads, surrounded by snow-capped peaks at heights of 4700m instead of ramshackle buildings. The icy roads are perilous this morning: a truck has skidded round a bend and blocks the road, holding up the traffic.
We pile out of our minibuses, which carry our bikes on their roofs, and hurl snow balls at each other to pass the time. After a while, our drivers yell for us to get back in. We trudge along in the traffic and eventually arrive at the start of Death Road.
We’re fed coffee and coconut cake while the bikes are taken off the minibuses. They’re placed on the ground side-by-side, piles of clothes next to them. We’re each assigned a bike and protective clothing: helmet, overalls, gloves, elbow, and knee pads. It’s chilly up here in the crisp mountain air so the extra layers are welcome.
As we suit up the lead tour guide delivers a safety briefing:
“Friends. This is Bolivia. Drivers do not care about you. So please, keep to the right of the road.”
Words of warning finished, I pull my helmet over my ears and mount my bike. The lead guide pushes off and heads down the first section of the road. We follow suit in little groups of five. Even though the road is tarmac at this stage I take it easy to begin with, getting to know my bike, its brakes, its weight, its balance points. I want to understand it before we hit the dirt track.
As massive trucks spew out diesel fumes on their struggle up the mountain, their thick tyres sending rocks ricocheting off the floor like bullets, a Scotsman from my van shoots past me at full speed. He’s a brave man: there’s a constant flow of traffic, none of which is taking any notice of a group of gringos riding down the side of Death Road.
Despite gloves, my hands are numb from the cold. My very joints ache. Soon my fingers ache too, and I realise I’ve been holding on to the handle bars too tight in my exhilaration. I fly past some of the best views I’ve ever had in my life, reaching speeds in excess of 50kmh. These are the first snow-capped mountains I’ve ever seen up close. I’m in awe of the sheer scale of nature. But I keep my focus on riding and dodging vehicles.
Single-track and bulldozers
The wide two-lane tarmac road quickly becomes a narrow single-lane dirt track. On the right is a cliff wall, to the left a sheer drop. Ahead there are sharp, meandering bends that map a continuous, snaking, muddy-brown path down the side of the mountain. Pointy rocks and boulders create extra hazards. The road surface is loose and threatens to throw me off my bike at any second. I’m exhilerated.
Suddenly I see a corner ahead. I’m approaching too fast and wide. It’s too late to really slam my brakes on – they’ll just make me skid all over the place and lose control. I can see the edge of the road rapidly approaching. I see the tiny lush-green trees below, looking like harmless cushions that would save me if I went over the edge. I lean in to the corner with all my weight and my bike makes the turn with just a few centimetres to spare. Rocks go flying off the edge, hurtling down to the welcoming trees below. My heart is in my mouth. I’m trembling with adrenaline. I feel alive.
We stop at a designated rest/overtaking area to refuel with Coca-Cola and more coconut cake. I strip off to my shorts and t-shirt and re-attach my elbow and knee pads. As we’ve descended Death Road, it’s gotten warmer. The white, barren mountain-sides of 20km ago have disappeared and lush rainforest has taken their place.
Back on the road I end up at the front behind the lead guide. I shout “Vamos! Rapido!” wanting to go faster but unwilling to overtake the person who knows this dangerous road. He turns his head toward me, shouts “rapido!” in response and starts peddling hard.
We splash through waterfalls and take on hairpin bends at terrifying speeds. By following his lines round corners I’m able to match his speed. I scream and whoop in a mixture of excitement, sheer joy, and a healthy dose of fear. We turn a corner and I slam the brakes on: a bulldozer is making its way up the narrow track. We edge past it slowly, it’s bulk taking up most of the road.
The rest of the group catch up and I meld back into the middle, terrified of trying to keep up with the leader on these bends. I’ve had enough close calls for the day and the many crosses we’ve passed on the side of the road – markers of where people have gone over the edge – seem to increase, along with the heat, as we descend.
Before I know it the dirt track becomes gravel and I can see the minivans waiting for us on the side of a paved road at the bottom of the hill. As I reach the end of the road I skid my bike round in the gravel, the heat now almost unbearable, and look back up the mountain. I’d survived Death Road.