Fear on Two Wheels: Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road

First of all I apologise for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks.  Just before I flew out to Greece around a month ago, I was kicking ass on the blogging front.  I had three posts written and scheduled, which would buy me some time if I didn’t get around to doing any work whilst I was away (which, quite frankly I doubted I would considering the busy schedule I had arranged for Stu and I).

The final of these three posts would be published the Monday I flew back to England, which – even allowing for a few evenings in which to complete a ‘little’ job for my parents –  would still leave me the best part of a week to work on a new one.  I thought I had it nailed.

Unfortunately I hadn’t accounted for just how much of an enormously challenging and time-consuming task decorating my (relatively) small one-bedroom flat would turn out to be.

For a number of personal and financial reasons, my parents made the decision to sell the property that I’ve been renting from them for the past nine years, and – in order to save them approximately £800 – Stu and I offered to do the painting and decorating ourselves.  We had to start on this the day after we returned from Greece, in order to get the property on the market in time for (a large chunk of) the summer period – apparently the best time to sell, according to estate agents.

What we anticipated would take us three days has actually taken us nearer 10 (every hour we haven’t been working our day jobs we’ve been working on getting my flat up to a saleable standard), but the good news is that my flat is now looking cleaner and tidier than it has done for years!

It’s going to be a sad occasion leaving so many wonderful memories behind (especially as I’ve no idea just yet where I’m going to live instead!), but life moves on.

And so too must my South American adventures…

Whilst it turned out that I liked La Paz  much more than I expected to – largely due to the fantastic Red Cap Free Walking Tour that we decided to join on our first day in the city – the sole reason that we decided to pay Bolivia’s administrative capital a visit was to cycle down the country’s infamous Death Road.

La Carretera de los Yungas is a 69 kilometre gravel dirt track that connects Coroico, in the Amazon Rainforest region of northern Bolivia, to the country’s largest city, La Paz.  It’s earned its reputation as The World’s Most Dangerous Road as a result of the number of fatal accidents that have occurred on it over the years.  The ‘road’ is only 3.2 metres wide, featuring a sheer vertical rock face on one side and an unobstructed 600-metre drop on the other.

There are regular rock-falls and mudslides, and small waterfalls occasionally rain down from the cliff edges.   What’s more, a combination of local topography and weather conditions means that the road is often drenched in fog and heavy rains are common throughout the year.

Whilst most of the lives the road has claimed have been drivers and passengers of four-wheeled vehicles (an average of 26 vehicles per year plunged over the edge into the great abyss), around 15 cyclists have also died making the 69-kilometre trip, and many others have reported close encounters and nasty accidents.

Death Road

There is no doubt that the World’s Most Dangerous Road has definitely earned its title.

So why on God’s earth would anyone want to put their lives at risk by jumping into the saddle of an off-road push bike at 4650 metres above sea level and hurtling down 3650 metres along an unstable dirt track, when they can make the journey safely by bus on the newly-opened (in March 2007) replacement road?

The answer is quite simply because the latter option just isn’t fun.

Just like cycling the entire stretch of coastline between Venice and Porec with barely any previous cycling experience, riding a mountain bike down The World’s Most Dangerous Road would be exciting, challenging, and ultimately an incredible achievement.

The problem is that I concentrated far too much on the end result rather than considering exactly what the ride entailed.

I’m not a mountain-biker.  In fact don’t think I’d ever even ridden a mountain bike – at least not over the sorts of terrain they were designed for.  Obviously I didn’t mention this minor detail when we forked out 1500 bolivianos (£136) to book our places on the ride with Gravity Bolivia.

We chose Gravity because of their reputation for being professional, knowledgeable, and having an excellent safety record.  Yes they may be more expensive (though not wildly) than their competitors, but the way I look at it, if you’re dead you can’t spend that £10 you saved by choosing someone cheaper.

We all met at the ridiculously unsociable hour of 6am at Oliver’s Bar, and had just enough time to wolf down a filling bowl of porridge and several cups of coffee before jumping into the minibus outside.

Our guide, Mike, introduced himself, and invited everyone in the group to do the same.  We had a good mix of men and women, from various different parts of the globe and – as I would later discover – of varying levels fitness and ability.

The starting point of our death-defying downhill experience was La Cumbre, located at a breath-taking (literally!) 4700 metres above sea level and offering some incredible views of a number of snow-covered peaks, including Huayna Potosí (6088 metres).

Death Road

We were all kitted out with Gravity-branded protective clothing, gloves and helmets, which – surprisingly – fitted my child-sized frame (and head!) perfectly, and immediately instilled a great deal of confidence in me.

Next up, the bike.  Gravity use  high-end, full-suspension mountain bikes by recognised high-quality brands such as Hayes, Marzocchi and Fox.  These bikes are properly adjusted to your height and weight (which is why you are asked to supply these details upon booking; they’re not just being nosey!) and can be re-adjusted or fixed on route by any one of their guides (who are also trained bike mechanics).

We were given ample time to test-drive our bikes around a large area of scrubland, before embarking on our downhill journey. Everything was handled professionally and thoroughly but with a healthy dose of humour and camaraderie thrown in.

Whilst Mike was running through the safety instructions with us, he produced a clear plastic bottle that was filled with what looked like water, and began to pass it around.  As his commentary progressed though, we became aware that what was being passed around for us all to take a sip of, wasn’t water but 96% proof alcohol!

What the hell was he thinking?

Ok we’ve all heard of dutch courage, but I was pretty sure that encouraging your customers to drink even the tiniest amount of the strongest alcohol known to man (outside a chemistry lab!) before embarking on a potentially challenging (and terrifying) 5-hour ride down The World’s Most Dangerous Road, was not one of the greatest ideas on earth.

Unless you’re Bolivian, of course.

Bolivians are a spiritual nation and believe that you cannot begin any important venture or journey before firstly making an offering to Pachamama – the Inca equivalent of Mother Earth – in order to ask for her protection.  So, we spilled a drop on to the ground beneath us, a drop on to the wheel of our bikes and a drop on to our lips.

Even that single drop brought an instant numbness to my entire mouth. Pachamama must have a bloody strong constitution to have absorbed about half a bottle of the stuff.

Section One: On Fire

Just as the feeling was starting to return to my lips, we set off on the first stage of our downhill journey.

We followed a twisting asphalt road between mountain peaks and past grazing llamas and alpacas. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and I had every confidence in the bike and in my ability to control it.

I was even able to take one hand off the handlebars whilst travelling at speed, in order to give a thumbs up to our ride photographer.

Death Road

One aspect of the ride that I was worried about prior to jumping in the saddle, was that I would forever be playing catch up with those that were infinitely more skilled, confident, and just plain damn faster than I was.

But after the first few sections on the asphalt road, I was flying.

Thankfully not literally, but I was keeping up with the others.  I wasn’t the fastest, I wasn’t the slowest.  I was middle of the road – and I was absolutely fine with that.

Can you tell that our guide, Mike, had done this before?

Death Road

Before we began our final section of the asphalt road, we all re-grouped, posed for the inevitable jumping photo, and congratulated ourselves on how well we’d done thus far.

Death Road

Section Two: And Then The Rains Came

I became a little concerned that the further downhill we were riding, the more the cloud (which was pretty much non-existent when we started) seemed to be descending upon us, drifting ominously between the mountain peaks.

Death Road

However I reassured myself that at least it wasn’t raining.  A little bit of cloud was fine; it would make for some moody shots across the valley.

Unfortunately a little bit of cloud brought about a lot of moisture in the air, and with the moisture came drizzle, which – instead of easing up as we’d hoped – got steadily worse and worse.  By the time we reached the tunnel we were all seriously contemplating donning our waterproofs, despite the increasing humidity.

Death Road

Apparently passing through the tunnel we’d arrived at, used to be part of the route, until a female rider (thankfully not one of Gravity’s customers) who had failed to take her sunglasses off as she entered (due to it being bright outside), crashed into the tunnel wall and fell into a coma.

Thankfully she made a full recovery, but this was one of many terrifying occurrences we would hear about during the next few hours.

Section Three: Ups and Downs (and everything in between)

As we left the asphalt road to ride around the outside of the tunnel, the terrain became dramatically more unstable.  The dirt track beneath me was peppered with rocks of varying sizes, many of them loose, and as a result of the rain – also slippery.

Mike had rather morbidly named the larger rocks ‘babies heads’, advising us that the best way to tackle them so as not to lose our balance or be thrown off the bike, was straight on and at speed.

This in itself scared the hell out of me and forced me to cycle even slower. I was having trouble just seeing through the rain (and therefore being able to determine my path through the rocks), let alone being able to also control the bike across the slippery, bumpy surface over which the wheels were passing.

It was at this point that my confidence – and therefore my enjoyment of the ride – began to wane.

Fortunately the ride, whilst being 4-5 hours long in total, was completed in a succession of shorter, more manageable sections.  As we had done on the asphalt road at the beginning of the ride, we all stopped on a regular basis – in order to give our legs (and arms; gripping those handlebars over such uneven terrain is hard work!) a rest, to regain our confidence (although I’m sure some members of our group didn’t require a break for that reason!) and to receive an informative and detailed briefing on what lay ahead.

I was so grateful for these little pep talks.  Without those little courage, confidence, focus, and determination boosts, I doubt I would have got as much out of the ride as I ultimately did.

Even through the really difficult sections of poor visibility, slippery, muddy surfaces, tight corners, and a sea of babies heads in front of me, I powered on ahead, cycling as fast as my capabilities and tenacity would allow.

This was a once in a lifetime experience; I wasn’t about to screw it up by failing to give it anything but my best shot!

I won’t deny that at times I was striking an incredibly fine balance between wanting to be in control of the bike (and therefore not risking my life; I couldn’t see the 600 metre drop through the mist but I knew it was there) and wanting to be ahead of the rider in front.

There were several occasions when the wheels slipped, the bike wobbled, and my heart skipped a beat, not knowing for that split second when or if I would be able to regain control.  There were times when I couldn’t see further than a few metres ahead of me.  There were moments when I cried because I felt like I couldn’t go on.

Death Road

I was soaked to the bone and caked in mud.  I had no strength left in my arms (from gripping the handlebars so tightly for so long), my knees ached, my legs were tired, and I was struggling to focus on anything but the pain I was feeling.

What’s more, I hadn’t managed to take a single photograph of the ride thus far.

I knew how amazing the landscapes through which we were passing were, but they were invisible beyond the mist.  Besides which, after Mike had recounted to us the story of how the last cyclist died on the North Yungas Road in 2011, by taking a photo whilst in the saddle and subsequently cycling off the edge of the road into the abyss, I decided to keep my camera zipped away in the pocket of my jacket.  I wouldn’t be needing those photographs for my blog post if I wasn’t alive to write it.

Section Four: Coming Out the Other Side

Once we’d descended into cloud and the torrential rains were upon us, I assumed that the rest of the day would pass by in much the same muggy blur as it had done for the past few hours.

What I’d neglected to remember was the fact that we were plummeting a massive 3650 metres over the 69 kilometres we would travel that day.  The weather can (and does! ) change frequently over distances as huge as those.

Just as quickly as the cloud had arrived, it dissipated, and we emerged into a jungle of lush green hills, of giant ferns and of isolated settlements.  Terraces of cultivated land covered the valley slopes, where locals worked arduously on their land.

Death RoadDeath Road

I may not have been as competently fast a cyclist to have been able to spare the time to stop and take photographs, but at least the road had widened and levelled out (and dried up!) a little and as a result I no longer needed to focus on it 100% of the time in order to stay on the bike.  

I could begin to admire my surroundings beyond the rocky dirt track beneath my wheels.

Death Road

And do you know what, given a break in the clouds and a glimmer of sunshine, the Yungas Valley is a pretty damn cool part of the world.

Section Five: Flying Through the Amazon

When we finally reached Yolosa and the end of The Most Dangerous Road In The World, I felt relieved and drained but still buzzing from the experience.  It wasn’t wholly a pleasant experience but it was exhilarating, exciting, challenging, and rewarding.

And call me crazy, delirious or stupid (all three would probably apply!) but no sooner had we dismounted the bikes and removed our mud-spattered helmets and sodden over-clothes, I was standing up in the back of a pick up, dressed in a full body padded harness that made me feel a bit like a sumo wrestler, heading back up the Yungas Road in the opposite direction, in order to reach the launch station of The Flying Fox.

The Flying Fox, for those who haven’t been to Bolivia and ridden the famous Death Road, is a 1500 metre zip line that sees you literally flying through the forest canopy, hundreds of metres above the valley floor, at speeds of up to 85kph.

They say you should do one thing every day that scares you.  Hey, why not make that two, I thought.

Death Road

I’m not a great fan of heights and 85kph sounded freakin’ fast to me, especially when you’re travelling at these speeds head first.  The other option was to be seated but if you chose that option you had to go alone and get yourself in and out of the harness, whereas if you chose the ‘Superman’ position, you were strapped to an instructor.

Ok, I accept that I was scared about the prospect of The Flying Fox, but I never imagined that my fear would manifest itself as a three-year old child having a temper tantrum because she was being forced to do something she absolutely didn’t want to.

I’ve done the same on the ski slopes in the past, when I’ve found myself stuck at the top of a frighteningly difficult looking red run that I’m convinced should be a black.

I froze, my heart raced, my throat tightened and I couldn’t stop the tears.

“I can’t do it”, I wept. “I don’t want to do it.”

God only knows what the others must have thought of me, but when fear grips you in that way, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to hold back the tears.

Fortunately Stu knows me well, and he knows that I’m a very competent, tenacious human being but one who has absolutely no confidence in herself or her abilities.  He knew that I was capable of getting past my fear and he knew that if I turned around without having done it, I’d be kicking myself later on.

So, whilst the others went on ahead, Stu took me to one side and attempted to calm me down and helped me to rationalise the situation.

I’m so damn glad he did.

It turns out The Flying Fox is not even remotely scary.  But it is a hell of a lot of fun!

If you ever want to get an idea of what I imagine it feels like for a bird swooping down over the rainforest canopy, I highly recommend you try this.

Section Six: Arrival at La Senda Verde Animal Refuge

Aside from the abundance of biting mosquitoes, La Senda Verde was the perfect location to finish our adrenaline-filled day.  Smack bang in the middle of the Bolivian jungle, and surrounded only by the sounds of nature, La Senda Verde is home to a number of birds, reptiles, primates, and other animals, as well as hot showers and hearty food – which was exactly what we needed.

Interesting Facts About Bolivia’s Death Road

  • The North Yungas Road was built by Paraguayan Prisoners Of War in the 1930s, and was the first road that allowed vehicles to travel between the lowlands and highlands of Bolivia.
  • The man who first put the idea of cycling the North Yungas Road in motion was 39-year old New Zealander Alistair Matthew, in 1998.  He since went on to form Gravity Bolivia – the first company to offer tourists the chance to complete the ride.
  • When you start your journey on the asphalt road at La Cumbre, you keep to the right of the road and pass on the left.  When you reach the gravel dirt track, the rules of the road change.  From there you must keep to the left and pass on the right – which sounds fine until you realise that the left is the the cliff side of the road!!

Have you cycled The World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia?  Would you be brave enough to try?

Death Road

**The majority of the photographs used within this article are courtesy of Gravity Bolivia (with a few GoPro and mobile phone exceptions), but the words and opinions are all my own :-)**

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Mentioned in this post
  1. La Paz Dept
    State in Bolivia

    Bolivia
  2. Coroico
    City in Bolivia

    Coroico Bolivia
  3. Yolosa
    La Paz Bolivia

    Yolosa
    La Paz Bolivia

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2 Responses to Fear on Two Wheels: Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road

  1. Laia | colibrist November 20, 2015 at 8:45 PM #

    Kiara, you’re really brave!!!! Congratulations!!!! I did not dare cycling the death road.

    Maybe if I had been traveling with someone very motivated I might (might) have considered the possibility. But seeing that I am not a sportive nor very adventurous person, and traveling alone, I did not dare.

    I did take the bus to go to Coroico which follows the first part of the Death Road (the concrete part, not the dirt road part!). When I came back to La Paz my friend told me that the day before a bus had fallen down the mountain. If I had known that, maybe I would not have even gone to Coroico!
    Laia | colibrist recently posted…The end of my round the world trip and the scariest decision of my lifeMy Profile

    • Kiara Gallop November 22, 2015 at 10:08 PM #

      I may not have been brave enough to do it had I been travelling alone, but my boyfriend is a little more adventurous than be when it comes to sporting activities, so he definitely spurred me on 🙂 That’s awful news about the bus to Coroico, and scary that accidents like that are still happening! (we were led to believe that there hadn’t been any serious incidents since the new road had been built).

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