As soon as the liquid hit my lips it felt as though my whole mouth was on fire. Within seconds my eyes were streaming.
“Don’t worry, It’ll give you courage!” Laughed Stefan.
The alcohol trickled down to my oesophagus and my throat began to burn in the way that only cheap alcohol does. I could feel my stomach flip and churn in protest at what it was about to receive. I think Stefan had just filled any old plastic container he had found at home. With what, I’m unsure. It had the taste of pure ethanol.
“Now, we must pour some on the ground as an offering for Pachamama.” I followed his example, letting a trickle drip onto my front bicycle tyre and then on the dust beneath me. It was a way of asking the Earth Mother for her blessing and to keep us safe on our ride. I’m not sure how appreciative she would be of this foul liquid, but I decided that Stefan knew best; after all, he had taken this ride hundreds of times.
We were standing the Cumbre, around 45 minutes outside of La Paz, on the high hills overlooking the city. It was here that we were to begin our descent, cycling down what is famously known as The World’s Most Dangerous Road, or to others simply as Death Road.
It’s a fitting name. Originally built in the 1930’s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan prisoners, the North Yunga Road stretches 64km from the altiplano region surrounding La Paz and descends 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) to the rainforest town of Coroico. It winds and turns its way through the mountains, clinging to the hillside with a deep canyon 4,650 metres below. The majority of the camino is a gravel surface, only 3 metres wide, with no barrier stopping vehicles from falling into the abyss. They often do. This highway has been known to take up to 300 lives a year.
The road was modernised in 2006 with the construction of a 2-lane, asphalt highway on the opposite side of the valley, allowing the large trucks carrying their bounty of cocoa leaves safe passage to the city. It hasn’t completely stopped the deaths though. When the new road is occasionally closed, traffic has to resort to using the North Yunga Road once more.
The phenomenon of intrepid tourists cycling the route began in 1998 when New Zealander, Alistair Matthew, came up with the idea while looking for cycling routes around La Paz. His company, Gravity, was the first to offer fellow travellers the experience. There are now dozens of copycat businesses offering the same but I decided to put my life in the hands of the original, and some say, the best of them. Gravity has a strong focus on safety. They use trained guides at both the front and back of the group of cyclists as well as having a minibus following close behind carrying spare parts and medical equipment. Our main guide, Stefan had been with the company around 6 months and had already ridden the route hundreds of times. His assistant was a Bolivian mountain biking champion. I felt as though I was in good hands.
As soon as we arrived at the carriageway, we had a stark reminder of just how dangerous this route can be, even with the new road in place. “This car went over two days ago,” said Stefan as we peered over the precipice at the mangled chassis below. It must have been a 100m drop. “Both passengers died before rescue teams could reach them.” He said it in a matter of fact way, showing that this is an all too common occurrence.
It’s sights like this that remind me why I gave Death Road a miss on my first pass through La Paz. There’s no denying that I was a little wary. Even with the new road in place, there are still cars and lorries vying for space with the 25,000 thrillseeking backpackers that take this trip each year. Even with all the safety measures that Gravity and other operators put in place, there are occasional accidents. It is thought that dozens have tourists have died attempting the ride, losing control of their bikes and going over the edge. Most recently, in January 2017, an Israeli backpacker plummeted from the trail, only surviving when she miraculously landed on a narrow ledge, 25 metres down.
Luckily for me, we were eased in gently, taking the new road for the first hour of our journey. That isn’t to say that I felt completely at ease. Large trucks passed us on our left, getting a little too close for comfort. Every so often a car would swerve around us at the last available minute or a wagon would career by, taking the entirety of the lane and forcing us onto the gravel siding. My right hand remained tightly clasped on my brake as rounded the hairpin bends, not quite willing to let myself go at full pelt down the mountainside.
Mercifully, we made the occasional stop to regroup with Stefan. First at a series of wooden lean-tos that appeared, as if from nowhere on the dusty siding, set up just to cater for truckers and cycling tourists – a mix of saltenas, humita and gaudy Bolivian themed trinkets – and then at a police checkpoint. The Yungas region is one of the largest coca leaf producers in the world and these US-funded checkpoints are set up all along the highway to check the coca carrying wagons have no illegal cargo.
“They’re pretty pointless,” laughed Stefan, nodding towards the checkpoint. “They’re only open during the day, until 6 pm. Unsurprisingly, most of the traffic passes through at night.”
For the main part of our ride, we left the comfort of the smooth tarmac behind and veered off onto the gravel trail that was the old Yungas road. It twisted out ahead of us, clinging to the mountainside on its right, on its left, there was a sheer drop to the valley floor. A large, yellow sign read “Bienvenido al Camino del Muerte. Conserve su Izquierda”. Welcome to Death Road. Keep to your left.
The road itself was barely wide enough for two cyclists to ride side-by-side, nevermind make way for oncoming vehicles. While traffic in Bolivia usually sticks to the right of the road, here it stays left, so the driver can see just how close their tyres are to the precipice. Stefan urged us to do the same, allowing cars or trucks to pass us by on the inside. It’s a thought that filled me with dread, standing on a slippery cliff edge while a 2-tonne hunk of metal squeezes past me.
What set my heart pumping faster, were the numerous tributes and crosses dotting the roadside. Stone monuments to the people that never managed to complete their journey. There were dozens of them. Some complete with fresh bunches of flowers, others crumbling after decades of standing in tribute.
I didn’t have time to mull over my own mortality though, we had to begin our descent. After hours of gaining confidence on the tarmac, the gravel felt shakey under my wheels. I could feel every large stone (or baby’s head as Stefan called them) and each corner came with the danger of the bike sliding out from under me. My fingers clasped my brakes continuously for those first 20 minutes.
By this point a heavy fog and began to roll in, obscuring our view of both the valley and the deadly abyss. Every few miles, Stefan would urge us to stop so that we could catch our breath and regroup with the stragglers at the back of the pack. He took these moments to tell us stories of accidents past, pointing down the escarpment to the mangled, rusting wrecks of trucks and buses, still lying where they fell.
With those accidents still plaguing our thoughts, we would carry on our journey. I may have started off shaky, but before long I began to gain my confidence, easing on the brakes and peddling, trying to gain speed in search of a greater rush. By the halfway point, death couldn’t have been further from my mind, instead, it felt life-affirming to be conquering fear and pushing myself to my limit.
Waterfalls trickled down onto the path ahead and we skidded through them with a splash, rounded corners at speed and a felt the rush of our ever-increasing momentum. At lower altitudes, the fog began to clear. We rode through multiple microclimates; first the clouds, then freezing rain, before reaching the tropical jungle of Coroico. Once the fear had lifted, I could finally relax and appreciate the beauty of the valley.
After almost 6 hours on the saddle, we reached the town of Yolosa. We were a little more tired, dirty and confident than when we began. There were a few cuts and bruises along the way – one rider’s tyre exploded in a plume of dust and air as he cycled in front of me, throwing him from his bike but luckily, not over the edge – but we had arrived in one piece.
We settled down at a small, roadside bar with ice-cold bottles of Pacena, clinking to our survival. Never has a beer tasted so good. I had survived Death Road, and I have the T-shirt to prove it.
- The tour with Gravity costs Bs. 849 or US$124 or £90
- The group meets at Oliver’s in La Paz at 7.30 am, giving you chance to buy coffee and breakfast before you set off. The drive La Cumbre takes 1 hour and riding time is around 4-5 hours.
- After the ride, there is the chance to rest and relax at La Senda Verde Cabins and Animal Refuge for a couple of hours where you will be able to get a hot shower and dinner. The drive back to La Paz takes around 3 – 4 hours, returning to the city centre between 8 and 10 pm.
- Ensure that you wear sensible shoes for cycling and layers of clothes. La Cumbre will be cold but the temperatures increase as you approach the end of the trail.
- On the first leg of the trip, there is an opportunity to buy snacks, but I would recommend picking up some drinks in La Paz to bring with you.
- The Municipality of Coroico, along with the surrounding villages, have recently introduced a small charge (currently 50 bs.) for bikers riding The World’s Most Dangerous Road to Coroico. The money raised from this entrance fee will be used to fund much-needed infrastructure projects such as public toilets along the route, road maintenance and rescue facilities.
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