Cheating Death…sort of

Death Road. Not the most comforting name is it. Especially when it is paired with the sub-title “World’s Most Dangerous Road”. Doesn’t exactly sound like a road you would really want to be on.

The 61km North Yungas road runs from La Paz to Coroico and it is legendary because up until recently between 200 and 300 travellers died on that route each year. The unpaved winding road cuts precariously into the sides of the in Cordillera Real mountain range and is fairly basic. Most of the time it is nothing more than a narrow bumpy track – in some places it is just three metres wide. Overtaking or just passing other cars would have been an absolute nightmare, only made worse by the the sheer drop of 800 metres on one side.

The road itself is now closed to traffic, there’s a new asphalt highway in place. But Death Road itself is still there and is now one of the biggest tour attractions in La Paz. Cyclists are the only ones tearing down that road, and while they are much more suited to the road, accidents still happen. At last count, 18 cyclists had died on the road.

Understandably I was a little nervous at the prospect of riding a mountain bike down this path. Even A was a bit concerned at the idea of me doing this, he’s seen some of my brilliant trips and stumbles, and I suspect he didn’t enjoy the thought of seeing his girlfriend lose control of her bike and go sailing off the edge of a cliff. He asked me several times if I was really sure I wanted to do the ride.

I was determined. It couldn’t be that hard. And though some may have their doubts, I didn’t think I was so retarded that I would end up riding off a cliff. So I signed up on with Madness Tours, partly because I liked the name, and mostly because they had really cool looking bikes.

The next morning we spent a half hour getting ourselves kitted out with our bikes and our safety riding gear. Pants, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards and a full face helmet; I could have ridden my bike into a brick wall and come away unscathed (though off a cliff, probably not so much).

The first part of the journey started at around 4600m above sea level. At our starting point, we could see altiplano lakes and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The ride started on a stretch of the new highway. Before we were allowed near it, our guide Hector gave us a safety talk. No overtaking the lead guide, single file, and stay to the right. Simple enough. We whizzed single file down asphalt highway, sticking to the far right to avoid the traffic. We barely pedalled, it was all downhill, and I hadn’t expected to be going so fast. I found myself using the brakes heavily because I genuinely felt like I was flying down the hill. Not even the fact that everyone was overtaking me would convince me to release my vice-like grip on those brakes.

After this section, we had to load the bikes back on to the support van, and then drive a short way to the next part, where the real Death Road began. Another serious safety talk from Hector and we were back in the saddle.

The road was bumpy, rough and littered with rocks and stones. To my right a the steep rocky hill rose, decorated with all manner of ferns, vines and flowers. To my left, the road fell away into a sheer drop. If you went over that edge, nothing would save you. Needless to say I rode on the extreme far right, practically running my shoulder into the cliff as I went. It took me a little while, but eventually I did relax. The road was plenty wide enough for a bike, wide enough to navigate around the potholes and larger rocks, and I learned to trust the bike’s ability to handle the smaller bumps. The riding was easy – virtually no pedalling – and the view was stunning.

As we descended down past clouds, and a vast green countryside opened up in front of us. Down and down we descended, navigating the corners and switchbacks, passing overhanging rocks, riding through cascading waterfalls that splashed over us and all the time taking in the view. Along the way we stopped for rest breaks, for lunch, for photo stops. I steadily grew in confidence, and began to release that grip on the brakes. I giggled to myself as I raced and bounced down the track.

There was never really any danger of an accident. The worst that happened was a 10-year-old kid lost control of his bike and steered it into a ditch. Which I found hilarious and somewhat satisfying, given this was one of the kids who had overtaken me in the first 15 minutes.

The whole ride took around five hours, and took us to the outskirts of the Amazon region. Down in Coroico we feasted on a hot lunch at a local hotel, and then swam in the pool. It was perfect weather for it – we had descended more than 3000m, and were now at 1200m. Where the altiplano is perpetually cool, down here it was hot and a swim was the perfect way to finish the day.

Back at the Madness office we were already handed a CD with professional pictures of the tour and a t-shirt declaring that we were now all a “Death Road Survivor”. It was a nice souvenir, but I did feel it overstated the event somewhat. It was a wonderful, glorious ride, but hardly anything that needed to be survived. I might as well start wearing t-shirts saying “I survived crossing a busy road”… that’s really the difficulty level we’re talking about here. Perhaps that’s a tad churlish of me.

Let’s just say it was brilliant fun to race down gravel Death Road, and wouldn’t really think twice before recommending it to anyone.

2 thoughts on “Cheating Death…sort of

  1. I did the Death Road when I was in La Paz too, and I agree that the road isn’t too difficult, and is a lot of fun. My biggest challenge was keeping an eye on the road – I kept staring at the scenery! However, we did have a pretty serious accident in our party. It was foggy when we started off and there were piles of stones by the side of the road at one point – construction crew materials. One of the men in my group crashed into the pile, went headfirst over his bike (the wheel of which came off) and onto the road, where other cyclists were going past. This was all in fog. He was okay in the end, though had a cracked rib and a bit of a concussion, and rode the last bit of the Death Road in the support van. So cherish that t-shirt – it may not be as dangerous as it used to be when there was two-way traffic going on it, but the Death Road can still be pretty hairy! Safe travels.

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