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Published: September 5th 2011
You have to do it to understand it, to feel it.
The very notion of being able to descend 3600m in only a few hours is awesome enough on its own - the idea of being able to do that one one of the world's most infamous and dangerous roads, on a mountain bike, is even better.
The Yungas Road from La Paz to Coroico was constructed by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930's, it was required to link the fertile environments of the Yungas valleys to La Paz so the produce could be transported easier. The road is of incredibly poor quality however, clinging to a cliff edge, under a cliff and of course, not even remotely paved. In the mid-nineties it was christened 'The Death Road' due to an incredible average of 250 deaths per year, made even more disturbing by the fact that the road is merely a 61km stretch. In one incident a bus fell off the edge, killing over 100 people, the largest road accident in Bolivian history. To cycle this road is one of the reasons I came to South America.
We started early in the morning, the minibus loaded with
15 backpackers and plenty of mountain bikes on the roof. On reaching at La Cumbre Pass we emptied out, at an energy sapping 4650m above sea level. After some instructions and testing of the bikes we each in turn poured some 96% alcohol, Caiman, onto our front wheels, the ground and into our mouths. This offering is both a warning and an offering for a safe ride. With the hot bitter taste flowing through our bodies we put our feet on the peddles and headed out to begin the first half of the ride, on an active Bolivian road.
The brutal altitude was of no problem to us, not much pedaling is possible when you are bombing down a sharp incline on concrete. The problem we had was the traffic; swerving around cars and dodging lorries we raced downhill, almost from the off we were faster than the traffic and no-one wants to slow down. We stopped at a mind blowing meander to appreciate an epic view, the full insanity of the ´safe´ part of the road on view, before jumping back on and racing off, past police checkposts and skipping off road briefly to bypass a tunnel deemed
too dangerous for cyclists.
We came to a split in the road; to the left lay the new road, built to prevent much of the needless death and to the right our route, the original and true Death Road.
Sharply the concrete disappeared and we regrouped for an update on what to expect in the coming stage. The descent down the Death Road was broken so we could be informed of the upcoming insanity - it is hugely important to be notified of the difficulty, the sharpness and the dangers of the upcoming road. At the point of this instruction we were in the midst of a voluminous cloud. It lingered around us like a warning.
We headed out and down the Death Road proper. Our group of 15 had a guide at either end of the group, the minibus followed closely behind everyone; this meant that if anyone had a problem they could jump on the bus, which also held a couple of spare bikes just in case.
Through the mist of the clouds we cycled until the next checkpoint where we were informed of some disturbing information. We were standing on the edge of
the road, overlooking the clouds, water dripping from the cliff above us. Here we were informed that the drop we couldn't see was over 600m, basically vertically down. If anyone fell into that abyss, they would have a minuscule chance of surviving the fall, but even if they did, they probably couldn't be found anyway.
We continued down, the pack separating into three distinct groups. At the front were two young English guys, eager to keep as close as possible to our guide, behind them was me and another couple of guys. In a middle pack, a fair distance back were those who wanted to go fast, but had less suicidal tendencies then us and much further back were those who simply wanted to do the bike ride for the sake of being able to say they had done the trip. The road meandered ridiculously as we flew, following the cliff line, often narrowing to what seemed like a belt strip width until we finally broke through the clouds.
Without the clouds obscuring the view, a possible reason for so many accidents was revealed - the valley the road lies in is absolutely stunning. From the high altitude
of La Paz progressing downwards the oxygen level increases, the temperature rises and so the flora changes also. From the dry, dusty colours of previous days we were heading into an almost jungle like environment. The valley stretched as far as the eye could see and was as tempting to vision and a moth is tempted to a flame, but you cannot look, not unless you want to orbit off the edge.
We stopped for lunch under a shelter that overlooked a point in the road which Top Gear used in a special episode. Here Jeremy Clarkson passed a vehicle, his tyres precariously hanging over the edge. Whilst the programme is scripted, the road is barely be wide enough for a pair of Smart cars with no wing-mirrors to pass each other.
We continued on. Ciaran fell off clumsily after pressing the wrong brake and a short while later two of the girls collided also. One of them couldn't control her bike, finding her wheels slipping too much as she followed a bend. She slowed the bike down to stabilise sensibly, but another girl following didn´t notice this happening and smacked straight into the side of her.
Water struck our heads as we cycled under falls from the cliff above, the water continuing across the craggy unstable rock and falling into the valley below. I decided to keep pace with the guide for a stage, staying tight to his back wheels. I was loving the ride, loving the speed and sheer madness. However, as this section continued I gradually decided keeping pace was a bad idea. The speed was incredible, but having to react at the same time as our hugely experienced guide was difficult and scary, one false move, one wheel slip and I could be in serious trouble. Going forth I stuck with lying in third or fourth.
One of the English lads fell off after losing control on the inside of the road - he flipped off the handle bars and gave himself some decent grazes but was otherwise fine. I had a near miss cornering a cliff as my chain slipped, a quick reaction on my brakes keeping me on the track and from almost certain death.
Nearing the bottom and the end of the ride we passed through shallow rivers that crossed the road freely. One of the guides lay
in wait to take photos as we splashed our way through. In front of me was a Dutch guy who lost control in water, causing the guide to have to jump out of the way at the last second.
I had another near miss at the bottom. Going full pelt down a straight my tyres began to lose traction on the heavy stones and I drifted towards to the side of the road. I lost control and prepared myself for the worst. I stood up, on my peddles, ready to throw myself off my bike to control my fall. Before I could bail I hit a large rock and my heart stopped as I launched through the air and landed magically back in the middle of the road, I shouted some expletives of relief.
We finally reached the end of the ride and clambered off the bikes under a glorious cover of sunlight, heat and oxygen, a luxury that I had not felt in some time.
We piled the bikes onto the mini-bus, washed off the dust and dirt by taking a dip in the river and had lunch before beginning the journey back to La Paz.
Our tour company was one of the few that returns to La Paz on the Death Road, ignoring the new road, it is not something they openly advertise. On the way back we had a near miss with a full sized bus, both vehicles slamming brakes on at the last second, narrowly avoiding a collision that would have surely seen the larger bus fall to its doom.
We stopped several times for photos to fully appreciate the views that careering insanely on a bike prevented. Our guides, under the comfort that we were no longer riding, began to tell us stories about what had happened to previous cyclists who hadn't been lucky. All of the stories were ones of casual stupidly, lapses in attention or over-enthusiasm. Two guys had tried to stay too close to their guides, attempting to race them even and had fallen over the edge. One girl had stopped her bike on the edge and managed to dismount off the wrong side, stepping over the edge. Another had been taking a photo and took a fatal step backwards. Simple errors with a huge consequence. One girl chose to wipe fog from her goggles whilst riding
instead of stopping first and suffered hugely for a simple error. Horrible tales that could have been easily prevented.
The worst of all for me was the mystery surrounding a Japanese girl who had died the month before. She was near a van and no-one knows for sure whether she came off as a consequence of trying to overtake the vehicle on a sharp bend or much worse, because her brakes failed.
Back at the top and nearing La Paz our driver stopped the van and our guides exited briefly. They boarded with a large bottle of Cuba Libre, rum and coke, and set us their traditional challenge of having to consume the entire bottle between us before we reached the city. We did and once done we stopped for more and to take some photos of La Paz under the night sky, the crazy canyon city lit up fantastically.
The day finished late into the night, the team meeting up after a wash and going out to the backpacker bars with our guides to celebrate.
It was an incredible, adrenaline fuelled trip, one that I won't forget and one that I would recommend to anyone who loves mountain biking. For those who don't and are worried about the trip, just take the bus and enjoy Coroico at the bottom instead, it'll be far more enjoyable for you! A few video clips of the ride: Clip 1 Clip 2 Clip 3
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