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The Death Road

Biking down the World's Most Dangerous Road

all seasons in one day

Death_Road-Bolivia.jpgAfter all my concern regarding our journey back to La Paz it turned out to be quite a normal pleasant flight.Janelle for once seemed at ease and I was beginning to hope her fear of flying was going to become less of a problem from now on.We landed at El Alto airport in the late afternoon and quickly caught a cab back to the same downtown hostel we had stayed at prior to leaving for Rurrenabaque.It had only been a few short days but the culture shock of being back in the bustling and vibrant capital was still quite unexpected.Plus the rapid ascension from sea level to 3,660 metres was starting to have some noticeable side effects, at least in me anyway.I figured that having become acclimatised some three weeks before would somehow make me immune to it but apparently this was not the case.I soon began feeling dizzy and lightheaded with some nasuea thrown in for good measure and spent the next day or two confined to my bed eating little but toast and fruits.We had already fallen behind in our tightly planned schedule and this was certainly not helping.But, like so many other things there was nothing to do but ride it out.
Luckily I improved around the third day and we made the decision to stay one last day in La Paz in order to do the Death Road, a decision I was very pleased with as we came close to skipping it in order to regain some of the time we had lost.Ever since I'd read about it in the Lonely Planet back in Ireland I'd been determined to do it.But it was not my will that was in question unfortunately.Janelle had steadfastly refused to even entertain the idea once I had explained it to her (and in a lot of ways I couldn't blame her).The name alone put her off and ever since Brazil whenever I brought the subject up it had been quickly dismissed.
You see the Death Road is exactly that.From a geographical standpoint it is known as the North Yungas or Coroico Road, but the locals know it by a more sinister name: El Camino de la Muerte.It is a 68 km stretch of mountainous gravel road that runs from La Paz to a town called Coroico in the northeast and connects Bolivia's capital to the country's lower region of rainforest.Built in the 1930s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan prisoners it is legendary for its extreme danger and earned the notorious title of the World's Most Dangerous Road from the inter American Bank in 1995, when estimates for annual fatalities exceeded 250.
There are many reasons for its absurdly high death rate.The mainly gravel road is carved into the mountainside in an area of high rainforest where rain and fog frequently combine to produce extremely poor visibility and dangerously low traction.The road's widest point is just over three metres across though is often considerably narrower and there is not one single guard rail along its' entire length protecting traffic from plunging the 600 metres over the side.Rockfalls from the hills above are a common occurrence and the numerous waterfalls that drop directly onto the roads pathway makes for a driving experience more akin to an obstacle course than a government highway.Buses and trucks have made up the majority of the unfortunate victims over the years.In 1983 a bus veered off the Yungas Road into a canyon, killing the more than 100 passengers aboard in what is said to be Bolivia's worst road accident.Accidents like this are a tragically common occurence and yet the Bolivian campesionos continue to use the road in an effort to get to and from La Paz cheaply, despite the fact that a newer, slightly safer road has opened in recent years.
Despite of (or more likely, because of) all this, many agencies in La Paz have opened their doors with the sole intention of biking down this treacherous road for the express pleasure of thrill seeking backpackers.In fact there's a whole industry in La Paz that caters to it.The very real risk inherent in such an activity drew me to it as much as it horrorfied Janelle.I had my hands full convincing her but in the end I shamefully resorted to guilting her into it by reminding her how we 'lost' three days in San Pedro due to her overreaction to altitude sickness.She had eventually relented and we'd booked it just before leaving for Rurrenabaque.Now that we were back in La Paz it was time to put our skills (and courage) to the test.
We met our guides and the other adrenaline junkies at a cafe the next morning.After breakfast we piled into a less than reliable looking tourbus whose loudspeakers were blaring out heavy metal.The company we'd booked with, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, were one of the more reputable of those offering treks.Since the Road had become a fully fledged tourist traps some years before there had been an inevitable number of fatalities among those looking for something a bit more riskier than skydiving or bungee jumping.Some thirteen official deaths had been recorded since 1998 though the number was likely higher.Our company had had only one fatality in their ten years which went some way toward reassuring us.Our guides were all professional or semi professional mountain bikers with years of experience between them.They were all dyed spiked hair and neon biker shorts but they were also a good bunch who obviously took their responsibilities seriously.The instructor assigned to us was a blonde Swede named Chris whose dubious claim to fame was that he went over the edge of the Death Road his first time down it and lived to tell the tale.Impressive!
We set off and reached the starting point about an hour later, a snowy pass between two rocky mountains known as Le Cumbre.At 4,800 metres it was nearly five kilometres above sea level; a kilometre above La Paz and roughly the same height as Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest mountain.At this altitude even light pedalling took the breath away.The guides unloaded the bikes from the tourbus and inspected them as we wrapped up in protective
clothing: gloves, helmets, weather proof pants, reflective vests and goggles.We were also each given a refillable canteen that attached to the back of our vest.The bikes were all state of the art porfessional models with high quality frames, tires, shocks and brakes.Each one cost the equivalent of $2,500 USD.Once suitably attired we were given our bikes and shown how to use them.How to brake properly using both front and back simultaneously to prevent skidding and also being thrown.How to turn into the corners in order to maximise traction.And how to position ourselves on the bike according to how fast we wanted to go.As over 90% of the Road is downhill we wouldn't be pedalling too much and would hopefully be able to concentrate solely on not going over the edge.
Just before we left Chris had us arrange in a semi circle around him as he did one last safety briefing.He first introduced us to his 19 and a 1/2 inch Pink Stiffy (his bike) before he explained in detail what to expect.The 68kms was divided into several sections and we would stop after each one to ensure everyone was doing okay and to do another briefing before we tackled the next part.To pacify the mountain spirits the Bolivians traditionally spilt blood from livestock but we made do with alcohol and christened the front tire of our bikes before having a swig ourselves.We then set off in single file, every biker giving the proceeding one a wide berth in case of crashes.There was one guide in front and one in back, all followed by the tourbus that was acting as a support vehicle in the event of an emergency.This was it!
The air at this altitude was cold, bitter and thin.The wind immediately began to assault us as we picked up speed, whipping around any loose clothing and biting into any parts of our face that wasn't covered.The first section or two was on solid tarmac, a nice easy start.The snow capped mountains in the distance looked on impassively as we wheeled along, everyone getting used to the feel of their bikes and the ground beneath them.As Bolivians drive on the right (like most South American countries) we were on the side closest to the edge and had a good view of the drop hundreds of feet below us.I was concentrating a bit too much on the scenery when a car roared right by me nearly knocking me off my bike.I had momentarily forgotten that while it may seem at times that we have the road to ourselves it is still in full use by hundreds of motorists every day.I decided to be a bit more attentive after that.
We soon stopped at a rocky ridge where there was a spectacular view of the road ahead as it snaked downwards into the distant mist.Chris checked everyone was settling in okay and gave a few more pieces of advice before we set off again.I was starting to warm to my bike, but otherwise the rest of my body was getting cold.Janelle was directly in front of me so my pace was determined by how fast or slow she felt safe going.And she was definitely not rushing anything, though I of course couldn't blame her for that.We passed through the first section or two with no problems whatsoever.We stopped at a drug checkpoint where there we were just waved through and continued on through tunnels cut directly through the mountain.I was starting to really enjoy myself when we came to another halt where half the bikers had already dismounted and were standing around Chris who was talking intently.Turns out we'd reached the one section of the Road that is uphill.Chris explained that most people preferred to secure their bikes on the roof of the bus while they rode inside but that if anyone was keen they could push ahead with him.Janelle was already on the bus when I decided, in an act of regrettable lunacy, that I could handle the hills ahead.
The few of us who decided to continue took off layers of clothing on Chris' advice and filled our canteens while the remaining blkers settled comfortably on the bus.Chris pushed off first followed by a couple of other bikers who, I later discovered, were ardent mountian bikers themselves.I was left behind with two others who, like me, were complete novices at this sort of thing but who were determined to test themselves regardless.The road instantly became steeper and we all switched up to the higher gears.Of the Road's 64km length, 8kms of it were uphill though I was (needless to say) unaware of this at the time.The air in my lungs began to burn with a fierce intensity and my legs pumped harder and harder.I broke out in a heavy sweat which further chilled me in the high misty air.Fortunately though each uphill had a corresponding downhill where we'd get our breath back and coast down.At this stage Chris and the two others had long since disappeared and the three of us left struggled to keep going, the bus driving patiently behind us all the while.
The air at this altitude, which was about 3,500 now was still quite thin and made it extrememley difficult to pedal on level ground let alone up steep inclines.And considering that I had only recently recovered from a bout of altitude sickness myself I was starting to seriously reconsider my decision.The driver of the bus had made it clear that we could stop at any time and get back on but so far I had resisted the temptation.Until, that is, we crested another hill and saw the largest one yet up ahead.I fell of my bike, breathing furiously and sweating copiously despite the cold.No more!I'm done!!The driver had seen me dismount and had pulled the bus over and opened the door.The guide who had stayed with us frantically encouraged me on, promising us that this hill was the final one and that we were nearly there.So be it.I lifted my bike up off the ground, climbed on and put both feet back on the pedals.That last hill was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life!Each inch was a struggle and every breath was my last.But I finally, painfully made it to the top.And what did I see but more hills up ahead, many more.That sneaky Bolivian!Cursing his ancestry I kept going, the adrenaline from cresting the hill propelling me onwards.
Just at that moment the dark clouds overhead that had been threatening to break all day finally opened up in a downpour worthy of rainforests everywhere.We were all soaked through instantly.We grudgingly kept cycling, our actions no longer fully conscious but the result of a stubborness that knew no relief.Until eventually we spotted, far up ahead the outlines of Chris and the others leaning on their bikes and shivering in the rain.We fell off our bikes and into the bus, greeted by a round of applause from those who had stayed behind.It felt like we'd reached the end when it reality it was only the beginning.
The end of the uphill section also marked the beginning of the Death Road for real.The smooth tarmac we had been on all morning gave way to rough stony gravel which at this stage was already dangerously slippery.Any guidebook will tell you that The Death Road is only advisable in dry weather and that to attempt it in anything else was suicide.In fact they specifically warned against booking with agencies that brought backpackers out in the wet season.
While it was still technically the dry season this was the rainforest after all and getting wet was just a fact of life here.Chris gathered us around for another briefing, one that was much more sombre and serious than the others.He repeated his earlier warnings about the very real risk the Road posed, although this time he threw in some more unsettling facts to illustrate his point.In the event of a serious emergency the nearest hospital was in La Paz, some three hours away.They only responded to call outs in person and with cash payment up front.No phone calls, no credit.Helicopters were generally useless because of the mountainous terrain and the near constant mist.He then told us in a matter of fact tone the story of the single fatality the company had ever had, a French girl who had dismounted on the wrong side of her bike and had slipped hundreds of feet over the edge.She had fallen too far for ropes to reach her and lay screaming in agony as the group above could do nothing but wait for help to arrive.She died just as the ambulance got there, too little too late.
Suitably horrorfied and with the story still ringing in our ears we set off once again, the mist thick enough now to shroud the person ahead of you completely.The rain had settled to a fine drizzle and everyone was going slow.Suddenly the trail we were on opened up completely and the left side of the track just fell away in a white blanket of fog.Maybe it was just as well we couldn't see how high up we were.One last thing about the Death Road; while Bolivians generally drive on the right (which would keep us safely on the inside wall of the mountain) the rules for the Death Road were a bit different and it was the traffic coming UP the hill that had right of way.Which meant that for the entire journey down we'd be required by law to keep to the left, right at the mountain's edge!This seemed to me just one thing too far!
As we continued on we broke through the fog and the entire vista suddenly became visible to us for the first time.The road we were on was a combination of muddy soil and stony gravel and was pitted with deep rivulets that had formed over the years.The view on our left however was nothing short of spectacular; distant mountains loomed large in the mist, their entire surfaces covered with a thick layer of flourishing green trees and ferns while dark luminous clouds still gathered on the horizon.Ahead of us the road meandered ever down into the distance and contained a dizzying array of sharp turns and bends.Up ahead a small waterfall cascaded directly onto our path and would have seemed scenic had we not had to ride straight through it.But it was to the very edge of the road where our gazes were collectively drawn; the sheer drop into the green wilderness far below was now terriflyingly visible to us and in some ways I think I preferred it when we couldn't see it.
But we didn't have time to admire the view, perfect as it was.Each of us was busy concentrating on the piece of road directly ahead of us.We splashed through the waterfall in an instant, the freezing water finding its way down my back though truth be told I was still wet from the earlier soaking.The road became just the few feet directly in front of my front tire as I negotiated around rocks and over bumps, my fingers constantly pumping the brakes.My hands were starting to go numb through the gloves and I was finding it hard to maintain a decent grip.And to top it off the bike's suspension was taking an almighty pounding from the rocky terrain, so much so that I was painfully bouncing around on my saddle ever since we'd left the safety of the tarmac.
To my relief we stopped for lunch soon after.Chris and the other guide passed around pre wrapped sandwiches and soft drinks as the rest of us shared jokes and nervous laughter.The biking hadn't seemed too difficult but you could easily see how a moments loss of concentration or a mechanical failure could cost you your life.We had passed by numerous black crosses dug firmly into the edge of the road, each one marking the spot where some unlucky soul or another had lost their life.They were a constant reminder to remain alert, if one was needed.Chris was giving us some more advice on the next section as I was rubbing the feeling back into my numb fingers.Apparently there were some rocky outcrops up ahead that jutted out into the road and failing to spot one in time could shatter your shoulder and/or send you flying.Death wasn't the only thing to worry about up here it seemed; broken femurs, busted knees, shattered shoulder blades, torn cheeks.....Chris had unfortunately seen them all and he warned us again to remain cautious.
We set off once we'd eaten our fill, the ground becoming even rougher the further down we went.The mist and rain had dried up at this stage though the road remained slick.Most of us were becoming increasingly familiar with our bikes and had speeded up and were really starting to enjoy the biking, even pulling wheelies and skids.I took out my small camcorder at one stage to record some footage though it proved next to impossible to ride with one hand (not to mention dangerously stupid).The distances between the riders had increased substantially and at times it could feel like you were all alone up here.The longer we rode the more confident we became, but this was something we had been warned about.In reality we were only getting more and more tired and hence more liable to make a fatal mistake.The most dangerous part of the road wasn't particulary narrow or trickier than any other section, it just happened to be at a point where exhaustion kicked in and bikers let their concentration ebb.All it took was one small mistake and you'd fly over the edge.It was that simple.We had been biking for some four or five hours now and tiredness was beginning to set in.This was when we had to be the most vigilant.
We continued on through another two sections with no problems.The distant sun was lowering on the horizon and I prayed that the end was near.We were all tired, nearing that potentially fatal stage of exhaustion.It struck me suddenly that we hadn't run into any vehicles coming up the road and how strange that was.Chris seemed to think so too, though he seemed to take it as a good omen.He shared with us another of his colourful stories to illustrate a point about a tricky part of the road that lay ahead.There was a large rockpile just after a tight turn and you had to approach it very carefully.A cocky English biker had been riding far too fast when he reached this particular bit and slammed on his brakes too hard.He flipped over his bike's handlebars landing on the rough gravel and, as Chris put it so succinctly, "tore himself a new arsehole!'We all immediately slowed right down.
Finally, when it seemed we were all running on pure adrenaline and nothing else we reached the last obstacle, a freezing river that flowed directly over the path of the road and dropped down into the valley below.It wasn't particularly swift but it was a few feet deep and we had to build up a fair burst of speed before we could splash through it.Everyone got soaked, from their shoes right up to their shins.Luckily we could now see that the ending was in sight and upped our speed, spurred on by thoughts of a cold beer and a hot shower.We reached the small ramshackle town of Yolosa not long after and passed through it triumphantly to the gross indifference of the locals.We dropped our expensive bikes unceremoniously in the dirt and pulled off our sweaty dirty clothing, still wet from all the waterfalls, rivers and rain.Throwing them into a pile at the door of the bus we crossed over a small bridge into La Senda Verde, an animal refuge strangely located at the base of the road just before Coroico itself.Everyone collapsed into wooden chairs and with tired arms raised a toast to the Road, the Mountain, its Spirits and anyone else we could think of.Only after one of the monkeys had run off with an empty beer bottle did we find the energy to move.We trudged toward the changing rooms and had steaming hot showers and a change of clothes before being fed heaped plates of pasta from the kitchen.Afterward, those with the energy went off to explore the sanctuary and play with the animals including the monkeys who were notorious for stealing from tired backpackers.We left not long after and fell into our seats on the bus outside.
The bike ride down however only seemed to be half the experience.To me and Janelle the ride back up was far more terrifying.We'd sat at the back beside the window and had a birds eye view of the perilous drop directly below us.At times the road seemed to just disappear altogether and you could see right down the tumbling cliffside into the valley below.The bus shook and jerked with every turn and the gears squealed as the driver negotiated his way up the tricky inclines.It was far too apparent how dangerous this still was; at least biking down it we'd been too engrossed in staying on the path to let the fear really sink in.But on the bus with our lives in the hands of a small casual Bolivian at the wheel it was all too real.But, there was nothing for it but to sit back and hope he knew what he was doing and to trust in whatever gods you believed in.We made it back safely of course despite the crazy Bolivian at the wheel.You'd have to be crazy to do a job like that day in day out.It had been an exciting, exhilarating ride, one which we both thoroughly enjoyed despite the danger and would do again in an instant.We'd survived the World's Most Dangerous Road.Now all we had to do was survive getting to Peru.

Posted by Janelle_B 15:26 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking

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