The curve suddenly appeared in front of me.
I turned the handlebar and squeezed the brakes hard.
It was too late.
My bike skidded.
The downhill momentum had me crashing into the cliff side.
The World’s Most Dangerous Road claimed its latest (non-fatal) victim.
History of the Death Road
Built in the 1930s, the 64km Yungas Road starts at La Cumbre pass, at an elevation of 4850m and ends in the town of Coroico (1200m), connecting the administrative capital La Paz and the town.
The roads are only wide enough for a single car, but often used for two-way traffic, and it is estimated that during the 1980s, there was an average of 200-300 deaths per year due to the narrow 3m roads, hairpin turns, drunk drivers and forces of nature.
Unsurprisingly, it is grimly called Camino de la Muerte, or the Death Road.
The most famous incident happened in 1983 when an overcrowded bus fell off the side of the cliff, killing more than 100 people, taking with it men, women and children.
It was no wonder that in 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank named it as the "World’s Most Dangerous Road”.
Since 2008, a new road opened, bringing most vehicles over while the Death Road became a daredevil’s attraction. The change in altitude means going from the snowy Andean mountain range to the humid Amazonian rainforests, one of the most scenic bike rides I ever had.
“I have family and friends who love me, I’m not gonna do it. I treasure my life too much,” said my roommate, who refused to join me.
What is travel without a little risk?
The lady who sold me the tour has done it 7 times. An 8 year old girl did it. Surely, it can’t be that hard, right? I researched stories, conditions and skills needed, letting it all sink in.
However, unlike most travel bloggers who went with the most popular agencies, I simply signed up at the tour desk at my hostel, without knowing my agency. When you have to sign a waiver form for an activity, you know shit just got real.
I got picked up the next day punctually. Not bad for a start. There were only 3 other participants. Oh-oh.
We drove for an hour till the starting point, and were handed our gear: jacket, pants, gloves, arm and knee guards and of course, our bikes. A double-suspension bike, whatever that means.
Part 1: The World's Most Dangerous Road?
And then, off we go!
We rode down a winding but paved asphalt road, with the majestic green and brown mountains at our side dotted with little houses in the distance.
The downhill road was so smooth we hardly pedaled. We rode beside trucks and cars and close to the edge of the cliffs. The adrenaline pumped in our bodies while the cool wind struck our faces.
This is easy, I thought. They call this the Death Road? What’s the big deal?
It was only 40 min later when we stopped at a tunnel and our guide told us we had to bike through a gravel path around it. “This is how the actual road will be like.”
That was when I realized the first part was just a warm up on the new and paved road, to let us get used to our bikes.
We rode through the short gravel path and it was bumpy as hell; it was more rocks than gravel.
Crap. The second part is gonna get real fun.
But before that, we stopped for snacks and a toilet break, and hopped on our minibus for 8km to the actual starting point.
Part 2: The World's Most Dangerous Road!
This time, the road was a real challenge. Large stones, small rocks and potholes form the base of the road. Time and again, the question I asked myself was: to ride through them or to go around them?
Focus is the name of the game. I brought my Gopro but I hardly got to use it. You barely have the chance to look around and admire the spectacular scenery before realizing you’re heading for a 1000m drop.
We rode with the mountains on one side and the cliff edge on the other, railings missing for the main part. Daredevil cyclists would sometimes zoom past seemingly out of nowhere. A little waterfall soaked us, while the undying sun and gushing wind dried us again.
We stopped multiple times for photos, to catch our breath, and to admire the surreality of our surroundings. Numerous crosses and memorials sparsely dotted the road; a grim reminder of the fate of the careless.
Stories of people falling off the cliffs are of those that were unconfident, reckless, trying to take a photo or racing each other and cutting corners short, while forgetting about the occasional vehicles that are still on this road.
Even as I rode slowly and carefully, my bike still slipped many times, in the slippery rock and mud, when I applied the brakes.
Speaking of which, the almost-pure downhill ride is basically 90% squeezing the brakes and 10% pedaling. In fact, my hands started to cramp midway through from death gripping the brakes.
If you feel tired or unwell, you always have the option to sit back and relax in the minibus that follows behind. The driver and the guide leading us ensure we don’t get separated from the pack, and they also act as our photographers for the day.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the iconic fern-covered cliff, where many groups like to sit by the edge of the cliff for a great photo-op. I couldn’t miss this chance too!
I mentioned there is 10% pedaling, and this happens mainly towards the end of the road where there is an uphill path.
Coincidentally this is the time the sun is at its strongest, which makes this part a real challenge. I was getting heated, literally, by the sun and the extreme effort needed at this moment.
We stripped off our jackets at this final rest point and downed bottles of water. By this time, we have experienced the extremes in weather in one short morning.
Overconfidence comes when you thought you have conquered all the obstacles. Having ridden over 2 hours of the Death Road, having ridden past the upward section, all that was left was the familiar and (almost) effortless downhill road towards the end of the road.
This was also where I crashed into the mountainside.
My clean-sheet ride was over. I was shaken a little, but I didn’t fall. I recovered almost as quick as I crashed, got my footing right, and continued forward.
Not bad for someone who had no mountain biking experience.
One of my groupmates fell, and another’s bike chain broke. But we all made it to the end.
We ended our tour with a buffet lunch at a nearby hotel, with a swimming pool and showers. A relaxing conclusion for riding down the World’s Most Dangerous Road.
Points to Take Note:
- Besides paying the agency, there is a BOB $50 (Aug 2017) fee to access the Yungas Road.
- Bring a pair sunglasses, to shield from the sun, wind and dust.
- Wear layers, as you go from the high Andean cold to sunbaked hot.
- You can bring a bag for your water, changes of clothes and shower stuff. The minibus is always behind.
- The most popular Death Rode biking agencies are Gravity and Barracuda, known for their stellar safety track records. They are also the most expensive.
- I went with Freak Out Biking, a lesser known company with a hard-to-find office. Small is not always bad, as we only had 4 people in our group. That means more attention from the guide. But you get what you pay for: the bikes are not the best.
But if I can do it without any prior experience, anyone can do it too. I feel that this ride is fine for everyone as long as you can ride a bike and focus, and not get complacent.
And now, it’s your turn.