Surviving the World’s Most Dangerous Road – tackling Death Road on a bike isn’t for the faint hearted, but offers a rush like no other…
Surviving the World's Most Dangerous Road
“This might just be the most stupid thing that I’ve ever done.” I thought to myself as I gripped the handlebars and hurtled along. The ground was slick with moisture and there was a 1,000 foot drop to the valley floor only a few feet to my left. . A distinct lack of barriers and it having been some 10 years (at least) since I’d last been on a bike had me on edge.
Back up three months and I’m at down in London at my friend Lucy’s flat, planning our trip to South America. We were trying to agree on how to spend a few days in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz…
Me: “let’s do Death Road”
Lucy: “hell no”
Me: “oh go on, it will be so much fun”
Lucy: “no it won’t”
Me: “it’s totally safe. Look here, at this photo of this random old dude who did it. Surely if he can manage it…”
Half an hour later she finally breaks: “fine, let’s do it”. Excellent, I thought.
Jumping back to the present day and I’m not so sure. The road – no more than a dirt track – is slick from the morning’s fog and I’m conscious about the huge drop off only a few metres away.
We perch, legs dangling over the side, posing for that perfect group shot.
~ A deadly history ~
The North Yungas Road links La Paz with the Amazon region of Bolivia. Its colloquial ‘Death Road’ nickname derives from a dangerous and bloody past. A past which started during the Chaco War in the 1930s, when Paraguayan prisoners of war built the road. Estimates are that, on average, 200-300 people died using the road each year between the 1950s and 1990s. These deaths resulted from a combination of rainy weather, tight turns, limited visibility and a lack of guardrails. In 1995, the Interamerican Development Bank declared it as the ‘world’s most dangerous road’, sealing Death Road’s notoriety.
Death Road snakes through its jungle surroundings
~ The Ritual ~
The day begins in a nondescript car park atop of the Bolivian high plains, at the La Cumbre pass. We’re riding with Gravity Assisted Mountian Biking and our guide, Linda, gives us a quick safety briefing. Next, there’s a good luck ritual. Now, I’m not usually one for superstition and all that kind of mumbo jumbo, but we are about to ride down the world’s most dangerous road, so I’ll take all the good luck and positive vibes that I can get!
Linda hands out a bottle of alcohol, the kind of thing you can pick up from the witches market in La Paz. It’s pure gasoline. I tip the bottle, pouring a small amount onto the ground and then onto my front tyre (half curious if the alcoholic strength will prove to be corrosive) in an offering to Pachamama (essentially the South American Mother Earth). Thankfully, the rubber tyre doesn’t dissolve! I take a swig from the bottle; the alcohol burns my throat and instantly warms my insides. For this, I’m thankful – we are at an elevation of more than 15,000 feet, exposed to the elements and surrounded by snowcapped peaks – it isn’t warm.
~ Just like riding a bike ~
Time to get going. The first part of the journey takes place on a newer road, which winds and hairpins down from the high plains. My bike is quick to pick up speed on the smooth asphalt and the descent is rapid. At this altitude the weather is unpredictable and there is intermittent rain and hailstone. The wind and the icy conditions sting my face to the point of numbness and my eyes water in a continuous stream. I hear nothing but the roar of the wind as I hurtle along. It’s fun though – as my confidence with the bike increases, so does my speed. This cycling malarky is pretty easy.
Linda stops us every so often and we gather round as she offers advice on the upcoming stretch of road. Her local knowledge goes a long way. One of these stops takes place amidst an abandoned drug check post, a relic of times gone by.
~ The hounds of hell ~
My new found confidence takes a hit as I watch three stray dogs chase down the rider ahead of me. They appear out of thin air from the side of the road. Like missiles locked onto a target they run straight for him. The dogs jump at his bike, paws swiping and jaws snapping. One nudges his rear wheel, but he maintains his balance and pedals onwards at a furious pace. I’m the next rider in line and witness all this from about 30 feet away. My heart hammers in my chest, adrenaline coursing through my veins. In my head, I have visions of the dogs turning and coming straight for me. That fear of losing control, crashing and a resulting mauling.
Ahead, the dogs lose interest in their pursuit and drift to the side of the road. I position myself on the centreline of the road, mindful not to drift into oncoming traffic. As I approach where the dogs are, my legs are creating revolutions at I rate that I didn’t know was possible. I’m pedalling like Sir Chris Hoy in an Olympic final, minus the safer indoor conditions. I speed past the position of the strays, half expecting to break the sound barrier. No boom is forthcoming and, I’m thankful that no dogs are either. I continue to ride, checking back over my shoulder until the dogs are but a speck in the distance.
~ Welcome to the Jungle ~
Eventually, we reach the old road and the group poses for an obligatory photo under the Death Road sign. A quick safety briefing later and we are back under way, ready to dice with death once again.
A quick pose before tackling the old road
The change in scenery is dramatic – gone are the snow capped peaks and slick asphalt, replaced by green vegetation and a gravelly trail. There’s an energy in the air – part excitement, part adrenaline and part fear. We navigate a series of tight switch backs on the narrow road. My arms are shaking; partly from the rocky uneven surface and partly in fear. It’s at this point that a thought pops into my head: “this might just be the most stupid thing that I’ve ever done”. There’s a thousand foot drop 6 feet to my left and the quantity of guard railing is sparse.
Contrary to every other road in Bolivia, on Death Road you stay on the left (because it makes passing easier in the dangerous conditions). As cyclists, this meant sticking to the precarious cliffside – the one with 1000 foot drop off! As a result, I hang towards the back of the group for a few kilometres to get used to the new conditions. It isn’t long though before I start racing and overtaking again. The experience is one of pure adrenaline. The views aren’t too shabby either. This part of the road snakes along the side of the Andes Mountains, with spectacular panoramas across the lush cloud forest, below.
Death Road's setting is spectacular
~ Broken bones ~
At this point you’re likely thinking: come one Chris, for real, how dangerous is Death Road? Well, at this point of the journey I’m racing, pushing myself to my upper limits and having so much fun. A massive grin etched across my face. A couple of riders from the group have pulled over ahead so I hit the breaks and skid to a stop. One of the guys is sat on the floor next to his bike. He looks dazed and there’s blood. Rocks litter the old road and, if you aren’t careful, the bigger ones are liable to cut your ride short. We later learn that he’d hit one of these rocks, flown over the handlebars and fractured his collarbone. The group waits for our minibus to catch up and take our fallen comrade. I hope he had travel insurance! It’s timely reminder that one must never underestimate Death Road.
Hanging over the edge
~ Race to the end ~
We continue on and, for a while, everybody’s speed is that little bit slower. Like any good story, there’s one final scare to be hand. Waterfalls cascade down the cliff faces and across the road. An avalanche, caused by the rains and a waterfall cascading down the cliff face has dislodged part of the road. All that’s left is a precarious, thin strip of track. We gather at the top and Linda sends us down one by one. There’s an option to walk if anybody isn’t feeling up to it. I opt to ride and I’m half way down when I tap the breaks. For the briefest of seconds my heart ascends to my throat as my rear wheel lurches towards the chasm below. I keep balance and reach sturdier ground below.
We’ve navigated the most dangerous parts of the road and the slope becomes more gentle. Throughout the descent there has been a steady increase in temperature and humidity and it’s time to whip off the jumpsuits. From here on I pedal like a maniac, transforming the river and valley below into a green and blue blur. My inner child comes to the forefront and before I know it I’m launching off small bumps, searching for air. It’s such good fun. We splash through a creek and, in no time at all, the group has reached the finish line. Time for a celebratory beer.
Celebrating with a well earned beer
~ Worthy of the name? ~
Okay, so the road isn’t as dangerous as it used to be. However, the moniker of ‘it used to be the most dangerous but now quite safe if you are sensible road’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. As my group experienced first hand, even with the best planning and guides, accidents can and do happen. Mountain biking down Death Road is a fun, adrenaline-filled experience. It was definitely one of the highlights during my time in Bolivia. My advice would be to have fun but make sure you respect the road, for she takes no prisoners. I’ve also put together an article setting out 10 tips for surviving Death Road.
Have you survived the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ or are you thinking about riding it in the future? Let me know, below.