Bolivia’s Death Road- The Ultimate Adrenaline Thrill
Purely the name, Death Road, creates intrigue in every traveller’s mind. The official name of the road in question is Yungas Road, but I quickly came to realise that nobody calls it that. It was the one thing that I could not escape the mention of as soon as I arrived in the city of La Paz. For backpackers it was a badge of honour, they had visited and survived the most dangerous road in the world. For those who lived in La Paz, it was a road that everyone knew, and many had a deep personal connection to.
The road was constructed in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War. They carved it into the sides of the mountains. Only approximately 3 metres wide, the road twists and turns down the mountain. Passing under waterfalls and through dense vegetation it constantly has drops of 1000 metres to the valley floor below. The road climbs to over 4000 metres above sea level at La Cumbre Pass. Then, it’s a 43 mile (69km) stretch down to the jungle town of Coroico.
As the name would suggest, the road itself is deadly. Until 2007, when a new road was opened connecting La Paz and Coroico, it was the main highway to the Bolivian jungle. It is estimated that between 200 and 300 people died every year on the highway, leading the Inter-American Development Bank to declare it the “World’s Most Dangerous Road”.
However, as the road traffic began to decrease, and the international standing of the road began to increase, Death Road became a tourist attraction for the bravest travellers to Bolivia. Numerous tour companies appeared, offering thrill seekers the opportunity to mountain bike down Death Road. Even this has not been without tragedy. 13 cyclists have lost their lives on the road since the beginning of the 1990s.
I knew all of this when I set foot in La Paz. However, the opportunity to say that I had completed one of the most dangerous and thrilling activities in the whole world was one I could not ignore. Very rarely do I get nervous. When I went bungee jumping, I asked if they were ready to let me go, my desire to jump was just that great. However, the day before going down Death Road I really began to feel the nerves. Plenty of activities make you sign your life away, absolving them of blame before you start but never had I felt that this was even a possibility until I was facing Death Road.
Eventually the day came. I had called my parents the night before to warn them of what I was doing the next day, something that they were not best pleased about. I awoke early and was ushered into a van with a group of 12 people. From here I realised there was no turning back. This was it; I was going to cycle down DEATH ROAD.
We arrived at a large shed on the outskirts of La Paz. This was where we would be provided with all of our equipment. It did give me a crumb of comfort to see the level of precision that the tour providers gave to us when handing over our helmets, knee pads and gloves. Each were fitted so that they matched our size perfectly and all of the bikes were thoroughly checked to ensure that they were up to scratch. We were also given a large jumpsuit to wear over our clothes, which resembled a 70s skiing outfit more than any of us would have hoped. Breakfast was also provided but I am not sure many of us ate. The realisation that we had signed our lives away was beginning to really hit home.
Before we knew it, it was time to head off for the road. We were dropped off at La Cumbre Pass where for the first time it became just us and our bikes. The first 20kms is on a perfectly tarmacked road. All 12 of us were joking about how easy this was, overtaking one another at will. However, it quickly became clear that this was just the warmup, and nothing could prepare me for what came next.
As soon as we turned off the tarmacked road onto the gravel track, it seemed as though the weather instantly changed. It was colder, the clouds had come in restricting our view and it suddenly started to rain. The leader of the tour set off at the front and then that was it. We had begun our trip down Death Road. The brakes on my bike suddenly became my best friend. My fingers hovered over them at all times ready to grab them at any second. The sheer concentration that was required to stay on the bike at the start of the descent was mind blowing. All I could focus on was the road. Avoiding pothole after pothole, ensuring that I missed the wettest bits and above all, staying away from the edge.
As we descended further, I began to relax a bit more. I had time to look up and absorb the road we were travelling down. It was now that I really noticed the drop that was just to the left of me. It truly was a sheer cliff, completely unforgiving. Every few hundred metres there was another cross by the side of the road. Sometimes they had names or flowers on to commemorate the thousands who had lost their lives on the very road which I was cycling down.
I passed through a waterfall, carefully as to not slip on the wet gravel and just as I had navigated it successfully, I heard a yell. One of my group had fallen off. As he approached the turn, he had yanked on his breaks too hard and gone straight over his handlebars. Thankfully he was unhurt but for me it brought back that nervous, twisted feeling in my stomach that I had done so well to lose.
We stopped frequently along the way. For photos, drinks and even an opportunity to zipwire along the side of the road. Each stop was a welcome relief. A few minutes where the concentration on avoiding injury was no longer dominating your mind. Unlike bungee jumping which lasts a few minutes at most, the cycle down Death Road was 4 perilous hours long. It really is the ultimate test of not only your physical cycling ability, but also your mental strength to concentrate for such a long period.
Once we had finally reached the end of the road, with numerous falls, flat tires, and other mechanical problems, all of which were excellently dealt with by the tour leaders that we were looked after by, we were taken to a hotel for lunch. Exhausted from our trip, we were able to eat lunch and relax by the pool. Here we were given our T-Shirts that read “I survived Death Road” and surviving really did feel like an accomplishment. Eventually, we set off on our 3 hour drive back to La Paz. (Thankfully, we did not take Death Road back in the opposite direction.)
As we got back to La Paz, I realised why so many backpackers had spoken to me about Death Road. It is unique and truly the ultimate thrill seeking activity.