Standing in the clouds at 4,650 metres, we put on our protective gear. Today, we’re riding down the Bolivian death road.
I eschew the knee pads and shoulder pads. If I miscalculate and end up going over the sheer drop at the edge of the road, they are not going to help. The full face helmet is welcome, especially after hearing stories of people falling off their handlebars and knocking out their teeth.
I inspect my mountain bike. Not the best, the handlebars are slightly misaligned, but the brakes feel firm and the quick releases are tight.
The first section is asphalt, it’s a nice way to ease myself in. At this stage, I’m more afraid of the heavy goods vehicles. Many of which back home have caused my heart to skip a beat.
The North Yungas Road, or the world’s most dangerous road as it was christened by the Inter-American Development Bank, received its name from the sheer number of people that have died traversing it. The road used to be the only way to get from La Paz to the Yungas region of the Amazon rainforest. Our guide tells us that over 100 people each year would die on this road. Other sources peg the number at 200 to 300.
Unlike the rest of Bolivia, vehicles drive on the left side of the road. An overcrowded bus or truck travelling down the narrow, often single lane road, would therefore move to the outer edge near the cliff, while the car coming up would overtake on the inside. In theory, this meant the driver had a better view of the wheel, to judge the edge.
When you mix this with a 600 metre drop, no guard rail and frequent rainy and cloudy conditions, you get the Bolivian death road.
Ironically, I feel much safer riding a bike, than being in a car. At least on the bike I’m in control of my own fate, in a car I would be leaving my life in the hands of the driver.
Fortunately, these days a safer road exists and few cars use this route. Although I still feel unnerved when we’re told by the guide to stick to the left. Something that immediately feels counter-intuitive as I cower for the safety of the right side of the road.
We’ve picked our tour company carefully. The most respected and most expensive is Gravity. Our company is called Altitude, it’s a little cheaper, but comes well recommended from fellow travellers and has a good safety record. I’ve heard mixed stories about the operators here, the worst being a company that gives you a shot of 95% ethanol at the start of the ride.
After pausing to admire the view, we grab the mandatory pictures and hop on our bikes. Our ride begins and soon we’ll be descending from 4,650 metres to 1,200 at the town of Coroico. Little do we know up here, with our warm jackets and wooly hats, but all being well, an hour from now, we’ll be sweating in our shorts and t-shirts, as we switch from the cold, barren mountains to the tropical rainforest.
After getting a better feel for the mountain bike, I relax in to the ride and try to stay focused on the road, despite the constant view to the left that claws for your attention. I catch a few glimpses off the side and spot the occasional battered and blackened out car. You can’t help but let your mind wonder about the dark past of this part of the world.
I momentarily lose control, as my bike slides on the muddy path without warning towards the edge, I struggle to regain my grip, in time to come to a stop. With my confidence a little shaken, I take a deep breath and vow to double down on my concentration. It’s incredibly fun and the adrenaline is certainly part of that. I feel safe on my bike but I don’t want to take any chances. I promise myself to take my time.
I’ve been drawn to South America since my first trip here, where I fell in love with both the landscape and a certain girl. Perhaps it is because it has many of the features I find missing from back home in England. There’s a vastness here that makes you feel small and I hardly sleep on the long bus journeys, too content with staring out the window, to waste time sleeping.
Whilst I’ve long since gone my separate ways with the girl, my feelings for South America have remained and that’s how I found myself here in Bolivia on this particular bike ride.
After two hours of riding, we reach the end of our ride. We receive our “I survived the Bolivian death road” t-shirts and are offered Red Bull. Everybody refuses. Drinking Red Bull is far too dangerous!
We excitedly compare notes on our experience and a few people report falling off their bike at some stage. Most the group return to La Paz to recount their adventures to fellow backpackers in the hostel bar, but three of us stay to relax in the town of Coroico.