There’s a gentle little stretch of road weaving its way from La Paz to Coroico, Bolivia, negotiating a 3500m descent from snow-capped mountain ridges, over 61 kilometres, to the humid Bolivian rainforest. It’s called the North Yungas road, and up until 15 years ago it was the only thoroughfare between the two cities.
Normally one road would suffice. There’s only one road between say Jamestown and Wirrabara, and we get by just fine. But this is Bolivia. And when they build roads, there seems to be a heavy mist of ‘that’ll do’ for these projects. I imagine construction went something along the lines of;
‘Greg, what about that 600m vertical drop there?’
‘Did we want, like, a guardrail or something?’
‘To stop people, you know, falling and shit’
‘People won’t have to drive off the cliff when they’ve got a road’
‘Too easy, and how wide did you want it?’
‘Oh, how wide’s a bus?’
‘About 2 metres’
So they built a 2 way road that often seems thinner than a car, with no railing covering the up to 600m vertical drop on one side, and set trucks and buses on it. And you can just DEAL WITH IT. So the hardy Bolivians did, with mixed results. Generally one young lad or lady went rolling down the cliff per day, 300 or so killed per annum, with peaks after heavy rain or in heavy fog. After a while, some sharp fuck at the Bolivian roads department said ‘HOLD UP – what if we make a road that’s not a deathtrap??’ to rapturous applause. An alternative highway was built and Death Road has since turned into a mountain bike HEAVEN, with the odd tourist bus or idiot truck driver for the cyclists to contend with. And we tackled it as such.
We got picked up from our hotel early on a brisk Tuesday morning and got dropped to La Cumbre Pass, the highest point of the road that lies just past the crusty outskirts of La Paz proper. We ate stale cake and got kitted out in the finest yet cheapest biking threads Bolivian coinage can buy. We popped our chosen hog between our legs and set off downhill.
The first section is pure highway – a gentle slope that meanders through a valley with perfectly smooth tarmac to roll on. Siz led the way and I’ve gotta say outpaced me for most of the section. I was jealously impressed. I’m also proud to say my self-control got the better of my jealous man-rage to throw a stick into her spokes. Go Fishy.
At the end of the section the tarmac stopped and we took a short van ride to the start of death road proper. The drive started in clear blue skies but as we descended we found ourselves coming into heavy fog and cloud – visibility got down to maybe 50 metres and the erotic mountain views became sheets of greyscale. We poured out the van and back onto the treaddlies, and were given the rules of the road:
- If you need to pass, shout and aim mountain-side – stick cliff side otherwise
- Don’t be a hero – go at your own pace
- Have fun
- No photos while riding – as bulk amount of likes as a pre-death selfie would rack up, it’s just not worth it
So off we trotted down the muddy, rocky, potholed road, sheer cliff-face on one side, sheer drop into nothingness on the other. Our guides led the way, and again Siz set off after them like they owed her a Twix. It was bloody impressive to watch, and I wondered whether the fact we couldn’t see where we would fall if shit went down was helping. I was personally shitting bricks in keeping up with her, but in an adrenaline pumping, this-is-friggin-unreal sort of a way. The best type of shits.
It’s hard to describe the feel of the ride. The danger doesn’t seem real in a way. Through the haze you can still see the amount that you’re gunna tumble if you make a wrong move, but because the cliff is usually covered in foliage I found myself thinking that I could just grab onto a branch if it happened. It wouldn’t have worked, but telling myself that let me enjoy the views and burn through it like a bit more of a mad-dog.
The further we went down the warmer and clearer it became. The sheer cliffs gave way to more slopey forest, the muddy road gave way to dry dust, and the full bike jumpsuit gave way to a striptease act of sweaty clothes stank. The last section being cliffless, me, Siz and our turbo mate Rachel burnt down it as fast as we could, each of us finding a bush at some point along the way. We finished on the side of a road just outside of Coroico and posed in our freshly earnt I-kicked-death-road-in-the-dick tee shirts for celebratory happy-snaps.
As part of the whole deal we got a buffet feed beside a hotel pool to recuperate, before starting the 3 hour drive back to La Paz. Funnily enough one of the most full-on times of the whole day was when we were comatose in the back of the van, and drove into a landslide. There were boulders the size of sheep rolling either side of us and breaking guardrails on the side of the road, but the driver was so chill-as-fuck about it that we presumed it was a daily occurrence.
All in all I’d rate death road 0.5/5 as a civil construction project, but 5/5 as an experience. We survived, even if our jocks didn’t.