This was one of our most difficult decisions we’ve made so far on this trip. Dusty didn’t want to go. I wanted to but didn’t want to force him into it. While in La Paz, we hemmed and hawed about it almost every day. We didn’t want to miss out on something totally awesome, however, we also didn’t want to die! The dangers seemed even more great considering it was rainy season. We’re not adrenaline junkies or thrill seekers. I just wanted to see this thing but the only way to do so was to ride down it. After I got a few beers in him, Dusty caved and we were signed up the next day to mountain bike down The World’s Most Dangerous Road.
Yungas Road, or Death Road, has its nickname because the of hundreds of people who died while traveling it every year. This was when cars and buses used it several years ago. The large numbers would often be a result of a bus tumbling down the side of the mountain with a hundred people in it. You see, it’s a dirt road with waterfalls pouring down on it, as well as only one lane wide but used for travel in both directions. A new road has opened since and only bikers and an occasional car use it now.
The morning of our Death Road ride, we were picked up by our tour company, Altitude Mountain Biking, and headed to our first stop where we put on our gear and learned about our bikes. We’re really glad we chose Altitude because of the gear they gave us. We saw other groups who were riding in their shorts which seemed a bit insane considering that at our beginning altitude of 15,420 feet, it was snowing and then later pouring down rain. We put on rain ponchos and tied the bottoms between our legs. This helped keep our backsides dry when the back wheel kicked up a bunch of water as we road through the rain. On top of that we wore heavy pants and jackets. Not only did that help keep us warm but probably would have decreased road rash had we wiped out.
The beginning of our ride was on a part of the new road, a long stretch of pavement which we rode for about 30 minutes. This section was good for us mountain biking novices. It gave us time to get used to the bikes before having to deal with the cliff. In this section, we had to contend with large trucks on the road which we usually passed because they were going so slow. Besides the trucks, there was also the rain to deal with which was coming down hard and at one point froze. Little needles stabbing your face while you’re negotiating traffic on a mountain bike is quite a lot to deal with at once. Dusty had to take his glasses off at one point because they froze. We then reached a part where the road went uphill, so we packed up the bikes and hopped in the mini vans. Our next stop would be the beginning of Death Road.
Once at the beginning of the old road, we were lined up and warned about what was ahead. At this point we couldn’t see anything around the bend and this was the most dangerous part of the ride. Needless to say, we were nervous! On one side was to be the mountain and occasional waterfall. On the other side was a cliff with drops no less then 600 feet. Sure, sounds fun! We were instructed to stay in a single file line and that we would be stopping in a few minutes to regroup and discuss the following section. Just before we took off our guide says, “So, do you guys want some history about this road?…No, wait, we’ll do that at the end!” Very comforting…and thank you! :)
We began riding the bumpy dirt road, being sure not to take in the beautiful Bolivian mountain scenery and concentrating only on where our bikes were headed. We stopped about 10 minutes into the ride to get a good look at what we were dealing with, the cliff. By the way, that’s not me standing so close to the edge in the panoramic picture. That’s just dumb!
We stopped quite often during the ride to take in scenery and receive instructions. Looking back now, we realize that some of the stops were to avoid some of the most dangerous sections. We found out that this section (pictured below) with the waterfalls is particularly dangerous. Last year, one biker was goofing around with a friend when he went over the edge. Another incident was with a guide who was explaining how the other guy had died there. While taking pictures of other travelers, his bike started to fall down and he ended up going with it. We were happy we didn’t learn about these occurrences until after our ride.
The rest of the ride was very methodical as we made our descent into lower altitudes. Ride, concentrate, rest, strip layers of gear, repeat. Both Dusty and I were conscious of our thoughts and tried desperately not to let them drift to thinking about each others whereabouts. This was one of our concerns while trying to decide whether to try this trip. One fear was obviously going over the edge. The other was not being able to concentrate because we were worrying about if the other person was going over the edge. Both of us still struggled with this despite our best intentions not to.
Finally, we arrived at the bottom of the road at Coroico, a town at an altitude of only 3,900 feet. In the 5 hours of biking, we descended 11,360 feet and were now in the tropics. We enjoyed celebratory beers, thanks to our guide, as he began to share the history of the road. There aren’t concrete numbers recorded, but we were told that about 35 bikers have died on this road over the past ten years. He told us about the three riders from last year including the goofing off biker and the guide taking pictures. The third was a girl who was fiddling with her goggles, which we didn’t wear, when she went over the edge. Our guide told us that most of the people who have died have been experienced mountain bikers going too fast and missing critical turns. Also very interesting, about 11-13 people, or one third of the bikers who have died, have been from Israel. “They have macho attitudes and don’t listen to instructions.”, said our guide.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing at a hostel pool and reflecting on what we had just done. After hearing those stories from our guide, I’m now more scared than I was before or during our ride!
Click here to see more pictures of the ride. Don’t worry, the pictures and video taken while riding were captured by our “paparazzi”, not us. We’re not that stupid!