You must have heard about it and probably seen a lot of pictures in those viral sites or on TV, including the popular show, Top Gear. I’m talking about the Yungas Road, also commonly known as the World’s Most Dangerous Road or Death Road.
This road is one of the few routes that connect the Amazon rainforest region of northern Bolivia, to the capital city of La Paz. Most of the road has enough width for a single lane, yet it must hold traffic from both directions – of both cars and trucks. So, when a driver faces incoming traffic, he must maneuver in the tight and treacherous space he has to continue his journey.
This infamous narrow dirt road is cut precariously into the side of the mountain with sheer vertigo-inducing drops off on one side and hulking rock overhangs and cascading waterfalls on the other. There are no guardrails for most of the path.
The road became famous in the 1990’s after several accidents happened on a recurring basis. Cars and buses plummeted down its cliffs of up to 600 meters in height (2,000 feet), killing most people instantly.
Since then, a new Yungas Road was built to hold most of the traffic, but still, several cars use the old road to connect with some of the smaller towns and villages located next to it. Death Road’s fame has attracted thousands of thrill-seekers looking for some adrenaline while biking down this narrow, unpaved road. And that, my friends, includes me!
I heard of Death Road years ago while watching the Discovery Channel, and since then I got curious about how it would feel to ride down that road. Recently, when I visited La Paz, the first thing I put on my agenda was to bike down this infamous road.
While I’m a thrill seeker at heart, I like to have high chances of surviving whatever I’m doing. Did you know that since 1998, at least 18 cyclists have died riding down Death Road? Yes, it is that dangerous. The cliffs are mortal, the traffic is real, and the danger is ever-present. I didn’t want to become part of that statistic, so I asked around for recommendations on the best and safest company to mountain bike down the world’s most dangerous road. Of the few recommendations I got, Gravity Assisted was the most convincing one, yet the most expensive one too. But, when it comes to safety, I don’t mind paying more. To date, Gravity has had zero fatalities on Death Road. I like those stats.
After signing the waivers (AKA. death wish) over a few beers, my friends and I planned for an early morning bike ride the next day.
We were picked in La Paz at around 7:30 am and we drove for about an hour to reach La Cumbre Pass – the highest point of our ride at 4,700 meters in height (15,400 feet). We were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the beautiful Altiplano terrain.
It was cold and the air was thin, so while we were on the high pass we prepped with warm biking gear and grabbed our semi-customized bikes to test them (according to specifications we gave the previous day). These were heavy-duty mountain bikes with some of the best and smoothest front and rear suspension you can find on the market. This is another reason why we decided to go with Gravity. We were getting more value for our money. And in my case, I wanted to have decent suspension so I wouldn’t “self-mutilate” my tushy with every single boulder I was about to hit.
Once we were ready and warm-ish, our guide, curiously named Wolf, proceeded to give us every bit of information we needed and all the safety instructions on how to ride down Death Road and how to use the bikes properly. He was very adamant about safety, and if any of us broke any of the safety rules, we would be immediately sent back to the bus – end of the ride. We all agreed and immediately started our 6 hours, 64km long ride.
Before heading on the road, there was one more thing we had to do. We had to pay respect to Pachamama (mother earth) by toasting to it with a small sip of 95% alcohol and spilling some more on our bikes. SERIOUSLY?! Are we drinking alcohol before riding this thing down Death Road?!!
And then immediately I started imagining every single possible outcome of this decision, but most of them ended in undesirable ways.
We would start at 4,700 meters above sea level in La Cumbre and finish 1,200 meters above sea level in Yolosa. What that means, for us bikers, is that we drop over 3,500 meters in just 64km of some of the most dangerous curves, deepest precipices, and unforgiving terrain – at high speeds!
To my surprise, the first 20 km or so were paved and smooth. It was good, as we all needed it to get used to our bikes and get comfortable with the speed we were biking. And let me tell you, we were biking fast! Those first 40 minutes were peachy. We descend rapidly down the twisting asphalted road among mountain peaks, passing through tiny villages and a drug check-post. Huh? The weather was cold and foggy, but there were some nice views every now and then. Still, the danger was present.
At one point, we stopped to enjoy the view and snap a few photos. There, Wolf told us, “Look down the cliff. You see that pile of metal? That was a public bus. A few years ago on New Year’s Day, it fell and killed everyone.” We all looked startled after seeing the first, of many, accident spots along the road.
A bit further along the road, we came to a “bikers toll,” where we bought a few snacks and paid 25 Bolivianos ($3.60) to enter the dangerous part of the road. And off we went.
As we transitioned from smooth paved roads to unpaved roads, we realized we were entering the jungle and the most challenging part of the ride. Riding over gravel and boulders was no picnic. As instructed, the faster we went, the more stable we would be. And, if we saw a big rock that we couldn’t avoid hitting, we would just hit it straight and not brake at all. In fact, they have a name for those huge annoying rocks on the road – “baby heads.” They are about the size of a baby head, or bigger, and if you hit it and brake over it, they will slide and make you fall. Not nice!
There were baby heads all over the place, so speed and balance were the order of the day. But, of course, it was not that simple, now we were facing some of the notorious cliffs, and as instructed, we were riding to the left of the road –where the cliff was– instead of the right side, where we had the protection of the mountain. Why? Riding on the left allowed us to see incoming traffic from further, especially on those tight turns. Still, most of the road is no wider than 3.2 meters (10 feet). How can this even be called a road?!
So, let’s do the math.
Baby heads + high speed + narrow road + riding much closer to the precipice + incoming traffic = REAL DANGER!
As the road got more challenging, everyone started to ride at their pace – the closest to comfort (even though there’s no real comfort on that road).
No matter how fast or slow I went, I felt every single vibration, every bump, and every rock. I felt how my muscles jiggled all over my arms; muscles I never thought could move that way. My hands and arms eventually got numb from the intense vibration. It was a weird combination of pain in my palms but total numbness on the rest of my lower arms. I felt like my body was close to being destroyed in pieces from all the intense vibration.
For the next four hours, I endured the roughness, but the pain was nothing compared to the adrenaline high I felt. We did several picture stops, rode through waterfalls, and enjoyed how the scenery changed from a cold Altiplano to a warm rainforest. We stopped at the famous Corners of Death, and San Juan Waterfalls to enjoy the feel and sound of the water flowing through the road and to enjoy the view –though it was foggy.
We sat at the edge of the cliff, and LORD, the view down my feet was terrifying! We took some time to learn a bit about the history of the road, which was originally built by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War between 1932 and 1935; and about some of its unfortunate deaths, based on the several crosses we could see along the road.
After hours of biking in such terrain, it was normal for us to feel comfortable with our biking skills, and honestly, a bit cocky. As Wolf told us, most accidents (fatal and non-fatal) happen by the end of the ride because people feel too comfortable and stop being cautious.
And that even happened to us.
At one point, I had a scary moment when I felt like I was going too fast and had no time to take the guardrail-less sharp turn ahead. Luckily, I made it, but after that moment my heart beat so hard it could almost break out of my chest. “Be careful, Norbert,” I told myself over and over after that.
My friends Henry and Tom also had very close calls with a cliff in similar situations. In Henry’s case, he came sooooo close to the edge we all thought he was about to fall, for real.
Luckily, by the end of the ride, none in our group fell the cliff, nor fell on the road. Before we started, Wolf made us bet on who would pay the first round of beers at the bar by the end of the ride. If any of us fell, that person would pay the round; if no one fell, then Wolf would pay for it. Wolf paid.
After settling our adrenaline levels and celebrating with a beer or two, we all hopped back on the bus and rode back up the same way we came through. We had the option of going through the old Death Road (the one we just biked) or the new Death Road. We had enough bumpiness and close calls with death for a day, so we decided to return via the new road.
We were beaten, but we all survived Death Road.