Nearly five kilometres above sea level, travelling 60 kmh+ down a highway in the Bolivian Andes, on a mountain bike competing with trucks, buses and cars, a solid rock cliff-face to my left and a 600m drop to certain death on my right, racing around hairpin turns and surrounded by the most beautiful scenery when I take the risk to look… I have never felt more exhilarated or had so much fun in all my life!
This is mind-blowing excitement at its best and I haven’t even hit the really dangerous section yet!
The Camino de las Yungas or going by its infamous name of Camino de la Muerte (Death Road) or The Worlds Most Dangerous Road, runs from La Paz through the mountains to the town of Coroico, 70kms away and drops from a cold and often snowy 4650m above sea level to a steamy, rainforest at 1200m.
Prior to building the newly paved highway, the North Yungas road served as the main road between the two towns, with high amounts of two-way traffic travelling its narrow, muddy and often unstable path.
Many cars, trucks, buses and cyclists have plunged to their death over the side of the cliffs with the worst tragedy occurring in 1983 when a bus travelling with 100 people aboard succumbed to gravity, everyone perished.
These days there is not as much traffic with the majority of users being tourist adventure seekers racing down the road on mountain bikes. Although there is still a small amount of normal traffic and even, as I found out, a 15-tonne grader climbing its path.
I chose the hands of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking to put my life in, as they are considered to be the safest and most experienced of all the Death Road tour operators.
Its New Zealand born owner, Alistair, is a mad mountain bike fanatic who started the pioneer business in 1998 after travelling the world. They use the best equipment and have the highest maintenance and safety record. Out of the 14 tourists who have died while biking the road, only one has been with Gravity Assisted, and technically it doesn’t count as they think the guy had a heart attack prior to riding off the cliff. We’ll put this down to genetics as opposed to getting the crap scared out of him while biking down the narrow, gravel road with massive drops over the side and flimsy, if at all present, barrier guards.
We meet Alistair and another guide at a cafe in La Paz with the other crazies who have decided to join the trip. I ask our red-bearded leader if he can tell which ones will be injured by the end of the day. He says he usually has a fair idea of who will be the competitive ‘cowboys’ and who will freak out and get back on the bus halfway down.
The group is divided into 2 and we set off. It takes about an hour just to climb the steep sides of La Paz’s natural bowl zig-zagging our way up the roads in our bus, we eventually stop beside a lake surrounded by snowy Andean peaks, it’s very pretty…and very cold.
We’re all given bright orange safety vests, windproof jackets, trousers, helmets and a souvenir multi-purpose bandana/neck warmer/insect mouth-barrier. Each person is individually shown their own, very expensive looking mountain bike and instructions on how to use it properly.
I’ve never ridden a bike with both front and back shockies before so it felt a bit odd at first, but I later realised they are very much-needed!
We each test out our bikes, riding around the makeshift gravel car park, it’s fortunate that the ride is mostly down hill as the altitude can affect your breathing quite easily, especially if you haven’t acclimatised.
Alistair passes around a small bottle of what smells and tastes like pure ethanol. In fact, we’re pretty sure it was. The tradition is to tip a little bit on the wheel of your bike for Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and take a small swig yourself. Yep, definitely pure alcohol.
The day’s journey is discussed, there will be 13 scheduled stops where they will mention what is coming up, what dangers there are and how to avoid them. Alistair says that what you look at is the direction your bike will head, so if you’re looking at the pretty view, guess where you’ll end up? I found this to be true when later staring at the giant rocks I wanted to avoid that constantly littered the path… look at the rock… hit the rock.
“Don’t ask me what that plant is,” he says, “what that mountain is called or if the insect that just bit you is poisonous. I know mountain bikes, I’m not a Botanist!”
Finally our group of 14 heads off. I find myself in the front 6 and keep up with the boys until the testosterone kicks in and they start to compete. Eventually, I end up in the middle of the group. A lot of the girls are way up the back trying not to go too fast, I, however, have just confirmed my love for dangerous things and all I can think of as I race down the road is “This. Is. AWESOME!”. I have visions of buying a bike back in Australia and taking up a downhill mountain bike hobby. Then on one hairpin curve I get major speed wobbles and can see myself heading straight for the rock wall on my left. I prefer this to the cliff on the other side. I know if I try to turn the wheel too sharply I’ll stack it and I try desperately to keep a firm grip and take a gentle wide curve. The rock wall gets closer but I’m relieved when I miss it… just.
At the first stop I ask what I was doing wrong and how to avoid them. Alistair mentions I’m probably sitting up too much and I need to lean forward while sitting further back on the seat, this will make me more aerodynamic and spread the weight more evenly over the bike. It works and fortunately no more speed wobbles, although I find myself going a little slower over the next leg.
Our next stop is at a drug check point, apparently the road is commonly used by drug traffickers moving raw cocaine to the cities.
The next leg is about an hour long and all uphill. We have the choice of riding or bussing it… I hop on the bus. With this altitude I know I wouldn’t make it.
This gives me the chance to take in the spectacular mountain views and the giant waterfalls that cascade down green cliffs. I openly laugh at the suckers who decided to ride the hill but really I admire them for giving it a go. They all look stuffed by the time we all get to the next stop point.
A quick snack of a banana and chocolate bar and we’re now introduced to the ‘real’ Death Road. This is the old road where the majority of accidents happen. It feels weird calling it a road though, it’s more like a track. Some sections would only be about 2m wide and the gravel more resembles a rock pit. Waterfalls tumble onto the road where you have to pass through them. Recent landslides are very visible where the naked earth hasn’t yet had time to grow new vegetation. Barriers are very few and far between and don’t even look like they could stop a square wheel. Vertical drops are constant and at times you can feel a weird, invisible pull to them.
The group heads off and I notice I’m having a hard time of keeping to a safe speed. I’m constantly going too fast and permanently have my fingers on the brakes, by the end of the next section they are aching.
We pass many crucifixes and memorials along the way. A few years ago a girl from Israel who was travelling with a less-than-reputable tour company, rode straight past her group who had stopped for a rest and straight off a cliff after her brakes failed.
An Israeli girl from our group had already stacked it and scraped her knee pretty badly so it was back on the bus for her. No doubt she had an eerie feeling when hearing about her fellow countrywoman’s story.
Shortly after, one of the British girls took a slide and landed on her wrist, it could be fractured so she joins the bus group. Two more minor accidents occur, one with the ‘cowboy’ in the group who thought the day was a race, but they continue on.
We descend into a cloud forest which decreases visibility slightly and makes me want to go slower but the downhill influence of gravity makes it hard to reduce my speed.
I’ve come to recognise a common signal in the group when watching those who are having a near death experience. I call it the ‘Oh Shit!’ leg where it instinctively extends out at a high 45 degree angle when confronted with danger, to try and stabilise the bike.
Our group drops lower and lower into the humid jungle, peeling off the layers of clothes we needed up in the alti-plano and throwing them on the bus which creeps along at the back of the group.
At the next stop , we’re given a ham & cheese roll for lunch. Alistair mentions that during the next section we will be getting a lot more oxygen in our lungs, this will cause us to think we’re really awesome at mountain biking and can do anything. He says that once we start to think that we’re really getting the hang of this, slow down! It means you’re about to take a long ride over a short cliff.
After a short pee break involving a great Twister position and a mini-trek up a mountain to find a bush, we set off again.
“Passing on the left!” I hear, as 3 BMX riders from another group overtake me. How they haven’t ended up over the edge going at their speed is beyond me. But it’s nice to see a bit of road etiquette.
Alistair’s local sidekick continually rides ahead and takes photos and videos of us riding through waterfalls or at particularly picturesque locations. Their crucial advice? Do not wave at the camera! Never take your hands off the bike! And always get off your bike on the right side. The chasm on your left should explain this.
At this point, I’m really enjoying the ride. There are sections where the rocks are so big that it feels like I’m in a Shake n Bake bag but overall I think I’m really starting to get the hang of thi… wait a second?! Alistair’s words ring in my head and I make sure to slow down.
My whole body has been in a high state of awareness the whole time. Subsequently, my hands are stiffening after gripping the handlebars for so long and my calves feel like they’re on the verge of cramping but eventually, the road starts to flatten out and I realise, after four hours, just how tired my body is when I have to start pedalling. We start to see houses, children playing on the grassy banks and locals whose faces I can read that say; ‘what a bunch of idiots!’ I make sure to dodge the large puddles in the middle of the road that Alistair says does not contain water.
But I’ve done it! I’ve ridden 64kms down a big ass mountain and it feels good! My legs think otherwise. But it’s not over just yet as we have to ride our bikes to a nearby Animal Refuge where we are served a pretty good buffet lunch.
Gravity Assisted work with the Senda Verde Animal Refuge and it makes a great end to the afternoon. Firstly, they have hot showers! This is a brilliant idea and I feel so much better afterwards. A quick tour of the property shows us Toucans, Tortoises, Coati, Parrots and lots and lots of monkeys! A cute little Capuchin decides to climb on me as a Spider Monkey waddles past, its long arms flailing about like it’s fed up with everything.
A few people from our group also decide to have a go at a local zip-line nearby which soars above the valley.
The danger isn’t over yet though. We still have to get back to La Paz and of course, we have to drive back up the Death Road.
This is probably slightly scarier than riding down it as you have to rely on the driver to get you back safely and sometimes when looking out the window you cannot see the ground, just a very large expanse of air with tiny, tiny trees at the bottom.
At one point an oncoming vehicle drives onto the wrong side of the road which forces us to take the cliff side. Our driver yells some abuse as the rules are, whoever is coming down the hill has to drive on the cliff side as they need to be able to look out their window and make sure the tyres are still on the road.
They were the first operators to start the Death Road ride for tourists and there’s a very good reason why they are still the best with word-of-mouth playing a massive part.