My bike wheels clung precariously to the side of the mountain as Bolivian truck drivers skimmed past with bull-dozing ease. Centimetres stood between Yungas Death Road, me and a sheer drop of more than 200 meters as the settling dust streaked sweat marks across my face. My helmet and high visibility jacket suddenly seemed irrelevant as larger rocks carelessly repositioned my tyres on the downward slope.
The World’s most dangerous road – Bolivia
Aptly dubbed the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ or ‘Death Road’ by thrill-seeking travellers as well as locals profiting from the notoriety alike – not because it tops the list of most dangerous roads in the world but rather due to the desire of tourists (myself included) to ride down at death defying speed, charged by the fear of a near vertical drop.
Cyclists are squeezed against trucks travelling along the inside, forced together by almost equal danger just to avoid veering off the edge – that’s where the real drama comes in. On top of this, I use the term ‘lane’ very loosely. What I actually mean is an uneven, rocky passing without any demarcations or road rules and an annual death toll of 300.
It is such fleeting moments that thrust us outside of our normal comfort zones and encourage travellers to shoulder backpacks and board planes all around the world. I was 26 and didn’t give a second thought to what should have been the ringing of very large alarm bells, but it was exhilarating and exciting and honestly, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again – perhaps at slower speed and certainly having given my bike a better once over. I signed up with a company called Gravity which is based out of La Paz and was a very good outfit; great guides and a decent safety briefing which by Bolivian standards is really as much as you can ask!
The road is frequented by farmers from nearby villages, transporting crops and livestock for sale in La Paz as well as the drug cartels, moving coca leaves to be used for medicinal purposes or in the manufacture of cocaine, or cocaine as a finished product. The Yungas Death Road is therefore a truly dangerous road for many reasons, not always apparent to tourists who opt to experience this exhilarating ride to the town of Coroico.
Views are nothing short of spectacular – the dusty road clings to the mountain side as it follows the contours and snaking patterns around sharp twists and turns, disappearing from sight before bleeding back into vision. Surrounded by lush jungle spilling over like an endless green veil dramatically draped across the mountains and views extending as far as the eye can see. It is really beautiful and just another notch on South America’s already over-loaded bed post.
The Yungas Death Road is commonly closed due to landslides and flash floods which adds to the state of ill-repair. The road goes rapidly downhill on a mountain range which is extremely steep so there really is nowhere else for the water to go. I was warned it could be possible that the road may be closed when buying my bus ticket, something I assumed at the time, was an attempt to up-sell a flight ticket – but turns out not.
For me this bike ride was the ultimate gateway to the Amazon Jungle – almost like a right-of-passage initiation but equally the beginning of what would be a long journey to get there, involving; a sauna, killer hangover, visit to a police station and a bus journey so terrifying my only option was to close my eyes and go to sleep.
The road was coarse and pot-holed but flat as we parked up at the start with our mountain bikes. We wore high-visibility jackets so that our mangled bodies could easily be seen just in case were unlucky enough to fly off the edge (only joking!).
Beginning our descent with one guide leading the way and another trailing back with those taking it much more cautiously (perhaps more clever too), the road quickly dips and unfolds steadily but perpetually downhill gathering steepness. The surface is terrible – even with youthful fearlessness I could see the obvious dangers but it seemed like such fun and sometimes that is enough! Dare-devils sped down at lightning speed, disregarding all concern for the sharp drop on the left and I’d have to say, their own personal well-being. I preferred middle position after a pre-ride pep talk which included the tale of a tourist who slipped right off the edge a week before but managed by nothing other than luck to grab a branch. This was enough to convince me that I should ease fingers on the brakes in order to slow my progress.
It is an exhilarating ride, the stuff that makes blood rush through your veins and fills pages of the most memorable travel diaries; yet just another way to explore Bolivia – a country so varied. My entire experience lasted for roughly 2 hours, finishing at the town of Coroico where we bedded down for the night in the Hotel Esmerelda; equipped with sauna, pool, a stunning jungle setting, for which the low room rate was a steal.
Only because I mentioned it earlier, I feel it best to fill in the blanks. The following morning my rose tinted spectacles (or perhaps red wine coloured is more apt) were gone and all was not well with the world. I left early to catch the bus from Coroico to Rurenabaque which didn’t arrive until 18:00. Hangovers take many form; some fire a warning shot whilst others scream out ‘you’ve had your warning, now I want your soul!’ – mine was the latter. There was literally nothing anywhere near the bus stop except for a police station. I asked in my best Spanish if it would be possible to lie down inside and that is indeed where I spent the day. When the bus eventually came I sat on the left where there was space and quickly understood why. The road was so narrow that when peering out of the left side windows all that was visible was a gaping hole in the earth which plummeted down 200 meters – it was an unsettling feeling to say the least.
Amazon Rainforest – Rurenabaque, Bolivia
My silver lining is that after a 10 hour bus journey I arrived at the beautiful jungle town of Rurenabaque – a place where the roads flooded when it rained and mosquitos danced around the night lights but it was remote, friendly and oozing characterful charm. This was to be the launching town for my first foray into the Amazon jungle – something anyone who has experienced will never forget – and one of the best highlights of my South American Adventure.
The Amazon jungle was a memory which never left my thoughts so returned in 2014 to the Brazilian side to explore by boat – read my blog here Journey to the Heart of the Amazon