They call it the most dangerous road in the world. Yungas Road has earned its reputation by claiming hundreds of victims. Every year. I’m deciding to travel down this road. By bicycle.
There’s no shortage of tour agencies of various quality in South America. This is one tour where you do not want to go cheap; one where the quality of guides and equipment can actually make a difference between life and death. I choose a company named Gravity, seemingly with a good reputation, solid experience, and professional staff.
The group meets early in the morning at a coffee shop in central La Paz. For someone who lives in Amsterdam the idea of meeting in a coffee shop early morning before rushing headlong down the Road of Death on two wheels is rather amusing.
Our guides for the day, Ben and Steve, look tired and possibly hungover. But they’ve done this many times before. Us first-(and possibly only)time riders are excited and awake, but also sharing a tiny bit of nervousness. We’re very much aware that people like us have had terrible, and even fatal, accidents doing the exact same thing we’re about to pursue. Statistically one of us could face a dreadful ending of on their South American journey in only a few hours.
A bus takes us from La Paz to the starting point La Cumbre at an altitude of 4,700 meters. In a few hours we’ll be in the Bolivian jungle at the foot of the mountain. A vertical drop of 3,600 meter over 60 km. We get our gear and bikes and a short introduction to mountain biking. We make a tribute to Pachamama – Mother Earth – in the form of a tiny sip of some strong liquor. A bit tacky, but what the hell, it’s part of the ritual…Saddle up, and we’re off.
The first third of the journey takes us down tarmac roads. They’re smooth and wide, and there’s basically no traffic. It only takes a few moments to get comfortable with the bike. I let gravity and the bike go to work. Darting down the road, accelerating to a velocity of…60 km/h? 70 km/h? 80 km/h? Or even faster? I don’t know, but definitely faster than I’ve ever travelled on a bike before. Only a minute into the ride I know this might very well be the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
Our guides make frequent stops along the way to gather the troops, let us catch a moment of breath, and to let us (after all, we’re tourists) take pictures. Our first stop is only a couple of minutes down from where we started. Seems like a fairly safe stretch of the road. We’re told that a few years ago at this very spot, a group of bikers just like us witnessed a terrible accident. A bus full with people went a little too fast around the corner, over the edge, and fell down the mountain to a certain death. Surely a spectacular sight, but also a scary, disturbing, and traumatic one.
We’re descending fast. We get to the point where the comfortable tarmac road turns into an unpredictable gravel road. From here on, it’s a completely different ballgame. From here on, a moment of lost attention, hitting a small rock or a hole, or a split second of panic can throw your bike off course and off the cliff. We’re offered a last chance to bail out. No thanks. I’m going down. One way or the other.
This mountain road is surrounded by lush, green mountains. The mist gently licking the mountainsides makes the picture even more stunning. On one side we have the mountain walls. On our other side we have a drop of hundreds of meters down the canyons. In between only a narrow road of varying quality. The scenery is spectacular, breathtaking, magical. Unfortunately we can’t afford to fully enjoy it. Racing down the most dangerous road in the world on a bike, we have to choose between the rush or the scenery. We’re in it for the ride.
This is biking at its very best. Except for a small (but heavy) uphill stretch, it’s all downhill, not a whole lot of pedaling needed. The mountainbikes are of top notch quality, well maintained, imported from the US (trying to go down this road with a regular bike would be highly inadvisable). Weather is beautiful, a bit chilly at first, but getting warmer and warmer as we distance ourselves from the top of the mountain and descend towards the jungle.
You don’t have to be an expert to go on this ride, but some experience will definitely make the experience more enjoyable. Having basically grown up on a bike, and having a decent understanding of the basics of riding, I’m able to enjoy the speed and not have to worry about only getting to the next meeting point alive.
There’s a difference between biking and biking. Cruising a flat countryside on a Sunday afternoon in sunny weather can be fun, cozy, harmonious. Speeding down a mountain where a split second of lost focus or bad luck can send you off to the bottom of the mountain in freefall style is a kick, an adrenaline rush, a heightening of all your senses. Both provide a sense of freedom: one the freedom to choose between going left or right at a crossroad; the other the freedom knowing that you’re cheating death, and you’re getting away with it.
This is one ride you wish would never end. But, sadly, after some 60 km of riding, it does. The road officially ends with a speed bump. It’s not clear why there’s a speed bump (and only one) here. Regardless of the logic behind it though, it marks the end of the most dangerous road in the world for us. We have reached our destination La Senda Verde. Sweaty, exhausted, happy, hungry, thirsty, glad to be alive, and with a story to tell people back home.
My feeling at the beginning of the ride was that this would be the coolest thing I had ever done. It was. Screw ruins, beaches, city walks, pub crawls. This is action. This is life when life is good.