Dicing with the Death Road in Bolivia

Yungas Valley, La Paz, Bolivia 🇧🇴

Waterfalls, gravel and hair raising drops

The North Yungas Road was built in the 1930s by POWs from Paraguay to connect the remote communities of the Yungas Valley to La Paz.

Up to 2006, when a new tarmac toad was completed, the road saw locals falling off the edge at the rate of one vehicle every two weeks, averaging 300 lives every year. In 1995 it was officially declared as “The Worlds Most Dangerous Road”.

It’s now a tourist attraction with several companies – with varying degrees of quality – offering down hill biking descending into the valley. The Yungas Valley Road is over 50km long and drops more than 3000m, mostly on gravel, with no barriers and precipitous drops of up to 600m. Needless to say that, sadly, several cyclists have also lost their lives on this epic adventure ride.

The day starts with a climb up from La Paz to 4650m, getting kitted up and introduced to our Kona full suspension bikes. It’s a around 9c and misty. We’re above the clouds. We have a small ceremony by offering alcohol to Pachamama (Mother Earth) asking for protection on our journey.

We descend 1250m over the first 20 kms on tarmac to get used to the bikes and to reach the official start where it turns to gravel, sharing the road with over- laden lorries, vans and cars. We go through check points that control the transport of coca leaves out of the Yungas Valley – the second largest production area in Bolivia. Generally the Yungas produce coca for local consumption – leaves for tea and chewing – and we pass some laid out to dry.

Next we descend the official Death Road – over 32km and almost 2000m loss of altitude – along a gravel road that is mostly wide enough for one vehicle, where the closest thing to a barrier are tufts of grass and a few rocks, and it’s littered with waterfalls, streams, landslides and crosses to mark the spots where loved ones have died. There’s a lot of crosses.

This is also the only road in Bolivia where you drive on the left to make it safer for the vehicles that still use the road. This does mean that cyclist are also forced to the left following the left hand wheel tracks, and puts them, at times, half a meter from the barrier-less cliff edge. The edge can often have a shear drop of many hundreds of meters in places 😬 with nothing but fresh air to the jungle covered valley below. This is not a technical ride but it’s not for the feint of heart.

The total descent takes us from the snow-covered cloud-wrapped altiplano around us, down 3 vertical kms to sub-tropical rainforest of the Amazon where temperatures reach 29c.

As for my ride, Garry and Christian, our guides from Gravity Bolivia briefed us several times on safety aspects and checked in on us regularly, which was reassuring. Less reassuring were the little tales and snippets of “accidents” and road deaths that Garry liked to pepper us with while we descended. Those tales certainly kept us focussed.

And we all survived. It was an absolutely stunning bit of gravel road, with towering jungle clad ridges all about, sparkling streams that cut gullies across the road, and stunning waterfalls that we road past and under on the way down.

It was easier to ride than the descent off Volcan Toco, near San Pedro, but the consequences of getting it wrong were on another planet.

The day ended at La Sende Verde – an animal refuge – with plentiful food, a cold beer and hot showers. Though lunch was entertaining as we had one of many an orphaned squirrel monkeys 🐒 squeeze through a hole in the roof and help mop up our plates of spaghetti sauce.

This was a fun day – great biking 🚵‍♀️, amazing views and quite a lot of adrenaline!!!

Categories: Adventure, Bolivia, Cycling, MountainsTags: , , , , ,

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