Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Cycling Death Road, also known as "The World's Most Dangerous Road"

Hi everyone.  I just arrived back from a busy day where I cycled down Death Road, did a 1.5km zip line reaching speeds of up to 85kmph and then got in the bus and was driven back up Death Road.  There was plenty of adrenaline throughout the day that's for sure.  I was a lot more comfortable cycling down Death Road than being driven in a bus back up it.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that when I am cycling I am in control and not having to rely completely on someone else's judgement and will to live.  The second is that on a bike you have a lot more room for error, because on the bus there is less than half a metre of spare space at some points on the road.

I did Death Road as part of a group of Vuelta Sudamericana riders.  The majority of the group came along and only a few abstained.  I wasn't expecting quite so many people to be up for the challenge, especially the older ones, but I think the group size got to a certain number and then people felt a sense of "well if I don't go and everyone else has a lot of fun then I will feel I have missed out".

The road has the ominous nickname of Death Road or The World's Most Dangerous Road for a good reason.  In the worst accident, one hundred people being transported in a single lorry were killed when the lorry went off the road.  In one year alone around 300 people died on the road, and 18 cyclists have been killed in the road's history.  Some of you may be asking why I would want to do something like this.  Well firstly the majority of the accidents happened when the road was the main route from La Paz to Coroico and there was a lot of traffic on it, but at the end of 2006 a new safer road was opened, and the majority of vehicles use this new route, leaving the route mostly for cyclists.  The problem before was when lorries and buses tried to pass each other and one would fall off, or when people overtook dangerously, or due to the vehicles not being roadworthy.  In the case of most of the cyclists killed, they were pushing their limits too far or they were distracted somehow.  There was the case of a cyclist who was looking at a butterfly so intensely that he just went off the road, although luckily he survived.  Then there was the case of a cyclist who stopped to take a photo of the group, took one step back too far and fell off a drop.  There there was the case of another cyclist who was busy trying to clean her goggles whilst riding and just went off the edge. I wanted to bike the road to see just why it is considered so dangerous and scary, and also I had heard that the views from the road are spectacular.

We did the tour with a company called Gravity Assisted and they picked us up from the hotel at 7.30am this morning.  There were 3 guides who accompanied us, 2 of them Bolivian and 1 from the US.  The drive to the start point was pretty long and basically one continuous climb, as the day starts at 4,700 metres above sea level.  Once we reached the start point we got out of the trucks and were given our full suspension mountain bikes that we would be using for the day.  I have never ridden a full suspension bike with disc brakes before, so it was a little bit different to what I am used to.  After a little test ride to get familiar with the bike, it was time to make an offering to Mother Earth or Pachamama.  This is who the indigenous people worshipped before Catholicism came along.  We had to pour a small amount of alcohol on our tire then on the floor and then put it to our lips.  It may sound a bit strange and I am not normally superstitious, but there are several stories of people who didn't make the offering and who had bad things happen to them.  Of course at the same time there are plenty of people who did make an offering and bad things still happened to them anyway. But hey it was worth a try.

After performing the little ritual and offering to PachaMama and taking a few pics, followed by a safety briefing, we were off.  The company had designed the bikes with gear ratios that meant we couldn't really reach ridiculous speeds like we could have on a road bike.  They do this to try to prevent people from going absolutely crazy.  So we coasted down the paved part of the road, stopping at various points to wait for the slower ones to catch up.  At the first stop, the guide Darren pointed out a bus far far below that had taken the corner too fast and crashed into the abyss below.  Nearby was a minibus that had most likely done the same. This was a pretty shocking start to the ride, but it helped us to realise just how seriously we needed to take our own personal safety and the respect we needed to give to the road.

The troublesome trio ready for the off

If you look carefully you can see the wreckage of a bus

A little further down the road is a drugs checkpoint.  The guide explained that the Yungas valley  (where we were heading) has a lot of legal coca plantations that grow coca leaves for traditional use, but also a lot of illegal ones too, that process the leaves in order to make cocaine or make the paste that can then be transformed into cocaine at a later stage.  At the checkpoint they are trying to check for chemicals and equipment going into the valley that could be used to make cocaine or cocaine paste, and cocaine or cocaine paste coming out of the valley.  They didn't stop any of us cyclists though, so we were through almost as soon as we arrived.

After passing through the checkpoint and paying for the entry to the Death Road (the money is used for the road's upkeep) we then had an optional 8km section, which has some uphill in it.  Normally the climbs would be easy, but we were riding full suspension bikes that are both heavy and very bouncy, and also the climbs were at high lung bursting altitudes.  Most of the group decided to give it a go though, including James the chef and Jono the chain smoking truck driver.  Actually James and Jono finished ahead of everyone except me, which was absolutely amazing considering neither has done that much cycling before.

After the 8km optional section we all grouped up, including those that had ridden the truck for the optional part, and started the descent of the dangerous section of the road, which then basically lasts all the way to the bottom of the Yungas valley at 1,100 metres above sea level.  It was extremely foggy and drizzling slightly so we weren't really able to see what was below us, but we could tell that there were big drops on our left hand side.  Actually I should mention that the road is very unique in Bolivia in terms of the side of the road that you must drive on, because on this road people must drive on the left and not on the right.  The reason for this is that when you are descending the drops are on your left hand side, so the drivers side needs to be on the same side as the drop so the driver can check that his wheels are not going over the edge when passing other vehicles coming up the hill.  Despite the fact that there is an alternative road, some occasional traffic does use Death Road.  For this reason one guide always goes at the front, and if he encounters a car or truck he blows a whistle to warn the riders behind.  In this way we were able to ride a little further away from the sheer drops, and could feel a little more comfortable.

Not far from the top we saw another group and the one woman was wobbling all over the place and was extremely nervous.  It looked like she had barely ridden a bike before and none of us wanted to be alongside her.

We would stop every few kilometres to wait for the slower ones to catch up, and when we were waiting we got very cold as we were soaked to the skin by this stage.  As we descended it did slowly start to get warmer though, and eventually we dropped below the level of the clouds and then it was much warmer.  It was a relief to be able to see the road ahead clearly and not have to proceed quite so cautiously as we did in the cloud and fog, but at the same time the absence of cloud and fog meant that we could see the awe inspiring drops just a few metres to our left.  It is no exaggeration to say that the drops at the edge of the road are sheer.  At some points it looked like the drop must have been around 1,000 metres or so.  We started to see crosses that marked the points where people had died and there was really a sense of just how delicate and precious life is, and just how easily and quickly it can be taken away from us.

As we descended further down the road, it became so narrow in places that it looked like a bus would barely be able to pass, and there were also sections where there had been landslides and where waterfalls fell onto the road itself, eroding the surface.  I just took my time and descended steadily.

Eventually we got to a level where the drops were not so frequent and at this stage people in the group started to descend much faster.  There was still the occasional sheer drop though, so I was quite surprised to see just how fast some were going.  The guide warned us that 80% of accidents he sees happen on these lower sections where people start to become more confident but they are physically and mentally tired from the previous sections.  A couple of people overshot one corner and had to brake sharply to avoid hitting the embankment on the right hand side.  Just after that someone shot down my left hand side without affording me a warning and our handlebars touched together.  I was not impressed.  The guide had informed us at the beginning of the day that passing is allowed but always to shout a warning that you are passing on the left or passing on the right.

Benjamin taking in the beautiful vistas of the Yungas valley

Once we reached the valley bottom we kissed the ground and then went to visit an animal sanctuary where they help to rescue mistreated or illegally poached animals.  We had a buffet dinner, which was provided by the bike company, put on our warm clothes, and rested a bit.  Darren the guide then asked if anyone was interested in doing a 1.5km zip line.  I have never done one before and I like to try everything once, so I thought I would give it a go.  Three other people opted in too.  A minibus drove us part way up Death Road to the first base and then after a short safety briefing and putting on the equipment we were ready to go.  The zip line is composed of three stages.  The first is the highest and you are several hundred metres above the valley floor, the second is the fastest and you can reach up to 85kmph and the final one is the longest.  There are three braking systems to help you come to a stop at the end of each stage.  Each person has an individual brake that they can pull when they want and then there is one that the guide puts near to the end that slows you down and then finally there are some springs on the end of the line that will absorb some impact.  I went first and it was really exciting (and a little bit scary) as I went out over the highest point.  I was also really impressed by the speed that you reach.  Jason and I made it to the other end okay, but the two girls being a fair bit lighter came to a stop before the end and were helped to the side by the guide.  It must have been pretty scary for Marieke as she came to a stop a fair way from the end and was still pretty high above the valley floor.  On the second stage I was more at ease despite it being much faster, but I actually came to a stop a little short of the end and had to pull myself the few extra metres to the end.  The others this time all managed to make it to the end and told me that if I put my feet up in the air more I probably would have made it.  So on the final longest section I did maintain a more streamlined position, and I made it all the way and required a little braking before the end.  The others went in tandem, Marieke with one of the guides and Jason and Virginia together.  I didn't fancy another guy wrapping his legs around me and the second guide didn't offer me the tandem anyway.

A few nervous faces getting a safety briefing on the zip line

All safely done with the zip line, we rejoined the rest of the group and set off in the bus up Death Road.  As I had suspected being a bus was much scarier than it had been on the bike.  At some points the wheels were very close to the edge, too close for comfort I would say.  Darren was also telling us all the bad accidents that happened as we passed the relevant spots, and that didn't help peoples' nerves that much.  As we passed under one waterfall the bus came to a stop and Darren told us to look down.  We looked down the side of the bus and there was less than 25cm of space between the wheels and the road edge (maybe okay if the road was paved but it was just loose rock and gravel) and then it just seemed like it dropped away to nothingness below.  Apparently this had been the place where the lorry carrying 100 people had plunged off the cliff.  We were very happy to move on.  There were several spots like this where the road became extremely narrow and there was nothing we could do but trust that our driver had a strong will to live, just like we all did.

Once we made it safely to the paved section we all gave the driver a huge round of applause, and thanked him for the fact that we were still alive.  We also made sure to give him a nice tip.  It was an adventurous day, and one that made me think what things are important to me.  Now I am back here in the hotel and ready for a good night's sleep.  I will try to put up some pics from today if I can get hold of an SD card reader, but until then goodnight folks and God bless.


  1. Rather you than me!

    You have ridden a full suspension mountain bike with disk brakes before, mine! More than once.

  2. Ah I didn't realise that I had cycled one before, but yours can't have been that spongy as the one I used on death road or i would have remembered. The one I used on death road was a downhill mountain bike.