Pictures of Bolivias North Yungas Road usually strike up one of two emotions in a person, sheer terror, or adrenaline filled excitement.
Labeled “the worlds most dangerous road” several years back due to the hundreds of deaths that occurred on it annually, the road isn’t for sissy’s. Built in the 1940’s by Paraguayan prisoners of war, most of the road is barely wide enough for one vehicle, making passing a potentially fatal event. Because of it’s narrow width, the North Yungas Road is also the only road in Bolivia where vehicles drive on the left side of the road, allowing downhill drivers to get as close to the edge as possible when needed.
Today the road isn’t as busy as it once was, thanks to a new, paved highway leading from La Paz to the city of Corioco, however you’ll still find an occasional vehicle making the dangerous trek along with dozens of crazy mountain bikers, who can be seen making the 63 kilometer ride down the worlds most perilous stretch of road.
I am now one of those crazy mountain bikers.
Visiting the North Yungas Road, aka Road of Death or Calle de Muerte has been on my “things I want to do list” for years. When I visited Bolivia last fall I desperately wanted to ride the road, but thanks to a fairly steep price, riding the Road of Death was a little to far out of my budget.
However this time around, with 10 months in Bolivia to look forward to I was determined to make it happen some way, and, couple weekends ago, thanks to an incredible gift from a new friend, I got my chance.
It really was a last minute, whirlwind trip. Our friend Angus, who had been volunteering at HOH for the last couple months was flying out of La Paz the coming Saturday, but he was spending a couple days in the city to see the sights. On Thursday night at about 7 we got confirmation from him that he’d booked a tour on the Death Road for the next day and within an hour Kristin and I had contacted the hostel about getting on the same tour, and were in Quillacollo (the closest town to us with a bus stop) buying overnight bus tickets to La Paz.
We arrived in La Paz bright and early the next morning and went straight to the hostel where we were immediately informed that the tour “unfortunately” had no more space on it. Seriously? We sat down stumped trying to decide what to do, and that’s when Angus walked in. He convinced us to go to the tours meeting spot and try to beg to get onto the tour last minute.
And guess what? It worked! And apparently the hostel never contacted the bike company. Hmm…. Some shady business going on there?
Our tour had about 20 people on it from all over the world and at 7:30 we all loaded into a van and minibus and headed up into the awe striking Cordelleria Real. Seriously, the tops of the snowcapped mountains looked close enough to touch.
After we had all unloaded and tested out our bikes we headed out on the first stretch of the ride, which is not technically on the death road (this first part was paved!), but incredible and dangerous none the less.
I hadn’t mountain biked in years so at first I wasn’t confident in my abilities and was convinced I was one of the weaker riders, so I stayed toward the back of the pack, but after the first couple rides (we would stop and regroup every couple kilometers) I realized I wasn’t so bad and the need for speed soon won over. Before long I was in the front of the group, usually finishing just behind our guide and another guy from Ireland.
But when we finally reached the traditional “Death Road” everything changed. Riding on large, loose gravel is a whole other animal and I decided to take it slowly (or slower…).
40 Kilometers of the ride is on this stretch of road so by the end of the ride my bum killed me and my fingers were cramped from gripping the breaks.
But, even though the ride was difficult, the road narrow, and the obstacles plenty I never felt truly scared for my life, that is unless I rode a little to close to the edge. I mean, hit one rock and you’re done. No more Amanda, adios! Thankfully that didn’t happen, and actually my entire group made it the whole length of the road without an injury, minor or major, which apparently is a pretty huge deal.
Once we reached the end of the road outside of Corioco we were all sweaty and hungry. Over the course of the last few hours we had descended from 4,700 meters to 1,900 meters and had gone from the high Andes to the Amazon, and let me tell you, the Amazon was hot!
Our bike riding was officially done for the day, so we loaded back in the vehicles and headed a couple minutes down the road to an animal rescue center/nature reserve where we were going to have lunch/dinner.
The place was pretty unreal. Parrots and monkeys roamed around freely, and when we were finished eating we were able to go swimming in the local river. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to wash the sweat off from a long day.
In my opinion, we didn’t get enough time at the last stop, but we had to start heading back to La Paz eventually and because our bus driver wanted to take the old road back (aka, the official Death Road, aka the one we just rode down) in my opinion the more sunlight we had the better. Thankfully our driver was one of the most experienced, if not THE most experienced driver on the road, so we were in good hands, although there were a few turns I had to close my eyes on. At one point he stopped and opened the door of the bus, and we had maybe 4 inches between us and a very, very, very long drop. Yikes!
But alas, we didn’t die (Thank you Jesus!) and now I’ve lived to tell the tale. All in all the Death Road ride was incredible. Probably one of my most exciting experiences ever and one I definitely recommend.
My last few weekends here in Bolivia have been a lot quitter, spent in Cochabamba instead of traveling around the country and I’ve really enjoyed the chance to relax and dig into the community a little deeper, but more on that in the posts that come!
And speaking of posts to come, just a quick note on my blogging situation here. The internet, as I alluded to before I came is not the fastest so I’m forced to leave a little more time between posts than I would like simply due to the sheer frustration I feel every time I try to put one up, but keep watch because I have a lot to share with you all!