Death road, El camino de la Muerte, Yungas road….. where are we?

DynamoBike core team is a small group of Hungarians from Budapest but thanks to social networking we can welcome our friends from all over the world on board.

In Outside Hungary topic we are sharing their unbelievable travel stories, of course with bikes.

Keep on reading this time our Canadian friend‘s survival bike ride in Bolivia.

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One of the most memorable biking experiences I’ve had was in Bolivia on the famed “Yungas Road” otherwise known as the “Death Road”. This route takes you from the mountainous highs of La Paz to the steamy depths of the jungle in Coroico, spanning a distance of approximately 60km on a narrow, snaking road that dramatically drops off to one side for what appears to be an infinite distance.  It’s not the image you want in your mind when you’re signing off on the bike waiver.

                                    

The locals, and bike tour companies, say rescues are not attempted given the remotest of chances there will be survivors if a bus should go over the road’s edge.  These tragedies happen frequently, but if your travels are beckoning you to the Bolivian jungle, the safest way to get there is by bike, reportedly.  Some friends and I summoned the courage to give it a try back in the fall of 2002.

At that time, there were a handful of bike shops in La Paz who catered to foreign tourists in properly outfitting them with bikes, safety information and a guide for getting down to the jungle.  The group I rode with were riders who ranged from having no mountain biking experience to the weekend warrior.  We were transported up a rickety road outside La Paz to an elevation of roughly 4700m to begin our ride.  Every piece of clothing that I had in my backpack was being used; it was cold!!!  Before heading out, we were all given individual brake checks, information on the road ahead and instructions to ride behind the lead guide and where we would stop for further checks and instructions.  With a reported 18 riders who have died on the route since 1998, nothing was being left to chance.

                        

The draw of the road, apart from the adventure, is that it is 90% downhill making the pace fast and relatively easy.  While this might sound like a piece of cake, you have to negotiate sections that are unpaved, have potholes, change to gravel, deal with wet sections (there is lots of rain in a rainforest, go figure) and the oncoming traffic.  Local rules dictate that downhill drivers never have the right of way and have to move to the outside of the road when they encouter traffic; this is to be able to see your outside wheel (for automobiles) on the road if passing.  As a result, many riders are using their brakes the majority of the time and frequent brake checks are required.

Sixty kilometers of tense downhill riding eventually give way to some rider calm and the rewarded is spectacular scenery; being surrounded by lush cloud forest.  With all of the rain, the mist rising from the forest heightens the sense that what you’re experiencing is exotic and other-worldly.  The temperature quickly rises with your descent necessitating that you peel off your layers of clothing as you carry-on on the road, with the altitude dropping to 1200m at your final destination in the charming town of Coroico.  Interestingly, there is a border crossing you must negotiate between regions and serves as a government measure to limit the export of Bolivia’s coca leaves (key ingredient for cocaine production) to producers in other regions.  Encountering young army conscripts with automatic weapons is not what you expect to see while out for your bike ride, but I guess you can expect anything if you’re riding on a route nicknamed the “Death Road”! It just adds to the adventure, I guess.

I’m glad to say that I survived the death road.  All these years later, I swear that I can feel the aching in my hands and knuckles as I type, remembering gripping those brakes to negotiate that road.  I won’t lie; it was scary!  Mud obstructed my vision, the rain made the road slick, and the switchbacks were hard to manage at high speeds as they came quickly and often.

We got a t-shirt at the finish to commemorate our journey.  I still have mine and probably wear it every other week to the gym; it’s one of my favourites.  Remembering my ride makes me puff out my chest just that extra little bit and reminds me that for 1/2 a day I was flirting with something bordering on a potential disaster… Yeah, I survived the Death Road… 200kg bench press, piece of cake! 

Dejan O
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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