Yungas Road, Bolivia
The Most Dangerous Road In The World
They call it the most dangerous road in the world. “They” in this context probably means clever marketers wanting to sell an unforgettable experience in an otherwise rather uneventful part of the world. But by claiming hundreds of victims every year it’s not for nothing that Yungas Road has earned its reputation.
Top Gear went down this road by car. They were probably acting, at least partially, but they also seemed genuinely scared shitless. I decide to travel down this road. On a bicycle.
There’s no shortage of tour agencies of various quality and reputation in South America. This is one tour where you do not want to go cheap though; one where the quality of guides and equipment can actually make a difference between life and death. I choose a company with a good reputation, solid experience, and professional staff. The company is aptly named Gravity; you’ll get down one way or another. Insurance is mandatory.
The daredevil group meet early morning at a coffee shop in central La Paz. For someone living in Amsterdam at the time, the idea of meeting in a coffee shop early morning before rushing headlong down the Road of Death on two wheels is somewhat amusing.
Our guides for the day, Ben and Steve, look tired, most probably hungover. But they’ve done this hundreds of times before and could do it in their sleep. Which they kind of also did. Us first-(and possibly only) time riders are very awake and excited though. There might also be a tinge of nervousness in the group, everyone well aware that people – tourists – just like us have had terrible – 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. If you’ve never been at an altitude that high – it’s high! The air is cold and thin, and you have to choose your movements wisely, or you’ll run out of breath in a heartbeat. In a few hours though, according to plan, 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 obscure Bolivian hard liquor. A bit tacky, perhaps, but what the hell. If it’s part of the ritual, who am I to argue? Saddle up, and we’re off.
The first third of the journey takes us down tarmac roads, smooth and wide, and with virtually no traffic. I let gravity and the bike go to work. Darting down the road, before I know it, I’m speeding at, what, 60 km/h? 70 km/h? 80 km/h? Faster? I have no way of knowing, but it’s 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’d ever done.
Our guides make frequent stops along the way to gather the troops, let us catch a moment of breath, and to allow us – we’re tourists after all – to snap pictures. Our first stop is only a couple of minutes down from where we started. The road isn’t straight-forward in the geometrical sense of the word, but it 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 packed bus went just a little too fast around the corner and continued over the edge, helplessly falling down the mountain to a certain death. Surely a spectacular sight, but also a scary, disturbing, and traumatic one. Point taken. Stay on the road. Reality check times one thousand.
We get to the point where the comfortable tarmac road turns into a more unpredictable gravel road. From here on, it’s a completely different ballgame. A tiny moment of lost attention, hitting a small rock or a pothole, or a split second of panic could easily throw your bike off course and off the cliff. This is also where we were offered a last chance to bail out, with assurances that it most certainly wouldn’t be a cowardly thing to do. But no thanks. A quitter I’m not. I’m going down, one way or another.
This mountain road is surrounded by lush, green mountains. The mist gently caressing the mountainside. Birds hovering above the valleys. To our right we have the steep mountain walls towering over us. On the other side we have a drop of hundreds of meters down the canyons. In-between all we have is a narrow road of varying quality. The scenery is spectacular, breath-taking, 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 at this altitude extremely strenuous – uphill stretch, it’s all downhill. Not a whole lot of pedaling needed. The weather is beautiful. Chilly at the start, but the sun is shining and it’s 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. The bikes are top notch quality, well maintained, imported from the US (trying to go down this road with a regular bike would be ill-advised). As a seasoned biker, getting comfortable with the awesome bike only takes a few moments. 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 diverted attention or sheer 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 rationale, 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.
Remember at the top when I had a feeling at the beginning of the ride was that this would be the coolest thing I had ever done? It was, and to date still is. Museums, beaches, city walks, pub crawls in all their glory, but this is something else. This is action. This is life when life is good.