Mountain Biking Death Road

June 5, 2010 (Day 18)

After a few days of tranquil relaxation, it was time to step it up a notch, and mountain bike down “The World's Most Dangerous Road."

Yes, that's right, the World's Most Dangerous Road, as dubbed by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995, and locally known as "Death Road" or "Camino de la Muerte!"

So why is it called that?  Well, according to Wikipedia, the North Yungas Road is legendary for its extreme danger and an estimated 200 to 300 travellers were killed yearly along the road, and at least 18 cyclists have died on the ride since 1998.

After confidently signing up the previous evening at the Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking office in downtown La Paz (despite the employee's arm being in a cast!), Steph and I headed to Alexander's Coffee for breakfast to join up with our fellow thrill seekers.  At 7:30, we hopped into the van and started our 1-hour drive to La Cumbre. 

After getting decked out in the helmet and outerwear provided, we prepped our bikes, and solemnly swore that we would not be idiots today and saluted Pacha Mama with a sip of a vile alcoholic beverage that we then sprinkled on our bike tires and the ground. 

And so it begins… the bike ride of our lives, down more than 3,600 metres, from high-altitude plains and mountain ranges down to the steaming Amazonian jungle!

We began the ride at La Cumbre (4,700m) where we had great views of a number of snow-covered peaks. From here, we descended rapidly down a twisting asphalted road (known affectionately as "The Tarmac") right next to less-than-sympathetic trucks and buses, among mountain peaks, tiny villages and of all things, a drug check-post.

This was deemed to be the easy part of the trek, yet I'd argue that it might be just as dangerous as the rest of the ride.  Since the road was asphalted, you pick up speed very quickly and one tiny slip on one the many tight curves, and you'd be scrapping yourself across the road into an upcoming vehicle or down a cliff! And to top it off, as you're heading down, you suddenly hit the clouds, resulting in almost zero visibility in front of you. Now the clouds were expected to clear up as we headed down in altitude but they really didn't as it turned a bit misty as we hit the jungle, which isn't the greatest thing as you can imagine for someone like me wearing glasses!  So at every stop, I'd be trying to clean off my glasses so I could actually see the road ahead of me! Yes, the nerd tried to be hardcore adventurous today, and the nerdiness really showed ;)

Then came the part our guide unapologetically said the office intentionally avoided to mention: an 8-km uphill section.  It's not like it was a ridiculous uphill section at sea level, but we weren't at sea level, but several kilometres above it, and I was still trying to get over my sniffles!  The uphill ride began and so did the showers but after stopping a few times to catch my breath and wipe my glasses, slowly but surely, we were back to heading downhill.

We were now officially on Death Road and you can definitely see why it would be called that as the narrow dirt road is cut into the side of a mountain with barely enough room for a single car, let alone opposing traffic.  

With 1,000+ metre sheer drops off to our left and massive rock overhangs and cascading waterfalls to our right, and the occasional car coming around a blind corner, we hurtled down this winding road, passing many crosses and memorials along the way to remind us of the dangers just a few feet away.

As we neared the last quarter of the ride, the mist disappeared and we started shedding off layers of clothing as it got progressively hotter.

By the time we arrived at the bottom in Yolosa (1,100m), we were all hot, muddy, and ready for a shower so we rode down to La Senda Verde Animal Refuge to enjoy our well-deserved beer, shower, and buffet lunch.  The Animal Refuge is run by volunteers from all around the world, who take care of rescued tropical animals ranging from macaws to monkeys to caimans and pretty much everything in between.  This was a very nice place to catch a closer look at the local wildlife, while ensuring the monkeys don't steal your belongings, and we could have easily spent the night there at one of their cabins or treehouses.  But we didn't have a reservation, so after a few hours, we got into the van, and headed back up Death Road, this time in the car, and got another look of our journey earlier in the day. 

The fog cleared up and since we were heading up the Road very slowly, we had a chance to truly appreciate how steep and deep those cliffs and canyons were!  What were we thinking!?! 

Combine this with the cars we had to pass along the way, both on our bikes and in the car, and we had the full Death Road experience!  Well, everything but the express trip over the edge!  And that's a good thing!

Video sampling Death Road's reputation is courtesy of luks01guitar

Now for a quick review of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking's "The World's Most Dangerous Road" Tour:

While there are cheaper alternatives, I chose Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (GAMB) for their good safety reputation, English-speaking guides, and the end-of-day extra of a visit to the Animal Refuge.  Other tour operators are probably a lot cheaper but do you really want to go with the cheap option when all that's separating you and death are a couple of small bike brakes?  Well, I didn't and it was comforting to have two radio-bearing, English-speaking guides (one of which was American) explaining the road ahead and any special precautions we had to take. 

As for the bikes, they were Kona's. Of course, nothing would beat having your own bike for such expeditions but when you have to settle for a supplied one, you can't really complain too much about a Kona.  That said, my pedal crank completely jammed on several frustrating occasions when I really needed to pedal, either up a hill or upon exiting a stream, and was quickly losing any usability as we approached the Sanctuary so I wasn't completely sold on GAMB's supposed impeccable maintenance standards but then again, it could have just been something small getting stuck in the chain as it seemed to start skipping a chain segment when pedaling at some point of the trip, and that feeling wasn't present at the beginning of the day. According to one of the guides, the other tour companies buy GAMB's bikes once they're deemed unacceptable for riding. I’m not quite sure what that means exactly considering you can almost always repair a bike but anyways, I didn't see the other companies' bikes so I can't make an honest judgement for myself. 

I will also note that the whistles the guides said they'd blow to warn us of vehicles weren't heard by us. 

One of the guides was responsible for taking photos of our journey, and while some were good, they could have been better but then again, his primary job was to make sure we rode down the mountain road safely so you can't really blame him but it would have been nice if more photos were taken.  A photo CD was available for purchase after the trip but a shirt and balaclava were included in the tour price.  

Now I can say, "Death Road: Been there. Done That. And I've got the t-shirt to prove it!" 

All in all, it was an unforgettable experience and considering it was unforgettable for all the right reasons, I’d definitely do it again along with some of GAMB’s other rides.

Now for a few quick tips regarding the trip:
  • You don't have to be an expert cyclist to bike this road as there's nothing very technical about the ride.  In fact, being overconfident is probably the biggest threat.  Just keep your eyes on where you want to go and if you're feeling uncomfortable,  just try to take it nice and slow.  And in the case of the 8-km uphill portion, you have the option of boarding the van for that portion, or for any other portion, for that matter.
  • Make sure you go to the right Alexander's Coffee pick-up location, unlike our American counterparts, who ended up at the wrong location and needed to take an expensive taxi ride up to La Cumbre to catch up to us and avoid losing out on this experience and their money.
  • If you need to wear prescription eyeglasses and can stand wearing contacts, do so!  If you can't, be sure to carry several handkerchiefs to help clean and dry your glasses along the ride.
  • A baseball cap under my helmet helped keep some of the showers and waterfalls away from my glasses.
  • Bring a small camera that you can easily pull out of your pocket.  We left our cameras in the van because they were too big to lug around on our necks while hurling down the mountain so we ended up not taking many of our own photos and relied almost solely on the guide’s photographic ambitions.
  • Be sure to bring the 25 Bolivianos (in exact change) that you'll have to pay for the tourist biking toll at Unduavi, along with some extra cash for additional beverage purchases and to make a donation at the La Senda Verde Animal Refuge, if you are so inclined.
  • Wear layers.  It's cold and windy up top and hot and humid at the bottom.  And don't wear anything too nice.  Even with the seemingly water-resistant pants they provided, the pants I wore underneath still somehow, inexplicably, ended up being muddy too, and I assure you that I did not soil them!
  • Bring a spare set of clothing to change into for your journey back.
  • Be sure you and everyone entering the shower lodge, closes the front door immediately, or you might have a monkey come in and take a shower with you!
  • And last but not least, some important advice from our guides "When cycling down Death Road, Remember: Don't look at the pretty birds and butterflies, their job is to f'ing kill you!"  LOL

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