Death Road

Trip Start Nov 17, 2010
1
19
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Trip End Feb 27, 2011


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Sunday, January 2, 2011

02/01/2011 - Sunday
I remember reading a chain email a few years ago with pictures of "The most dangerous roads in the world".  Among them were an icy highway in Siberia that had deep mud trenches, and a few others, but the one that stood out was the Yungas Road, or Death Road as it is also known.  Back then I had thought "probably will never see that, why would I ever want to go to Bolivia".  In 2010 Death Road gained a lot more exposure when it was featured in an episode of Top Gear, with the hosts of the show driving up the road from the jungle.

In the past, it was the only road linking La Paz with the lower towns and villages in the surrounding areas, and so because traffic was so high it was particularly dangerous, with up to 100 reported deaths a year.  Since the mid 2000s, a new highway has been built and these days not many cars drive down the old Yungas road at all.  It has instead become a popular route for mountain bike enthusiasts and thrill seekers.

Down Sagarnaga street, the main tourist strip in La Paz, there were many different companies offering bike trips down Death Road.  The most well known (and expensive) company was Gravity, which was the original company to offer mountain bike rides there.  We had shopped around a few places to get the best deal for our Death Road excursion, and finally decided on a company called Madness.  The bikes they offered were sturdy "Rocky Mountain" brand bikes, with font and back suspension.  They also offered full face helmets, gloves and overalls, as well as a two guides, who also takes photos and some videos.

Oliver, Liron and I arrived outside the company store, located on Sagarnaga, before 5:30am.  There were 13 of us in total, and we were briefed on the day's events, safety, fitted for gear and then we set off in a bus towards the start of the bike journey.  We drove for over an hour, and stopped at 7:00 before a toll area, where we could buy food from the street markets that were already open.  Since Oliver and I didn't have breakfast, we decided to risk eating street food so we bought the only thing available: fried chicken and pork.  It was some of the best tasting stuff I've ever eaten, and it filled the whole bus with the smell.  I'm sure the rest of the people were jealous.

A short drive later and we arrived at La Cumbre, a lake area located at 4600 metres above sea level.  The whole area was covered in fog, or cloud.  The bikes were unloaded and we all had 10 minutes to ride around and get accustomed to the feel of the bikes.  After taking a group photo, we were off!

The first section of the ride was on tarmac, and with the dual suspension on the bikes it felt very smooth.  Since we were riding through heavy fog or cloud, we were quickly drenched in water.  Reaching up to 60 kmph going downhill, it was certainly a very scary yet exhilarating experience.  The road was wet too, so we had to corner with real care.  The guide on our trip would zoom past us, hands behind his back and head on the handles, reaching up to probably 90kmph.  The tarmac section wound down towards the valley through many long straights and also switchbacks, and it remains one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had, and I can liken it to skiing at speed down a well groomed trail.

Near the end of the tarmac section we had to pass through a toll, then get back in the bus for a bit of uphill road.  We reached the 'official' start of Death Road and unloaded our bikes, then began the descent.  At the start we rode through some small villages next to the road, the track was maybe two cars wide.  We were passed by two taxis, the only cars we saw on the whole track (apart from our bus and other tour buses).

We were allowed to ride down at our own pace, and I found myself around the middle of the pack.  Riding on gravel was certainly scary and bumpy, but the suspension make it much better.  About 30 minutes into the ride I felt a sudden jolt (different to the hundreds of jolts from the gravel), and suddenly my steering became a lot more unresponsive.  I had received a puncture (my second puncture in three bike rides).  One of the guides stayed back with me and helped changed the tire, I had some time to check out the surrounding views without having to keep focussed on the road.  Because it was a very foggy day, you couldn't really see the bottom of the valley, which is possibly a good thing.  Once my bike was fixed it was a race to catch up with the rest of the group, with just me and the tour guide.  At some places, turning corners felt a bit scary, and I remember thinking to myself "slow down, a wrong turn could mean you falling off the edge". 

We stopped a few times on the descent, to look at an Israeli girl's death marker/tombstone thing, sat in a rest area for a while, and also before some bits where we had to ride under waterfalls and through water.

By the time we reached the bottom, at a town called Yolosa, near Coroico, the weather was quite hot, and having not been below 4000m for over a week, the air was nice and thick, like breathing soup.  We returned all our bike gear, had a beer while we waited for everyone else to arrive and pack away the bikes.  Just a warning, the toilets at the bottom are TERRIBLE.  I won't go into too much detail but the toilet was just one big room with holes in the floor, no cubicles or partitions or anything, and everyone that used them seemed to have missed the hole in the ground.  I'm pretty sure I just held my breath and ran out after using them.  When everything was packed up we drove to a nearby hotel area where we had a buffet lunch and a swim in the pool to cool down. 

The drive back up to La Paz was thankfully via the new highway, where the views were equally stunning.  I was pretty exhausted and fell asleep for some of the trip back.
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