Back in June 2009 I cycled down what is supposedly the world’s most dangerous road, outside of La Paz, Bolivia. Presumably it was given this unofficial title long before roads in the Middle East were given the added challenge of IEDs. The road is known as Death Road colloquially or alternatively Yungas Road or Coroico Road or Holy Mother Of God That’s A Long Way Down Road. I’ll be calling it Death Road as it’s the easiest to type.
Death Road, as discussed by three middle-aged men on prime-time British TV, is something of a challenge in a car. It also happens to be incredibly fun to cycle. Quite literally the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything, in fact.
I was with a handful of other people that I’d been travelling with from Cusco, Peru, onto La Paz, Bolivia. One of them spoke respectable Spanish so we were relying on her to avoid the rest of us having to rely on wild finger-pointing and loud-talking like ignorant British tourists on the Costa. This Death Road day was the last one before I was to go solo and try and rely on my own fragmented Spanish around some random towns in South America (I survived so it must’ve been good enough!). This day out was to be one of the last times I ever saw these people.
We waited outside the hostel about 6:45am to be picked up by a minivan and driven to the start point. We were all given helmets and padded jackets, although I couldn’t see the point. If you were to fall off the edge, it was so far down that not even being inside a padded box inside a truck rammed full of bubble wrap would’ve saved you. But we did all “look the part” with helmets and bright jackets.
The first part of the cycle was the easy part – it was all downhill, all tarmac and it was still early and the road was quiet so we raced down it, although we always had to stay behind one of the guides at the front . After that part, which was maybe a solid hour of cycling, we (and there were about 25 of us altogether, from other hostels and hotels) all piled into a small cafe and had some bread and jam, bananas, juice and some coca tea for breakfast.
After that the road was entirely gravel and dirt track, wide enough for about one a half cars in most places. It was a two-way road, somehow. On one side was rock face with the occasional dainty waterfall and overhanging trees; on the other was a sheer drop, no railings, no fences. If you fell, your cries of “oooooohhhhh shiiiiiiiit” would be quickly swallowed up by the forest of trees below.
We split up into groups, each with a leader from the trip organisation – a slow team (I don’t want to be sexist here, but that group was mostly girls), a medium team and a fast team. The fast team was myself, a fellow Brit and a Dutchman (both of whom I was travelling with), a French guy and a German. After a while the latter two dropped back, leaving the Brits as leaders, restoring the natural order of things.
It was a painful ride. Cycling over gravel solidly for four hours is not comfortable, no matter what bike you’re using. Your numb hands start slipping off the handlebars because you can’t grip anything properly. The bike seats are no better and sitting down gets really uncomfortable too. But the more painful it gets, the more you can focus on the pain rather than spend time being terrified of hitting a big stone badly and flying off the edge. Every cloud and all that.
We did stop a few times, to flex some feeling back into fingers and to wait for the, ahem, girls. On a couple of these stops, we found ourselves next to wrinkled old women standing next to huge tarpaulin sheets covered with coca leaves. Coca is involved in the process of making cocaine (Wikipedia has details) and a lot of locals chew coca leaves during the day instead of eating/drinking because it’s basically a “superfood”. I’d love to see the Daily Mail write an article about that. I tried chewing the leaves once but it involves chewing a leaf for hours. It gets kind of gross. Coca tea is freaking amazing though. And no, it doesn’t get you high or anything. It just tastes nice and maybe gives you a little more energy than normal. Pity it’s illegal/impossible to get in the UK (and presumably most other places).
After several hours, we got to the bottom. After we’d settled in with some beers, the girls joined us, looking every bit as exhausted as we did. “Wow, Chirpy,” Sarah said. “I’m impressed. I wasn’t expecting you to be so good at this. You’re too intelligent.” The polite way of calling me a geek, I guess, and to be fair, anyone looking at me would probably assume I’d be more at home in chess club than leading the pack cycling down the world’s most dangerous road for four hours.
After everyone had recovered some feeling in their fingers and backside and had a beer, we were all taken to some hotel with incredible views over the Andes, where we could jump in the swimming pool and have some buffet lunch/dinner.
“I think this is what they call a perfect moment,” Aaron said, as the six of us travellers sat cosily around a table out in the sun with some condors gliding past the mountains behind us. He did actually say that, I’m not making it up to have a nice ending. He said it, we all agreed, then clinked glasses. Then it was time to go.
Suddenly full of energy, we all jumped back on our bikes and headed back up the hill. Only joking, the bikes were put into one van and the 25 of us separated into a couple of minivans and we drove back to La Paz. It seemed like we drove back on the same goddamn road but it became dark on the journey and we were all exhausted and fell asleep in the van. Night night.