The “Death Road”

Posted: June 4, 2012 by Ben Weber in Cycling, English, Photography
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Yungas Road is often called the “death road” for good reason. My brother Jonathan went on the road around 15 years ago in a bus – a tale which, when told back then was quite scary, but now after having been on it, appears all the more terrifying: now it is rare for vehicles to use the road due to a newer, wider road having been constructed – back then, in spite of most of the road having space for vehicles going in one direction, cars, trucks, buses, cycles all shared the road, going in both directions. Just imagining how they did this beggars belief. Coupled with the occasional land slide, this led the road gaining a rather unsavory reputation – a reputation which is enforced by little crosses along it marking where drivers plummeted to their deaths. At least 18 cyclists have been killed on the road since 1998, whilst our guide also showed us the remains of a vehicle that had fallen over the edge just a couple of weeks ago, killing each of the four occupants. All we could see was a wreck of twisted metal – certainly not the nicest of ways to go.

Wreckage of a car that fell a couple of weeks ago can be seen at the bottom

The descent travels over 64km, from a mountain pass of over 4,700 metres above sea level down to 1,200 metres is spectacular. Whilst incredibly treacherous, the road is incredibly beautiful: snow-capped Andean mountain peaks tower on either side of the valley at the top of the pass; and you pass into tropical rainforests (with deeply vicious and vindictive mosquitoes, as my arms and neck bore witness) as you get closer to the bottom; sheer rock faces with falls of over 600metres or so; waterfalls covering the road ahead; ridiculously sharp curves along the gravel track which demand full care and attention to make sure you do actually turn and not go straight over the edge…

We went with a guide and a group of five other semi-insane people who wanted to experience this road. The organizer was an agency called Pro Downhill Cycling which operates on Calle Sagarnaga in La Paz – reasonable price of around US$75 person to rent the bike, helmet, warmer clothing (and at the top, yes you do need warm clothes!) and gloves. The guide was good fun and kept a good pace for cyclists with limited experiences as well as more experienced riders – he definitely didn’t want people going faster than what they were comfortable with. We had regular stops as well to make sure everyone was alright, and we were followed by a van which had medical equipment and spare parts should anything be needed.

At first we went at a pretty reasonable pace. The road at the top is in good condition and we were able to go quite quickly – though I almost did have an accident on this part when going over very fine loose gravel as a car passed by. For some reason I lost a bit of control and came off – fortunately, just to the side of the road with no ravines to my side! It was a nice reminder to keep concentrating on the riding and not get distracted by anything. As we got further down we eventually arrived at the old gravel highway which only few cars now use and then the fun really began. We all needed to be slower here because the corners and the ravines are just enormous. The slope is sometimes difficult to see, but you hardly needed to peddle at all – as soon as you get started, you quickly build up speed, so you always need to keep your hands on the breaks to make sure you didn’t build up too much velocity.  It still only took us around 4 hours to complete the whole journey.

One of our group did have an accident along the more dangerous parts of the road, high up where there was a nasty drop to go down. He was going to fast and lost control as his bike jumped into the air. Fortunately neither he nor the bike flew in the wrong direction and he just ended up having a nasty gash along his arm. Nasty yes, but certainly much better than what it could have been. The reminder that I had about maintaining concentration was also lost as we got to the end of the whole road and neared Coroico – by then the most dangerous part of the journey had been finished, and we were on a more technical, loose gravel road with lots of curves. I was going too fast (a bit too over-confident after having completed the rest, and also because I wanted to escape the dust cloud of the person in front of me!) and got trapped in a line in the gravel which was taking me off the side, and I ended up going head over heals. Fortunately, aside from getting pretty badly winded and bruising one of my hands, I was okay. Natalia also had a similar accident which led to her getting her lip and leg cut as she went forward. Not quite the ending which we had in mind, but the accidents did nothing to affect what had been an incredibly thrilling day of riding – in fact, they only made us want to do the route again.

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