La Paz, Bolivia • August 2013 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes
The following extract has been adapted from my self-published paperback travel book, Crobs Abroad: A Scot’s Misadventures with a Backpack. It follows my mishaps across five different continents as I get comatose drunk on the Thai islands; kicked out of a Hungarian lap dancing club; kidnapped by the mayor of a Peruvian city; and trek for a week across the Moroccan Sahara. If you enjoy this post, then please visit my online bookshop for more details.
In 1995 the 35-mile sliver of track winding through the mountains of Northern Bolivia from La Paz to Coroico was christened ‘the most dangerous road in the world’ due to the number of fatalities occurring on an annual basis along this main commuter route. Quantifiably, it was estimated the death toll to have been 200-300 persons per year before a more modern route was constructed to replace the officially named North Yungas Road. The new South Yungas Road has since been considered equally as dangerous, however. Imagine squeezing the amount of traffic that is usually present on the trans-American Route 66 highway onto a single-file gravel path teetering on the edge of a 4000m high cliff-face with no barricades protecting the outer edge. Now subject the vehicles to frequent rock slides hammering down from above as a host of unlicensed buses and vans rally past and this is a rough indication of why such tragic carnage occurs. The only rule is that the uphill driver has the right of way, but even this is only loosely abided by and in reality, it is really the larger vehicle that dictates what sort of ‘passing’ occurs.
Unsurprisingly then, when the North Yungas Road was closed tourists flocked in their thousands to attempt the daring descent themselves. Probably the most popular guidebook attraction in the capital, there are dozens of competing companies offering day-long mountain bike packages across a whole pricing spectrum. For those on a shoe-string budget, you could choose to go with a company that gives you no safety gear; no English tuition; and a bike that would be more suited for the paved streets of Amsterdam. On the other hand, premium companies with names such as Altitude, Adrenaline, and Extreme offered packages that included a free lunch; multi-speed suspension bikes; a fully-qualified medic; and take-home, professionally shot, video footage of the entire trip.
“Considering even the most high-end service comes in at less than £50, I think we should go for that,” reasoned my mate Gadams as we sat in our hostel.
“I couldn’t agree more,” nodded Endy. “Despite the cracking cost-saving deal, having bikes with no gears or brakes, meaning that you have to pedal backwards to stop, doesn’t seem like too sensible an idea.”
Just as we were paying our money to the hostel’s tour operator, Carly, a girl who we’d crossed paths with earlier in our travels, popped her head round the reception door.
“I thought I heard some familiar voices. How are you guys? Survive Lake Titicaca?”
“What a shithole it was,” pronounced Endy, “you made a great decision to stay on the bus and come straight here.”
“So I’ve heard. We’re actually leaving in the next few minutes. The Salt Flats await us to the south. Be sure to let us know how Death Road goes, I’m gutted we never had the time to do it. You do know that the new road is currently closed for construction so the North Road has been re-opened for all through traffic?”
“Eh no, no we didn’t,” I winced meekly. For someone who failed their cycling proficiency test in primary school, this was more and more seeming like a very dangerous prospect indeed.
“Well look forward to a very hairy ride. Is it 8 am they come to pick you up? You boys better get a good night’s sleep under your handlebars.” And with that, she gave a dimpled smile and departed.
The company we had eventually decided to go with was called Overdose, and getting suited up in our protective clothing upon arrival the next morning we couldn’t help but laugh at all the over-the-top, thrill seeking, names plastered over everyone’s shirts and helmets; a thesaurus of ironic synonyms. Looking around, Endy and I decided that there may be a gap in the market for the ‘Leisurely Peddle Biking Corporation’, but have yet to pursue this idea any further. If any reader wishes to take the reins on this project then I’d be more than happy to hand over the name and rights, however.
To break us into the saddles the first mile of the descent was on a fantastically paved two-lane expressway which saw speeds of up to 40mph being reached without the need to even peddle. Upon reaching a tunnel that broke through the hills the guide pulled us onto a boulder infested gravel track that ran around the outside and halted for the slower members of the group to reconvene.
“Through the tunnel, there is the New Death Road as we locals like to call it. As some of you may already be aware there is construction taking place and it is currently closed to the public. All vehicles have therefore been diverted along the Old Death Road, and this is the where it starts. There are four important rules that you must abide by at all times:
1) Never go ahead of the lead instructor.
2) If you take off any clothing, never rest it on the ground.
3) If you encounter any oncoming traffic, immediately stop and wait for it to safely pass.
4) Stay as close to the cliff edge a possible. This reduces the risk of getting hit by falling rocks from above.
…oh, and remember, always keep a smile on your face.”
Starting off just a peddle-width away from a 600m drop into the canyon below, we got into formation and began our 40-mile descent. The view that rushed past the corner of my full-faced visor was some of the most spectacularly beautiful yet frightening scenery I’ve ever borne witness to, but there were so many cracks and crevices in the ground that the majority of my focus had to be placed on simply keeping my hands locked to the bars. Even the dual suspension on the bike struggled to ease the shuddering turns; heart-stopping hairpins; and crater–sized potholes, but as I wrestled to keep the two-wheels pointed in a straight line one of the instructors whizzed effortlessly back and forth with his video camera at a speed more appropriate to a Harley Davidson chopper.
I had taken a firm position at the rear of the pack with Gadams whilst the others tore off into a dust cloud below, however not long after that I passed Endy at the side of the road brushing his elbows.
“What happened, mate?” I cried, slamming on the brakes.
“Well I was flying down,” he groaned, “when I happened to look to my right and see a little man squatting against a rock with his trousers down and taking a shit. I was so distracted that my wheel jammed and I ended up going head-first over the front tyre. I’ve actually really damaged my forearm I think,” he concluded, pointing at a two-inch scrape.
I couldn’t help but laugh. From his initial reaction, you might have thought he’d been the victim of a mortar shelling.
The next person to fall into bad luck was Gadams. As we pulled over for a bite of lunch he ripped off his helmet and gloves and tossed them on the ground right at the feet of the lead instructor guide.
“What was Rule 2?” he bellowed.
“Eh...” muttered Gadams. “Always stop for oncoming traffic?”
“Never rest any clothing on the ground. The reason being that it could very easily fall over the edge or be left behind. I think a punishment is in order. It’s time for you to learn: The Llama Dance. Ladies and Gentlemen, upon completion of our descent, Gadams here will be putting on a special performance of the ‘Overdose-renowned’ llama mating ritual.”
The afternoon section of the cycle saw the road narrow to a sliver as we had to further navigate rivers, waterfalls, and even slower-moving bikers. Whilst going through a significantly muddy section the grip on my tyres gave way and I landed hard on my side. There were no injuries to report but I did break my watch face in the process. We all made it down safely without any further issues, although one could not ignore the vast number of crucifixes littering the roadside. As the fifteen of us that made the group each cracked a celebratory beer the lead guide told us that, despite the increased safety regulations placed on the mountain bike tour operators, just the summer past two Israeli backpackers had passed away after losing control at a known slippery section. Thankfully Gadams was there to lighten the mood after this harrowing tale with his special ‘Llama Dance’ performance. Fairly embarrassed, he managed to get through the instructor-led foot-stomping and hand-clapping routine in an unorthodox manner, but the general consensus was that he perhaps shouldn’t be including it in his nightclub dance-floor repertoire.
Whilst he was making a fool of himself the guide with the camera had transferred all the footage onto CDs for each of us and included them within goodie bags along with a complimentary Overdose T-shirt and Bolivian hand-crafted wrist band. We thanked him for such an extreme overdose of altitude driven adrenaline and made our way back to the city.