I must confess - I'm not confident on a bicycle. I'm super clumsy and poor balance has plagued me all my life. The summer prior to travelling South America I fell off my bicycle twice in two very avoidable incidences, scraping my elbows and knees. No serious injuries, but I sure did smoke it in front of a few cars.
Bolivia wasn't in our original travel plans for South America and we would have missed out on one of the most amazing countries I'd ever seen if Jack hadn't discovered that it was possible to cycle the aptly named Death Road – statistically one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Otherwise known as Yungas road, this 61km stretch of gravelled path runs from the capital of Bolivia, La Paz (which translates nicely into ‘the peace’) down to the tiny town of Coroico and some estimate that around 300 people die each year on the ‘Road of Fate’.
Death Road is a popular tourist attraction in Bolivia and has been since the 1990s. Fewer deaths happen on the road now that a new (and far safer) road was constructed in 2009, so now tourists can enjoy the attraction with little worry of passing vehicles. While this makes cycling Death Road safer, it is not completely without risk. Top Gear did an episode on Death Road that's worth checking out.
The tarmacked road pictured above and below lasted just for the first few kilometres, after that the real Death Road began.
So what makes Death Road so dangerous? Only that it’s a snaking, crumbling dirt track that hugs the side of a cliff with a 600 metre drop on one side. There are no guard rails. Rocks pop up out of nowhere. The occasional vehicle will try and squeeze past and in some places the track is just a metre wide. Oh, and it’s all downhill which means that we were flying down at break neck speed.
Jack couldn't wait.
I ummed and ahhed about it for three months, changing my mind back and forth between giving it a go and sitting it out. I did this right up until we sat down in front of the travel agent and I committed to going through with it. I just didn’t want to be that person who doesn't participate in being alive, you know? I didn't know when I would return to Bolivia, if at all so it was now or never. So, before I could change my mind, I paid the $100 to join South America’s Madness biking company so I wouldn’t back out.
That night I was nervous. My stomach squirmed and I tried not to think about what I was in for the following morning. Jack was excited. He looked forward to doing this more than any other activity in South America; he loves his bike and cycles to work every day.
Next morning my nerves doubled. I was probably pale and quiet, and I tried to eat something for energy. We were given motorbike helmets (probably not much help against a tumble off the cliff) and told that if a car comes we should take the outside path around it – along the edge of the cliff. Great.
We stuck it out in a van for two hours to get to the start of the cycle trail. There was the added “joy” of snow flurrying around us as we started our decent along the first stretch of tarmacked road and gained confidence on our bikes. I kept my head down and focused on my cycling. The icy air stung and I couldn’t feel my hands so that when I needed to squeeze the brakes, I couldn’t feel whether my hands were doing what I asked of them, but the bike slowed so I have to assume so.
Ten minutes in, I had gained a little confidence. The sun was out, the scenery was gorgeous and I began to enjoy myself. Cycling Death Road gave me a huge confidence boost and I went on to cycle down the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador with the certainty that I could do it.
If you’re thinking of giving this a go, but you’re like me when it comes to cycling, then I would tell you it’s not as dangerous as the adrenaline junkies would have you believe. If you take the road seriously and don’t be too cocky then you’ll be fine (my travel motto apparently). Go at your own pace and don’t let peer pressure (which happens at all ages) bother you. If at any point you don’t feel comfortable then you can jump in the van that follows and take a break, but either way, give it a shot, you might enjoy yourself.
Pin it to your South America travel board: