deGeneration X: They Don’t Call It the Death Road for Nothing

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deGeneration X: They Don’t Call It the Death Road for Nothing

“You rode down the Death Road?” I asked the couple we just met on a South American bus.

“Yes, it was great,” said the young man, recommending a company called Vertigo.

“Were there many women on bikes?” asked my Colombian girlfriend. She already agreed to join me on the Death Road when we arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, but she definitely had reservations.

“For sure,” said the young woman in the relationship. “All the guys try to race down, but you don’t have to. You can ride down as slowly as you want.”

“Okay,” said my girlfriend in an obviously nervous tone.

The historic death toll on North Yungas has prompted names like the World’s Most Dangerous Road, the Death Road and the local Camino de la Muerte. The harrowing 40-mile stretch has more sheer drops than guardrails as it descends 12,000 feet from the Andes to the Amazon. The narrow and rocky road is, at times, only 10 feet wide, making it easy for drivers to slide off the ledge and potentially fall 2,000 feet. This is particularly common during the rainy, foggy season.

A new road finished in 2006 handles most of the automobile traffic these days, so fewer cars drive on North Yungas. Instead, the largely unpaved path is now filled with BMX bikes conquering the Death Road on two wheels. At one point, North Yungas chalked up about 200 fatalities per year, and numerous bike-related deaths continue to occur several times each year. Still, we were going to tempt fate and bike down the mountain.

We pre-booked the tour online, and once in the Bolivian capital, we went to the Vertigo Biking Co. office for an all-riders orientation. The charismatic tour leader explained what to expect as the riders tried out helmets, gear and bikes that we would use the next day. With all the gear tagged, a tour guide mentioned that we would regroup in the morning after everything was loaded into the vans and trucks. He also said the guides would take photos that they would give us later as part of the tour package. Eventually, the guides opened up the floor to questions, and the first one was a peach.

“Did anyone ever die in one of your groups?” asked a woman.

“Yes, we have had one,” said the leader, drawing gasps from the riders. “A few years ago, we had a French guy who loved extreme sports. He was going very fast and lost control. He went over the ledge.”

The riders were all as quiet as cats.

“His family totally supports us,” he added, describing how they had many conversations after the death. Of course, I’m guessing none of the surviving family members signed up for a ride.

“What is the typical cause of a fatal accident?” asked another rider.

“Some people ride too fast and reckless,” explained the group leader, “but the most common problems have to do with the equipment. All of you already paid, so I can admit, there are other agencies offering this tour for less money.”

Everyone laughed.

The guide continued, “The reason they charge less is because they have old equipment that they don’t properly maintain. People get hurt because the bikes malfunction as the riders race down the mountain. We always check and maintain the bikes to make sure everyone is safe.”

Note to self: Don’t go cheap on any tours that have the word “death” in them.

Early the next morning, the van picked us up, and the driver took us to North Yungas in the La Cumbre highlands about an hour away. In the distance, we could see snow-capped mountains. With thousands of riders tackling the road each year, our group naturally was not alone. Other agencies had their own tours, meaning parts of the road might get crowded. The riders were all given jackets with a reddish orange color, which helped the group stick together. Once everyone was ready and mounted, we took off down the road.

The incline was so steep that riders did not need to pedal at all if they did not want to, though several young guys in the group spun their pedals at full speed. My girlfriend and I opted to drift down the hill, which was fast enough on its own. Plus, we wanted time to take in the views.

Surrounding us, the massive rock formations were covered in lush vegetation, and the long, winding road went past rivers, valleys, cascades and waterfalls. As the road snaked around mountains in a zigzag pattern, the scenery slowly became more and more wild. The Andes were slowly crashing into the Amazon.

Along one sharp turn with a steep rock face, all the riders stopped for a group photo. At another location, the photographer stopped couples and friends for more personal shots. Every 45 minutes or so, the riders regrouped and took a quick break in which riders often took pictures. During the lunch break, one of the riders asked again about the fatality, and the reply brought more shivers.

“The French rider did not die right away,” said the tour leader, relishing the moment like a hippie meeting his girlfriend’s military father. “It took a very long time for the ambulance to arrive, and there was nothing we could do to help him. It was horrible.”

“So what happened?” asked one of the riders.

“By the time the abundance arrived, he was already dead. It was a tragedy. His parents in France actually donated the money to buy an ambulance just for the bike tours so hopefully the same thing won’t happen again.”

Sounded nice, but considering the width and length of North Yungas, I can speak for all the riders in saying we wish they donated a helicopter.

At the various break stops, any rider feeling nauseous, tired or too frightened could ride in the van for a short time or for the remainder of the trip. About two-thirds of the way down, my girlfriend and a British rider took the van option for one section of the road. My girlfriend said her hands and wrists ached from holding the brake tight for more than two hours.

This was my chance to go fast.

I let go of the brake and proceeded to pedal quickly gaining as much speed as I could. I kept pace with much of the pack, but then everyone suddenly hit the brakes. A car was coming around a hairpin corner. We had to share the road, and my brief Speed Racer moment came to an abrupt end. The sudden appearance of a car going the opposite direction reminded me of the need to proceed at a more controlled pace.

After the next break, my girlfriend joined me again, and we completed the final leg of the Death Road. The entire ride took just over four hours.

An age-old religious question asks if death is followed by paradise, and in Bolivia, it kind of does in theory. The Death Road finishes near a gorgeous resort town called Coroico, whose welcome sign actually said, “Welcome to Paradise.” My girlfriend and I spent three days in Coroico surrounded by cloud-wrapped mountains, forest-covered canyons, wild rivers, coffee plantations and coca farms. Still, there was trouble in paradise.

On the first night, the power grid went down for days, meaning no water (i.e., no showers or toilet flushes), and the security guard at Lonely Planet-praised Hotel Esmeralda let me know in Spanish, “We don’t like gringos around here. I don’t like gringos.” I had conquered the World’s Most Dangerous Road, and in the ironies or ironies, I ultimately felt safer on the Death Road than I did in paradise.

Photo: Matthew Straubmuller, CC-BY

David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.