Word of mouth and a whole lot of hype
If you want to travel to the Amazon rainforest from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, one of your options is to take the Yungas road to the town of Coroico. From Coroico you can then continue all the way to the small town of Rurrenabaque in the Amazon basin. This sounds simple enough, however the road between La Paz and Coroico is known to be the worlds most dangerous road. The majority of the road is gravel and it descents from 3 600m above sea leave to 1 100m over a distance of just more than 64 km. Many tourists do actually travel on this road every year, but they do it on bicycles!
We had heard a lot about this cycle trip before we came to Bolivia. Friends have done it before, we met several travellers that have either completed the trip or were on their way to do so, and it is mentioned in every available South American guidebook and travel website. So naturally we decided that this was definitely something we had to do as we will probably only get one chance in a lifetime.
So on a nippy March morning we joined a group of travellers and began the tour with a local tour operator in La Paz. Our trip started with an hour drive in a mini-van to La Cumbre, from where the cycle road officially starts. The tour operator guides gave us our bikes, helmets, vests and gloves and then tested our breaks and gave us some instructions on how to handle the bike in different situation along the road. When everyone was ready we set off.
I was very surprised and alarmed at the pace at which everyone sped off and it didn’t help that I could not recall when last I rode a bike. At least the first stretch of the road was tarred and had double lanes, two luxuries that would soon disappear as we head into the notorious gravel stretch of the road. The scenery was mind blowing though and helped to some extent to take my mind of the sheer drop close to the shoulder of the road.
I knew this was a bad idea
It wasn’t long however until my suspicions were confirmed. Although this trip came highly recommended by several people and it seemed like a good idea when we booked it the day before, I quickly realised that this was actually an incredibly bad idea. Especially if you are terrified of heights. We were cycling very fast, the wind was blowing very strongly and I was terrified! I looked around at the other bikers though but no-one seemed to share my sentiment and they all look like they were having the time of their lives.
We cycled through a wet tunnel and then pushed our bikes through a police check point on the other side. After the checkpoint there were a few uphill sections which I actually preferred as I didn’t feel that my life was flashing before my eyes. Just before the last hill I was absolutely drained and our mini-van driver picked me up, put my bike on the roof rack and we drove to the next pit stop. This was the end of the tarred road and the rest of the journey would be gravel road.
At the pit stop one of our guides, an Australian adventure type, took my bike of the roof rack. I had one look at the dirt road ahead and the steep vertical drop at it’s side and told him: ‘Mate, you can put that bike right back, I am staying in the van.’ He looked puzzled and probably thought: ‘You mean you don’t want to scream down this narrow, muddy, slippery road which has no shoulder, no barrier, many hair-raising bends and vertical drops of more than 2000m, on a mountain bike?'
I must say that riding in a mini-van that just fits on the road wasn’t that much more pleasant either. But at least I wasn’t driving and the driver looked fairly relaxed and did this every day after all. That was all I could think to make myself feel better because there was no going back and I only had two options, the bike or the van.
Its not just to scare you
You might think that this road’s reputation is hyped for tourism but there is no denying that this road is dangerous and claims the lives of a large number of people every year. As we drove I saw various grim reminders of the road’s undesired reputation. There were numerous memorials next to the side of the road for people who lost their lives in either a bus or bike accident. I could just make out the tiny specks that were wrecks of busses that have tragically plunged over the edge in the past.
We were told that just the week before a French girl on a bike stopped and stepped of her bike to let a truck pass. She made a fatal mistake however when she stepped off on the left side of her bike. The side that the edge was on. As she tried to move out of the way to let the truck pass she stepped to close to the edge, slipped and tragically fell over the edge. Our guides informed us of the golden rule off the road before we started: ‘ALWAYS step off on the right side of your bike to make sure that your bike is between you and the cliff at all times’.
I was a bit anxious when we approached the notorious ‘death corner’ but we passed it without incident. This is a blind corner on the single lane with a frightening drop to the left. Approaching this corner you have little chance of knowing if there is any traffic coming from the other way. As we approached death corner I saw a man with a red flag indicating that there was traffic approaching from the other side. This allowed us to move into a suitable position to let the other vehicle pass safely. Our driver explained that the men are all members of the same family from whom the road claimed several lives in an accident on that corner. They now voluntarily man the corner every day and probably save hundreds of lives in the process.
I stayed in the mini-van for the remainder of the trip as the road continued to snake and wind its way slowly down to the Amazon basin. The morning’s snow-covered mountain peaks were gone and instead we started to pass dense jungle, small waterfalls and the temperature and humidity started to rise significantly.
Finally, almost five hours after we started our journey in La Cumbre, we reached Coroico, where at an altitude of 1 100m our trip officially ended. The cyclists were all hot, sweaty and exhausted after the trip and we enjoyed a cold drink at a small café in town. I doubt that there was anyone in the group more relieved than myself that the ordeal was finally over. As everyone excitedly recalled the day’s events and talked about their desire to repeat the trip some day, I just smiled and quietly promised myself: ‘Never again!’