“Are they completely crazy?”
This was my flatmate’s response when I told her what I was reading: Andreas’s account on London Cyclist of his recent trip down the world’s most dangerous road.
It’s a good question – and one that I’m qualified to answer, given that that’s exactly what I did a little under six years ago.
The Death Road – otherwise known as the North Yungas Road, in Bolivia – starts from just outside the capital La Paz, at an altitude of 4,700 metres, and descends through a series of hair-raising bends to reach the town of Coroico, in the low-lying Yungas area of the Amazon rainforest.
For much of the way, the road is little more than a narrow gravel track – mountain one side, sheer drop of up 600 metres to the other. No safety rails. No barriers. No way of knowing what’s just around the corner.
Given this heady mixture of risk, adrenalin and the bragging rights it confers, it’s no wonder that cycling the Death Road is one of the ‘must dos’ on the backpacker circuit in South America.
Those back home, on the other hand, would probably be wondering why on earth someone would choose to risk their life for the sake of a bike ride.
The answer to that is simple – it’s not actually as dangerous as they would have you believe.
The road earned its deadly reputation when it was the main route for all traffic from La Paz into the Bolivian Amazon – not just cars, but lorries, trucks and buses too, an alarming number of which would fall off the edge. At the height of its use, an estimated 200 to 300 people lost their lives on the Death Road every year. Unsurprisingly, when a new road was opened along the same route in 2006, almost all the motor traffic started using that one. These days pretty much the only people using the old road are the cyclists.
That’s not to say it’s not entirely without its risks. People do still die on the Death Road, but in far lower numbers than in the past – in total, 18 cyclists have died on the Death Road since the first company started offering trips down it in 1998.
One of these deaths happened a matter of days before I was meant to be doing the trip. I’d reserved a place with Gravity – of all the companies offering the trip they had the best safety record – but when I went to their office in La Paz to confirm my place, it was closed. Apart from a brief note saying that they’d had to close due to circumstances beyond their control, there was no explanation.
The truth came out a day or so later. They’d had their first death – an American tourist in his 50s had come off his bike and fallen down a 60m cliff – and had cancelled all upcoming trips.
This completely threw me. I’d always known of the road’s reputation, of course, but it had always been more in the abstract. This felt a little too close. I’d deliberately chosen to go with Gravity because they had never had anyone die on their trips. I’d taken their reputation for safety as a sign that I would be safe, too. With this death, my sense of security had been shattered, along with Gravity’s spotless safety record.
To make matters worse, the previous weekend I’d met the father of a backpacker who’d been murdered in La Paz a few years earlier, who was over there for the trial of his son’s alleged killers. All of a sudden the thought of dying – of not returning from my trip – had become very real.
So what did I do?
I talked to other people who’d done the trip down the Death Road, and I talked to the other companies offering the trip. They all said the same thing – the people who get hurt and the people who get killed are usually the ones who show off, who go too fast. If you take it slowly, they all said, you’ll be fine.
In the end, it came down to one thing. I’d always known that people have died cycling down the Death Road. That someone had just died didn’t change anything. And people have died cycling in London – I know this, yet I still do it. If I can control the risks in London, I reasoned, I could control the risks on the Death Road.
Having made the decision, I’m very glad I did. I did as everyone had said, and I took it very slowly. Nonetheless, it was still exhilarating, nerve-wracking, and exhausting – but also jaw-droppingly, stunningly beautiful. It’s an experience that will stay with me forever.
There is, however, a postscript to this story. The following day another cyclist was killed, this time with the same company that I’d gone with. It happened at the start of the ride, while they were still on the new road – before they’d even reached the Death Road itself. A car ploughed into a group of cyclists before plunging off the side of the road, killing all the occupants of the car along with one cyclist – a British backpacker in his 20s.
When I heard this – from another backpacker, while waiting for a bus to take me from Coroico further into the lowlands – I felt completely chilled. This is exactly the kind of freak incident you simply can’t control.
I don’t know if I would still have done the trip after that latest death. I’m very glad it wasn’t a decision I had to make.