So I didn’t die, but I did get a concussion and some serious bruising! North Yungas Road, officially the most dangerous road in the world.
As long as we don’t die, this is going to make one hell of a story.John Green
I’ll start at the beginning..
I booked the tour through my Gadventures trip before I left the UK, priced at £88, plus a local entrance fee of 53 Bolivianos (BOB), just over a fiver in Sterling. You can also book locally once you’re in resort, you have to pay in cash in Bolivianos.
Gadventures use Enhance as a tour company who were very good and provide you with a 4000 US dollar mountain bike. As well as some serious kit, including elbow and knee pads, a proper motorcycle style crash helmet, gloves and outer trousers and a jacket. Even if it does look like something out of an 80s ski catalogue! There are plenty of different companies you can book with locally.
The few of us that had opted to cycle Death Road got picked up early from our hotel. It was a half hour drive to pick up our bikes and equipment. From there a further one hour drive to start at the top of the mountain. I recommend you wear lots of layers, long socks, additional gloves or liners too. And sturdy footwear, waterproof if you can!
It was freezing at the top of the mountain, and snowing when we started. We experienced rain, hail and fog during our ride too. Wear lots of layers underneath the clothing they provide – you’ll need them! It gets warmer as you descend so you can remove layers as you require and put them in the van which follows behind at all times.
I’d also take sunglasses, in case its bright, or to stop small stones or bugs flying into your eyes. That said, for us it was so wet you could barely see through the glasses. We fashioned a method of resting them on the end of our noses! It prevented some of the spray and allowed us to see something!
You start at over 4000 metres above sea level. Being used to riding a very light road bike, just under 9 kilo’s, not only did I find the bike extremely heavy but with the altitude I was breathless trying to ride it until we started going downhill! There was a very, very slight uphill to start, between my lack of breath and the weight of the bike I almost couldn’t get the bike to move! But just about managed to keep it upright and moving! Unlike one of my fellow death road companions who went sideways into a puddle before we’d started!
The first 20km of the cycle are mainly on a road and you gradually descend along with some traffic, and some fog and heavy rain! The remaining 30km is all on track and arguably the more dangerous part of the road. The bikes are expensive, good quality and you have to trust them. You descend all the way down to around 1200 metres above sea level. It starts to feel tropical on the way down and you get chance to sunbathe and swim in the pool of a local hotel before heading back.
The Yungas road, to give it its formal name, links La Paz and The Yungas region of Bolivia. It was considered dangerous owing to the steep slopes, narrow track, lack of guardrails, rain and fog. Nicknamed ‘The Road of Death’. The original road was built in 1930. An alternative was built to bypass the most dangerous section over a 20 year period and completed in 2006.
The 30km track section that you enter is no longer used by cars and vehicles. Many tour operators offer downhill mountain biking tours, offering guides, equipment, information and transport. It draws around 25,000 tourists a year. At least 18 cyclists have died on the road since 1998. You have to sign a form before you start, basically signing your life away. If you die or injure yourself, you’re accountable.
The track section of the road is narrow in places, with water running in parts. Very few of the areas have barriers, if were to go over the edge its a long way down! That said it used to be a road, so is more than wide enough for a bike!
You go over a variety of surfaces including rocks which can be wet and slippy. The bikes will go over anything and you have to trust them. Easier said than done! Most accidents are from people braking too hard.
The guide will stop regularly at different sections where there is space to or a good viewpoint for photos. He will also take photos and some short videos that will be sent to you afterwards.
I remember going fast on slippy, wet rocks. I assume I must have hit a rock at a dodgy angle and came off. The next thing I remember is being on the ground, very confused. I felt like I’d just woken up from a dream, I didn’t know where I was and I had no memory of falling.
At this point I was at the back of the 5 of us in the group, with only the driver behind me. I woke up on the rocks with him trying to take my helmet off. I didn’t recognise him or know what was happening so I went a bit hysterical shouting various things at him. ‘What are you doing to me!’ ‘Who are you!’ ‘Where am I?’ ‘What happened to me!’ ‘Speak English!’ ‘Take me to a hospital!’
Then I gradually started to realise what was going on, I still wasn’t with it and was in a lot of pain and very confused. He called our guide and asked him to come back. And in the meantime he took off my helmet and stood me up. Not the best course of action but I wasn’t with it enough to realise at the time. I actually fell on one of the most dangerous parts of the road. It wasn’t too far from the Ambulance station. So our guide came back in the Ambulance. I was already stood up by this point. I also wasn’t aware an ambulance had turned up until some of the other guys told me later on!
I was still extremely confused and trying to work out what had happened. I had worked out that I must have fallen, but really wasn’t with it.
I had one hell of a headache. I later discovered I had a fair few bruises coming up down one side, down my leg and thigh, and on both shoulder blades – so maybe I bounced! They were starting to come up but appeared a lot more in the next day or so. It was really sore but I think because my head hurt so much, I didn’t really register the pain anywhere else!
That said I still think I was lucky. It could have been worse. I didn’t brake anything, and I didn’t go over the edge! It’s a good job they give you such good helmets, mine had a huge crack in the back. If it was a normal cycle helmet that would have been the base of my skull.
So I managed to do around 35km of the 50km route before coming off the bike and knocking myself unconcious! I’m still glad I did it, and I really enjoyed the part that I did do. I was a bit gutted that I didn’t manage to complete it all but I had a bad concussion and no memory of falling!
I went in the van for a bit and tried desperately hard not to fall asleep. One of the cyclists on my trip was a radiographer and asked me a lot of questions. She confirmed in her opinion it was concussion. I concur based on the pain in my head! I also felt sick and sleepy. Staying awake was priority number one!
I spent the 10km after that in the van. Then at around 5km from the end I decided to get back on and have a go. Part of me wasn’t thinking straight and part of me wasn’t really aware what was going on. I decided that for my own confidence I needed to get back on, even if just for a little while. Otherwise I was worried I’d struggle when I tried to cycle back home.
I only did about a kilometre or so and the guide stayed at the back with me. The surface was a little flatter and less rocky so it was more manageable. My head still hurt though so I decided that was all I needed to do and I got back in the van for the last few km.
Once you’ve finished the ride you drive a short way to a small town where you can get a beer to celebrate. With my very recent head injury I decided alcohol wouldn’t be the wisest thing I’d ever done so opted for a Fanta for the sugar. You give your equipment back at this stage and the bikes get a thorough cleaning.
We then had a further half hour drive to a hotel for a buffet lunch and a shower. There is a pool if the weather is good. It was a bit wet while we were there. Much as I usually love swimming I probably wouldn’t have been up to it anyway! Bring bug spray and suncream as well as swimwear just in case.
Snacks and water are provided throughout. The van and a mechanic are always with you in case you need anything. The guide is usually ahead and helps you on your way down. The van is always behind in case anyone needs it – like I did!
You get a t-shirt included, along the lines of ‘I survived death road’. My group told me I could wear it with pride!
We then had a 3 hour drive home, I took some paracetamol and did have a short sleep in the van. Then got back to the hotel, showered and went out for dinner as of it was a normal night!
With hindsight I should have gone to hospital. I didn’t realise how bad it was but thankfully I’m ok and recovered and back to cycling on my road bike.
I did visit my GP when I got home a couple of days later – having slept for most of the flight home. It’s a good way to get over jetlag as your body needs so much rest! The doctor gave me a link to a professional rugby website as they’ve done so much research into head injuries. I had to take it easy and not raise my heart rate for a couple of weeks to aid recovery. Then ease back into exercise gently. I still had headaches for about 3 weeks afterwards.
So I completed most of Death Road, but I am a bit gutted I didn’t manage to do it all! That said, it was an amazing experience. Stunning scenery and beautiful, breathtaking views! As I say I’m glad I did it, and enjoyed the part that I did manage to do!
The final word..
That concludes my South American trip. A fantastic experience seeing some beautiful sites and countries. And met some great people! I’m also extremely grateful I was able to complete by trip this year, 2020; arriving back in the UK after 5 weeks travelling in the middle of February. Shortly before Covid-19 changed our lives and the travel landscape so much. I appreciate I was lucky to complete the trip and enjoy so many amazing experiences.
My highlights: Sunrise on Easter Island, Iguazu Falls in Brazil, and The Salt Flats in Bolivia. And I think The Pantanal in Brazil features too; it put me out of my comfort zone but I look back on it as one of my best memories. See other blog posts in the South America section for more information and photos.
I enjoyed so many other amazing things throughout the trip. I will definitely be back to South America soon. As and when travel restrictions and funds allow. And I can’t recommend you visit highly enough! Until then I hope you all stay safe and well x