The first time I went to La Paz I didn’t want to bike down the world’s most dangerous road. I mean, who would want to ride down “Death Road”?! The second time I went I still didn’t want to do it, but for some reason I thought it would be character building or some crap like that.
Besides, the North Yungas Road, to give it its real name, is no longer the world’s most dangerous road. It used be, back when it was the main route between La Paz and Coroico, and this narrow road curled around the mountainside with a sheer drop awaiting anyone who mis-steered. Estimates were that between 200-300 people died on the road each year. Nowadays, a newer, safer road has been built, and the only people who die here are the stupid tourists who hurtle down on mountain bikes. So, for some unknown reason I decided I would join these idiots & sign up for a tour with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. I remember thinking that every day you should do something that scares you. This would be my once-in-a-lifetime chance to do this, so I thought why the hell not. Hmm. Not the best decision I ever made.
We met on a chilly, bright morning in Oliver’s English Tavern in La Paz. I had a quick breakfast there, something to settle my nerves and that would keep my energy up till the end of the ride. Once we had all assembled & signed the waiver form to say that Gravity were not responsible should we die on Death Road, we piled into 2 mini vans with our bikes strapped to the top. Weaving our way through the traffic in La Paz, my stomach started to churn. Was this a good idea?
We started the ride by a lake, the altitude and morning air making for a cold start! We were given our kit – an all in one boiler suit, gloves, helmet, and a souvenir neck cover which we could use to protect our mouths & noses from the dust on the way down. We posed for some photos by the lake, and took a swig of alcohol, of course giving Pacha Mama a swig too to ask for her protection!
We then had a quick safety demonstration, but when the guide wanted to switch over the brakes on my bike I wasn’t sure which brake was the back wheel & which was the front, it seemed he forgot to come back and explain afterwards. I thought we had more time but suddenly we were off! Another girl asked me about her brakes, I had no clue what to tell her. I asked the guide & he snapped at me but did show me how to brake properly. On the road we tested our brakes fully so luckily it wasn’t a problem! I was a nervous rider so was close to the back, happy to bring up the rear, but there was a girl even slower than me so I settled into the second to last spot.
We started our descent on a tarmac road, which was great! I loved whizzing down the road, confident that I wasn’t going to die here. Then we stopped to go off road, to pass a tunnel where a biker had had an accident previously. That first story didn’t fill me with confidence. But, we weren’t going through the tunnel, we were going around it. So off we went. Before that, I hadn’t been too worried about the state of the road, I thought it would be more or less a dirt track – but it was quite big stones, which made for a very bumpy ride! I realised in the 20 metres or so of off road we did as a taster that I was not cut out for this! I was starting to panic now. But I’d come this far, we hadn’t even reached the Death Road so I couldn’t quit yet!
We carried on for another stretch of tarmac, and I felt slightly better. Then we reached the beginning of the Death Road. The good thing about the tour is that we rode down in sections, then rested, so the group never got too separated. There were two guides with us, and despite the shaky start they looked after us well. However, I really didn’t enjoy the stories of people plunging to their deaths every time we stopped. We posed for some more photos, feet dangling over the edge of the drop while the mist hid most of the view – probably for the best considering what lay beneath! We continued on, part trying not to die, part trying to appreciate the stunning scenery on the way down!
My nerves finally shattered when I turned a bend to find three of our group stopped by the side of the road. A girl had fallen off her bike; she had braked too hard and flown over the handlebars. She was obviously shaken but seemed fine – then as I stopped to ask if she was ok, she fell to the ground & passed out. The guide bringing up the rear caught us up and gave her some oxygen, and radioed ahead to his teammate who was leading the group. As he was giving her oxygen I spoke to the other guide & explained what had happened. The girl was still unconscious. The first guide pedalled back to where we were, no mean feat coming uphill on that road! By then the girl had regained consciousness, and her boyfriend agreed it was best to take her to hospital to get her checked out. Our two camper-vans had been following us down the road, and one was ready to turn back and take her to hospital in La Paz. The other continued behind us. The remainder of the group carried on to the next stop point, where those at the front were waiting, wondering what was taking so long. The guides arrived, telling us a tale of another gruesome death, and it all got too much for the slowest girl, she decided to get in the van & be driven down. I was determined to carry on!
I did one more leg, then I gave up. My hands were stiff from gripping the handlebars so tightly, I couldn’t even bend them to brake. I was even more terrified of falling off my bike after seeing the girl unconscious, and with the stories of people falling I just couldn’t take any more! I too climbed into the van, and tried to enjoy the scenery. I didn’t feel much safer in the van, as the road was so narrow in places it felt like we would just drop off. I thought how ironic it would be for me to die in the camper-van instead of on a bike! I toyed with the idea of completing the last leg on a bike, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was petrified of hitting what they called a ‘baby’s head’, or big fricking rock in the road and coming off the bike, tumbling down the mountainside. So I stayed in the van. Contemplating life, death, and humans’ need to push their limits. Do one thing every day that scares you, they say. Well, I was tired of being scared every day! I made a vow to treat myself a little nicer from now on – less being scared, and more simple enjoyment. When I contemplated bungee jumping in Colombia I remembered that moment, and went for a walk instead! Life is precious, and I’m all for living it to the fullest, but not risking it to that degree.
Everyone else who completed the route loved it – some more than others of course. There are always those who don’t seem to let fear get in their way, but I am not one of those people!
At the end of the tour, for those who hadn’t had their fill of adrenaline could go zip-lining. I was too drained to even think about it, and I think only one or two of the group went. The rest of us rested & drank a coca cola. Reunited, the whole group (except the two who went to hospital) were taken for a buffet lunch at La Senda Verde Animal Refuge & Ec0-Lodge nearby, and we were gifted with our ‘I did the Death Road’ T-shirts. I felt like a fraud taking mine, but I also felt like I’d earnt it! I still have it, and it serves as a reminder of how close I could have come to death. Just a few weeks later I heard another tourist had died on the road. I was glad it wasn’t me.
If, after all this, you still feel like you want to bike down Death Road (you crazy SOB), would I recommend Gravity? Yes, I would. Just make sure you’re clear about how your brakes work! These guys have the best safety record, they’re top in Tripadvisor and the bikes were in good condition. They taught us the rules of the road, and for me were better for nervous riders than the ‘Power Ranger’ companies as our guide called them. There are some companies that have full motorbike style helmets & bright boilersuits. They whizzed past us – on both sides of the road and seemed to not worry (or not have been told) about the safety precautions. After the shaky start, I was happy with the guides and how they reacted in the emergency.
Would I try this again? Hell no.
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All photos courtesy of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, as I was too petrified to take photographs!