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The Death Road

From Wikipedia: It is one of the few routes that connects the Amazon rainforest region of northern Bolivia, or Yungas, to its capital city. Upon leaving La Paz, the road first ascends to around 4,650 metres (15,260 ft) at La Cumbre Pass, before descending to 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) at the town of Coroico, transiting quickly from cool Altiplano terrain to rainforest as it winds through very steep hillsides and atop cliffs. Because of the extreme drop-offs of at least 600 meters (1,830 feet), single-lane width – most of the road no wider than 3.2 metres (10 ft) and lack of guard rails, the road is extremely dangerous. Further still, rain, fog and dust can reduce visibility. In many places the road surface is muddy, and can loosen rocks from the road. One of the local road rules specifies that the downhill driver never has the right of way and must move to the outer edge of the road. This forces fast vehicles to stop so that passing can be negotiated safely. Also, vehicles drive on the left, as opposed to the right like the rest of Bolivia. This gives a left hand drive vehicle's driver a better view over his outside wheel, making passing safer.

So 8 of us plus a few friends of riders set off at 7am for the La Cumbre Pass and 4,650m the start point for our ride. The landscape at that altitude is barren and we were not far below the snow line. We got kitted out and set-up our bikes. I chose to pay a bit extra and get a full suspension bike, I thought it was worth spending a bit more to have the best equipment considering the ride to come.

More from Wikipedia: The danger of the road ironically made it a popular tourist destination starting in the 1990s, drawing some 25,000 thrill seekers. Mountain biking enthusiasts in particular have made it a favourite destination for downhill biking since there is a 64-kilometre (40 mi) stretch of continuous downhill riding with only one short uphill section. There are now many tour operators catering to this activity, providing information, guides, transport, and equipment. Nevertheless, the Yungas Road remains dangerous. At least 18 cyclists have died on the ride since 1998. It is featured on the BBC show, Top Gear: Bolivia Special (Episode 6 of Top Gear series 14) where the hosts travelled 1,610 kilometres (1,000 mi) from the Bolivian rainforest to the Pacific Ocean. The danger of the road was readily apparent when the road began to crumble under the wheels of Jeremy Clarkson's Range Rover, as he was forced to the edge while passing another vehicle.

There are quite a few companies offering trips down the road but 3 come with the best reputation and the most experience Gravity, Vertigo and Madness. I chose Madness as they seemed to have the best bikes. From their website "Safety. Our logo may be a skull rocking a full face helmet but we have one of the best safety records of all the companies in La Paz, and unlike our competitors, we have nothing to hide! All of our guides are professionally trained in First Aid and C.P.R. as well as rope rescue, plus we have the tools and supplies in our support vehicle to make these skills applicable in the rare case of an emergency."

It turned out there were a group of Poles, 4 riders and 4 family who would take the bus. Me and 3 guys in their mid-20s who mountain bike, snowboard etc. After an intro from our guide and a couple of rules: 1. Don't fall off the edge. 2. Have fun. We were off. The first part of the ride was on a main road. Perfect surface and seriously downhill. We set off and I had to keep braking to stay behind the others, so I decided to let my bike run. Maybe my bike ran better or because I was heavier but I was quicker than the rest. So I stayed up behind the guide and was really traveling. The road swept down the mountain, big sweeping corners and a couple of reasonably generous hair-pins. We were over-taking lorries and buses, it was fantastic. Soon we got to the narcotics control point where we stopped to let everyone else catch up.

One more fast section and then we turned off of the new road onto The Death Road. A quick reminder of rule one and we're off. The road is a single track and quite rough. A few rocks, some stones and gravel. It has basically been cut into the rock face. The start of the Death Road proper is still quite high so the scenery is still barren.

They weren't messing around when they said there's a bit of a drop off the side of the road. For quite a bit of the way it really was a 500m or so shear drop.

Every now and again there would be a bit of fencing on particularly bad corners. Health and safety gone mad I reckon. Before we set off I intended to go down quite slowly and steadily, but it didn't really work out like that. It is quite steep and the 4 of us followed the lead guide and stormed it. We did the road in 15 minute sections and would often be waiting another 15 minutes for the Poles to catch up.

Of course now and again we'd stop for a few posed shoots. On these some people were more brave than others!

But, it didn't really seem that dangerous. Yes, when you stop and look over the edge it is a long way down but when you're cycling you are really only looking a few feet in front of your front wheel picking the best route through the pot-holes and stones. I generally used the brakes on the straight bits and let the bike run through the corners, lean the bike into the corners and keep the weight on the outside peddle. Seemed to work. There were a couple of corners where I did think afterwards that maybe I took it a bit quick :-) but I got around OK so no worries.

But really, consider you're going down a country lane with a ditch on either side. You'd back yourself not to end up in the ditch, well the Death Road is pretty much the same idea but with higher stakes.

Above is one of the crosses which I guess mark the fatalities on the road. There were two quite close together here where a waterfall went right over the top of the road. On the way down there were quite a few waterfalls we went under and one river we forded. It had rained yesterday so they were following nicely. Our guide said that even when it is raining and visibility is limited they still take tourist down the road. Wouldn't fancy that, I'm glad I picked the right weather forecast to go by, as our day was fantastic.

The picture on the left looks nice enough with us all sat on a rock for a posed photo. But this was the scariest part of the whole ride for me. I sat down and edged myself forward so my legs were over the edge. All the time I was leaning back on my hands. But then for the photo we all leaned forward and raised our hands. Believe me as soon as he said the photo was taken I leaned back and moved away from the edge pretty smartish. In the photo below you can see why.

Now and again for really tight corners with particularly big drops they were kind enough to put up a sign-post. But I'm not sure if they were a help or a distraction. One good thing about the road is that now the bypass has been built there are very few vehicles travelling up and down. In the whole length of The Death Road we only met two 4x4s and two mad locals who were cycling up the road!

It really looks like I'm motoring in this picture.

As we got near the end of the ride the scenery and the temperature had changed dramatically. From 5 or 6 degrees at the top at had become nearly 30 at the bottom. The scenery from the barren rocky landscape with wispy grass and the odd herd of llama had become more and more green, the plants got bigger and bigger and by the time we got to the bottom we were on the edge of the jungle.

And then we reached to end. We pulled up into a bar in the town for a well earned drink. From there we went on to a hotel for a dip in their pool and a bite to eat before the 3 hour journey back up, up, up the new bypass and back to La Paz.

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