The World’s Most Dangerous Road
- Jo Morgan
- 1 March 2009
Hairpin bends and sheers drops of 600 metres; whatever possessed Jo Morgan to tackle the world’s most terrifying cycle ride?
To this day, I still can’t understand why I thought that cycling down the World’s Most Dangerous Road was a good idea. I’m terrified of heights and failed my cycle proficiency test, despite my mother being the teacher. It was a recipe for disaster.
The Yungas Road was built in the 1930s and connects Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz to Corioco, on the edge of the Amazon rainforest basin. This stretch of road is said to claim up to 300 lives a year, which led the Inter-American Development Bank to name it the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ in 1995. With extreme cliff edge drops, narrow road, absolutely no crash barriers and main traffic consisting of buses and trucks; this wasn’t the ideal territory for a novice rider like myself.
Nevertheless I find myself onboard a bus climbing through the high terrain to La Cumbre; where our adventure will begin. My bike is on the roof and my heart is in my mouth. Needless to say, conversation with my fellow thrill seekers is sparse. We are now 4,600 metres above sea level; the air is cool and oxygen is sparse. For the unlucky few the effects of altitude are too much and the vomiting begins.
As our bikes are unloaded our guides issue us all with helmets and high visibility vests and begin their safety brief. Once all tyres and brakes have been checked and our guides are content that our saddles and handlebars are at the correct height, our bus driver emerges with a bottle of local spirit. Fantastic! Just what I need to conjure up some courage. Sadly, the alcohol is for the goddess of Pachamama to ensure a safe passage to Coroico. I watch in horror as it’s poured over the tyres and splashed over the road.
Before I have too much time to mourn the sacrificed alcohol, in the blink of an eye we’re off. In single file we cruise downwards, sweeping around serpentine bends and gathering ridiculous speeds. My knuckles are white and as I dare to look up from my handlebars, I find myself surrounded by snow capped jagged mountains. We’re descending through the Andean planes scattered surreally with Llamas, Alpacas and tiny villages.
An exhilarating 22 kilometres from our starting point our group grinds to a halt at the entrance to what can only be described as a dirt track. We have dropped around 1600 metres and the changes in our surroundings are dramatic. We dismount and stare in disbelief at the challenge laid out in front of us. Arid frozen peaks and barren land have given way to lush greenery and a gravely track that snakes ahead of us into the misty horizon. The greenery is predominantly the indigenous coca leaf and we must pass through a drugs checkpoint to ensure we are not carrying the necessary chemicals that can transform the coca leaf into cocaine. Once we have convinced the intimidating officers we are merely a bunch of thrill seeking mentalists we are allowed access to the Yungas road. The track is perched on the cliff edge high above the valley floor and just as I think I have reached my fear threshold, the heavens open.
Our guide explains that the going will be slippery, that rainfall can cause landslides from above and sections of the road can slip down the cliff edge to the valley below. We are warned of traffic on the road and are told to stick to the left hand, (yes sheer drop, no crash barrier) side of the road.
Can they be serious? This road is barely wide enough for a vehicle and our guides want us to stay one metre from the edge? Before my concerns can be voiced we are off again and I can honestly say I have never known fear like it. Roadside crucifixes and flowers are constant reminders of the countless lives lost. As we nervously wait for some vehicles to pass, I dare to look over the edge and catch a glimpse of some mangled vehicles on the valley floor.
This is the point of no return and my trusty fighting spirit kicks in. After an hour or so of sheer fear, the cocktail of beauty and adrenalin takes over. Lush tropical vegetation hangs over the cliffs above and with the descent comes sunshine, humidity and clouds of choking dust. On the narrowest parts of the track relatives of The Yungas victims control the traffic with ‘stop’ and ‘go’ signs in return for passing donations.
Five and a half hours after our anxious departure, we have done it. I feel alive in every sense of the word. And with the exception of aching limbs, blistered bums and hands frozen in the braking position, we are in tact and grinning from ear to ear. Do I regret it? Hell no! Would I do it again? Absolutely not!
● April to October is the driest time of year and so is the best time to ride.
● Go with a reputable company with stringent bike maintenance in place. Do not attempt this on your own – always go with fully trained guides.
Jo went with Gravity Bolivia, www.gravitybolivia.com