Tired of your usual cycling route? Teeter along the El Camino de la Muerte, Bolivia's 'Death Road', says Simon Heyes – just mind the 1,000m sheer drop...
I was travelling with a Dutch girl across the Peru/Bolivia border when we first started talking about things to do in Bolivia. We opened her travel guide and flicked to La Paz. "Are you going to cycle down the world's most dangerous road?", she asked as I was mid-chew of a Sublime cereal bar. "I'd prefer to live, to be honest" came my mangled reply. We spoke of it no more.
I woke up the next morning in my hostel in La Paz, and turned to Tripadvisor for inspiration. The first suggestion? Cycling the North Yungas Road – the world's most dangerous road, also called the Death Road (El Camino de la Muerte).
At that point, I decided that you only live once. I'd come all the way to Bolivia, and this opportunity was now on my doorstep. I thought f**k it, I'm going to do this.
I got in touch with the Dutch girl, told her my plan, and within three hours we were booked to ride the notorious road the next morning.
We booked the trip with Gravity, a reputable local company. Their fleet of rental bikes are top quality and well maintained – they cost around $3,000 to buy. All the safety equipment was included, and as well as a guide you get a CD of photos, a buff, and a t-shirt to show that you diced with death. Not bad for 750 Bolivianos (about £75).
The North Yungas Road is 64km long, and finishes at a small town called Yolosa that is 1,100m above sea level, thick with rainforest vegetation. That works out as a total descent of around 3,600m.
One estimate states that roughly 200 people are killed on the road every year, and 18 cyclists have died on it since 1998. Even though another (safer) road was built, the road is still used by buses and lorries. Most of the road is single-track, so passing or overtaking are particularly hair-raising.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we were met by a mini bus with mountain bikes loaded on the top. Every bike was tailored to its rider, as front and rear brake set-ups vary between countries. After a quick hour-long bus ride, we parked by the side of the road and the bikes were unloaded.
Each bike had a name – my compadre for the day was called Barney. I thought that sounded cute, but aggressive. We put on the safety equipment – helmets, knee pads, high vis jacket and gloves – and then it was time to have a practice ride around the car park.
Next came the safety briefing. We were told about the route, what to expect on the road, where to ride, what to eat, what to drink, when to drink, when to take photos, when not to take photos, and generally how to enjoy the ride. This was all computed into my excited little head.
We were told that there are three main reasons why cycling fatalities happen on the road:
1) Bad luck – maybe the chain comes off the bike, or the wheel hits a rock. One rider died after a heart attack.
2) Riding beyond your comfort zone – once the adrenaline kicks in, many people ride beyond their ability, and when they lose control they don't get it back.
3) Riding "like an idiot" – the main reason for fatalities. This involves racing other cyclists, taking photos while riding, not riding in single file, stopping for no reason, doing wheelies.
With the safety briefing complete, it was time to saddle up and hit the road. We started in La Cumbre (4,700m), and descended on the first stretch of road, which was all tarmac. This gave everyone a chance to get used to their bike, gauge their speed, and get used to riding in single file. It was yet another glorious day, which meant that the road was dry, so I wasted no time in riding at the front behind our guide. Even though it was only the start, this small section felt amazing.
We cycled past incredible scenery (and the odd grazing llama), and made regular stops – one was even at a drug check point. After this stop, the bus picked us up, and drove 8km uphill to the official start of the Death Road. From here it was all gravel.
Once the bikes were unloaded, we were given a second safety briefing: how to ride over gravel and rocks, and what to do if we came across traffic on the road. Uphill traffic is given right of way, followed in rank by vehicles going downhill, and lastly cyclists. Another rule: don't pick a fight with a vehicle.
We made our way tentatively down the road, getting used to the gravel. The air was warm and the road was dusty, so it was important not to ride too close to the person in front, or else you got a mouth full of dirt. We were told to ride on the left side of the road (next to the sheer cliff edge) as it made it easier to spot any oncoming vehicles. Anyone who wasn't comfortable swiftly lost their confidence over the edge of the road.
We were about 4,000m high, looking at snow capped peaks and Altiplano vegetation. Even though we were 100% focused on the road, peripheral vision hinted that the views were spectacular, which made the ride even more enjoyable. Throw in a few waterfalls and a couple of rivers running across the road, and it made a very fun ride indeed.
We stopped for another break lower down, and were told that the stretches of road would become longer between each stop, giving us chance to speed up or take in the scenery as we felt necessary. We were also told that we would pass a couple of small villages, and to watch out for chickens on the road. This was so common that there is an unwritten agreement that if you hit a chicken, you can pay 15 Bolivianos and take it home for dinner. I'm still not sure if that's classed as roadkill.
On the last few sections of gravel, I hurtled down the road. I was second in line behind the guide, and we flew down the road and eventually ended up in Yolosa. The road had passed so quickly that I wanted to ride more – but it had been five hours since we set off from La Cumbra pass. I was hot, dusty and exhilarated. A celebratory beer was calling, so I hopped off the bike and waited for the others to finish.
Afterwards, the group wallowed in the Amazon River, soaking up the sun and toasting our trip. But we'd forgotten about the return journey... With Gravity, the only way back is in the mini bus – all the way back up the world's most dangerous road. Arguably, this was more dangerous than cycling down the road, but it gave us chance to take a few photos which we missed on the ride down.
As the bus eventually turned back onto the asphalt, there was a huge sigh of relief, and a few more beers were opened. Not only did we survive the cycle down, we'd also survived the bus journey back up. Simon Heyes has been blogging since 2006: Simon's Jam Jar is chock full of adventurous escapades - think island hopping in Peru's Lake Titicaca, wild camping, walking China's Great Wall, and surfing New Zealand. You'll find him on Twitter and Facebook, too...
Simon was the winner of the first round of the Papua New Guinea blogging competition, and is in the draw to win a trip to PNG. For your chance to win a blogging trip - plus an iPad or GoPro - enter the competition here.