Note: All pictures in this blog were from Gravity tours (they are watermarked) and our awesome friend Michael Poysden, our unofficial death road photographer.
Sometimes a name makes a place special (or famous at least). It is a lucky stroke of marketing for some tourist destinations. Death Valley in California is famous with travelers from around the world. It is a pretty place, but I am fairly sure if it was named something less intriguing like say, Barstow, it would have a lot less visitors.
There are many nice deserts in California, but only one got the million dollar name. Who does not want to go see a barren land called Death Valley? Just the name alone makes me want to visit. Valley of the Gods in Utah is another destination that won the name lottery (and is worthy of the name).
Bolivia’s famous “Death Road” became a nick name for the Yungas road after the Inter-American Development Bank deemed it the most dangerous road in the world. With 1000 foot drop offs and narrow passes that seem to just fall into jungly oblivion, I can understand why at one time, when this was the only road connecting Brazil and the Pacific coast and the Atiplano with the Amazon, that this was a road of death. I can’t even imagine it with two way traffic. However, in 2006 a major road was finalized that bypassed this stretch and now the famous “Death Road” is just used as a huge tourist attraction. It also happens to be a pretty spectacularly scenic road.
Many overlanders drive this road, but now more for the views than the danger. Our first day in La Paz we were camped at Hotel Oberland when a Dutch man and his daughter, who are overlanding the PanAmerican together in a Defender, just finished driving the Death Road as they drove into the hotel. We asked them what they thought. The sweet, very young and very cute daughter bluntly stated:
“The death road is for pussies!”
That was literally the first words I heard out of her mouth. I was so surprised by her saying this that I just burst out laughing. Apparently she road the entire way sitting on top of their Defender holding onto the side rails. I bet she had a million dollar view!
We knew from talking with other people who had driven the road that is was more for iconic value and view then for a hard core off road challenge. Today the only traffic on the road is a random tour bus driving mountain bikers. They even have guard rails now in parts.
We decided with our Swiss friend Michael that it would be much more fun and challenging to race down the road on a mountain bike than in our overland rigs that have been on true death roads in Colombia and Peru for the last four months.
Seriously, if you ever really want to drive roads that will make your life flash in front of you, drive for a few months in the mountains of Colombia where psychotic truck drivers cut corners on blind turns going 100 kilometers an hour. Our closest calls on this trip were in Colombia and I think many other overlanders will agree that some of their most stressful driving took place in that country.
The three of us chose Gravity Tours to do the Death Road with because they are the company known for safety, very high end bikes and great guides (which all ended up being true). They are also the most expensive agency in town, but honestly, I am not sure I would want to cut corners after seeing how nuts some of the other tour groups were (more an that to come…).
The tour starts in the snow capped peaks of the Cordillera Real at over 13,000 feet in the morning where the temperatures were near freezing. We had so many layers on it was hard to move but the first hour or so of the road was on pavement so it was a good way to get used to the bikes. The scenery was just stunning.
Dramatically the landscape changes as we roll down hill, becoming more humid, lush and forested. Literally every 20 kilometers we were peeling of a layer of clothing as we descended into the amazon basin.
As the day wore on and the road got steeper and more narrow. Riding was really fun (a bit of an adrenaline rush to be honest) but scary at times. The entire Yungas road is dirt, and most of it deep gravel. If you let your speed get too fast, you will literally eat it on the turns, the wheels just slip out from under you. Also, breaking has to be slow and steady, because hitting the front breaks at the speeds we were going at will throw you over the handle bars.
Tourists have died biking this road, and I am surprised more injuries have not occurred. Some groups were totally crazy and irresponsible, passing from behind without announcing their arrival. Biking at speeds that were so fast that when the tried to pass you they came close to losing control and could easily take you out with them. We unfortunately saw more than a few people slide into walls and wipe out getting pretty scratched up. None of then were from our group, our guides were very strict about our safety which was a good thing.
The death road ends after a full day of biking in the Amazon basin. We finished the day at a monkey sanctuary with with giant blue macaws (blue versions of the scarlet ones we saw in Central America) for a very late buffet lunch. One of the final things we did was ride down a hill through a river to get what our guide called “the money shot”. So here is me plowing through a river getting soaking wet for my badass biking picture.
Overall, this was a super fun, adrenaline filled experience and I would do it again in a second. The entire day we all had huge smiles plastered on our faces, even when our arms ached from the vibrating handlebars and our bums and legs hurt from the punishing road. We saw the world fly by from the snow capped peaks of the Andes at 13,000 feet ending at 1500 feet in the Amazon jungle. Where else in the world can you do a ride like that in one day? Pretty amazing stuff.