20 Feb 2015 Don’t Look Down on the Yungas in Bolivia
Don’t Look Down in Bolivia
On first consideration it seems surprising that people still die when cycling the Bolivia’s North Yungas Road, more eagerly referred to as El Camino de la Muerte or ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be cautious, I reason, surely it would be a place in which ‘Death’ is half the title. But as I sit astride my bicycle, teeth chattering in the sub-zero bite of 4700 meters above sea level – the start of this revered freewheel – I change my mind.
The name is an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not. This occurs to me as a band of game-faced bikers are conjured from squalls of cold mist, yards away from splintered wooden crosses – memorials to the backpackers and locals who have plummeted to their death. Beside us is the long vertical drop that flanks the Death Road for most of its course – the reason for the well-deserved reputation.
The setting of the Death Road is as staggering as the premise of biking it: cut into the mountains of the Yungas, where jungle owns every bulge and whim of the land, the track twists a continuous descent for over forty miles and three and a half thousand vertical meters. The trees hide the rusted carcasses of hundreds of toppled trucks and cars. Among the cyclists who have dared, not all have reached the small town of Coroico near the finish line. In the last fourteen years, eighteen “I survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road” t-shirts have gone spare.
As gravity takes charge of my wheels an internal monologue kicks up: “DEATH road… be careful!” on repeat. A fleet of Konas and their hooting jockeys rampage past, in yellow elbow pads and helmets, and I can’t help but consider what the protective kit and their human contents would look like after a hundred meter free fall and a jungle canopy crash-landing. A van trails behind so the guides can assist in case of accident, or get a front seat view if a client flies a short cut to the finishing altitude, ET-style.
Throughout these upper reaches water patters onto the rocks from high above, only the truly courageous, skillful or imbecilic veer to avoid getting wet – I am none of the above and receive a sopping for my cowardice. After each hairy switchback another curling ribbon reveals itself, along with one clear impression – roads do not belong here.
The soundtrack of the Yungas doesn’t mesh with the chilling vista, a timid and quirky blend of squawks, buzzes and clicks attest to life that lurks in the greenery. Underneath, barely discernible, there’s another layer of sound – the trickle and gush of invisible streams. As well as the magic of the precipice, it’s exhilarating too being so enclosed in nature. At times it’s tempting to wonder at the rows of impossibly deep Vs formed from converging mountainsides, or to glance behind and search for whatever squawked or screamed, but then the inner voice shouts ‘DEATH ROAD!’, my knuckles pale, and I refocus on the track and the ever-present peril to my left.
Towards the lower reaches though I relax, my wheels spin faster and I realize another voice has supplanted the last, something like “YEAAAAAAH! I’m riding the DEATH road! WOOOOOOOOH!’ The temperature rises, clouds evaporate, multi-hued butterflies dance beneath my handlebars and fetching purple flowers and banana plantations crowd my peripheral vision. I’m soon coasting through a village towards a river, birds of prey fly low wheels overhead as Bolivia welcomes me back from the edge of reason with women festooned in bowler hats and traditional pollera skirts of shocking pink.
I’ve made it; I’m not sure about my brake pads. Some bikers down celebratory beers, others pull wheelies, but most don’t feel the need to show off any more than donning their “I survived…” t-shirts. A quick body count by a guide confirms that, this time, everyone gets one.
There’s a subset of cyclists who enjoy climbs, I’m one of them, and from the off my inner masochist wasn’t entirely happy with the prospect of spinning downhill for hours. Where’s the payback? I needed to know. Where the pain to go with the gain? Fortunately for the guilty, the Death Road has another currency – you pay for freewheeling with fear. It’s more than a fair deal.
For the vast majority El Camino de la Muerte will fail to fulfill its eponymous promise, for me at least the opposite was true. I finished the ride not just giddy with relief, but fiercely alive. They could change the name, somehow though, I don’t think it would have the same draw.
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