Located a good 2 hour drive above La Paz, roughly 4700m above sea level (Mt Kosciusko – 2228m) is a mountain pass known as La Cumbre. This is the starting point for an exhilarating biking experience where riders drop more than 3600m from snow littered mountain outcrops, down into a series of lush valleys known as The Yungas, landing finally in the sub-tropical jungle of Yolosa – a wild ride that takes the best part of 4 hours to complete.
Anyway, with that introduction out of the way, true to his word at yesterday evening’s briefing, Jesse from Pro Downhill rocked up to the front door of the hotel at 7:30am sharp to pile us all into a small minivan which was loaded up with a good dozen bikes anchored to the roof.
We started off by heading up through a poorer part of town that Jesse wanted us to see. As it happens in La Paz, the higher up the valley walls you live, generally the poorer you are, but evidently the better the view you have.
Upon arrival at the top of the run at considerable altitude, we kitted up into our sexy suits, helmets, gloves and more, got together for our final briefing and equipment checks, took a few “family” shots and it was time to point our wheels down hill!
The first section of our journey was a lot of fun – screaming down a nicely sealed, fast and open section of highway through some pretty dramatic scenery accented by swirling cloud that really highlighted just how high up in the mountains we were.
As suggested by Jesse, this less dangerous, better surfaced section was a good time to get any speed addictions out of our systems in preparation for the care required while travelling down through The Yungas.
While I think of it, we were discouraged from taking our own cameras down the road with us, so I’m relying on the photography skills of the Pro Downhill guys for the images following.
Eventually arriving at what appeared to be a fairly lengthy uphill section, we all grouped up once again and piled back into the minivan which drove us approximately 8km to the start of the Death Road proper.
Unduavi to Yolosa – the “Death Road”
Probably the most famous section of the ride is the narrow winding gravel road which leads brave punters from Unduavi down to Yolosa. People may scoff and suggest that the “Death Road” tag is over exaggerated and a clever marketing ploy, but to be fair, the road really is nothing more than a series of connected ledges carved into the side of the mountains lining The Yungas.
There are white-cross memorials staked into the ground seemingly every 100m meters along this stretch with the road dropping away suddenly without any railings or any other safety or warning device of any kind, up to 1000m, to the valley floor below.
The best way I can give you a good idea of what it’s really like is to turn your attention to this 7:30 minute clip showcasing the exploits of the lads from BBC’s awesome Top Gear program as they tackle the very road we cycled. Buckle up…
It was pouring rain by the time we had all saddled up and headed off somewhat gingerly into heavy cloud not knowing really where the road edges were, let alone the deadly drops following. Visibility was very “interesting” – let me just put it that way.
At multiple stages along the thrilling journey, we stopped as a group for briefings on the sections coming up ahead. This gave the slow pedlars a chance to catch up and for those having chain/gear issues, to get themselves all fixed up by the support crew.
Stops were also scheduled at a few critical photo opportunities in the way of waterfalls and some great “dropoff” vantage points (see below – click the images for a larger view).
It wasn’t long before we popped out the bottom of the cloud and, for those of us getting a tad peckish, there was a lunch stop waiting for us where ham and cheese sangers, potato chips and cans of Coke were on offer.
I wouldn’t have thought simply pointing a bike downhill would warrant generating the generous appetite I had clearly developed! I’m going to blame it on the sheer level of concentration required on the cloudy section preceding lunch.
The last couple of sections we completed gave us a good chance to dry out as the cold wet cloud gave way to warm, humid rainforest conditions. The clearer conditions also gave us the perfect chance to take some group photos and take a good look, for the first time, of the beautiful surrounding landscape we had descended to.
The final run home was along what seemed to be a fairly well used local road which was wider and better surfaced, but still with a jaw-dropping plunge on the edges.
A few challenging river crossings spread across a dozen or so kms were pretty much all that stood between us and some well earned beers, so the pace picked up for all participants (even the slow pedlars) by this point.
Arriving at our final destination in Yolosa, we checked in with Jesse (above) who directed us where to go to change and offload our borrowed biking gear, pack up and grab a beer to wash down the dust as we shared stories and laughs over our earlier downhill adventures.
In what appeared to be one final token gesture by Jesse and his crew for the day, we were taken to a nearby local hotel where we were given access to some pretty ordinary showers and a not-so-clean-and-clear pool where we could cool off if we so desired.
I had a good mind to get in the pool despite its somewhat unappealing presentation, if only to get away from the relentless sand flies that set upon us in waves.
I resisted the almost forced temptation, however, opting instead for the sanctuary of the minivan. Once everyone was aboard and seated once again, we set off on a 3.5 hour winding journey back up hill towards La Paz through shocking weather and ultimately darkness by the time we rolled back into town again.
While the rest of the day was an absolute hoot of a time, this bus ride wasn’t the most pleasant way to top off the day. I got caught in what felt like the most uncomfortable spot in the bus, on a seat that needed WAY more padding covering the framing bars, than it had. I’m sure my bruised arse cheeks will put up some form of protest tomorrow.
Back in La Paz
Our late arrival back at the hotel meant that those of us who chose to do the Death Road missed out on the briefing for the Bolivian leg of our travels and the opportunity to meet for the first time, our new group leader, “JJ”.
Instead, it was straight to the shower for a majority of us, followed by what turned out to be an ill-fated visit to the restaurant on the 2nd floor of the hotel, for dinner. I don’t want to end this account of an amazing day on a sour note, but waiting almost 2.5 hours for our food to come out wasn’t the way to appease empty, hungry bellies!
It said in the menu, which featured wonderful sounding options of Indian, Japanese and Thai dishes, that the meals may take a little longer than “normal” to come out due to the fact that they prepare all meals from scratch.
I can live with that. But 2.5 hours???
Following dinner, which delivered us pretty close to midnight anyway, we cabbed it to a club called “Mongos” for final drinks and a bit of a “thanks” to our departing Peruvian guide, Julio.
We’re really going to miss the little guy with the cheeky grin. He starts a whole new tour in reverse to what we had just completed, tomorrow, this time with a smaller group of 6 ladies and 1 fella.
Only one thing for it – end the night by attempting to drown our parting sorrows in some very tasty Cuba Libres (Rum and Coke).
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