Lilian Tse, aka Adventure Lilian, is no stranger to cycling in all weathers and all conditions, having biked 4500 miles from Vancouver to Key West in America. Here, she recounts her experience of cycling one of the world’s most famous – and dangerous – roads: Death Road in Bolivia.
In Bolivia, lies a terrifying road that connects the capital La Paz to a small town called Coroico, on the other side of the Andes mountain range. Yungas Road, also known as ‘Death Road’, was built in the 1930s. This stomach-churning yet visually stunning route features a gravel road barely wide enough for two cars to pass, and sheer drops that claimed the lives of around 300 people each year. Dubbed ‘the most dangerous road in the world’, it still attracts 25,000 thrill-seeking riders every year – including me!
While I was travelling through Bolivia, I had convinced myself that I was going to cycle Death Road after hearing so many positive experiences. I decided to book a tour from La Paz. The night before, I decided to watch the Top Gear feature, where the team drive it, so I could know what to expect – I’ve previously learnt the hard way before to never google statistics, so I stuck with pretty pictures.
After travelling with my backpack for a few months, I was really excited to finally get on a bike again, even though this would be my first time ever on a mountain bike! I figured, if they’re selling this experience to tourists, it couldn’t be THAT dangerous, could it?
We got picked up at 5am. I didn’t get a single second of sleep (must have been subconsciously worried). I was incredibly tired, like the feeling you get after staring at a computer screen for too long. I got taken to the office to meet the other thrill-seekers who would be in my group. What a surprise (or not); I was the only woman. We got our safety kits fitted: a pair of trousers, jacket, helmet and elbow and knee pads. As we set off in a mini-van with all the bikes secured on the roof, the tour guide gave us a safety talk with the road rules, procedures and general information on the nature of the tour. He also gave us a form stating that in an event of an accident they claim no liability; I then had to write my next of kin and every possible detail in order to find them. There I was, happily signing my life away before I fell asleep on a bumpy journey through the Andes.
As I woke, it was raining and the van was stationary. There was a lot of commotion as people tried to figure out what was causing a huge standstill on the road. It must have been about 2 hours we sat there, patiently waiting, until we started moving, past the weather control stations and up into the Andes Mountains where we peaked at 15,400 ft. Rain was now snow, everything was sparkling in white crystals with the odd rigid rock peeking through. I’ve experienced cold temperatures before, but this was FRESH. When you took a deep breath, you could feel your lungs inhaling ice. It was about -5. Apparently, we had to wait for the snow storm to pass before we could drive any further up, like that was a normal thing in Bolivia?! Where I come from, schools are closed from 5 inches of snow. My eyes were fixated, it was absolutely beautiful.
Shortly, we stopped where we would ride our first section of the tour. We were still in the mountains, and it was still snowing. We each picked a trusty companion; a suitable bike that would (hopefully!) bring us home alive. Instinctively, I checked the brakes, gears and tyre pressure. The first thing that was noticeably different from my road bike, were the handlebars. They were so wide! I felt like a cat stretching out her limbs.
Being exposed, rather than compacting myself, felt really odd at first. Everything on the bike took a while getting used to, from gear changing to positioning my bum in that exact comfy spot, and especially the steering, which wasn’t as smooth as my roadie. We followed each other, one by one, and started descending down the paved road for a bit of practice before Death Road. I’m pretty sure the tour guide said we’d be going slow to start and to ‘take our time to adjust’, but the road took control and before we knew it we were all speeding down like maniacs through the snow-topped mountains while posing now and then for pictures. I slowed down at the bends, not sure how sturdy my companion was, while I watched all the boys gradually fade in front of me. Is everyone a pro? Big descents scare me at the best of times, but everyone was leaning forward in aerodynamic positions really going for it.
While I was trailing behind, I was actually really enjoying the vast scenery and just taking it all in. I love travelling by bike because it’s a nice pace to see everything – not too fast to miss anything, but not too slow for it to be frustrating. Quickly, my MTB companion became my best friend. After about 12km, I eventually caught up to my group, who’d all look like they’d been there for ages!
The next stop was the beginning of Death Road, where we were basically told ‘Follow the road, and we’ll see you at the end’. Minus a few photo stops, we were all on our own.
In 2006, a new, alternative route was built which ended all the busy local traffic. The old road is now mainly used by tour groups, but occasionally there are some vehicles passing. In the event, we were told to stop closest to the edge and let them pass. That was the only rule. Simple. As expected, the boys all excitedly rushed to be the first one following the tour guide, while I kept my distance. From the top, the valley looked very picturesque. It was grey and I couldn’t tell if it was mist or the sky. It looked exactly like it did in the pictures.
We started descending, and once again I found myself at the back being the sensible one. The road wasn’t paved anymore, it was just gravel that had crumbled from the cliffs. Debatable if you could even call it a road, just a path formed by the sheer volume of vehicles tracing through. It was rocky, and bumpy, and pretty uncomfortable – the total opposite of our first section down the mountains.
I had to grip tighter and stand on my pedals most of the way. The van was following the last person like a sweeper bus, so I pretty much had it in my sights. At first, the road wasn’t as narrow as I imagined. Until the steeper I got, the faster I went and the more complex the road became.
I wasn’t able to see farther than 50m to the next blind turn, where everything beyond was unexpected. I kept my eyes fixated on the road ahead, every metre was a surprise and a different skill. My reaction skills were being tested here. Still rumbling down the rocky road, there was one section I specifically remember where there was an incredibly blind sharp right turn, my right arm was invading the space of my right knee, any less and I’d be on the cliff edge. There were no barriers either, that’s when I looked down and saw everything exactly 180 degrees vertically below me. It scared the crap out of me.
The sun finally came out, and the snowy mountains seemed a distant memory. It’s funny how the weather can be so different on the other side. Further on, the roads become more winding, rocks were bigger and in some parts it was so narrow that it looked like a car could barely pass (the road is barely 3 metres wide in some parts). Over the decade, thousands have died on this route (including 17 cyclists), their cars falling off the side, which was evident in all the crosses and memorials I passed. It was quite eerie. Besides scaring myself looking down, I had practically lost the group who were miles ahead. I started speeding up on the straight sections really going for it, which kind of scared me but was electrifying at the same time. The scenery was incredible. I was really enjoying my first mountain biking experience – on the most dangerous road in the world!
As I was speeding down, I saw another member of the group at the side who looked like he was fixing his bike. As he caught my attention and my wheels were still rapidly spinning, I forgot to look where I was going. My wheel must have slipped and I crashed heavily into the rocks with my bike landing on top of me – and that was my mountain bike experience complete! I had so much adrenaline buzzing through me that I didn’t feel any pain and carried on unhurt, although my bike lost a brake. I finally caught up to the rest of the group who once again, looked like they’d been waiting for ages.
After hearing everyone’s stories, I’m glad none of us were hurt and we all laughed at each other. We all survived death road! I had a great experience, it was thrilling and some of the best scenic riding I’ve done. I never thought falling off my bike would be so much fun!
It’s true what they say: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Lilian is currently cycling from John O’Groats to Lands End via the 3 Peaks. Check out her fantastic Instagram feed at www.instagram.com/adventurelilian or visit her Facebook page www.facebook.com/adventurelilian