Unicycling the Death Road

You might have heard of this particular route that’s touted as the World’s Most Dangerous Road(tm). Also known as the Yungas Road, the road is thus named for the 200–300 travellers who die yearly travelling along it as well as the steep drop into nothingness.

You’d start off from about 4650m above sea level and end at 1200m. That’s almost 3.5km of altitude change over the 65km route. Well, around 65km — I’ll explain.

I didn’t go to Bolivia intending to ride the route. In fact, I didn’t even know if it’s possible since I was riding a 24″ unicycle which I’d estimate myself to go at about 10kph max, offroad. That all changed the moment I got into my La Paz hostel.

The most visible tour option advertised was an MTB experience through the World’s Most Dangerous Road(tm). All over the tourist agencies were plastered with itineraries about the same. I inquired at 3 of the main agencies offering the tour and was told the following

  • If I had my own equipment, I might as well go on my own
  • It’s VERY touristy
  • It’s quite safe — the route is well-covered by a LOT of tour groups

While the tour agencies offered tours that cost roughly US$80–150, going on my own would cost something like US$6 for the return ride. Most tour agencies will offer a bike with front and/or back suspension from a reputable brand, a standard/full-face helmet, rain jackets, full body armor or knee/elbow guards, food/water and the promise of a support vehicle that can ferry all the crap you want to bring with you on the ride.

I had with me shin/knee guards, a unicycle, a backpack with a day’s food, a rain jacket, a warm jacket, a change of clothes and about 2 liters of water. With a 10kph speed and a 70–80km ride total (including the roads to/from the Death Road), I expected a 10h ride including breaks and knew I couldn’t make the last public transport in the late afternoon. My plan was to stay the night in Coroico which is really an interesting town with lots of diversions on its own, well worth the visit even if you’re not riding the route.

On your own, you’d take a mini-van from La Paz to the tourist checkpoint near La Cumbre, make your way to the start of the Death Road (that’s about 7km?) and then ride towards Coroico.

yungas

Start of the Journey

I started my day late, mostly because the journey to Villa Fatima, where the bus terminal was, took longer than I thought. The mini-van fits about 10 people and doesn’t leave until it is full so I had to wait over an hour before it would leave. That brought me to well past noon when I began my ride.

Yungas

All smiles because I haven’t started riding

It’s not all insanity on my part.

  • I’ve been told by both the agencies as well as by drivers that the route is perfectly fine if I travel on foot so I know that if things get rough, walking is fine.
  • Bicycles travel at much much faster. It’s way easier to bail from a unicycle than on a bike and you usually land quite close to where your uni lands so chances of you flying off a cliff isn’t that high if you keep close to land.
  • I don’t have a helmet or elbow guards but I know that if I do get to the point where I risk falling on my head or tumbling all over, no amount of armor is going to save me.
  • Tour agencies tell me that the route is VERY TOURISTY so if I run into trouble, I would probably be able to get a ride to town relatively easily.

Well, the good news is that the first three points are true. Cup, half-full please.

The day I went, as luck would have it, has the worst weather in ALL my days in Bolivia. It rained crazy and at the top of the mountain, visibility was shit.

yungasRoad

En Route to La Cumbre

In the buses, both locals and drivers would ask about my unicycle and in my very halting Spanish, I’d chat about my plan to ride the route, what I was doing in South America, etc. I’d learn new Spanish vocabulary like ‘peligroso’ (danger) and ‘cuidarte’ (take care of yourself) from them along with advice about how I shouldn’t be travelling alone much less on a unicycle.

After the initial clearance where I had to pay a small fee (I think it was like US$5) to an office for a ticket to traverse the route, I had to ride a highway segment (as in first picture) before reaching the very obvious start of the Death Road. I rode about a km perhaps before concluding that the fog is too heavy to ride without the risk of cars running into me. So I walked.

About 10 minutes after that, some locals in a car stopped for me and drove me to the start of the proper road (along with the same precautions about ‘PELIGROSO!!’, etc).

The start of the road looked like this. It was about 1pm.

yungasVisibility

3km drop into nothingness on the left

Like any rider starting a ride, this was really cool and exciting for me. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see 5m into the distance or where the drop on my left would have led. I had been told the roads were narrow but I didn’t feel the narrowness for sure. Perhaps the fog helped.

yungasUni

When I could FINALLY see trees past the fog

I had met some cyclists and a guy I knew from a previous hostel at the checkpoint but they were nowhere to be seen at the start of my ride. I had assumed they were way ahead but it was still early noon and the view was breathtaking. My intention was to ride half the route and then hitch a ride to the end point. 30km would be ideal for me. I can start panicking at 3pm.

The drizzle had turned into a bit of a downpour an hour into my ride. I had my rain jacket on and whoever told me it was cold at the peak obviously wasn’t riding intensively enough. I was sweating buckets into my jacket and the outside was soaked from the rain. I didn’t have my hood on because it was blocking my view of the cliff so I was generally wet.

yungasAgain

My tourist map had indicated an overhead waterfall. The first one I saw was spectacular. If you’ve never ridden or walked or ran through a waterfall before, I can assure you that it’s so magical, you’ll forget that you’re on the good side of a 3km drop.

This is about 2h in and there’s a noticeable number of grave markers and crosses at the edges of the roads. I had seen a number of them marked in Hebrew and dated rather recently. I also remembered a news feature of a cyclist who rode off a cliff when she took a pic with a selfie stick while on a bike. That explains why most of my pictures look like this:

yungasMe
It’s really difficult to take riding pictures when you’re soaked and there’s no one around to take pictures for you. I didn’t have money for a GoPro (if you’re reading this, GoPro, thanks). The only reasonable attempt at a riding picture was a selfie when I was at a non-hazardous part of the route.
yungasSelfie

The good thing about being on a unicycle is that your hands are free enough for you to fish out your phone to grab a quick pic. However, since it WAS raining and i had nothing dry on me, it’s impressively hard to have your cold wet fingers register properly on an iPhone. I gave up quick.

The terrain thus far had been manageable. Whatever ‘rough bumpy roads’ I had been warned of by hostel roomies was really nothing more than slightly-rockier gravel road and nothing even close to some of the single tracks you’ll see on intermediate MTB paths. I think the bad weather also played a good part in distracting me from whatever roads were there but I had been very exceedingly cautious with the road, what with it being crazy foggy and all.

yungasview

When I finally saw the fog lifting, it was almost 3pm. It was about that time when it first occurred to me that i saw all of ONE mini-van passing me in the last 2 hours and that was the support vehicle for one of the tour groups.

That was about when I stopped taking as many photos and began riding faster. Whatever the tour agencies told me about the route being touristy was probably for the start of the day. I had but the tourist map with me which marked something like 3 main points in the WHOLE 65km of trail.

Very useful.

I did pass some houses over the next few km but none of them seemed occupied. Again, the trail was empty and I didn’t know if it was the weather that was keeping people indoors — it didn’t seem appropriate to knock and say hi and then go ‘ah, bueno!’ and then leave.

The next time I saw civilisation was when two cyclists rode by me sometime at about 4pm. I would meet them again a short while later at the ‘tourist checkpoint’ which is little more than a wooden barricade and a small shelter with a map.

yungasmap

I went so fast in the last hour that I felt like death at this point (the muerte part of ‘Ruta de la Muerte’) and it’s also the first break I took for the day. I stuffed what remained of my empanada in my face (I ate as I rode) and had to fight off the resident dog for it too. The two cyclists were apparently a guide and a tourist who was frustrated at having waited too long for his companions to take photos of the route and decided to ride on ahead. I chatted with the latter for a while and then left ahead of them.

The next section was probably the easiest part of the trail. The rain had stopped; the gradient was gentle and the gravel gave way to a smoother soil surface. I walked most of the remaining 15km or so because my legs had died.

When the duo caught up with me some km later, the guy I had been chatting to asked if I ‘could ride downhill’. I didn’t have the energy to be sarcastic about how I made the past 50km.

yungasCiv

Civilisation???

The death road really stops at Yoloso, a small town at the foot of the hill and also, YOLO, so. Whatever assumptions I had made about being able to grab a cab in a nearby town vanished fast when every vehicle I saw there had no extra space. This was almost 7pm.

yungasEnd

From Yoloso, it was about a 6–10km walk to Coroico, specifically the hostel I wanted to head to. Sunset was slated for 7:30pm and the rest of the walk was uphill so I had to get started.

I probably waved at no less than 20 cars and vans before stopping one about half the walk in. It was about a US$4 ride which was probably the best value for money ever.

Somehow, I managed to finish the 65km + whatever before and after distances in about 7 hours. On a 24″ wheel. With 150mm cranks. With no breaks.

My thighs cramped for the rest of the day and I couldn’t walk properly for the next 3 days.

In retrospect, I can see why the road is touted as dangerous. A lot of the cyclists on the road are not experienced with trails. Some of the folks I spoke to can cycle but have never ridden offroad in their lives. I don’t know why anyone would want to start learning to mountain bike on the side of a frickin’ cliff with a top-end bike with controls they got acquainted with 15 minutes before riding.

From what I’ve overheard at the tourist offices too, it seems that most of these people don’t really know what they should look for in a ride. A couple had remarked they felt safer with full body armor and more than a few chose a tour because it offered ‘full suspension bikes’.

If you’re thinking of going for a ride bike, unicycle or foot, here’s REALLY what you need

  • Familiarity with your shoes, bike or unicycle. Or puma. Or sleigh. Or whatever you’re using as transport.
  • Fitness. If you haven’t the endurance, you’ll feel like shit. ANY endurance activity you choose to undertake that you’re not fit enough for or don’t have the stamina for is going to cause you to feel like shit.

That’s it.

If you’re intending to go on a unicycle, it’s highly recommended but maybe opt for a larger wheel than what I went for. I think a 29 is ideal for going slow on foggy sections and going faster everywhere else. Anything bigger would be a pain to lug along on the transportation.

Remember, cuidarte.