Mountain Biking Down Death Road

So here’s the thing, I didn’t actually think I was going to book it. And after booking it and coughing up the $75, I didn’t think I could possibly go through with it the next day. I would be the person that sat on the bus following the pack of thrill-seeking mountain bikers driving down death road. I was absolutely certain of this.

I woke up at 5:30am, a bit nervous about the day ahead of me. We had just heard that a girl died from biking down death road 3 days ago. Why we went ahead with the booking is beyond me.

We arrived at the meeting point and were driven to the top of Yungas Death Road. We were at about 4,700 meters in altitude. We got our bikes sorted and were given a number of safety instructions and road rules, which I’ll paraphrase to the best of my abilities:

“On death road, you’ll be riding on the left side. That’s the side of the cliff. If cars are heading in your direction, make sure to stay on the cliff side. Some parts of the cliff can be quite exposed, dropping 700 meters straight down. Focus on the gravel road in front of you. If you hit loose rocks, which is likely to happen, don’t panic and press on the breaks, just keep control of your bike. Trust the bikes; they’ll do most of the work for you. And remember, this is not a race to the bottom.”

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Right after the briefing, our guide Hubert, or “Hubi” pulled out a bottle of 96% alcohol that the locals and miners drink. Yes, 96%. That was not a typo. We did an offering to Pachamama (mother nature), and then took a shot each for some liquid courage. It was absolutely disgusting, but so incredibly hilarious to see everyone’s facial expressions afterwards.

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We started our descent with the first leg; a 22km downhill ride on the concrete road. This was good news for me. I had time to adjust to this massive mountain bike on a nicely paved road at least. It wasn’t too bad! We were flying downhill, passing cars, trucks, buses, and other mountain bikers in the process.

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We arrive at a tunnel entrance and were advised to take the gravel path outside the tunnel itself for safety reasons. Hubi explained that this gravel road is the warm up to the main death road we were about to ride on. It was extremely rocky. Lots of loose rocks unevenly situated in every odd location. You really just had to trust that your bike was good enough to handle it, and that you were confident enough to keep the momentum instead of pressing the breaks; which would make you fall. A fall on those rocks, and you’ve got a serious injury on your hands. Yikes! That 100-meter “warm-up” scared the living crap out of me. How was I going to survive the next 34km on such roads?

We took a break for our next briefing. We would have a total of 8 to 10 pit stops in this 34km leg downhill so we would be prepped for what’s to come during each pit stop.

All the curves and corners of the road were going to be taken blindly. There would be some 180 degree blind corners as well. We would ride through some waterfalls and the gravel road would be rocky and slippery. We were likely to get wet and ride through thick mud. We were to make sure we stayed on the left side of the mud patch so we don’t get stuck! All of this information was briefed to us during each pit stop. I was not sure if I was glad to know what was coming, or if my entire being was dreading it.

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Nonetheless, I just powered through, gripping the handlebars for dear life, with my fingers curled around the breaks. I’m not going to lie, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was the kind of adrenaline rush I’d never experienced in my life. I enjoyed it, and was thriving off of it as I was on my bike. It felt dangerous. It felt fun, kind of insane, and is something I probably would not have thought I could do (or I could survive). It’s one of the top experiences of my life. It was exhilarating.

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Once we reached the bottom of the death road, we were taken to a restaurant/pool bar oasis, where we all cracked open large bottles of beers and cheered to being alive. We had a great meal following that.

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Our drive from death road back to La Paz would take approximately 3 hours. Since Hubi’s job was done for the day, he decided to challenge us all to a 2-Liter Cuba Libre drink off on the bus. Each of us went down and bought ourselves a 2L bottle of premade Cuba Libre (yes, this exists in Bolivia!). Needless to say, the bus ride back was rather eventful with lots of singing (more like yelling to the music), dancing, and our tour guide, Hubi falling all over the place. He deserved a break from his stressful day with all our lives in his hands. We don’t blame him.

Days like these… they’re great days.

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