Macho drivers, clouds of dust. Steve McKenna takes to the road, by bike.
Its nickname – and reputation – should be enough to scare anyone off. Notorious for its hairpin bends, vertiginous drops, unpredictable surfaces and kamikaze drivers, the world's most dangerous road has claimed thousands of lives since opening between La Paz and Coroico in the 1930s. Yet these days the North Yungas road is a mecca for cyclists seeking an almighty adrenaline rush.
A few years ago, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near it but the unveiling of a new bypass has cut traffic dramatically from the riskier, second half of the 69-kilometre downhill route, while the first half takes place on good-quality asphalt. Tourists of all ages and fitness levels are now signing up for guided tours.
Mine is being led by Omar, a likeable twenty-something Bolivian. The air is thin and devilishly cold as we begin our descent at La Cumbre, a dizzying mountain pass 4600 metres above sea level. A stark white statue of Christ looms over us but, as we veer downhill, the surroundings become so bleak it feels like we're descending into some kind of chilly version of hell.
To my left hulks a menacing ridge of craggy, ice-clawed black Andean peaks; to my right, it's like the earth has opened up and spawned a deep canyon, which is choked with murky grey clouds.
If I'm not careful, I'll end up at the bottom of it. Despite the decent surface, there's a fair amount of motorised mayhem to negotiate and as horn-tooting buses, trucks and vans gradually nudge me towards a cliff edge conspicuous by its lack of crash barriers, I tighten my grip on the handlebars and concentrate like never before.
Thirty kilometres from La Cumbre, the road branches into two routes. Both descend towards the town of Coroico, which sits about 1500 metres above sea level. Whereas most vehicles continue on the new two-way road, we spiral off on to an old gravel track that is initially barely wider than a car.
Pebbles and boulders are strewn across it. A few flimsy shrub bushes are all that protect us from a drop of 600 metres. Until the opening of the bypass, about 300 people a year died on this road. The victims were mainly bus passengers and truckers. Most died during the rainy season (November to April) when the surface turned muddy and slippery.
While some accidents were unavoidable, reckless, macho drivers were blamed for many. Some drove sleep-deprived, others guzzled alcohol and chewed coca leaves – while asking Pachamama, a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes, for a safe passage. Their prayers weren't always answered.
Although it was widely known by the moniker the Death Road, in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank labelled it the "world's most dangerous road" – a name that cycling tour companies have latched on to with aplomb. Thankfully our bikes seem perfect for the bumpy drama facing us. Valued at about $4000 each, they're blessed with rock-solid suspension, ultra-reactive hydraulic brakes and fat tyres with a super grip.
At first, everyone plods along the gravel like a snail. But it becomes apparent that the slower you go, the more juddering – and painful – the journey will be, especially for your hands.
However, it's only when the snaking track widens and the cliff edges are bordered by thicker bush growth that I feel confident enough to loosen my grip on the brakes. When I do, I experience some of the biggest adrenaline buzzes of my life. Omar ensures that we don't get carried away, stopping every 10 or 15 minutes to talk us through the next section. In any case, salutatory warnings against complacency are everywhere.
Crosses and memorial sites dot the roadsides, with one in particular drawing a collective lump to our throats. It pays tribute to a 22-year-old backpacker who was killed in May. A makeshift wooden barrier covers the spot from which he tumbled. As we stare at it, a small truck whizzes past, churning up a blinding cloud of dust. We hope it's the last, too.
Despite the road's morbid overtones, it's quite beautiful. The top is arid, bleak and bone-chillingly cold but as we descend a lush, balmy subtropical Eden-like world of green forested mountainsides, flowers and coca plantations greets us. Eagles swoop above our helmets and birdsong peppers the air.
The picturesque Yunga Valleys, as they're known, separate Bolivia's mountainous plain from the Amazonian rainforests and they're a feast for the senses.
Five hours after leaving La Cumbre, we skirt through shallow creeks and roll into Coroico, where locals are carrying machetes and lugging giant bags of coca leaves on their shoulders.
A few minutes later, Omar signals for us to stop. “Congratulations,” he says, his smile widening. “You've survived the world's most dangerous road.” Sweaty and tired but happy and relieved, we all agree it was an incredible experience; one that, despite the potential pitfalls, we'd do again.
Lan Chile flies from Sydney to La Paz via Santiago. See lan.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Doubles at the cosy three-star Hotel Rosario in La Paz are available from 380 bolivianos ($65) a night. See hotelrosario.com/la-paz.
B-Side Adventures (bside-adventures.com) offers guided cycling tours of the "world's most dangerous road", priced from 440 bolivianos. This includes all equipment, snacks and lunch, plus CD and video footage of your ride.