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The International Writers Magazine:

The Death Road
Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Route
J. Malcolm Garcia

"It’s not compulsory that you die today, okay?"
Alistair Matthew, the founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking and one of my three guides for today’s precipitous 43-mile ride down Bolivia’s famed Yungas Road, is warning me against braking too hard or too fast, lest I should go freefalling off one of the trail’s many thousand-foot sheer precipices. "You don’t want to hurtle over your handlebars and feel obliged to take up optional parachuting activities." Alistair smiles, but it’s no joke.

We will descend twelve thousand feet from La Cumbre, where we now gather amid the snow-marbled Andes, to the spare rustic village of Yolosa—all the while hugging the road’s uneven edge to avoid becoming another statistic. I know them well. Each year more than two hundred motor vehicles veer off these steep cliffs into an abyss of dense jungle and jutting rocks. At least thirteen cyclists have been killed on the ride in the last decade. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank named this thin ribbon of dirt the most dangerous road on earth. Locals call it simply El Camino de la Muerte—the Death Road.

Built by prisoners during Bolivia’s 1932–1935 conflict with Paraguay, the Yungas Road was meant as a wartime stopgap, a temporary route, not as a highway for heavy traffic, but for decades it remained the only link between northern Bolivia and the capital city of La Paz. A lifetime of storms and trucks have turned the already treacherous road into a slippery ten-foot-wide mud-strewn gravel track. The two-way roadbed often narrows to no wider than a single car. It has blind corners and hairpin turns. During torrential rain or springtime thaws, it turns slick or washes out altogether. And nearly any mistake can send car or bicycle plummeting thousands of feet onto the sharp talus below.

Last year a replacement highway was finally completed, taking traffic on a safer route for part of the way. On the second leg of the bike tour, which follows the old roadway, cars are now rare, giving cyclists more room. Less traffic, however, has also given rise to temptation and carelessness. This spring, two cyclists died in separate incidents on this stretch of road, spinning off the highway—this highway now before us—their bodies broken on the rocks. Simple cases, Alistair says, of "testosterone exceeding ability." He smiles again, "That’s boys acting like fuckwits."

At fifty, I approach the World’s Most Dangerous Road with depleted testosterone, a deep-seated desire to see my golden years, and no mountain biking experience to speak of. When I told my girlfriend that I wanted to ride it anyway, she shook her head in disgust: "Oh, grow up!" No, I thought, I won’t. And, fuckwit that I am, I flew to Bolivia.

I checked into the Adventure Brew Hostel, a five-story stucco barracks painted baby-puke orange at dawn. A sign at the front desk proclaimed: Please under absolutely no circumstances, do we allow wild animals, recreational drugs, dynamite, drug dealers, pan flute music, paisley tea, prostitution, durian fruit. The concierge, shame-faced but serious, warned me that the hostel’s overworked septic system couldn’t handle toilet paper. Throw it in the waste can, he said. I complied, but soon the punishing funk, mixed with diesel fumes rising from the street, drove me from the room.
At 13,000 feet, the thin atmosphere over La Paz casts the sky in a deep blue light, depthless and absorbing.

Everything appeared intensely focused and larger than it should. Clay-brick dwellings hung on the mountainsides like wasp nests. Footpaths and roads intertwined to form connecting arteries leading into and out of the city. Above vendor stalls loomed billboards of Che Guevera and Homer Simpson dressed as the Terminator. Shoeshine men wore ski masks to avoid being seen by family at such lowly work. Young women lounged against a pottery stall. Most had black teeth from chewing coca leaves, their hands calloused, their nails painted hot red. Beside them, witch doctors wrapped in bright shawls sold dried llama fetuses and wood trinkets to call up spirits and banish curses.

An intersection near the hostel provided some morning entertainment. City employees dressed as zebras jumped up and down and clapped their hands when pedestrians obeyed streetlights—part of a citywide campaign against jaywalking. Others, got-up in donkey suits, shouted "No, no, no!" at slackers who walked against the signal. Scuffles broke out. Jaywalkers shoving donkeys. Donkeys shoving back. I wondered if this is what the city fathers had in mind.
About noon, Alistair met me in the fifth floor bar and restaurant of the hostel. He swung a leg over a stool as if he were settling into a saddle and sat across from me hunched over the table in a blue down jacket. A rust colored Fu Manchu mustache drooped from the corners of his mouth in two thin strands stopping at his chest. A reverse goatee, he called it. "Drink plenty of water," he advised me. "Dehydration is a problem at this altitude. Hold off on the beer until at least your second day here."

Alistair knows about high-altitude cycling. In 1994, he was 26 and a successful management consultant in his native New Zealand. He seemed to have the perfect life, but he wanted to cycle, not ride a desk. So he took a year off. He biked through China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nepal, and soon started casting around for business opportunities. He set his sights on Bolivia; it was so underdeveloped he was sure he could find little-known roads that adventure cyclists had missed. He found thirty before zeroing in on The World’s Most Dangerous Road. Horrific, yet spectacular, just the right combination of beauty and risk. In 1998, Alistair opened Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking with only three bikes. We’ll go if only one shows up was his motto. He repaired the bikes on his kitchen table at night. In his first year, he had just twelve customers. Last year, Gravity guides led 8,000 cyclists down the road—and, now 38-years-old, Alistair remains on leave from his desk.

In his basement office, dubbed the bat cave, a three-screen computer and a laptop light up with email and six chat screens. A board hanging on the wall and filled with blue arrows and square boxes charts Alistair’s five-year "world domination" plan: to expand Gravity into Peru and Argentina as well as other parts of Bolivia with bike rides, zip lines, bungee jumping, and rafting. Three sentence scrawled on the board summarize his philosophy.
Everyone likes to brag to receive esteem.
Everyone is social and likes to meet fun people.
Everyone likes to be titillated.

"The World’s Most Dangerous Road becomes their personal legend," Alistair says, "the best story of their life."
At 7:30 a.m., thirty cyclists gather at La Terraza Coffee Shop, waiting to board one of three Gravity buses, stacked high with mountain bikes. Alistair greets me at the door, primed by three double shot espressos. He wears a red cycling shirt that pimps his promoters as if he were a NASCAR driver. Guides mill around tables with clip boards while men and women, most in their late twenties to mid thirties from Ireland, Australia, Britain, and Canada, sit like anxious students on the first day of school.

"I took a year off to travel the world," 28-year-old nurse Clare McDermott from Dublin tells me. "My sister recommended this to me because it combines two things. Stunning views and thrills. How about you?"
Before I can answer, Alistair calls out, "Let’s lock and load!"

We step outside, split into groups of about a dozen and file into the three grit-covered buses. Alistair sits at the front of my bus and dials up an iPod that alternates between blasting doses of Bob Dylan, U2, and frenetic electronica, but soon the groan of the bus engine drowns out the songs as we begin our climb uphill. Alistair sucks down a Red Bull, pausing long enough for warnings. Do not eat "UFOs"—unidentified frying objects—sold at the roadside. Don’t ask him about birds, geology, plants, or anything else having to do with nature. He’s a mountain biker, goddammit, not a naturalist—and his concern is your safety, not flora and fauna. Last but not least, remember: Where you look is where you go. If you get in trouble, keep your eyes fixed on where you want to be. It’s a Jedi mind trick.

"At the end of the day what we’re doing is riding a bicycle on a road," he says above the engine. "However, if you leave the road, then things start getting a little more complicated, and we would highly recommended you don’t. Follow our rules and you’ll be fine unless you tortured a cat as a little kid. So cheer up. You look like someone has died already."

In April, Gravity suffered its first casualty, a fit 56-year-old American who played tennis every day. He rode sanely, nothing flashy. But, without warning, he rolled off his bike coming around a curve. He didn’t brake, he didn’t scream. He fell more than two hundred feet before hitting rock—and died of internal injuries. The bike remained on the road, wheels spinning. He had been sick two days before the ride and Alistair suspects he was either unconscious or dead already when he fell.

"We don’t have CSI Miami here to figure out why he died. It’s fairly sobering, but no worse than driving," Alistair says. He admits that the ride involves "real risk" but reminds me: "We’re not selling a seat on the couch."

It’s cold atop the gravel plateau. Glacier-chilled air stabs my lungs. A hundred yards ahead of me, pilgrims pile out of vans to pay homage to Pachamama, the earth mother. Dogs roam the hillside. Some locals believe these canines to be spiritual extensions of Pachamama herself and consider it bad luck not to feed them. So before ascending into the pass, it is customary to buy a few marraqueta bread rolls for the trip up to ensure safe passage. I don’t have any bread. Instead I offer bits from a granola bar.

Soon the mountainside fills with other bikers in goggles and black windbreakers, helmets like bugheads reflecting the sun. Then Alistair calls us together for final instructions. We are not to sit on the bicycle seat. In fact, we’re not supposed to think of it as a seat but an as "anal invader" that will have the one-night-in-prison effect tomorrow should we rely on it too much. Instead, we are to sit on our thighs, with our "bums" hanging off the bike for better stability. We are to keep our elbows bent and not stiff like the evil neighbor in the Wizard of Oz when she kidnapped Toto. We are to turn corners with one knee raised pointing into the corner. Right corner, right knee. Left corner, left knee.
"I expect all of you to do this, my little chickadees."
He withdraws a small plastic bottle from his pocket filled with a clear fluid.
"Pachamama is fairly happy with things," Alistair says. "We share a small drink of alcohol with her to keep her happy."
He shakes a few drops on his front tire and on the ground. He raises the bottle to his mouth and passes it to me. I splash my front tire, take a sip and feel fire course down my throat. I gasp coughing it out through my nose.
"Oh, yeah," Alistair says in a hoarse voice, "that’s a good vintage."

I take the first right turn on the highway, right knee up, left leg straight, body leaning over the handlebars, goggles fogging. Come out of the curve into a straight downhill, ease off the brakes a bit but not all the way. Other riders whisk past me, tires sizzling on the dew-damp pavement. The road winds through rolling pastures of pale ichu grass and empty fields cordoned off with stone fences defining one property from the next. Mountains layered with rock ledges climb above the fields into mist and clouds.

Alistair told me he enjoyed cycling for its adaptability to any weather. With the right gear, he can ride in any season. I, however, like it for the sheer defiance of everything in my way; the bugs in my teeth and the big bumps that snap me out of my daydreaming, but always the wheels continue their spinning with that rush of air like flying. I release my grip on the brakes and feel the bike gather momentum, hurtling through the frigid air at twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, leaving even the wind behind me. The land becomes a blurred panorama of immense black cliffs.

After a ten-minute rest we start up again and pass through a tunnel before stopping at a check point. This part of our ride is one of the routes used by drug traffickers to move partly processed cocaine from the coca fields to the capital. Armed police search vehicles for raw cocaine and the chemicals used to produce it.

We stop outside a small village. The greasy smell of "UFOs" lingers above oil-stained cooking pots in vendor stalls where dogs lounge with mothers nursing babies in the shade. Alistair warns us that we will have to bike uphill in the next stretch. We strip out of our windbreakers ready to sweat. I pat my asthma inhaler for reassurance and get back on my bike.

The five-mile incline confronting us is no more than a slight rise in the road, but in this high altitude I soon feel like I’m cycling to the moon. I suck in air but it seems nothing fills my lungs. My head swims; colored lights flash when I blink sweat from my eyes.
"Like a turtle," a passing cyclist advises me. "Peddle slowly and in the granny gear."
I nod, dizzy. I start singing to myself, "Like a turtle," to the tune of the Madonna song, "Like a virgin."
"You alright, mate?" Alistair asks coming alongside.
"Uh, huh."
Like a turtle. . . touched for the very first time. . .
I can’t talk. The song gives rhythm to my peddling. I push on and give a thumbs up.
"Don’t cough up a lung," Alistair says.
"Uh, huh."
Like a tur-ur-ur-ur-tle. . .
At the top of the hill I tumble off the bike and kneel in the road, head down, gasping, choking. I think I’m having a heart attack. My lungs feel like two molten rocks, and an electric tingling courses through my finger tips and toes. I want to tear my chest open and let air flood in.
Alistair leans over to look at me.
"Nice goin’, mate." he says.
I try to say, "I’m a fuckwit," but what I manage between gasps is "Li. . .like a. .. turr. . . turr. . . turtle."
Alistair points us off the road to a wide gravel patch. He passes out bananas and chocolate bars for a late morning snack. Birds fly past and soft breezes cool us.
"A little easier than I thought," a British woman says stretching her legs.
"Yeah, downhill all the way," her companion agrees.
I lean back, loosen some kinks in my neck, close my eyes, and sigh still exhausted from my uphill slog.
"Here we start the World’s Most Dangerous Road," Alistair announces. "If you didn’t practice the techniques I showed you, you’re fucked."
We all straighten from our slouches. Alistair continues: We are legally required to ride on the left hand side of the road, "the scenic drop-off side," he explains. There’s a logic to this. Most of the vehicles have their steering wheels on the left-hand side. The road is so narrow that the driver has to be able to stick his head out the window to make sure the tires are on the road. We need to ride in the left hand tire track where the road will be much smoother than the rock-strewn rough stuff on either side.

"There are some safety barriers—about 122 feet worth in twenty-five miles of road that should stop you," Alistair says. "However, there are literally hundreds of other small barriers in a funny crucifix shape. You get it, right?"
We ride through clouds hovering over the embankment. It’s like moving through a portal into a different fog-filled dimension. On the other side of a hairpin curve, the road narrows as Alistair warned. I keep to a well-worn tire track filled with shallow puddles and loose gravel more like a driveway than road. Vines curl down in long tendrils from rock protrusions and flowering shrubs clinging to the road’s edge. The mist rises to the level of the road concealing the drop-offs.

The crosses Alistair mentioned commemorating victims of vehicular fatalities line the road, rotted and mildewed, choked with vines and small lizards scampering over them: Sr. Daniel Saavedra, 1991; Constancio Trujillo 15 November 2005; Carlos Pizarrosa Inda 25 July 1985. The shattered debris of buses and trucks fills the mountainside. During one break, I throw a rock over the edge and look at my watch. Five seconds pass before I hear it hit the bottom.

We cycle into a particularly narrow section where the road winds around heavy black trees draped with dampness. Yawning chasms filled with fog and crazy, slanted foliage and vines follow every turn. Overhangs present the added danger of falling rock, while runoff creates long cascades down cliff faces that shower us at intervals. Frequent landslides, too, pose a threat especially during the rainy season between January and March.
Alistair rides up beside me chattering on about some Iraq vets who had queried him about the road, wondering if it was safe.
"Well, no one will be shooting at you," Alistair laughs.
The rumble of an engine ahead of us interrupts our conversation. We stop on the edge of the road getting off the right side of our bicycles so that they provide a barrier between us and the drop-off inches away. Alistair blows a whistle to alert riders behind us to stop and let the vehicle pass.
Soon a military Jeep approaches. Anti-drug police scouring the area for illegal coca crops and party processed cocaine from the labs tucked in below the jungle canopies.
"Smile, do whatever the hell they say," Alistair whispers.
One of them smelled overwhelmingly of booze.
"Hey, how’s it going?" Alistair says in Spanish.
They assume he’s a tourist until he explains he has been guiding cyclists down this road for ten years. Evidently, they think that’s pretty cool and ask to take a picture with us. We pose with one and then the other, arms draped around their shoulders cock-eyed grins on our faces. They get back in the Jeep and wave as we begin riding again.
Alistair pulls ahead followed by other cyclists who shout at me, "Passing on left!" I ride faster, tired of being the old man left behind. I release my brakes and pedal harder without calculating how speed over slippery stones might affect my balance.

Approaching a right turn, I raise my right knee and pull on the brakes. Too hard. I feel myself rise out of the seat lurching forward over the handlebars. I manage to keep from somersaulting off my bike and settle back unevenly on my seat. I wobble back and forth and apply the brakes again. The rear tire skids beneath me, the bike fishtailing toward the edge. Pebbles spit out from beneath my tires. I can’t keep my eyes off the approaching drop-off. My arms lock and I brace for the fall.

Then I hear Alistair’s voice: Where you look is where you go.
I lock my stare on a mossy boulder on my right. The bike eases back toward the road, self-correcting smoothly into the tire track, just as Alistair said it would. A Jedi mind trick indeed. I pedal harder to maintain momentum laughing suddenly and for no reason, all fear suddenly gone.

After stopping for a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, we emerge from the mountains into sunlight and the final downhill stretch on a widened lane with the odds of falling off greatly reduced.
Amid the noise of children picnicking in a field, birds calling in trees with bright blue wild flowers, streams gushing over rocks, and Alistair calling out instructions, the Irish nurse Clare pulls up beside me, her long brown hair blowing behind her. Together we ride down the final hot dusty section of road and coast downhill to better look out onto deep valleys where villagers emerge from cinder block homes and walked on stone paths, and above them farmers burn acres of trees and brush to advance their fields, stripping sections of mountains bare. We splash through three river crossings slipping on the stones beneath our wheels. We rise up in our seats and peddle harder churning water over our shoes as wet spray dampens our faces.
"This is amazing," Clare says breathless. "The big dips and turns. Taking corners back there freaked me out. ‘Oh, my god,’ me family will say. ‘You did that?’^"
I smile but say nothing. Clare rides ahead of me. I watch her go and think, I'm here, I made it, I made it! I survived The World's Most Dangerous Road!

I don’t know what I’ll tell my family and friends about the road, what I’ll say about my near fall. It makes me queasy thinking about it. But my adrenalin rushes too.
The legend, as Alistair knows, remains for me to create.

© Malcolm Garcia Jan 2009

Malcolm is a regular contributor to the Virginia Quarterly Review, and his dispatches from Afghanistan ("Curfew," Spring 2004) and Haiti ("Descent into Haiti," Spring 2006) were both named notable essays by The Best American Travel Writing. My essay, "The White Train," from VQR's Fall 2007 issue, appears in the 2008 edition of > The Best American Non-Required Reading.  

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