International Writers Magazine:
Biking the Worlds Most Dangerous Route
J. Malcolm Garcia
not compulsory that you die today, okay?"
Matthew, the founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking and one
of my three guides for todays precipitous 43-mile ride down
Bolivias famed Yungas Road, is warning me against braking
too hard or too fast, lest I should go freefalling off one of the
trails many thousand-foot sheer precipices. "You dont
want to hurtle over your handlebars and feel obliged to take up
optional parachuting activities." Alistair smiles, but its
We will descend
twelve thousand feet from La Cumbre, where we now gather amid the snow-marbled
Andes, to the spare rustic village of Yolosaall the while hugging
the roads 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 Muertethe Death Road.
Built by prisoners during Bolivias 19321935 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 highwaythis highway
now before ustheir bodies broken on the rocks. Simple cases, Alistair
says, of "testosterone exceeding ability." He smiles again,
"Thats boys acting like fuckwits."
fifty, I approach the Worlds 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 wont. 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 hostels
overworked septic system couldnt 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 streetlightspart 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 Worlds 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.
Well 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 roadand,
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 Alistairs
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 Worlds 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
Before I can answer, Alistair calls out, "Lets 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 objectssold at the roadside. Dont ask him about birds,
geology, plants, or anything else having to do with nature. Hes
a mountain biker, goddammit, not a naturalistand 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. Its a Jedi mind trick.
"At the end of the day what were 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 dont. Follow our rules and youll
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 didnt
brake, he didnt scream. He fell more than two hundred feet before
hitting rockand 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
"We dont have CSI Miami here to figure out why he died. Its
fairly sobering, but no worse than driving," Alistair says. He
admits that the ride involves "real risk" but reminds me:
"Were not selling a seat on the couch."
Its 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 dont 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,
were 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
"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, "thats
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
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 Im 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.
Like a turtle. . . touched for the very first time. . .
I cant talk. The song gives rhythm to my peddling. I push on and
give a thumbs up.
"Dont cough up a lung," Alistair says.
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 Im 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, "Im 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
"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 Worlds Most Dangerous Road," Alistair
announces. "If you didnt practice the techniques I showed
you, youre 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. Theres 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 barriersabout 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. Its 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 roads
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
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
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, hows it going?" Alistair says in Spanish.
They assume hes a tourist until he explains he has been guiding
cyclists down this road for ten years. Evidently, they think thats
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 cant keep my eyes
off the approaching drop-off. My arms lock and I brace for the fall.
Then I hear Alistairs 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
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
I dont know what Ill tell my family and friends about the
road, what Ill 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.
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.
to try it? Go to Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking here
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.