A bit of contextBy the time we reached La Paz in Bolivia we had already ridden on some rather impressive roads. Most of them gloriously unknown, a few affectionately nicknamed to reflect their perceived lethality. None though seem to have achieved the fame of the “Camino de la Muerte” or Nor Yungas road as it called on local atlases. Naturally I had to give it a shot.
Nuestra Senora de la Paz, the capital of Bolivia sits at 3640m on the edge of the Altiplano, its back against the impressive Cordillera Real ultimate rampart to the Amazon forest to the East. Squeezed between the Andean snow capped mountains and the humid jungle is the Yungas region and the eponymous road.
Getting there from La Paz requires finding your way through a labyrinth of narrow roads that slowly escape the encroaching city to eventually shed their jacket of concrete and reveal their granitic selves to ascend La Cumbre, a 4650m high pass and gateway to the Yungas.
The Nor Yungas roadFrom La Cumbre one can follow the main highway or play on the many gravel roads that rush down toward the river beneath. Old rusty signs eventually point us in the right direction and, just like that, we leave the pavement and find ourselves on the Death Road.
As luck would have it, the road was closed that day “No hay paso via cerrado” read the hastily spray painted sign meekly trying to stand against a mean breeze. “How closed can it be?” I asked myself while shifting into first gear.
Whatever lingering doubt I might have had vanished when I spotted a large group of bicycles around a corner. These days the road is a major touristic attraction and several outlets compete to sell thrill rides to eager tourists. Can’t say we are big fans of these canned adventures but that’ll be a subject for another post.
The road was shrouded in colossal puffs of clouds trying to find their way around the mountains. Elusive patches of light revealed a wall of vegetation barely interrupted by this mortal ribbon of rock. Here and there tombstones and crosses tell the story of the unfortunate drivers and passengers that gave it its reputation. Water dripping from the ferns collaborate with the rain to precipitate chunks of the road down the abyss.
Which brings us to the reason why the road was closed. A whole corner of the road had taken a dive and 3 guys armed with rebars, 3 planks and a few bags of cement where working hard at fixing it. I got there as they had built a meter high shuttering across the road. What followed was rather epic and sadly I do not have pictures. Seeing that I was not about to turn around, the 3 guys improvised a bridge by placing two narrow and rather thin planks on both sides of the shuttering, itself quite wobbly. Stomping on the boards with confidence, they waved at me to ride through. By the then a small crowd of mountain bikers had formed, all curious to see how things would end. In those circumstances one is glad to have some prior experience in rock crawling and I therefore swiftly proceeded over the shaky edifice. Deprived from a more exciting show the bystanders fled on their bicycles and left me to thank the workers from their kind help.