2-Wheeled Escapades: Bolivia’s Death Road and Cocaine.

We started the day high in the clouds.

We couldn’t see more than 50m around us, only taking in the windy road and sheer rock faces as inspiration for our imagination.The morning sun glistened against the rocks along the road, sunshine trying to push through the damp. At 4700m we could have been anywhere in the European Alps… but we were in La Cumbre, Bolivia about to ride down the Yungas Road. Bolivia’s Death Road.

Although throughly upgraded by the late 2000s, the Yungas Roads have quite the reputation. We were biking down the North Yungas Road, the original blood line to Northern Bolivia. Starting at La Cumbre Pass, we continued throughout the day to Yolosa, 3500m lower than our starting point. While most daily traffic uses the newer South Yungas Road, we weren’t alone. “It was incredible to see full-size trucks and coaches still use the road!”. The road wasn’t sealed for the last 60+ kilometres, adding to the excitement with our mountain bikes. Gravity Assisted had done a great job at providing sound mountain bikes, riding gear (including helmets) and various layers of outerware.

Most of the trip was on gravel…I wouldn’t say it was hard, but you definitely wanted to pay attention to where you were on the road. Some local traffic still use the road so we needed to ride on the left side (opposite to “most” traffic in Bolivia). It means that both drivers can see the outside of the road and know how close to the edge their vehicles are. We were told the last accident was over a year ago when it was the main road there was an accident every week!

We stopped every few hours to enjoy a quick break, for snacks and photos. The scenery alone was worth the trip, the view clearing as we lowered in altitude. Warming up as we journeyed down, we were soon losing the layers quickly! It became very pleasant to travel against the warm wind, an already dramatic change from the mist and wet of 4700m!

The valley that we drove through was beautiful though! Although the road was sketchy at times the scenery was something that you wanted to sit back and admire! You only needed a quick [look] over the side to remember where you were!

At the end of the day, we finished in the Senda Verde Animal Refuge. It was amazing to see all the animals rescued from various Black Markets across South America. If I ever make it make, I’ll be spending some time there!

After a great afternoon feed at Senda Verde, we drove back to La Paz. We made our way back long the same road, getting to experience driving along the narrow road! We were able to stop at the San Pedro waterfall, made famous by Top Gear a few years back. It was a quiet drive back, most of us falling asleep after a full day’s bike ride!

The best thing I have found about trips like these, although overly commercialised in some aspects, is being able to see and experience local culture. The most evident, was the widespread production of the coca plant. Although used in western medicine since the late 19th century, for thousands of years it has been a major source of income in rural areas. Long used in traditional medicine and as a source of vitamins in South American culture, it wasn’t until it was brought to Europe and cocaine developed, that the Coca Leaf’s history turned for the worse.

I’ll be very open, being someone who ‘doesn’t do drugs’, that my partner and I discussed ‘trying’ cocaine while in South America. It’s what you do, isn’t it?

No…No, it isn’t. Two Coca Museums later and with a wealth of knowledge, we both agreed very quickly that there wasn’t going to be any chance. We both had no idea the amount of nastiness that goes into Cocaine production. More importantly, it’s not even something one takes (or enjoys) to “do as the locals do”. Produced primarily for the North American and European markets, there is very little of the “coca plant” left in the final product. And yet, it has become illegal in countries were its production kept the farmers out of poverty. In spite that the natural product has remained legal in Peru and Bolivia and is relatively inexpensive in street markets, there are extensive checks at security points, (and even when we mailed a parcel back to Europe!), and you are not allowed to leave Peru/Bolivia with the coca leaf.

And as for the drug-filled South America? The only place in 5 months we were offered drugs was Cusco, Peru. Alongside Colombians, Bolivians are enthusiastically trying, and succeeding, in projecting a positive future. Who thought a bike ride would turn into a culture lesson?