I wasn't so much doing it for the kudos of having cycled down it but more for the amazing scenery we passed and it really was worth every penny. Lots of companies operate tours on the road but I picked a slightly pricier one and it was well worth it as we had professional downhill bikes with all the fancy extras and our guide was brilliant, taking lots of photos of us as we went and cycling ahead to take videos which we then got on CD. Also there were only 4 people in my group compared to 16 or so in others so it really was much better.
We were picked up from central La Paz and bussed about 40 minutes outside of the city to a place called La Cumbre which was at about 4500m. It had snowed the night before so we were treated to some great views and it felt rather like I was going skiing. So we were up in the mountains and after doing a few practice laps of the flat area we stopped in, we set off. The first section was on the main road but it still took a fantastic path through the mountains and past countless snowy waterfalls.
Having got through a narcotics checkpoint un-arrested (the Yungas are the coca-producing area of the country and consequently a fair few drugs are imported to the capital from there) we continued on the road for an hour or so until we reached the beginning of ´the death road´as it's dramatically called. It began as gravel and quickly turned to dirt and was great fun to do some off-road cycling. The views were mostly obscured at first due to clouds but when they lifted we found ourselves surrounded by jungle-clad mountains and the climate quickly became very humid - very strange having been wearing hat, gloves and goggles due to the cold in the first part. The road itself was constantly exciting as we had to ride through several small waterfalls falling onto the road and ford small streams so it was good fun. It wasn't really dangerous at all for bikers since it is about 3m wide and the brakes on the bikes are so good that you can stop in an instant.
The only worry was traffic coming along but our guides had walky-talkies to radio back if there was something coming. While not dangerous to cycle down, it definitely was pretty precarious for drivers given how narrow it was and the frequency of landslides in the rain. Our guide showed us the shell of a van that had fallen off the cliff about 200m down and had killed several people in the process. Equally, the numerous crosses situated along the road were a reminder of the danger.
The others in my group were 3 aussies, one of whom had cycled a lot having been from Amsterdam to Greece. So of course when she fell over twice (once in a river and once in front of quite a few locals) the other two were unforgiving in slating her for her terrible cycling and that continued on for the whole of the rest of the trip. After about 5 hours of cycling we finally came to the end at the foot of the hill on which the town of coroico is situated amidst beautiful scenery.
We were taken to a plush hotel to have a swim and have some lunch and then I chose to stay on a night in the town. Bad mistake. It was in a really nice area, and I had planned to walk to some nearby waterfalls, but the whole time I was there it poured with rain and was cloudy so I ended up going to bed at 6pm and sleeping for about 15 hours so that I could shoot back to La Paz the next day. On the ride back we took the newly built road and it is quite a feat of engineering. There is a 2km tunnel in the middle and about 15 bridges in total yet it is still plagued with landslides due to the steep hills on which it it is built. Anyway, after the disappointing Coroico it was nice to get back to a bit of civilisation. However, like Cusco, I think i've had my fill of La Paz and tomorrow i'm heading further south to what was formerly the richest city in the world, Potosi.
One of the most popular past-times for gringos with a bit of spare time here is to take a mountain bike and cycle for 40 or so miles down to a little town called Coroico in the Yungas (sub-tropical region of Bolivia) via a very narrow and precarious dirt road. A sweeping and audacious claim to make, and i'm sure it may face some stiff competition from rivals in Afghanistan and Central Africa, but this particular road was at one time claiming around 50 lives each month due to crashes and tumbles off the steep cliff. A new road opened two years ago (fifteen years in the making) to divert the majority of traffic away but cars do still try their luck.