I guess most people will have never heard of Yolosa, a tiny settlement where people arrive to lick their wounds, or offer a brief prayer. Yolosa is the start (or finish, depending on your direction of travel) of supposedly the world’s most dangerous road. I’d half expected that we might encounter a warning sign, a disclaimer, a flag with the skull and cross bones rippling in the limp wind – but no, only a Swiss man wearing a maniacal grin, sitting astride a push bike loaded with his worldly goods. ‘Are you going up here?’ we asked him. He broke off from taking a photo of Yolosa. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘all the way to La Paz.’ He looked at his watch and like a good Swiss stationmaster declared, ‘It will take me two and a half days.’ To put that statement into context, we were gazing at a muddy, cobbled track, at an altitude of 1200 metres. In a distance of some 60 kilometres we ascended to the La Cumbre Pass, at an altitude of 4600 metres. ‘Best of luck!’ we offered the cyclist. What else can one say?
The Yungas Road was built by Paraguayan soldiers in the 1930s, is barely 3 metres wide and in rather a lot of places has a sheer drop of…well, best not to look really. According to a BBC report, between 200 and 300 people lost their lives on this road each year. In one year alone 25 vehicles sailed into the abyss. It is not a road to tackle if, 1) you’re about to nod off at the wheel, 2) had a tin of beer too many, 3) your tyres are displaying patches of canvas – but of course they do. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank declared it the world’s most dangerous road, though in 2007 a new road was completed that has now removed the heavy traffic, making it a considerably less risky proposition. However, there is a new scourge – adrenalin-fuelled mountain bikers who, between the hours of ten and twelve in the morning, hurtle from the Alti-plano to the steaming Yungas jungle, 3400 metres lower. Cycling the world’s most dangerous road has become one of Bolivia’s most popular tourist attractions and as many as 18 dare-devil cyclists have apparently come to grief.
After a couple of hours we arrived unscathed and out of breath at the La Cumbre pass. So, is it the world’s most dangerous road? I have to admit we tackled it early on a Sunday morning, in reasonable weather and passed barely half a dozen cars. It made for a pleasant drive. Imagine, though, that you are a passenger on a bus, attempting to cross paths with a truck, in the fog, and whilst the rains wash away the ground beneath your wheels the driver stuffs another fistful of coca leaves into his distended cheek and thumps the horn. For many this was the only means of getting from A to B. Now that’s scary!