Death road bikingJennifer Hubbert

It’s the last day of my trip to Bolivia. And we had saved the best for last.

I’m kitted out in a helmet and shin guards, coasting down Yungas Road on a full suspension mountain bike.

But the road has a sinister nickname: Death Road

Why?

The unpaved, narrow road winds through dense jungle.

One one side: high cliff walls.

On the other: a ledge that drops thousands of feet into the steamy jungle.

It’s not hard to see why it was once dubbed the world’s most dangerous road.

 

Today, a new inland highway services vehicle traffic, drastically reducing casualties.

While the jungle road sees some thru-traffic between remote villages, today, downhill mountain bikers outnumber vehicles.

 

The day I peddle down Death Road, the air is hot and sticky.

It’s the off-season, so our small group of four enjoys it all to ourselves.

Waterfalls cascade over the road but we rip right through them.

The fog-laden jungle is alive with exotic sounds.

The dense jungle canopy blends into a sea of verdant greens.

It’s a scene right out of Avatar.

 

So far, the danger of Death Road eludes me.

Is the excursion sensationalized for the sake of tourists?

Halfway through our day, our guide Alejandro has us pose for photos.

It’s then that we notice a van slowly crawling up Yungas Road.

It comes to a stop and a few men exit the vehicle.

Alejandro walks off in their direction.

He chats with the men a short while. He’s too far for me to eavesdrop, and the Spanish is too rapid to comprehend anyway.

A fourth and fifth man exit the van.

I need no translation to notice the long machetes in their hands.

It seems we’ve finally met some danger on Death Road.

 

“Well, pretty clear that this is going to cost us some money,” my husband remarks grimly.

Minutes slowly tick by, but they feel like hours.

Our friend remarks, “Eiy, this is not good. Certainly, they want a bribe.”

“I wonder how much this is going to cost,” my husband speculates.

Alejandro breaks from the group and confers with us.

“Do you remember the tax we paid at the top of Yungas? At the village where you received the ‘permit’?” says Alejandro. “These men live along the road and they are upset that their villages do not receive any of those funds. They want you to pay to pass through.”

The three of us exchanged glances.

Uh-oh…

“Alejandro, how much are they demanding?” I enquire.

“They are insisting on 25 Bolivianos…each,” he replied.

Our eyes widened, jaw slackened.

Seriously?” I exclaim.

“I am sorry. This has never happened before. I will surely report it.”

With that, we collect the cash and pay the villagers.

And so goes the story of the day I was held up by machete-toting men for an adorable sum of $5.

 

 

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