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Few highways have as intimidating a reputation as the original road linking La Paz with Coroico in the North Yungas. A rough, narrow track chiselled out of near-vertical mountainsides that descends more than 3500m over a distance of just 64km, it’s still widely referred to as the world’s most dangerous road, a title bestowed on it by the Inter-American Development Bank. Statistically, the sobriquet is difficult to dispute: dozens of vehicles went off the road each year, and with vertical drops of up to 1000m over the edge, annual fatalities reached into the hundreds.

Following the route in its entirety from Unduavi, the first 40km are the most perilous and spectacular of the entire route. At times the road is only 3m wide, looming over deep precipices. To make matters worse, the road is often swathed in cloud, and in places waterfalls crash down onto its surface. About 86km from La Paz, the road reaches Yolosa.

After years of construction, however, a new multi-million-dollar bypass around the most perilous stretch opened in 2006, following a route that looms high over the old road on the opposite side of the valley and which tunnels intermittently through the mountainside. While some of the concrete and supporting rods have fallen prey to the elements, it’s still a huge improvement – at least space- and safety-wise – over the old route.

The 106km bypass has also slashed the journey time from La Paz to Coroico to about three hours by bus (2hr 15min by car); the old road took about four and a half hours. From Villa Fátima in La Paz, the road to the Yungas climbs northeast to La Cumbre, a 4800m pass over the Cordillera Real. From here it descends to the hamlet of Unduavi, where the road forks, one branch descending southeast towards Chulumani in the South Yungas, the other heading down northeast towards Coroico and the Amazon lowlands.

The nueva carretera (new road) initially follows the original northeast fork before splitting off and climbing high above it, following a similar trajectory along the spine of the mountains before descending to join the original road north of Yolosa, a hamlet set at about 1200m. Here, a newly cobbled side road climbs up to Coroico, 11km away, while the main road continues 74km north to Caranavi and beyond to Rurrenabaque.

Cycling down

What the statistics don’t tell you is that the old route – and to a certain extent the bypass as well – is among the most beautiful roads in the world. Starting amid the icebound peaks of the Cordillera Real, it plunges down through the clouds into the humid valleys of the Yungas, winding along deep, narrow gorges clad with dense cloudforest.

So spectacular is the descent that travelling the old Yungas road by mountain bike is one of Bolivia’s most popular tourist attractions, an exhilarating 5–6hr ride that’s easy to organize with tour companies in La Paz – Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking has one of the best reputations (see Tour operators). Local operator Cross Country Coroico, on Pacheco 2058 (
t
7127 3015),
was one of the first to ply the route, and it also offers several less infamous but equally challenging rides, plus less taxing trips for beginners.

The re-routing of most traffic to the bypass means – in theory, at least – cycling the route is now safer than it’s ever been, especially if you go with a reputable tour company with good guides and well-maintained bikes. Of course, the road is not entirely without risk, and people have been hurt and several even killed during the descent in the past, forced off the edge by traffic.

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