landslide2-1280
A 64km stretch of dirt in north-eastern Bolivia, the Carretera de los Yungas is widely regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Hundreds have died on this treacherous highway, for years the only road linking La Paz with the city of Coroico. Dispiritingly, upwards of a dozen businesses now make lucrative capital from Bolivians’ fatal misfortune by selling backpackers a chance to cycle down this notorious route, a fistful of dollars buying the promise of a T-shirt decorated with a legend such as ‘I survived the Death Road!‘ From death trap to tourist trap, the transition is complete. Well, nearly: since such ghoulish packages were first offered in the 1990s, around 20 cyclists are thought to have perished while making the ride.

The road connecting the one-horse town of San Francisco and the larger jungle city of Mocoa in southern Colombia draws no such tourism, despite its colourful nickname. ‘El Trampolín de la Muerte‘ – the Trampoline of Death – is the main highway connecting the departamentos of Nariño and Putumayo, but this is not the M1. As roadside memorials make clear, dozens have died on this implausible feat of engineering, an up-and-down ribbon of dirt clinging to a string of hillsides often shrouded in mist.

Highways with ‘death’ in their nicknames are rarely much fun to travel by bus or car. On a bicycle, though, it’s a different matter. Contrary to expectations, the dangers are much reduced: with little traffic, you can choose your side of the road rather than constantly skirting the edge; and, of course, you’re not completely at the mercy of another driver or his ill-conditioned vehicle. With little to fear, you’re left to enjoy the scenery. Because if there’s one characteristic that links the so-called ‘death’ roads in Latin America, it’s that the views they offer can be spectacular.

 


 

albertobt-1200
The ride really starts in Pasto, the largest city in southern Colombia. Laid low by the same bug – first Ruth, then Will – we ended up staying for five nights, during which time we made the acquaintance of Alberto. The owner of Bike Tech, one of several fine cycle shops in the city, he talked us through the ride, then insisted on escorting us out of town when we left on a drizzly Wednesday.

 


 

cocha1-1024
cocha2-1024

At the end of a steady climb out of Pasto, our reward should have been spectacular views of the vast Laguna de la Cocha. However, as we layered up for the descent to El Encano, we enjoyed the merest glimpse before the mists swept in once more.

 


 

strawberries-1024
ruthfriend-1024

In El Encano, Will refuelled with strawberries and cream (well, it was Wimbledon fortnight) before Ruth made a new friend. Riding a bike built for someone twice his age, this kid joined us on the climb out of town.

 


 

ruthmud-1280
Torrential rain can stop the traffic – we were briefly held up while a small landslide was cleared – but rarely halts the local road workers, who were still slogging away at the top of the day’s second big climb.

 


 

sibundoyvalley1-1280
Perhaps they know that the weather here changes in a heartbeat. Rain makes room for sunshine; mists lift to reveal blue skies. A few kilometres later, we were enjoying this glorious descent on perfect tarmac…

 


 

sibundoyvalley2-1280
… Towards panoramic views over the Valle de Sibundoy, where we eventually spent the night.

 


 

zonadeavalanches-1280
Shortly after the small town of San Francisco, the asphalt evaporates (the next 60km are all on dirt), the road narrows and the climbing starts. The sign – ‘peligro‘ means ‘danger’ – points to the risk of landslides: the hills above the road sometimes give way in poor weather, and mud and trees end up blocking what’s often just a single-lane track.

 


 

ruthsummit-1280
The surface on this side of the hill is in good shape, and the 550m climb was pretty comfortable. As we rode, though, the weather worsened. The views at the top were never less than spectacular.

 


 

siberia-1280
No wonder we were a bit chilly.

 


 

trampolin-1280
When the mists lift, though, it’s fairly astonishing to behold the road ahead or behind you. That vertical brown stripe crossing the road is a relatively recent landslide. All along the highway, we passed three- or four-strong teams of workers clearing up after similar disruptions, which must be a job without end. (Happily, we avoided more dramatic avalanches of the kind that held up Cass Gilbert and friends when they rode the Trampolín in the opposite direction.)

 


 

roadhouse-1280
Not much less likely is the presence along the road of three or four roadhouse shop-restaurants, feeding passers-by in this lengthy gap between villages. Following in the footsteps of countless cyclists before us, we stopped at this one for a snack.

 


 

trampolin2-1280
We keep on keeping on.

 


 

leftorright-1280
Even if, sometimes, not even the road itself knows which way it’s going.

 


 

moremists-1280
In mists like this, such uncertainty is hardly surprising. There’s now a guard rail along parts of the Trampolín, but on this stretch, nothing stands between the skinny, skiddy road and a precipitous drop into the deep, dark beyond.

 


 

memorial-1280
One of many roadside reminders of how the road got its nickname.

 


 

descenso-1280
The final climb is short – about 10km, averaging 5-6% – but on a choppy road surface made worse by the rain, it’s hard work. Our reward is a check-your-brakes descenso prolongado (‘long descent’), nearly 1,500m of altitude lost over 22.5km of sometimes bumpy dirt before the asphalt returns.

 


 

policecheckpoint-1280
The region around Mocoa was for years in the grip of anti-government rebels and the cocaine trade (which, in some accounts, amounts to the same thing). It’s much safer now, though the presence of regular police and army checkpoints offers reminders that this isn’t yet a totally secure area. This grinning trio were cock-a-hoop excited about the next day’s football match.

 


 

gameofchicken-1280
In this particular game of chicken, there was only ever going to be one winner.

 


 

trampolin4-1280
That’s more like it.

 


 

trampolin3-1280
So’s this.

 


 

fording-1280
When it rains, which is often, the rivers crossing the road widen and swell. Hard to ford in a car; harder, as a grimacing Ruth demonstrates, on a bike.

 


 

mocoasquare-1280
After more than 11 hours on the road, we made it to Mocoa as darkness fell. The next day, we joined a few thousand locals in the town square to watch the football on a big screen…

 


 

jamesrodriguez-1280
… But not every match has a happy ending.

 


 

Route notes: Most riders whose blogs we read in advance took three days to get from Pasto to Mocoa, stopping overnight in one of the towns in the Valle de Sibundoy (Santiago, Colón or Sibundoy itself) and then camping somewhere on the Trampolín (a scattering of abandoned houses provide flat ground and limited shelter). However, assuming you’re not held up by roadworks or landslides, the route is doable in two days with an early start on the second morning.

It’s 65km from Pasto to Sibundoy. The bulk of the 1,400m of total climb comes on two longish hills – the first a steady ascent from Pasto to a mirador above the Laguna de la Cocha, the second a sporadically stiffer haul out of El Encano. Almost the entire route is paved. Sibundoy is the largest town between Pasto and Mocoa, and has half a dozen hotels.

It’s a further 82km from Sibundoy to Mocoa with 1,450m of climb, harder than day one as almost all the ascent is on dirt. From San Francisco, 6km after Sibundoy, there’s a climb of about 11km on a compacted, good-quality surface, followed by a descent, a stretch of rolling up-and-down and then another climb, this one on noticeably worse ripio. The top of this second climb arrives 48km from Sibundoy at an altitude of around 2,275m, from where there’s a hair-raising descent of more than 20km at nearly 7% on an imperfect surface. The last 10km into Mocoa (altitude 590m) are asphalt and comfortable.

 


 

from Mocoa, Putumayo, Colombia