“You got this. Stay focused.”, I kept telling myself while attempting to take my mind off the intense muscle pain in my forearms. I was trying my best to relax my grip on the bike brakes but the road was very steep and slippery. My main goal was to stay in control of my speed and get through the day without crashing first-face onto a road comprised solely of gravel, pebbles, and stones. Damn, biking down Bolivia’s Death Road provides quite an adrenaline rush!
The origins of the Death Road
Built in the 1930s by Paraguayans kept prisoners during the Chaco War, the Death Road is officially named Yungas Road. The 69-km long road connects La Paz with the Amazon rainforest through landslides and cliffs that drop 600 metres. After its construction, the road had only one, narrow lane with no guardrails nor asphalt. The lack of drainage system made mudslides and erosion dangerously common.
The Death Road earned its nickname due to its notoriously high death rate. In the mid-1990s, it is estimated that 200-300 motorists died there each year. One of the most tragic accidents occurred in 1983 when an overcrowded bus fell off the cliff and killed more than 100 people. In 1995, the Death Road was labeled as “The most dangerous road in the world”. In 2006, a new road was constructed to bypass the most dangerous part of the original one. As a result, the old Death Road is today mostly frequented by tourists bickers and a few local drivers.
Getting ready for the ride
The day started at 7.30am at the Higher Ground Café on Calle Tarija, one of my favourite streets in La Paz. After the opportunity to get breakfast, meet our guides (Nate and Kenneth) and other fellow adventurers, we jumped into a van loaded with bikes for a one hour drive through the Andes mountains.
After some enthusiastic conversations with my new friends, we arrived at the Cumbre Pass, a parking lot facing a lake. There we were handed out all the necessary equipment for our imminent adventure: a helmet, jacket, pants, gloves, and neck scarf. I layered up and put everything on. We just drove from 3,640m above sea level in La Paz to 4.700m and it was pretty chilly up there! The tour company also gave us a reusable bottle water that we could conveniently attach to our jacket. 1, 2, 3, go! I started biking on the gravelly parking lot. As I squeezed the brake levels, I almost fell out. Maybe I should have put on those elbow and knee protectors! That seemed promising. At least the brakes worked!
Once everyone felt comfortable with their gear, we listened to the safety briefing and rundown on the do’s and don’t. After that, time for the Pachamama ceremony to wish us luck. Pachamama represents Mother Earth and she is a very well respected figure in the Bolivian culture. One after another, we splashed a few drops of alcohol onto the earth, onto our front bike wheel, and then took a swig of it!
Death Road Section 1 – Warming up on the paved road
We began biking down the first part of the Death Road, an enjoyable 20-km long paved ride. This fun section of mild downhill slope had splendid views and took us approximately an hour. It was the perfect way to get used to the bike. I did feel nervous a few times though as I was passing huge trucks while additional ones were coming from the opposite direction!
After a short break to buy snacks, our guides offered the possibility to bike uphill for 10km up to the start of the Death Road. Gravity is the only tour company to provide that option, which can be a huge plus for anyone looking for serious exercise. Given my mild headache – and let’s be honest, mostly because I was lazy, I declined the offer and opted to take the van ride. Out of our group of 13 bikers, 6 were brave enough to attempt the uphill hike, and half of them arrived at the top. I had no regrets hanging out in the van!
Death Road Section 2 – The real deal begins!
One cannot miss the start of the gravel Death Road and the huge welcome sign. It was about 12pm already when we got there and we were provided chocolate bars and bananas to refuel our energy before the big start.
While I’m usually addicted to speed, I am not the most confident biking on loose gravel. I carefully embarked on the sloppy and narrow road. It was quite impressive! I was squeezing the brakes constantly but was still going fast enough to have my heart racing. We stopped regularly to rest and take pictures. There were absolutely stunning views of the countryside.
In some parts the road was so narrow that only one bike could cross at a time. There were also crosses in remembrance of the lives lost along the road. With the hazy mist surrounding us, it was unbelievably eerie. To add to the challenge, the recent rain created beautiful waterfalls cascading down the mountain from hundreds of meters above that we had to pass through.
Death Road Section 3 – A great sense of freedom
Once we reached the first 12kms, we stopped for a sandwich. As we started biking down again, my forearms really hurt! I had this sensation of engorged, swollen forearms that you usually feel when rock climbing. It was also becoming more humid and foggy. I doubled my focus as it started pouring and the rocky road was now click with water.
Eventually, I managed to trust my instincts more and relax my tight muscles. I could enjoy myself and let the natural groove take over. There were lots of distance between the first and last bickers and I had the pleasure to ride solo for long periods of time, with no one else in sight. I was entirely submerged by the beauty of my surroundings and thrilled by the sense of freedom I was experiencing.
Getting back to La Paz
Around 4pm, we eventually crossed the “finish line” and made our way to la Senda Verde, an animal refuge and eco lodge where we could celebrate our conquest with a fresh beer. Then, after a delicious buffet and the possibility to take a hot shower, we started driving back to La Paz.
Usually, all tour companies drive back using the new modern road. Unfortunately, Bolivian protests were blocking the road that evening so our van had to drive back up on the Death Road. As we approached the steepest section of the road, we saw another van in front of us stuck in the mud. After a few attempts and the help of all the passengers, it eventually made it to the top of the hill.
While we were mocking the other tour company’s vehicle a few seconds earlier, our own van struggled just as much. Similarly, all the guys started pushing the van up while girls were jumping in the back of the vehicle to add more traction. It worked. Phew!
Fortunately, the remaining of the drive was more peaceful. We got back to our hostels around 9.30pm, exhausted but exhilatered from the experience.
Choosing a tour company for your Death Road trip
I picked Gravity because of the great reviews on Trip Advisor. It is definitely one of the most reputable companies offering the tour. It is a little bit more expensive than other options but I wanted piece of mind. Their bikes are in great condition, they provide high quality gear, and their staff is very knowledgeable and experienced. The “I survived death road” t-shirt, the reusable bottle water, all the photos of the trip shared the same day on Dropbox, and the cold beer at the end of the tour were nice bonuses!
Our guides made sure we were comfortable at all times. Everyone is encouraged to go at their own speed. There is always a guide leading the way and another one in the back. The van follows us the whole day so you can easily layer down as you reach lower altitudes and leave extra gear, backpack and so on in the vehicle. You can also decide to jump into the van to rest for any part of the road. No pressure.
An adrenaline experience not to be missed
It would be a shame to visit Bolivia without experiencing this exhilarating biking adventure. Everyone can do it – assuming you know how to ride a bike and don’t do anything stupid like taking photos while cycling. The road is not an advanced ride but requires concentration, especially in a few narrow sections with high cliffs.
I recommend this ride to all thrill-seekers who love getting out of their comfort zones. I am no mountain biker but I had a fantastic day riding down the 3,345 meters of bumpy vertical descent!