Death Road, Bolivia, officially known as North Yungas Road, has long held the ominous title of ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road.’ While the number of deaths on ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ has significantly fallen, cycling Death Road is still a hair-raising adventure not for the faint of heart!
Although Death Road is now closed to (most) traffic, tackling the route on a mountain bike has become a must-do activity while in La Paz. You’ll hear backpackers all over Bolivia contemplating taking on the challenge or wowing other travellers with tales of their exploits.
But there are a few things to understand before jumping on your bike and bombing down one of the world’s most dangerous carriageways. So, let’s break down everything you need to know to cycle Death Road yourself!
A Guide to Death Road, Bolivia
Death Road Map and Resources
More Info: (links open in a new tab)
- 🇧🇴 Backpacking Bolivia Guide
- 🚴♀️ Mountain Biking Along Death Road – A Tale of Two Cyclists
- 🚌 Nearby Places: La Paz | El Alto | Coroico
- 🚲 Must Do Activity: Cycling – Book Your Experience Here!
A Short History of Death Road, Bolivia
Built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners of war, the North Yungas Road is little more than a gravel track cut into the mountainside. For more than 60 years, it was the only route connecting La Paz to Coroico and the Bolivian Amazon, so it was a popular route for all manner of vehicles heading to and from the capital.
Motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks and lorries all used to make their way along Yungas Road and it’s the only road in Bolivia where people drive on the left. This is so the driver can see the edge of the road properly when passing oncoming traffic – a hair-raising experience as shown in Top Gear’s Bolivia Special!
With sheer drops close to 900 metres and few to no guardrails, it’s no surprise people referred to the route as Death Road. While it was fully operational, an average of 300 people a year lost their lives plummeting over the edge. If you’re ‘lucky’, your tour guide may even point out some of the old wreckages as you traverse the route yourself. The most infamous crash on the road took place in 1983 when an overcrowded bus fell off the edge as it tried to pass oncoming traffic at the aptly named ‘Devil’s Curve.’ Over 100 people were killed in an instant.
While the road has a seriously macabre past, it’s now the number one spot for backpackers in Bolivia seeking an adrenaline rush. In 2006, it was officially closed to (most) traffic when the new highway was opened. Since then, the death toll has dropped dramatically. Death Road has still claimed a few victims over the years but these are single incidents of tourists (or the odd motorcyclist) falling from the edge, rather than busloads of people.
Even though it’s officially closed to traffic, support vans for cycle tours are permitted, so you may see a few of these using the route. You may also spot the odd vehicle that’s heading to or from a house along the road.
How to Cycle Down Death Road, Bolivia
Cycling Death Road has become a must-do activity from La Paz. Hordes of agencies offering cycle tours have opened across the city and up to 25,000 travellers take on the adrenaline-fuelled challenge each year!
But before cycling down the world’s most dangerous road, there are a few things to know and understand.
Mountain Biking Death Road Isn’t for Everyone
Although, technically, Death Road doesn’t present too much of a challenge for anyone proficient riding off-road on a mountain bike, it’s not like cruising along cycle paths in your home town. The route is fast and winding. The surface is made up of mud, gravel, stones and larger rocks – many of which pose a threat if you hit them fast. There are few guardrails, so at times you’re flying along an uneven track with huge drops just a few metres away.
If you’re worried about speed, are a nervous cyclist or have a strong fear of heights, this may not be the trip for you.
Check out ‘Riding Death Road – A Tale Of Two Cyclists’ for two very different takes on cycling Bolivia’s El Camino de la Muerte!
Practical Information for Cycling Death Road, Bolivia
Death Road Tours – How to Choose
As the popularity of cycling Death Road has grown, so has the number of companies offering tours. All companies offer a similar tour that includes pick-up, food, bikes, safety gear and a lift back to La Paz when you’re finished.
However, not all tours are born equal.
You can find tours for as little as $40USD but you could end up paying well over $100USD for some of the most reputable and popular companies.
While budget may be an important factor for your trip to Bolivia, you should look at the more expensive companies for a Death Road tour. The cheapest firms are well known to have subpar bikes with poor suspension and crappy brakes – not what you want when you’re flying down a mountain mere metres from a huge drop!
When choosing the best Death Road mountain bike trip, dive into reviews from other travellers. You’ll find them all over the web. Read through them before committing to a specific company. Also, speak to other travellers you meet along the way. If they’ve already taken on the route, they can give you firsthand info about the company they used, giving you a better idea of what to expect.
If a company has a lot of bad reviews about safety or dodgy equipment, it goes without saying that they should be avoided.
Some of the top-rated companies offering Death Road tours are:
- Bolivian Bike Junkies
Check the Gear
You’re reliant on the bike and safety equipment offered by your Death Road tour company. Always check what gear they offer before handing over any money. You want a bike with good front suspension at a minimum and less experienced riders will likely want rear suspension too. If you’ve not heard of the brand of bike offered by a tour company, Google it and make sure it’s good quality.
Bikes from the following brands are considered some of the best in the business, so you’re in good hands if you’re riding one of these:
- Rocky Mountain
As for safety equipment, a full-face helmet is a must, as are jackets and pants that offer protection from falls. Sure, hitting the ground hurts no matter what you’re wearing but the right gear can mean you’re left with a few bruises instead of missing half the skin from your arm. The most reputable companies offer jackets and trousers with inbuilt knee and elbow pads which offer an extra layer of protection.
If the gear a company offers doesn’t look up to scratch, skip over them and find someone else to do the tour with.
You should also check over all your gear on the day of your ride. Before jumping on the bike, make sure the tyre pressures are good and that the brakes and suspension work. Also, make sure you can change gears easily without any grinding or scratching noises.
Check over your helmet, jacket and trousers. If they look damaged, ask for a new set. Damaged safety equipment is as dangerous as no safety equipment.
Guide to Rider Ratio
Some Death Road tour providers are known for running huge groups with few guides. This is unsafe because it’s impossible for one or two guides to keep track of large groups of people, all with differing levels of ability.
Most reputable companies stick to one guide for every five to six riders. This is a good number as it means everyone can be accounted for and there are enough guides to stick at the front and back of the group.
Best Time to Cycle Death Road
You can cycle down Death Road at any time of the year but the safest time to do so is during winter when there’s less rain. May to October is the driest time but be aware that this is also winter in Bolivia, so it’ll be cold at the top!
While the route can still be tackled in the wet, it’s more slippery and therefore, more challenging. Heavy rains can also cause landslides along Death Road, which can block the route entirely or create a muddy quagmire that cyclists need to traverse. Often, support vehicles are forced to turn back due to landslides, so you may find your tour continuing without the extra peace of mind of the van.
What Should I Bring to Cycle Death Road?
Your tour company will tell you what to bring for your trip down Death Road but as a general rule, you don’t need much.
Tours often provide you with food, water, jackets and trousers. Most guides carry cameras and will be snapping away as your ride, so you don’t need to worry about capturing the moment – instead, you can be absorbed by it.
We also recommend taking warm clothes for the start of the journey but be prepared to remove layers as you descend. It gets warm quickly! As long as you have a support vehicle with you, you’ll be able to leave clothing in there as you remove it. However, if the support vehicle has to turn back, plan ahead and ride cold for a few miles. You’ll quickly warm up. The temperature change between the top and bottom of the road is astounding!
You may also need to bring cash for the Death Road entry fee. Check whether this is included in the tour cost at the time of booking.
What Should I Wear to Cycle Death Road?
Safety equipment should be provided by your tour company. We recommend taking warm layers for the early sections. The trip starts at over 4600 metres above sea level, so no matter the time of year you attempt the ride, it’s cold in the morning. As you descend, it will warm up.
Good shoes are a must. You need something that offers good pedal feel and can hold up to all the mud and water you’re about to encounter. But don’t take your best shoes, they will get trashed!
How to Get to Death Road
Every tour company in La Paz offers pick-up and drop-off from your hostel. They’ll pick you up early and take you to the start point, where you’ll have a little breakfast as they unload the bikes and make sure everything is ready to go.
At the end of the trip, you’ll all be loaded back onto the minibus for the return journey to La Paz your accommodation.
The Entry Fee
Some, but not all, Death Road tours include the entry fee as part of the price. Make sure you know if you need to bring more cash. It costs approx. 50Bs ($7.50USD) per person.
Listen to Instructions
No matter your level of mountain bike experience, your guides know more about this route than you do. Pay attention to their instructions and take on board what they say for the safest and most exciting trip!
Safety on Death Road
Cycling on Death Road throws up extra challenges compared to normal riding but experienced mountain bike riders won’t find it any more dangerous than riding on their usual trails. Many cyclists say it’s one of the easier routes they’ve tackled.
The biggest risk on Death Road isn’t plunging off the edge. Along most sections, it’s wide enough to be well away from the drop. Instead, the biggest risk comes from falling off the bike onto the rocky ground. Cuts and bruises are relatively common and broken bones aren’t unheard of. More serious injuries can also occur but these risks are shared with any mountain biking.
There are several things you can do to mitigate the risks:
- Ride within your limits
- Don’t race with other cyclists
- Don’t try to keep up with faster cyclists
- When overtaking other cyclists, shout out which side you’re passing, so you don’t surprise them
- Listen carefully to your guide, they’ll give you plenty of hints and tips for a smoother, safer, more enjoyable ride
- Make sure your gear is all up to scratch and well fitting
- When cycling, pay attention to the road, not the scenery – you’ll have plenty of time to appreciate the view when you stop
Death Road FAQs
Do I need to be an experienced mountain biker to cycle Death Road?
No, you don’t need to be an experienced mountain biker to cycle Death Road – but it helps. If you’ve never ridden a bike before, this isn’t the trip for you but if you’re confident and comfortable on a bike then you should be fine. Just be aware that the surface is hard going and you’ll reach high speeds.
Can you drive on Death Road?
No, you can’t drive on Death Road. Officially, it’s closed to (most) traffic but support vehicles for bike tours are permitted. There may also be some locals who live along the road, or the odd vehicle who are there because, well, it’s Bolivia and they wanted to drive along the world’s most dangerous road.
How long is Death Road?
Most Death Road tours involve around 64 kilometres of riding. The first 24km are on a smooth tarmac road before you turn onto Death Road proper. Then you have a fun 40km descent on the ‘real’ Death Road – a rocky trail no more than three metres wide!
How long does it take to cycle Death Road?
It usually takes 4-5 hours to cycle Death Road. There are plenty of breaks along the way, which allow for photo stops and for your tour to regroup. When you count the time it takes to get to and from Death Road plus a food stop at the end, expect your Death Road tour to be an all-day affair.
Cycling Death Road – A Round-Up
Cycling Death Road is a thrill-seeking traveller’s dream. High speed, sharp corners and a rocky surface, combined with beautiful views and a steep drop into dense jungle, create a travel experience like no other.
Realistically, a mountain bike tour on Death Road isn’t for everyone but if you’re a confident cyclist, it won’t throw up too many problems. Just ride within your limits and don’t get caught up in going faster than feels safe for you.
And when all is said and done, most tour providers give out t-shirts, so you’ll have a great conversation starter for when you get home!