North Yungas Road, Bolivia, more commonly referred to as “Death Road” (or “El Camino de la Muerte” in Spanish) has long held the ominous title of “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”. Whilst the number of deaths on the road has significantly fallen since it was officially closed to traffic, to ride on Yungas is still a hair-raising adventure.
Unsurprisingly, given the notoriety of the route, adrenaline junkies around the world have long flocked to La Paz, itching to jump on a mountain bike and set out on a ride that will give them something to talk about in the pub for years to come.
Over the years, we’ve received several accounts of people’s experience riding it. Here, we pick out two of the very best of those accounts. We start with Tim, a cycling fanatic from the UK and then hear from Alice, a self-declared “non-rider” from the reassuringly flat Netherlands.
Whether you currently believe Death Road is for you, or that you wouldn’t touch it with a 64km bargepole, we strongly suggest you read both these accounts before you make up your mind!
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Death Road, a Cycling Fanatic’s Tale
It was Christmas 2009 when I first learnt of the infamous Death Road just outside of La Paz. Hearing James May’s emotional “Please don’t leave me,” and seeing the epic scenery as shown on the Top Gear Bolivia Special, I knew it was a place I would one day visit.
When my girlfriend and I were planning our Bolivia itinerary, I mentioned that I wanted to visit Death Road. It was nearly 10 years since I had first heard of this location and I was still in awe of its scenery and dark history. She was not so keen on visiting anywhere this ominous so I knew it would be a trip I would take alone.
The History of Death Road
After doing some quick research, I discovered that Bolivia’s Death Road has actually been closed to traffic since 2006. Since then a huge mountain biking industry has boomed as hoards of travellers want to cycle along Death Road to its end point, some 64 km in total. This was ideal for me as I could not only see the road but would actually get a chance to experience it in a far more adrenaline pumping way than I ever imagined.
‘Road’ is a generous term for the single gravel track cut into the mountainside by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930s. Prior to its closing in 2006, it was the only route from La Paz to Corioco, meaning it was used by all manner of vehicles, flowing in both directions, all day, every day.
With sheer drops close to 900 metres and few to no guardrails, the windy road has taken many victims over its lifetime. Prior to its official closing, an average of 300 people lost their lives each year after plummeting over the edge. I had heard rumours that it is still possible to make out some of the wreckages even today.
Although the road is officially closed to traffic, the odd car still finds its way onto the narrow track and the cycle tours are permitted to bring support vehicles with them. I have even heard rumours of public buses still using this route occasionally on their way to the jungle town of Rurrenabaque.
Crosses line the edge of the road with alarming frequency, marking spots where some of the largest accidents have happened. In 1983, an overcrowded bus fell off the edge when it met oncoming traffic and tried to pass at a location called the “Devils Curve”. Over 100 people were killed in this one incident alone.
The Fine Line Between Safety and Budget
Since the closure of the road, the deaths have not stopped. 22 tourists have also lost their lives mountain biking along this trail. The most recent car accident happened only two years ago.
With those statistics in mind, I knew I needed to find a reputable company with good bikes, safety equipment and first aid training. After I started researching agencies, I quickly learnt that La Paz is inundated with people offering these cycle tours, however, not all of them cut the mustard.
Many companies had reviews full of phrases like “My brakes didn’t work,” or “The wheels on my bike were so wobbly I had to stop.” These were not companies I wanted to go with. I also knew that as I was on a backpacker budget, I couldn’t afford one of the most well-known companies around. It seems that finding the balance between safety and budget is a challenge.
Bolivian Bike Junkies
After much frustrated googling, I stumbled across the Facebook page for Bolivian Bike Junkies. I checked their reviews and knew I was onto a winner. This passion project was set up four years previously by Jose, who has been guiding Death Road tours for over a decade. After seeing the dangerous situations some of the other tour companies were putting people in, he decided to guide the Death Road tours better and safer.
With top-level bikes, helmets, pads and kevlar-lined clothing, Bolivian Bike Junkies have a reputation for being a safety-first company without the hefty price tag. They run a maximum group size of ten people and will have two guides for this number of guests. It was a relief as I had heard of some companies running groups of close to 30 people with a single guide. That is definitely a recipe for disaster!
I was picked up at 7.45am from my hostel by Jose. He led me to the minibus and we spent around 20 minutes picking up other adrenaline-seeking tourists from La Paz city centre.
Once the minibus was full, Jose briefed us all on what the day would consist of. As the only person in the group who was not fluent in Spanish, I was worried that I would miss a lot of the information but Jose was patient and repeated everything in perfect English after the Spanish explanation.
Not once was I made to feel like a burden for this, which I was grateful for. I have been on many tours where the English explanations are much shorter and a lot of information is glossed over by uncaring guides.
We drove out of La Paz and climbed through a scenic mountain range for over an hour. These mountains are home to glassy smooth lakes, tiny villages and with it being South America, plenty of llamas. Before we reached our first stop which was to be breakfast, the clouds rolled in and we could no longer see our surroundings.
A few nervous glances were exchanged and it was obvious that some of our party were worried about the weather conditions. This was only exacerbated by the thunder than started booming all around us. Jose, being an expert on Death Road, assured us that it would pass and there was nothing to worry.
By the time we reached our breakfast stop and start point for the ride, the conditions had not improved. At almost 4700 metres above sea level, I was not surprised by the cold temperatures but this had clearly shocked some of my fellow cyclists who were only wearing shorts and t-shirts. Whilst the cold didn’t concern me, I was surprised at the amount of rain and even started to worry a little myself.
We all bundled out of the minibus and were greeted to a spread of bread, jam, ham, coffee and coca tea, all served to us by Jose. While we were eating, the other guide and driver prepared our bikes and safety gear which we were then allocated. We had given Jose our height and weight measurements prior to embarking on the trip so all of the gear and bikes fit perfectly.
The Cycling Begins
Now kitted up, we were ready to start. Jose informed us it would be 24 km of downhill riding along well-used tarmac road before we headed off onto Death Road for real. We were told to take it slowly and get used to the bikes. These were high-end Kona bikes, the likes of which I had never ridden before. It was nice to have a chance to get a feel for them on an easy section of road.
We stopped every ten minutes to make sure everyone was okay and that the cold and rain wasn’t getting to anyone too much. With my hands so numb I could no longer feel them and rain dripping down off my helmet, I was not having the best time. The weather was getting to me and I prayed that it would warm up soon.
Some of our group were given extra gloves to try to keep their hands warm and we were offered the chance to jump back into the minibus until the rain eased off. No one took Jose up on this offer but it was nice to know it was there if we needed it.
Jose promised that after this stretch of tarmac we would be on the actual Death Road and from there the conditions would improve dramatically, thanks to the fast descent to lower altitudes.
Before we got to Death Road it was time to stop for coffee and egg rolls. Is there a better way to recover from a cold wet ride than a hot coffee and a great snack?!
Here we also paid our 50 bolivianos for entrance to the road. The money goes to the local communities who maintain the route and make sure it stays accessible, even during the wet season when landslides are common.
After this final break, we jumped back into the minibus which took 15 minutes to reach the start of the gravel strip I had been dreaming of for years.
Jose informed us that we had 40 km of steep, rocky, downhill terrain to contend with before we could acquire our very own “Death Road Survivor” t-shirts and he wasn’t kidding. The route started off much steeper than I had anticipated and the large stones made for a more challenging riding surface than I was used to.
It was evident early on that the group would be unlikely to stick closely together with each person going at their own pace. Jose was super patient and would stop the group from the front while waiting for everyone else to catch up.
There was always a guide riding at the back so it didn’t matter how much slower the slowest person was, they were never left alone. During these frequent stops, there was plenty of time for photos of the dramatic surroundings and being such a veteran of the road, Jose knew where all the best shots were.
An Unexpected Disruption
During our first hour on the road, we were informed there had just been a huge landslide which had blocked part of the route. We could still get past with the bikes but the backup vehicles would have to turn back. Although initially daunting, Jose reassured us once again by taking extra equipment and tools out of the minibus. If any of us had an issue with the bikes, Jose was now fully equipped to fix it, even without the backup vehicles.
We arrived at the landslide to discover that we could get across with the bikes but one wrong step would cause us to be waist-deep in sticky, orange mud. Luckily, none of our group made this misstep but we saw plenty of others ahead who had.
The landslide had caused a bottleneck and soon it felt like every cyclist on the road was in the same place. Keen for the numbers to dwindle a little for safety reasons, Jose stopped and let other groups pass. During this time, he told us about the history of the road. He even pointed out a famous section that had appeared on the episode of Top Gear that had led me there!
The Adrenaline Kicks In!
Once we were back on the bikes and our confidence had increased, the group got faster and faster. I was having the time of my life and it was clear that those around me felt the same. With whoops of joy we took on each tight turn slightly faster than the last and found ourselves jumping over the large rocks and ruts in the road.
The ride was coming to a close when we stopped at a new zip-line that has only recently opened. For an extra fee of 70 bolivianos, you can fly down this 500-metre cable and meet the rest of the group the other side. If you don’t fancy the zip-line then you can just take the opportunity to rest, rehydrate or enjoy a cold beer.
Jose was once again right when he said that the temperature would increase as the day went on and by this time I had shed both my jumper and coat. I had been wearing these under my protective gear but now had to fashion a way of attaching them to my bike. Usually, this wouldn’t have been an issue and the support vehicle could have taken them but thanks to the landslide it wasn’t a usual day.
The final run from the zip-line to where the minibus was meeting us, was the most technical section of the day. The turns where much tighter, the gradient steeper and the route rockier. It was without a doubt my personal highlight and all of the group reached the bottom glowing like kids on Christmas.
We all crammed into the minibus feeling high on life despite being dirty, tired, hungry and smelling a little worse for wear. Luckily we didn’t have to endure a three-hour drive back to La Paz in this state as the trip wasn’t quite over yet.
One last treat was a stop for an all you can eat buffet, swim and shower at a hotel not far from the end of Death Road. The food was great and I was not alone in demolishing three whole plates! We then had time to wash and relax around the pool before heading back into the city along smooth paved roads.
The day was a great experience that could not have been topped in any way, Jose and his staff were amazing, making sure we were all well looked after, safe and comfortable. If you are in La Paz and not planning on doing this trip I urge you to reconsider, even if you don’t picture yourself an adrenaline junkie, the epic scenery combined with the camaraderie of riding such a dangerous road as a group really did make this one of my highlights of South America.
A Final Word of Advice…
Providing you are with a reputable company and your equipment is in good condition, Death Road is as safe as you make it. Ride within your own limits and at a pace you feel comfortable with. Don’t race with the people around you. My only close call with the precipice came when I forgot this advice and tried to keep up with the fastest guys in our group. Suffice to say, coming within a few inches of a 500-metre drop definitely brought me back down to earth!
A Non-Rider’s Tale Of Yungas Road
I wasn’t planning to do it, not even when a friend who travelled South America last year gave it her highest recommendation. She’s a rider. She likes riding. She has a necklace with a bicycle charm and rides across the city for lunch dates.
Me? I avoid riding wherever possible, particularly anywhere there’s traffic. I’m a cruiser. Biking around vineyards, around the flat Netherlands, around my home town of 2,000 people – fine. Riding downhill, on the World’s Most Dangerous Road? Never.
I was all set to leave my partner to do it alone while I took the bus to Coroico. But little by little, my resolve was worn down. Rider friend informed us that as the road was formerly used for traffic it’s always wide enough to fit a bus, and inexperienced riders have no problems.
A jittery Canadian we met in the Amazon sealed the deal – she said she had been “freaking out” before she took to the road, but that as long as you go at your own pace, it was “totally fine”.
Well, said I. Part of the adventure is doing things that scare us, stepping out of our comfort zone. And the scenery is meant to be fantastic. So, when we got back to La Paz, I wrote my name down along with my partner’s to head off the next day.
There are many companies who take riders out, and I would add my voice to those who caution: make sure you have a good bike. We went with Altitude Biking, and I paid the bit extra for the Transition, a bike with longer suspension, while my partner paid less for a Kona – supposedly the same, only shorter suspension so you feel the bumps.
Altitude picked us up very punctually at 7.15am, and the next forty minutes were spent swapping traveller tales with the six others in the minivan. Once we got to the top of the trail we met the rest: about twenty riders, but we weren’t phased by the big group.
As Altitude had explained to us, a guide is present for every five riders, so the more riders you have the more guides there are to help you out.
It was foggy and it was cold, so we layered up as instructed and had our first of multiple provided snacks. Then it was time to gear up. Never have I felt so hardcore – all of us in our matching Altitude pants and jacket, knee pads, elbow pads and an open motorbike helmet. Pro.
We were also provided with gloves, but as these weren’t at all warm I tried to stuff them over my fleece-lined pair. I only managed to do so with one, and wearing the Altitude glove rather than the warm glove, on the other hand, turned out to be a mistake.
The guides were taking pictures we could later access on social media or by picking up our own CD. This was definitely a good idea, as it left us free to enjoy(?) the ride, without worrying about stopping for pictures (which can potentially be dangerous, although not as dangerous as not stopping when you take pictures).
We lined up along the bitumen road, and our head guide Julio told us this first section does have traffic, so to be very careful. I covered my butterflies with a grin, ecstatic that I’d met two other girls planning to go slowly.
They were my buddies, I said, but it turned out buddies were almost impossible: you must always ride single file, and preferably at your own pace.
We were off! It was a very wide and smooth road, but lots of bends, and the fog meant there were sections you couldn’t see off the cliff just metres to your right.
Plus, there were cars overtaking us (scary) and trucks and mini vans along the road we had to overtake (even scarier). Once a bus passed just half a metre from me.
I was so focused on not panicking I was too afraid to even turn my head, so once all the riders spread out I found myself totally alone. It was me, the bike, and the mountain. I was terrified I’d missed the first stop, but still too afraid to turn my head, so just kept going.
Every now and then a guide would overtake me, then drop back, or help me overtake a minivan, which was very comforting. It was so cold in this section (apparently it snows fairly often) that my hands were both numb and throbbing at the same time, particularly the one without the warm glove.
We went through a mini shower and got very wet, making it hard to see through my sunglasses, but I made it to the first stop (turns out a girl had been behind me the whole time if I’d only looked), very relieved. Lots of blowing on hands and twitching fingers ensued, in an attempt to coax back some circulation.
After this first bitumen section, we had to ride down a rocky path to avoid a tunnel. This really was scary, for the rocks were slippery after the rain and I gasped as my bike skidded a couple of times. But then it was time to get back in the bus, and I was proud of my efforts so far.
However, I informed my partner that if the path had been rocky like that the whole way, I wouldn’t have come. Which turned out to be an awkward statement, because when we arrived at the road proper (I hadn’t realised that first section wasn’t even part of the original Death Road), we saw it was a dirt track, and very rocky. “Will it be like this the whole way?” I asked timidly, and when Julio replied in the affirmative I swallowed heavily.
NO ONE HAD TOLD ME. Not ONE of the people who’d talked about the Road of Death had mentioned how rocky it was. Sure, we knew it was on the edge of a cliff, and very windy, but rocky as well? I felt stupid – of course, it wouldn’t be smooth and paved the whole way. But I had not expected this.
Peter, an avid rider from New Zealand (who would arrive at the bottom first), told me just to go at my own pace, not lose control. So that’s exactly what I did – that first section I took slowly, and I was terrified.
It’s impossible to explain, unless you have done that kind of mountain biking before, how much the bike shudders and jolts from the bumps, how sore it makes your hands (fingers constantly poised on the brakes), how it feels to be flying down with no way of stopping! (And I wasn’t exactly flying. I was second last again). I was not happy.
When we reached our next stop, Julio told those of us at the back to try to go faster, as it would hurt our hands less. Not bloody likely, I thought. But I did try, and the second section… I was loving it!
I was getting the hang of the bike, which really could take any bumps, of avoiding big rocks without swerving, of slowing down on the corners but speeding up on the straights.
I overtook multiple people, and all of a sudden it was fun. Particularly when we reached the stop where we could drink straight from a waterfall: looking up at the top of the cliff you could see water shimmering in the air, a cascade of vapour. Looking over the edge all was green forest and mountains. It was beautiful.
Unfortunately, the majority of the ride you can’t look at the scenery as you can’t take your eyes off the road. I’ll spare you the details of the next two hours, but the joy didn’t last: I was afraid about 70% of the time, and every time the bike skidded a little I was even more anxious.
I was constantly engaging in self-talk, willing myself to keep it together and not fall: “Keep a straight line, that’s right, through the middle there, slow down slow down, it’s OK, it’s OK, you must be almost at the next stop…” In the most difficult parts, where rather than a dirt track with rocks it was a rock track that was extremely bumpy and causing my teeth to rattle, I stopped talking to myself and instead breathed out loudly like I was in labour.
I generally had to take the corners very wide, ending up on the other side of the road, and once a motorbike was forced to pass me on the wrong side – Sorryyyyyy! I can’t stop!
We finally got to the half-hour flat ride we’d been told about and were rewarded with water and energy drinks – but it wasn’t the end.
The last section was much narrower and the most difficult (and thus required the most self-talk and labour-breathing). But we made it, and I managed to stay in the third quarter of the group, which satisfied my competitive nature. But as Julio said – this is no contest.
The most important thing is safety, he informed us gravely, and he’s just happy when everyone makes it in one piece. Now that we had done so, he told us about deaths on the road – when it had traffic it was around 100 per year with the buses going off the edge, but now it was more like one.
This year there had been two already – a motorbike rider earlier in the year, and a French girl who lost control and went over the edge (the story went she was taking a selfie).
What aren’t talked about so much are the accidents that don’t involve death, which are far more common – coming off the bike at any point would not be pretty. So it is not an innocuous ride, by any means, but if you take it cautiously, you should be alright.
Our tour finished at a nearby hotel, with a late buffet lunch and an hour or so to swim and relax around the pool – a very nice touch, as we’d gone from freezing fog at the top to humid heat at the bottom.I was exhausted, and sore all over, but happy to have made it.
For experienced riders, the path is a thrill, and for the intermediate, it should pose no problems. For those like me, who can ride a bike (duh) but aren’t very confident – go informed. The scenery is stunning, the tour is great, and the ride is rewarding – but it’s not easy, and it’s not always fun. I’m glad I did it, but put it this way – I don’t think I’ll go downhill riding again.
What to Bring to The Road of Death
- Sunglasses and sunblock – It’s all too easy to feel the effects of the sun at altitude.
- Insect repellent – You end up in the jungle, it goes without saying.
- Warm clothes and a hat – It’s cold at the top but be prepared to remove layers as you descend into the jungle.
- Swimming clothes for afterwards – Even if you don’t plan on swimming, you might find the pool hard to resist.
- Clean, dry clothes for the journey home – You don’t want to be the only wet, smelly person on the bus back!
- 50 bolivianos entrance fee for Death Road – You don’t want to go all the way there to realise you’ve left your wallet behind!
- An extra 70 bolivianos for the zip line.