***** If you want to see some GoPro footage of the Death Road, then scroll to the end of the post *****
For many, many years we’d heard about the terror and danger of the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” in La Paz, Bolivia and we wanted to experience it first hand for ourselves.
Spinning down 3,400 m or 11,000 ft on a mountain bike over the course of 5 hours isn’t for the faint hearted that’s for sure. This mountain pass, which is located just outside of La Paz, leads to the low lying Coroico valley and is famously known as the “Death Road” or the “World’s Most Dangerous Road”.
Having completed the ride and survived a mountain biking adventure down the route – let me say that it definitely lives up to its name!
Only as recently as 2006 – this crazy road was the main hub between La Paz and the Bolivian jungle, meaning that if people didn’t take a flight, they’d have to do it via bus! In the last number of years, the government were forced to build a new road that would provide a safer route for both locals and visitors.
It’s said that up until 2006 there was estimated to be 300 deaths per year on the North Yungas Road (Death Road). Cars, buses and cyclists had fatal accidents that resulted in them and their passengers plunging over the sheer cliff sides.
Now, you may be thinking that it would be crazy to even think of doing a journey like this on a mountain bike – and you’d be somewhat right.
BUT, it’s only crazy if you’re not prepared to pay caution to the wind and take your time.
Since the 90’s, multiple companies in La Paz have been providing tourists with the chance to cycle this amazing road, which offers unparalleled scenery coupled with a horse tranquilising dose of adrenaline.
The death road has also claimed the lives of cyclists on these tours with 18 reported deaths over the years – the most recent being back in 2010 when an Israeli backpacker took a corner too fast and fell hundreds of meters to his unfortunate death.
Ok, so you’d think that an activity like this wouldn’t be popular?
In fact, the Death Road experience is probably the most famous tourist attractions in La Paz.
We just knew that we had to do it – even though we were a little anxious. Choosing a suitable company for a tour of this nature needed some careful consideration.
The company needed to have excellent bikes, safety record and also top class guides. We did some extensive research on all the companies available and the one clear winner for us was Barracuda Biking.
These guys had excellent reviews on TripAdvisor and provided the latest in high tech “downhill” bikes – which we were very happy about.
We went to visit them and after signing the necessary disclaimer documents, we had ourselves a Death Road experience booked for the following morning!
Feelings of nervousness, excitement and anticipation rushed through our veins….
We met our group of 15 cyclists at 7:30am the next morning and jumped into comfortable mini vans to get to the starting point – which was located at La Cumbre pass. This was at an elevation of 4,700 m or 15,420 ft above sea-level.
The morning was extremely cold (as we were told it would be) and the first thing that we noticed at the starting point was the massive eerie crosses that were pebble dashed on the surrounding hills.
A stark reminder of the dangers ahead if you’re not 100% careful.
Over the next 30 mins, our guides proceeded to give us a very in-depth and detailed outline of the planned route. They covered all the safety steps and then followed up with a short Q&A section. As the Bolivians are very superstitious, each of us asked Pachamama to keep us safe by making a toast to her and sipping on a bottle of 97% alcohol.
Yes, I did say 97%!
The first part of the trip was a nice 26km spin downhill from the starting point – with magnificent views on our right hand side. This section was all on asphalt, so it was smooth and easy to navigate on the bike.
It was however bitterly cold – even with our protective clothing and gloves the high altitude wind pierced us for the first hour or so.
This part of the trip definitely eased us into things and allowed us to get comfortable on our bikes and using the brakes as effectively as we were instructed to.
There were plenty of stops along the route for photos and the guides took turns going ahead of the group in order to capture some cool pics and videos – which was pretty damn good seen as taking photos and videos while on the death road on a bike does not really make too much sense.
After the first section was over, we hopped into a bus and it took us 8km uphill to the official starting point of the death road. We set off very cautiously as the road was now just pure grit with pebbles and rocks everywhere.
We didn’t think it was that “dangerous” until we happened to look down and see the sheer monstrosity of a drop that awaited one wrong move. There are not too many railings or guards along the way to prevent cyclists from going overboard.
For me personally – this was the thing that I thought I’d have the most trouble with as I hate naked heights. Florence doesn’t mind them too much – but I definitely have a problem. My head starts playing games with me, even if I’m up on the top floor of a building or balcony.
So I thought that it would really affect me.
But it didn’t at all – not when I was on the bike anyways. When we stopped for photos I couldn’t stand too close to the edge without getting the dizzy feeling in my head and those wretched butterflies in my stomach.
After an hour or so the road started to widen out a little. At some points the road was like 3 meters wide with nothing but fog and mist acting as navigational aids.
We even cycled through a few mini waterfalls which added to the adrenaline buzz as well as acting as a cool shower as things were beginning to heat up a bit. The temperature slowly increased the lower we got, which allowed us to eliminate a few layers as we went.
All around us we could see the valleys that swallowed up thousands of vehicles over the years. At one point we came across a big cross (there were countless crosses on the road by the way). But this one cross stuck out from the rest as it was there as a reminder of the biggest single accident that happened on the Death Road back in 1983.
A truck carrying 108 people slid off the road and disappeared into the valley below – there were no survivors. When the guide was telling us the sequence of events that took place that day, we really felt the reality of how dangerous travelling on the road actually is, and we got goosebumps as we thought of the victims and how they must have felt.
It was a very sobering moment on the trip and another reminder of the sheer magnitude of what it must have been like back in the days when people had to travel this route to get from A to B.
During the whole five hours we only came across a handful of cars on the road. At no point did we see two vehicles side by side either. But you can only imagine how crazy it must have been prior to 2006 with all the traffic passing through, especially when the weather conditions were unfavourable.
Speaking of weather – we experienced multiple microclimates such as freezing temperatures, fog, mist, torrential rain, gorgeous sunshine and thunder and lightening during the adventure.
When we got to the end of the road we started to feel a little sad that the journey was coming to an end. We’d been griped by terror at the start but by the end we were anything but fearful. We had gained confidence in our bikes and ourselves and the guides were very reassuring as they were constantly checking up on everyone to make sure that we were all 100% comfortable.
One girl, upon seeing the death road itself (after the first 26km), decided that she wasn’t able to do it and the guides had no problem with her hitching a ride on the bus which brought her safely down to the end point.
As they said from the start – it’s confidence and momentum that will be the deciding factor on the death road. She definitely didn’t have the confidence and therefore she made the correct move. We all admired her for making that decision.
At the end point we took a shower to freshen up and had some delicious dinner which was included in the Barracuda package. We also got a T-Shirt that acted as our certificate to say that we’d completed the mountain bike adventure down one of the most famous roads in the world.
Looking back, the La Paz death road trip was one of the coolest, yet most dangerous, things we’ve ever done.
Having said this and we were pretty nervous at the start, we did feel perfectly safe at all stages of the trip. This was due to the excellent condition of our bikes (hats off to Barracuda for making sure they have the best bikes available), and to our professional and experienced guides.
They kept us alert and focused as well as entertained all throughout the day. They really added to the whole experience and we could tell that each of them was passionate about his job and they truly do love what they do.
We’d definitely recommend you take this trip if you find yourself in La Paz. Don’t be put off people telling you that it’s too dangerous as it’s only dangerous if you go too fast or if you’re not paying attention.
The adrenaline buzz, scenery and experience that you get from this tour is a once in a lifetime adventure.
The understated panoramic vistas along the route and various microclimates make this a must do activity.
Lastly, we’d like to mention the guys at Barracuda Biking again. They were great from the word go – making sure that each and everyone was comfortable, relaxed and enjoying themselves. The food was excellent, their safety precautions are more than sufficient and they make it a totally fun and enjoyable experience. Whilst reasearching online, we heard some horror stories about other companies that did not provide quality bikes, which may put riders at risk.
We knew that we picked the right company for us and we’ve no problems recommending them. The price is also much more cost effective in comparison to other companies – but they don’t cut any corners.
You get a top class tour with the emphasis on safety. And that’s what matters most at the end of the day.
Has any of you ever experienced the death road on mountain bike or by bus? What was your experience like? We’d love to hear your thoughts, as we absolutely loved it!