For many adventurous travellers, cycling down Bolivia’s Death Road on a mountain bike is likely to be high on the bucket list.
So what’s it really like to pedal down the Death Road with a 900 metre drop on your left?
Scary, exhilarating, awe-inspiring and fun.
About the Death Road
Did you know that Death Road’s actual name is North Yungas Road, and it used to be the only road connecting Bolivia’s capital city La Paz with the town of Coroico – the gateway to Bolivia’s section of the Amazon Jungle.
The 65km North Yungas Road was cut into the side of a mountain in the 1930s, and it eventually became known as Death Road, due to the number of fatalities that occurred. It’s said the road there were between 200 to 300 fatalities each year on North Yungas Road, with the narrow route seeing many vehicles sadly fall off the cliff edge and into the valley below. There are many crosses along the road marking the fatalities – which is pretty scary when you’re careering downhill fast on a mountain bike!
Fortunately, a new road connecting La Paz with Coroico opened in 2009 and now the Death Road is predominantly used by cyclists and tourist buses.
Bolivia’s Death Road adventure starts 4700 metres above sea level at La Cumbre pass, which is 20km from the start of the Death Road.
Over the course of your Death Road adventure, you’ll ride 55km and drop more than 2,000 metres elevation.
To kick off my cycling adventure, it was safety first. I donned knee and elbow pads, gloves, a full face helmet and a jacket and pants made of a thick material in case of any falls and scrapes.
I was lucky the Bolivia turned on the weather and produced a sunny day for my downhill descent. According to my guide, a sunny day is an unusual occurrence up in these mountains and usually there’s low cloud, fog and sometimes rain on the Death Road, so be prepared for all weather conditions.
After a safety brief, we were off downhill for the first 20km descent.
Reaching the Death Road
From La Cumbre, you get to ease into your downhill mountain bike experience on a nice smooth bitumen road.
You quickly pick up speed cycling down the steep mountain road, going down winding switchbacks and getting spectacular views of the valley below along the way.
After about 45 minutes and 20km, it’s back on the bus to go up a short uphill section and arrive at the start of the Death Road.
The Death Road
Making sure all my safety gear was in place, I started off once again on two wheels – but this time down the gravel Death Road. I’ll be honest, I was pretty nervous and was imagining a broken bone in my future!
It takes a bit of getting used to the more slippery, bumpy surface of the Death Road after the sealed road – and also it’s a long way down off that cliff edge.
You’ll soon understand why it’s dubbed the Death Road as you travel downhill and see super steep drop-offs a short distance away. However you will find there’s guard rails on some sections.
The Death Road is full of curves for the first half as you wind down the mountain. You pass over small water crossings, under waterfalls, and get more of those spectacular views of the valleys deep below and the surrounding mountains.
There were definitely some scary moments. While the road is wider than I expected, one wrong move is sure to have going over a cliff edge. I was being pretty cautious as I went downhill, taking care to negotiate the corners and hairpin turns. My brakes sure got a work out. Not sorry though – I wanted to be able to tell the story of this adventure.
Stops are made about every 15-20 minutes to ensure everyone is ok, pass on interesting details about the Death Road, and tell you what’s coming up – such as any especially scary sections. The bus you came in on also follows behind the last rider in case of any falls or flat tyres.
After about 90 minutes on your bike, it’s time for a snack break and you might want to remove a layer or two. As you drop altitude, it’s likely to get a little warmer. You can also give ziplining a go at the snack stop for 70 Bolivianos ($10USD). The zipline crosses a 700 metre drop so it’s not for the faint hearted.
After the zipline adrenaline rush, it was back on the bikes for the final descent. It flattens out for about 10 minutes from here before a slight incline and then it’s down again for the final few kilometres.
The ride finishes with a beer, buffet meal and a swim at a hotel near the end point – much deserved after a 55km mountain bike ride!
The Death Road can be attempted by beginner mountain bike riders to expert. I haven’t spent much time on a mountain bike so I just took it slow and came out with a story to tell about riding the Death Road. However, keep in mind that there is danger involved – and more than 20 cyclists are said to have sadly lost their lives on the Death Road since cycling down it became a tourist activity.
Things You Should Know:
- Not all tour agencies offering the Death Road experience are created equal – and basically you get what you pay for. Do your research to ensure you are provided with full safety gear. I saw many tourists riding with only small helmets and no padding. Extreme Downhill is the company I used and I highly recommend them. Gravity Assisted also comes highly recommended.
- Go at your own pace to ensure you complete the ride safely. Safety is of utmost priority and the group will wait for you along the way.
- Take heed of advice from the guides, they are there to keep you safe. Sometimes during the ride the guide will tell you to make sure you stick to the right at certain sections.
- My tour provided mineral water, snacks and lunch for the group during the day, but check before you head out to see what is provided and if you need to bring anything.