It’s the very peril of Bolivia’s Death Road, a narrow gravel path winding precariously over a vertical mountainside connecting the Andes near La Paz to the rain forest, that today is drawing tourists to it in droves.
Part gimmick, part fear, part fun – a cruise down the infamous Death Road on downhill bikes was a thrilling way to spend a day in the Yungas mountain range. The scenery was stunning, the weather warmed enough for short sleeves (despite being the dead of winter in Bolivia), and the ride provided just the right amount of adrenaline-pumping adventure for one day without making me feel like I was on a complete suicide mission.
(Amazing adventure and sadly crappy photos from our Death Road adventure courtesy of Altitude Adventures.)
A ROAD WITH A TRAGIC PAST
The Yungas Road, more lovingly known as the Death Road by adventurous tourists of La Paz, has a tragic history. The steep 61 kilometer (40 mile) dirt and gravel road was built by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War of the 1930’s connecting the snow capped mountains of La Paz via La Cumbre Pass (4650 meters / 15,260 feet) to the lush rainforests of Coroico (1,200 meters / 3,900 feet).
Most of the road measures no more than 3 meters wide (10 feet) making passing of vehicles and bikes dangerous, sometimes even deadly, with cliff drops of up to 600 meters down (2,000 feet). Between 200 and 300 people are believed to have died each year while driving the Death Road until the construction of a new alternate paved highway in 2007. The crosses nailed into the side of the road are a constant and haunting reminder of this.
With traffic now being diverted, today the Death Road primarily serves as a downhill biking trail. Unfortunately too many cyclists have fallen to their death (supposedly most while trying to selfie), thus the road continues to live up to its name. For this reason, Adam didn’t bring his camera with us on this adventure.
THRILL-SEEKING ON THE DEATH ROAD
Once we were fully suited up in elbow and knee pads, gloves, helmet, a riders jacket and pants, we were ready to tear up the road.
The adventure started first on a part of the new paved road which surprisingly was more frightening for me than the original gravel road due to cars speeding closely by. After 30 minutes of riding we boarded the bus for a quick detour (and to avoid biking back uphill) to the old road then off we went.
Raging down steep paved roads and gravely hills at full speed ahead, Adam was perfectly in his element. He, along with the lead guide and Christian, an Aussie traveler, were far ahead of the rest of the pack.
I, on the other hand, took a bit more time to build up my biking confidence, enjoying myself most when I could find a break in the pack of riders to cruise in solitude.
Hours later, as the temperatures started to rise and we made our way into the rain forested valley of Corioco, we happily dismounted our bikes. We had completed our Death Road adventure with little more than a few blisters on our hands. Sweaty and hungry, we headed to the pool for a drink and a respite. Death defied today!
Departure Point: La Paz, Bolivia (Altitude picks you up from your hotel/hostel)
Tour Operator: There are way too many to choose from but we were really pleased with the value we got for the money with Altitude Adventures
Departure Times: 8:30am
Duration: 10 hours
Method of Transport: Downhill mountain bike & bus
Included: English speaking guides (1 per 6 people), all equipment (gloves, jacket, helmet, pants, knee and elbow pads and of course bikes), water, snacks, lunch buffet, tee shirt and CD with photos taken during the day
Cost: 450 – 650 Bolivianos per person depending on the bike
TIPS & TRICKS
- While the weather is really cool when starting out the day, it warms to shorts and tee shirt weather by the time you reach Corioco. Consider wearing layers that you can take off and leave in the bus as you go.