The Death Road

Hurtling down The Death Road on a mountain bike has become a must-do attraction for thrill-seeking international adventurers.  An estimated 25,000 tourists each year descend the 60km road in Bolivia’s subtropical South Yungas region.  The tour has undoubtedly become popular for the road’s morbid reputation.  In its heyday some 300 people a year died on the treacherous route. It was also the site of Bolivia’s most tragic road accident when a bus plunged over the edge in 1983, killing over a hundred people.  A 1994 study by the Inter-American Development Bank declared the road to be the most dangerous in the world which spawned the unenviable moniker – El Camino del Muerte (The Death Road).  

In 2006, Bolivia constructed a new road to give safe passage to the hoards of Paceños that visit the nearby weekend retreat of Coroico.  The new road is fully paved and double-laned with modern, first world features such as guard rails, tunnels, water drainage and mudslide fortification.  Since it’s completion, vehicle traffic on the old Death Road has slowed to a trickle, meaning that the project has undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives per year.

Death Road tours leave La Paz around 7 a.m. and travel two hours uphill to La Cumbre.  At 4750m above sea level this high mountain pass literally takes your breath away.  The ride begins on an easy 20km a stretch of wide, asphalted road through stunning high altitude scenery.  This is a great opportunity for riders to get a feel for their bikes and prepare themselves for what’s to come.  The real challenge begins when reaching the intersection of Unduavi.

Here riders embark upon the Death Road — a steep, narrow, rocky, single-lane gravel road built on a sheer cliff face.  Riders must contend with oncoming traffic, sharp jagged rocks, and deadly cliffs up to 900m high.  There are no guard rails and the ride is littered with the gravestones of unfortunate travelers, some of whom were fellow cycling tourists. Scariest of all, road rules mandate that those travelling down hill must use the outside lane, therefore most of the trip is ridden precariously close to the cliff edge.

deathroad 4

source: Flicker Matthew Straubmuller

The ride lasts several hours and passes snow-capped high mountain peaks, waterfalls, tropical valleys and lush rain forest. The tour is as popular for its stunning scenery as it is for its adrenaline rush and boasting rights. Those who make it to the bottom alive get to enjoy a swim, a big lunch, a few beers and put on the obligatory “I survived the Death Road” T-shirt.

How to actually survive the Death Road:

While reliable statistics are impossible to find, most agree that at least 20 tourists have died mountain biking the Death Road since tours began in the mid 1990s.  This sounds horrific, but it’s not really that bad when you consider how many people do it. These days some 25,000 tourists brave the Death Road each year.  Many have died simply because many have done the tour. Your chances of survival are actually pretty good. In fact, it’s reasonable to say the average Bolivian bus journey is more dangerous than cycling down the Death Road. Having said all that, a rider can mitigate their risk by taking some common sense precautions.

  1.  Ride within your limits:  This is the most important piece of advice.  Don’t try to race your mate who’s been mountain biking his whole life.  If you are 20 minutes behind the group, who cares?  Just keep rolling along at a comfortable pace.
  2. Check your equipment carefully:  Cheap companies often have dodgy equipment. Make sure your bike is in good working order, especially both brakes.
  3. Have a good night’s sleep the night before:  Some backpackers seem to think partying all night before the ride at  Wild Rover (or even Route 36!) is an acceptable idea. For obvious reasons, don’t do it.
  4. Use both your brakes properly:  If you want to just bleed off some speed, use the back brake. If you need to stop quickly, use both. Always apply the back brake before the front brake, otherwise you’ll fly head over handlebars.
  5. Beware of oncoming traffic : The road is still open to traffic so the occasional car or minibus will climb up the hill towards you. They will be travelling on the mountain side of the road (this is the only place in Bolivia where you are required to drive on the left for safety reasons) so you must pass them on the cliff side. For obvious reasons, pass them slowly and only when in full control of your bike. If it looks too narrow, just dismount and wait for them to pass.
  6. Don’t be like this guy (miraculously he survived).

To ride the Death Road travelers must arrange a tour from one of many La Paz travel agencies.  Given the inherent dangers, it’s a good idea to go with a reputable company. Gravity Bolivia were the first to offer the tour and have been running it daily since 1998. They are widely considered to have to best equipment and safety training for their guides. A full day tour including transport, guides, lunch and all equipment costs about US$110. Those on a really low-budget might consider opting for a cheaper company who offer similar inclusions for as little as half the price.  Be warned however, safety and quality vary immensely in Bolivia and you tend to get what you pay for.  Nevertheless, I did the tour with the El Solario agency in 2010 for US$50 and lived to tell the tale.

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