If you’re an adrenaline junkie this post is for you. One of the scariest things I’ve ever done on my travels was cycle 64km on the worlds most dangerous road, the ‘Death Road’ in Bolivia. The official name for the road is The Yungas Road but the locals tend to call it ‘El Camino Del Muerte’ which translates to the road of death. This nickname is no exaggeration, as almost 300 people are estimated to die using this road each year. It is not for the faint hearted.
With statistics this high you would think people would stay well clear from this ill-fated road but you may be surprised to learn that this is one of Bolivia’s most popular tourist attractions with over 25,000 people willingly cycling down the death road each year, myself included. I won’t lie, I was terrified the entire time, my knuckles white from gripping my handle bars so tightly (and even now, looking back at pictures to write this article makes me feel a little nauseous) but what’s life without a little risk and danger, hey?
The Death Road was built in the 1930’s and since that time has claimed the lives of around 300 people each year. At a quick calculation that estimates to be around 20,000 people in the last 80 or so years. With a stretch of road of no more than 64km this means one death every 3 metres. That is pretty crazy statistics!
In the last ten years over 18+ tourists have died following this popular tourist path. It’s crazy to think that something as simple as an overlooked stone could add you to this statistic.
Most backpackers choose to cycle the death road with the company Gravity, who are the most well-known tour company in La Paz. We chose to cycle with Barracuda instead as they were quite a bit cheaper and also had great reviews. Whoever you choose to go with, be sure to ask your fellow travellers for their opinions and advice and shop around. Safety is the most important factor at the end of the day. In 2012 we payed 450 Bolivianos for the tour which at the time was around $60 AUD but with current exchange rate is almost $90.
At 7.30am you’ll meet your group (usually no more than seven people per guide) at a local cafe in La Paz where they’ll provide you your gear (windbreaker outfit, gloves, full-face helmet, goggles, knee-pads, bike etc) and then drive you an hour to the start of the route.
You will potentially have to take a sip of 97% pure alcohol to give thanks to Pachamama (mother earth) which is a tradition Bolivians do before any journey. This may also explain why there are so many drunk drivers on Bolivian roads, just saying….
It’s important to note that whilst the route is 64km long, 90% of this is downhill so you don’t need to be overly fit to take part in this activity.
The first 20km are easy, you’ll be riding down paved, tarmac roads with sweeping views of the Andes mountain range. This part is included so you can get comfortable with your bike before the challenge of the Death Road begins.
From snow-covered mountains and plains to the steamy Amazonian rainforest you’ll reach the Death Road, a mere 3 metre wide (as wide as a car) dirt/gravel road which is cut precariously into the mountain side. Bolivians normally drive on the right side of the road but on the Death Road they drive on the left so that the driver can see the vehicles outside wheel, which means you’ll be required to cycle right next to the edge of the cliff, with sheer drops of 1000+ metres and no guard rails to protect you.
Visibility can be hard with mist, low cloud and dust frequenting the area. As you cycle you’ll regularly see markings to symbolise where people lost their life.
You will end the cycle at the town of Coroico. You will have lunch, be given the option to swim in either a pool or the river and have warm showers. From here you can either choose to stay in Coroico and either volunteer at the animal sanctuary La Senda Verde, stay a few days in the local town or return to La Paz in the bus with your group. Note that this means you will have to drive back up the Death Road…
Don’t believe it’s that scary? Watch this sad video of a bus falling off…
We decided to stay in Coroico before taking another bus to Rurrenbaque to visit the Amazon Rainforest. No one told us until afterwards that the bus ride from Coroico to Rurrenbaque is far scarier than the ‘cycling section’ of the Death Road. Our tyres were half off the edge of the cliffside the entire time. Knowing now what the road is like I would 100% not recommend this option, but the choice is yours.
I will write a blog post soon on Rurrenbaque, if you are interested.
Note that the wet season in Bolivia is between December and March and so the road is much more dangerous. If this looks like an activity you’d like to do try and do it before or after these months, both for your safety and the guides.
The Death Road is truly the most dangerous road in the world and definitely one of the scariest things I’ve ever done (if not the scariest). My 21 year old self was far braver than I am now and I don’t know if I would do it again given the chance but I do love to live by the idea of trying everything once and I’m glad that I had this experience as it so unique.