Cycling the Death Road in La Paz Bolivia – Should I Go For It?
With 15000ft sheer drops and 300 deaths a year some might wonder why so many people come to Bolivia to cycle this road. Despite being named the world’s most dangerous road, The Death Road in Bolivia remains one of the top things to do for backpackers, avid mountain bikers and adrenaline junkies. I am going to share our experience of ‘surviving’ The Death Road in La Paz, to help you decide whether to add this mountain bike trail to your bucket list.
The History of The Death Road
You may have heard of this road from other travellers. Or you may have seen it on TV when Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson drove the Death Road in a locally bought used vehicle for one of Top Gear’s episodes. But what is the history of the Death Road?
The Death Road is officially called The North Yungas Road, (El Camino de la Muerte)
This 43 mile length road was built by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930s and was the only route linking Northern Bolivia’s Amazon rainforest to its capital city, La Paz. At the time, people travelling between these regions had no choice but to travel this route.
The hazards of this road include huge pot holes, to extreme cliff drops (15000ft), loose rocks and gravel. This infamous narrow dirt road is no more than 3 meters wide.
The road was constantly busy with buses and lorries passing each other at speed, often with huge downpours and thick fog to contend with. There would often be landslides blocking the road.
In 1983, a bus veered off the edge of the road killing over 100 passengers. In 1994 there were still cars falling off the edge of the cliffs at least once every two weeks.
Is the Death Road Still Dangerous?
Fortunately, a new road was built in 2009 offering a safer alternative route from Coroico to La Paz. Since then, most of the traffic has been directed to the new road. There are a small number of cars that still use the original ‘Death Road’ today, some of which are local workers and people connecting to the villages around it.
Nowadays, the road is used for avid mountain bikers, adventure seekers and backpackers. It’s worth bearing in mind that 22 cyclists have lost their lives on Bolivia’s Death Road since 1998.
Why Do People Still Choose to Cycle the Death Road?
The dangers and risks are the biggest attraction to most people. For backpackers, it’s an exciting achievement to cross off their bucket list. It is exhilarating to say the least. You are cycling along the edge of cliff, a few seconds away from a 15000ft drop!
Another big attraction is the breath taking scenery you can experience along the way.
I was travelling with 2 guys at the time who couldn’t wait to cycle the Death Road. I on the other hand, was a little more anxious. There were talks of a fatality the previous week but despite the rumour, we booked the tour for the following day.
That evening, I began having serious doubts. A girl I had met in the hostel had completed the Death Road that day and described it as the worst experience of her life. Due to poor weather conditions, visibility was reduced and the temperature was freezing.
It was too late it. We had booked it and the guys weren’t letting me back out.
Who we Booked the Death Road with
We booked the tour with Vertigo. There were a few tour companies that came recommended including Barracuda and Gravity but I’m happy we chose Vertigo because of the size of the group.
We were a group of 10 with 2 Vertigo guides, one who stayed ahead with the faster members of our group and the other who stayed behind with the less confident. This meant we could cycle at a pace we felt comfortable with.
My Experience of the Death Road
Fortunately, the weather was perfect that day. We were given the safety talks, helmets and thick padded safety clothing. It begins at a high altitude which was cold but the safety clothes offered warmth and protection.
The first 20km was on tarmac, the sun was shining and the visibility was perfect, what had I been worrying about? After that it became narrower and more like a dirt track, that’s when you realise you are cycling along the edge of a huge cliff. I was nervous, but not as much as I thought I would be.
We stopped for a break and took some photos. The temperature got really hot the further we went so the padded safety jacket was removed. About a quarter of the way into it I started to relax and enjoy the experience.
You do need to cycle with caution, there is the odd pot hole and some construction enroute. Take it at a speed you feel comfortable with.
Am I Glad I Conquered the Death Road?
Yes! Maybe we were lucky with the weather but the views were breath taking and the feeling of accomplishment when I reached the end made an unforgettable experience.
Will you be adding the Death Road to your bucket list?