Surviving Bolivia’s Death Road
Imagine you’re barreling down a 10ft wide road at 20mph. The road, instead of smooth asphalt, is composed of loose gravel and rocks. On your right are sheer cliffs that go up several thousand feet. On your left, are sheer cliffs that go down several thousand feet. Some parts of the road are covered in water from trickling waterfalls. And every once in a while, after turning a blind corner, you’ll be fortunate enough to find yourself head-on with an oncoming truck. Oh yea, I forgot to mention, you’re riding a freaking bike.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the infamous “Death Road”.
One of the most popular backpacker attractions along the Gringo Trail, Bolivia’s Death Road will certainly provide plenty of “Holy shit, I’m going to shit my pants” or “Holy fuck, I’m going to die” moments for even the most hardcore of adrenaline junkies. I’ve done my share of activities from bridge jumping (kinda like bungee), launching off ski jumps, skydiving, canyoning and white water rafting, but riding the Death Road definitely tops the list.
The Yungas Road was originally built to provide a path between La Paz and the Yungas region. For a long time, the road was the only lifeline linking the two places. Because it is located in such difficult terrain, the road was literally cut into the side of mountains which made it extremely narrow and hard to maintain. Furthermore, Bolivia’s lack of funds meant the road didn’t have guard rails or any other safety devices. How it got its infamous moniker is… well, a lot of people perished on it. Prior to the construction of a new section, an estimated 200-300 people died yearly on the road. Picture a 50 person bus. Now imagine 4-6 of those crashing and burning, every year. Luckily, now that the new section has been built, traffic on the original “Death Road” is practically gone as no one in their right mind would risk life and limb (literally) to drive on it.
Always the opportunistic entrepreneurs, Bolivians have now transformed the road into a popular tourist activity. There are many outfitters in La Paz that provide full day downhill mountain biking trips. We decided to go with Vertigo Biking because they were cheaper than the much-touted Gravity and had better gear, including full-face helmets (more on that later).
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The drive out to the start of the road takes a couple of hours from La Paz. Once there, the 64km ride begins high up in the mountains and ends down in the jungles. It is literally freezing at the start, but it gradually transitions to the engulfing heat and humidity of the jungle. The road is divided into two sections: paved and unpaved. The paved part is approximately 34km, with smooth asphalt and lane lines. You really haul ass here, hitting a top speed of about 40mph. Eventually, you reach the point where the road forks. It’s here where you choose between new and old, safe and dangerous, sane and insane.
We signed up for the Death Road so of course we took the fork to the right. The gravelly death trap twists and turns through the mountains, descending over 3,500m into the jungle below. Although incredibly exhilarating, there are quite a few sobering moments. Numerous memorials litter the side of the road. In recent years, several tourists have lost their lives while riding down. Often it’s the case of fooling around (such as the unfortunate case of two Israeli guys side-kicking each other while riding; one fell down on the road, the other fell hundreds of feet down the cliff) but other times it’s just due to mistakes/bad luck that can happen to anyone. The girl to the very right of the photo above had a dog run in front of her bike and lost control on the paved road. Luckily, the full-faced helmet saved her and she was able to continue riding.
I too had a close call. Coming into a left turn, I didn’t turn sharply enough and I ended up going head-over-handlebars into the ditch on the right side of the road. Once again, Vertigo and their full-face helmet saved the day. I ended up with a bruise on my head, some cuts on my shoulder and back, and a new found appreciation for life. The helmet had numerous scratches on the part covering my mouth and had a bolt ripped out from the visor. Needless to say, I would’ve been in a whole world of hurt had I been wearing a regular bicycle helmet.
Lucky as I was, my confidence was shattered and I was scared shitless. Had I gone off the left side, I would’ve been dead. Through some coaching from the guide and basic training in how to trust your bike (kinda like trusting your edges while skiing), I started off again slowly. I built up confidence around the next couple of turns and soon picked up the pace. By the end, I was really tearing down the road.
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In total, the ride goes on for several hours and the whole time you’re in the “zone”. Your concentration is at a superhuman level, your senses heightened in the face of possible death. When you finally do reach the bottom, you realize how exhausted you are physically, but even more so, mentally. When I had that first beer afterward, it was like a wave of relief flooding over me.
Despite the stories and the close calls, we had made it in one piece, albeit a bit bruised, but alive. Thousands of people ride down the road each year so it’s not that big of an accomplishment when you put it that way. But to say that you’ve done it and survived is a damn good accomplishment in my book.
Would I do it again? I’m not sure. You only live once, but hell, I want that “once” to be nice and long.