Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Bolivia’s Death Road might be famous for claiming 300 lives a year, but writer Andrew Fenton finds tackling it on two wheels can offer travelers far more than just bragging rights.
From the moment you arrive in La Paz, Bolivia, it’s the question on every traveler’s lips: ‘Have you ridden Death Road?’
In every bar, there’s at least one adventurer in an “I Survived Death Road” T-shirt, explaining how they’d hurtled down a mist-covered mountain track on two wheels, a few feet away from a deep abyss.
“Hundreds of people die on the road every year!” they tell you.
Incredibly, it’s almost true: The narrow, cliff-hugging Yungas Road, from the mountains near La Paz to the Amazonian rainforest, really did used to claim more than 300 lives a year. Its reputation stretches as far back as 1937, when boy reporter Tintin jumped clear at the last moment after his car plunged over the road’s edge in Tintin and the Broken Ear. And the legend only grew when the Inter-American Development Bank called it ‘the world’s most dangerous road’ in a 1995 report.
Barely more than a car’s width across and with endless hairpin turns, for most of its length there are no guardrails to protect you from a sheer 2000-foot drop to the valley below.
It’s the only road in Bolivia where motorists drive on the left, to give drivers a better view of just how close they are to certain doom.
Signing up to ride Death Road is an experience itself, with most operators based around the city’s Witches Market where Aymara witch doctors (known locally as yatiri) sell potions and aphrodisiacs here, with ‘lucky’ (and unsettling) dried llama fetuses proudly displayed above the stall entrances.
An early morning van trip takes us to the freezing high plains of La Cumbre at 15,400 feet—equivalent to halfway up Mount Everest—which is surrounded by even higher snowcapped peaks. Our group of 10—a guide at the back and at the front—begins a 12-mile warm up ride along the shiny new road with its fancy guard rails and asphalt. It’s so steep, we’re overtaking trucks.
Everyone is nervous and excited when we reach Death Road itself. As the mist hugs the mountains, the sense of danger is intoxicating. Unfortunately, it’s pouring rain and the rocky road is slippery. The valley floor looks a long way down, and a procession of crosses mark where people have died. We set off gingerly—forced to ride on the left near the edge in case of oncoming traffic—and take the corners carefully.
The seemingly reckless idea to tackle the road on a mountain bike was dreamed up by New Zealand adventurer Alistair Matthew in 1997. Each day he’d convince a couple of backpackers how fun it was, they’d hitch a lift to the beginning and set off. He founded Gravity Bolivia, the oldest and best known Death Road tour company.
Official figures are hard to come by, but at least a couple of dozen tourists have been killed cycling here. The stories have become legend.
Current operations manager Mauricio Murillo says the locals felt sorry for the riders in the early days. “They thought they were riding bikes because they didn’t have money for the bus fare,” he laughs. “They had no concept of people doing this for fun.” Today, more than 20 operators take around 20,000 thrill-seekers down the road each year.
The road’s reputation for danger is oversold, however. Most accidents were caused by vehicles trying to pass on the narrow track, and fatalities dropped dramatically when most traffic shifted to the new road in 2007. It’s now relatively safe.
Official figures are hard to come by, but at least a couple of dozen tourists have been killed cycling here. The stories have become legend—the Japanese tourist in the early 2000s who was concentrating so hard on filming her boyfriend on her phone that she didn’t see the corner and went straight over the edge. In November 2015, an experienced Norwegian rider braked suddenly on slippery rocks while riding under one of the waterfalls across the road and fell 130 feet. Murillo helped recover his body.
Less serious accidents, from cuts and grazes to broken bones, also happen every day. Gravity has only lost one rider, and that was to a heart attack.
Five guides have been killed, including one in October 2014, taking photos as a tractor passed. Momentarily distracted, he lost his footing and fell. “It took a while for that to sink in,” Murillo says. “This guy had more experience than I do now, and he slipped.”
A support van went over in March this year. The driver had pulled over to let a group of cyclists pass, but when he tried to pull back out his left wheel went over the edge, pulling the van backward and killing the driver. You can still see the wreck.
Murillo says even after witnessing a death or serious injury, most riders still want to complete the journey.
After ten minutes riding the anxiety has worn off. Ten feet is a tight squeeze for a car, but provides plenty of room for a bike. You won’t need specialized MTB skills, so any conscientious rider who pays attention to the safety instructions should be fine. Probably.
We come across an accident. A French tourist has ridden off the edge and the guides are hauling him back up with ropes attached to the support van.
For starters, research your tour company thoroughly. Health and safety regulations are lax to non-existent in Bolivia and cheaper outfits have poorly trained guides and badly maintained bikes.
Even our mid-range operator leaves much to be desired. At one point the guide lines us up on our bikes at the edge of the cliff for a photo, and jokes: “OK, now everybody take a step back!” Hilarious—except one of the riders takes him seriously. His back wheel is hovering in space by the time we grab him.
I start to relish the feeling of speed, and go faster and faster. You don’t get many chances to ride down a mountain for 39 miles, losing nearly 12,000 feet of altitude. It’s a bona-fide adrenaline rush.
We come across an accident. A French tourist has ridden off the edge and the guides are hauling him back up using ropes attached to the support van. Fortunately, it’s just a 30-foot drop and he’s only broken his nose, but he looks like he’s gone into shock. I don’t blame him.
The further you descend, the warmer it gets—there can be a 75-degree difference from the top to the bottom—and I strip off. By the time we splash through a shallow creek and into the village of Yolosa, my fingers are aching from clutching the brakes, but there’s a huge grin across my face.
The rainforest is at 3,600 feet—the lowest point I’ve experienced in three weeks —and the oxygen suddenly flooding my brain makes me feel super-human. We celebrate the ride with lunch, and toast the lucky Frenchman.
“It’s about doing something a little risky, a little dangerous—but super fun,” explains Murillo. “People want to conquer Death Road.”
Back in La Paz, our guide hands out “I Survived Death Road” T-shirts. Wearing it the next night, I realize I’ve become ‘That Guy’, telling newcomers my exciting tales of hurtling down a mist-covered mountain on a bike—a trip so dangerous it kills “hundreds of people a year…”
Andrew Fenton is an Australian freelance journalist and travel writer. He’s been a national entertainment writer for News Corp, film journalist for The Advertiser and a staff writer on SA Weekend and The Melbourne Weekly.