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CYCLING THE DEATH ROAD IN BOLIVIA – YAY OR NAY?

A winding gravel road with sharp cliffs and tropical forest, a mountain biker on the road - cycling the Death Road in Bolivia

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Ever heard of a Death Road downhill tour? If you’re planning a trip to Bolivia, I bet you did. 

Many (many!) years ago, cycling the Death Road in Bolivia didn’t sound too inviting to me – I guess it had something to do with its name – but then I started mountain biking and speeding down one of the world’s most dangerous road quickly made it to my bucket list. 

So when we decided to explore South America with a van, we knew that for avid mountain bikers (i.e., one semi-pro who used to compete, and the other whose middle names are Clumsy & Anxious), this was an experience we shouldn’t miss. 

But let’s start at the beginning.

 

HOW DID THE DEATH ROAD EVEN GET THIS OMINOUS NAME?

Let me put your mind at ease—it was NOT because of cyclist death statistics. Although, if you’re considering biking the Death Road, perhaps do not look up that info.

The Death Road near La Paz in Bolivia is actually one gigantic winding snake of a road (specifically 69 km long) named Yungas Road. In some sections, it’s only about 3 meters wide, and protective barriers are as rare as rain in the desert. Its official start is a bit higher than the city of La Paz, at over 4500 meters, and then it descends all the way down to the Amazon jungle at about 1000 meters.

It was built by Paraguayan prisoners in the 1930s, and it could have justified its name even back then, as many people died during its construction.

But the name really stuck later on. Imagine this: a gravel narrow and wet winding road, where most of the time, there’s not even enough room for two larger vehicles to pass each other, with sheer cliffs dropping hundreds of meters below. Add to the equation reckless drivers and nonexistent road regulations, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Due to numerous deadly accidents, a new, slightly wider and safer asphalt bypass was constructed, and the Yungas Road is officially not in use anymore since 2009.

P.S. I was told this by our Death Road tour guide, but you can find more info here as well

 

A photo of the Death Road in Bolivia from far - a gravel road carved in a steep forest slope

AND WHERE DID THE MOUNTAIN BIKING COME FROM?

 

It is said that about 20 years ago, a guy from New Zealand, a passionate mountain biker, was wandering around Bolivia and decided to ride down the Death Road on his bike. 

It was like a light bulb went off in his head – hey, this could be a brilliant marketing move

So, that same year, he founded the first agency offering this kind of adrenaline fun, and Death Road bike tours became a thing.

But know this—back then, the new road didn’t exist yet, so the Death Road was REALLY busy. And considering that the rule is to go downhill on the left—aka on the OUTER side—the adventure must have been truly adrenaline-filled. We’ve only met a handful of cars and trucks carrying mountain bikes, and it was more than enough. Honestly, cycling the Death Road would be a nay-nay for me at that point ?

Today, this is one of Bolivia’s main tourist attractions that attracts bikers and non-bikers alike.

A GLIMPSE INTO CYCLING THE DEATH ROAD IN BOLIVIA

 

We’ve actually filmed a video of our Death Road biking experience, so if you’re more into visuals, you can watch it on YouTube! ?

Warming Up

The bus took us and our fellow adventurers out from La Paz to a starting point at La Cumbre (the ride was about an hour long), where each of us got our own mountain bike and protective gear.

While a few riders munched on their breakfastthe butterflies in my stomach, extremely active before every single ride in my life, didn’t let me eat—the guide explained everything about our upcoming Death Road bike ride and answered questions we might have had.

As is the case with every occasion in Bolivia, the blessing of Pachamama (Mother Earth) had to be made. What’s it like? Basically, you spritz the earth and bike with extremely strong alcohol, and then you chug some of it down your throat. Yes, your eyes will water, and your throat will burn. Not recommended on an empty stomach. (P.S. Of course, you can skip the drink part ;))

The first downhill was on an asphalt road to get used to the bike and to test your speed ability. Yes, there was traffic, and cars were driving fast past us, but the ride had zero technical difficulty. I mean, I don’t like road cycling at all, specifically because of the cars, but I was more than grateful for this “entrada” since I was a bit rusty after not being on a downhill bike for almost a year!

Bojan was far ahead of the group most of the time, while I was trying to capture a photo or two while maintaining balance on the bike. The views were pretty nice already up there!

Just before this warming up part ended, we did a short detour to ride down a short part of a gravel road—ya know, to get the feeling of what cycling the Death Road will be like.

“Yeah, give it to me, baby!” was cheesily drumming in my head while I let go of my brakes for the first time that day ? 

 

 

The Death Road, aka The REAL DEAL

We hopped back in our van for a short drive, and soon enough, we found ourselves at the “entrance” to the Death Road.

The REAL adventure was about to start.

We got ourselves ready by the beats of the famous song “Highway to Hell,” and I couldn’t help but think for a moment whether this would be my last downhill ever and why the heck I hadn’t thought about crafting my will. Not that I owned much, but you know, for the dramatic effect.

“Ok, off we go!” I yelled, while Bojan was already ahead of me, and I heard a few screams of excitement.

The Death Road itself is a gravel road the entire way, and since it starts quite high, the air is cold and misty. Hence, it can be slippery at times. In fact, at some points, waterfalls cross the road, so I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said that it’s just like a ride in the park.

But those views! The sheer drops from the cliffs are mesmerizing, and the lush greenery, with the combination of mist hanging in the air, creates quite a magical atmosphere. We stopped more than a few times to take photos (always as a group and by the side of the road so that we weren’t crossing the path of other groups).

The winding road seemed to go on forever, and I’d say that the descent took more than two hours. We had a pit stop in between to gather energy and make it safely to the end.

 

 

Winding Down

Once we reached the end of the North Yungas Road, we headed to an animal refuge featuring rescued monkeys, parrots, pigs, and other animals.

We spent some time wandering around the refuge, had lunch, and drank a well-deserved cold beer that hit just right in the warmth of the subtropical region of Bolivia.

After all, we had a 2-hour-long drive back to La Paz waiting for us (er—not the same way we came down), which in the end turned out to be slightly longer due to traffic jams ?

ARE YOU CONSIDERING CYCLING THE DEATH ROAD IN BOLIVIA?

Awesome! No, seriously, I guarantee it’s a blast.

But… (yeah, there’s always a “but” ?), there are a few things you should know beforehand to decide whether biking the Death Road is the right thing for you:

Your Biking Skills

If you occasionally hop on a mountain bike (it doesn’t have to be a fully; a regular one will do) and occasional rides on gravel or dirt roads are not unfamiliar to you, then you have nothing to worry about!

Yes, you’re going to experience an adrenaline rush, and the narrow parts can be a bit sketchy, but you can go as slow as you want, and no serious technical skills are required for biking down the Death Road.

But if you’re not really into biking or haven’t tried going downhill on your bike before, and narrow, cliff-hugging dirt roads scare you, then it’s perhaps better to skip this bucket list activity.

After all, it’s almost a 70 km ride, which means more than 4 hours on a bike. Four hours of suffering and fear just to check off something on a “must-do list” isn’t really worth it, I assure you.

Your Physical Condition

It’s not just about your biking skills; your physical condition matters too.

The ride is long, and even though it’s mostly downhill, it can be quite exhausting. Being in good shape will make the experience much more enjoyable. Remember, you’ll be descending from high altitudes, so the thin air can also add to the challenge.

 

A guy speeding down the Death Road in Bolivia on a mountain bike.

 

Choosing the Right Death Road Tour Company

You know when someone starts something, and then suddenly 20 others are doing the exact same thing? Well, competition isn’t necessarily bad (and I’d argue it’s good for improvement), but not everything and everyone lives up to the standard.

And when you’re doing something as extreme as biking down the world’s most dangerous road, safety and quality should be the no. 1 things to look at.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a Death Road Bike Tour travel agency in La Paz:

  • The quality of their bikes and safety equipment
  • The guide’s experience and professionalism
  • Their fluency in English (clear communication can be a question of life and death in extreme sports activities, and I’m not even joking)
  • Transparency
  • Online reviews

I haven’t even included the price here; for going on a sightseeing tour? Sure, consider the price. An adrenaline activity? The price truly shouldn’t be a determining factor. 

We visited 5 different Death Road bike tour companies with the highest ratings on TripAdvisor and, to be honest, we approached them the same way as we would any bike park or adrenaline sport in Europe—ruthlessly ?

We checked the condition of the bikes (and as mountain bikers, we knew what to look for), the state of protective gear, and evaluated their approach, and only then discussed what was included in the price.

And yeah, we also listened to our gut, and based on our prior experience, we decided on Gravity Bolivia, even though it was the most expensive one.

They had a really professional approach, and safety comes first—all the instructions were so precise and frequent that occasionally Bojan and I joked, “Is it really necessary to point out every rock and turn?” But I guess the answer is yes because not all riders will have the same level of knowledge.

The guide was a real mountain biking expert; he was super fun and helpful, and the assistant took so many pictures that you don’t have to worry about going home without Instagram material ?

And just to give you an idea of what was included in the price of $125 per person:

  • Transport by a minibus to the starting point of the descent and back to La Paz (plus, the guide treats you to a drink on the way back ?)
  • Guide(s) – the number depends on the number of participants (maximum 15 riders per group)
  • Bicycles and all of the protective gear
  • Water, and two snacks during the descent
  • Visit to the shelter for the animals of Yungas (the tour ends here, and you have lunch at the shelter)
  • Buffet lunch and beer (or a non-alcoholic beverage)
  • Buff, foldable water bottle, and a short-sleeved shirt – all yours to keep*

*This was a couple of years ago, I’m not sure about what’s included in the extras these days! 😉

** If you’re an experienced mountain biker, you can also opt for one of the more demanding tours – where the real single tracks come into play. Bojan was toying with the idea, but since we weren’t riding for quite some time (he did hit the trails in Oaxaca, Mexico, a few months before!), he decided on a regular Death Road tour.

Considering that we left La Paz before 8 a.m. and returned around 9 p.m., spent almost 5 hours on the bike, and considering the quality of the experience and other things – we both agreed in the end that it was more than worth the money.

 

 

However, I can say that mountain biking companies in Bolivia are way more reliable in terms of safety than tours to Salar de Uyuni (about which I read too many horror stories, one of which happened just a bit before we were there).

So, if you’re really tight on budget and want to save a few bucks, we recommend RideOn Bolivia as well—that was our second choice.

OTHER TIPS AND THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CYCLING THE DEATH ROAD IN BOLIVIA

 

Before You Hit the Road

Before departure, you’ll need to sign a liability waiver (disclosing any health issues, your biking experience, accepting responsibility for any intentional bike damage, etc.).

You must have insurance that covers downhill biking, which usually requires an additional fee. If you don’t have this, the agency may offer its own insurance—but honestly, if any accidents happen, it’s much easier to deal with matters with your insurance company, so make sure you have it before your trip.

Tips for the Death Road Bike Ride Itself

Keep a tight grip on both handlebars at all times. Yeah, it might feel like a great idea to film a selfie story while you’re riding, but I can assure you the idea is nothing less than stupid. Although the road is wider in some parts, you’re riding near the edge, and you’re just one wrong turn—or slip—away from a disaster.

Regardless of the fact that the descent isn’t technically demanding and can be done by younger participants as well, remember that a 400m cliff next to the road is no joke, and if, universe forbid, you miss a turn—it’s game over. Seriously game over. And yes, it has happened before. Despite all safety instructions, the guide can’t ride for you.

So, use common sense, adjust your speed to your abilities, and if you’re scared, stick more to the middle of the road—we only encountered two cars all day, and the guide warns you in advance if one is approaching.

There’s always one guide at the front and one at the end of the group, and there’s nothing wrong with arriving at the stopping point five minutes after the rest of the group. I mean, if that day everyone tried to keep up with Bojan, probably not everyone would make it to the bottom alive ?

Also, if you feel tired, let the guide know—you can always hop on the bus and skip part of the descent. Better that than ending up on the ground.

Even though you might feel hot towards the end, I recommend keeping on your protective jacket and pants—after hours of riding downhill, your hands aren’t as strong, your legs might shake, and on the gravel, you can easily slip. One girl in our group experienced just that, and because she was only wearing leggings and a short-sleeved shirt (and removed knee and elbow pads as well)—well, she went home heavily bruised, with an ice pack around her elbow.

 

 

What Do You Need to Bring to a Death Road Downhill Ride

The protective jacket and pants are provided by the tour company, but what should you wear underneath? The descent starts above 4500m and then drops all the way down to the jungle, so my best advice would be to dress “like an onion,” as it can be quite cold at the top.

A wind jacket or a sweater, leggings, t-shirt, and perhaps shorts for later… you know the drill. The minibus (with spare bikes, just in case ?) follows the group the entire time, and there are frequent stops during the descent, so you can remove layers as needed and leave them on the bus.

I’d recommend wearing a buff, not a scarf, to protect your neck from the cold. Why? Well, just imagine the scarf unfolding and getting caught in between the bike’s parts. I mean, or rather, don’t paint that picture in your mind. Just bring the buff.

Water is provided, so no need to worry about that. What I missed from the protective gear were goggles—to prevent dust from getting into your eyes and for sun protection later down the road. So make sure to bring sunglasses with you.

Also, don’t forget sunscreen and insect repellent (for lower areas), and you can bring toiletries too, as there are showers at the animal refuge in case you’d like to freshen up.

SHOULD YOU BIKE THE DEATH ROAD IN BOLIVIA?

I hope that by highlighting our experience and giving you a few tips, you now have a better idea of how dangerous (or not) the Death Road in Bolivia is and what Death Road biking looks like.

But to summarize—if you’ve ridden a bike before, and with a little caution, this will be a fantastic bucket list experience! For us, it was one of the best adventures in South America!

So yeah, we say go for it! Braaaaap! ?

A picture of a couple with full face helmets on a Death Road in Bolivia

—–

And here’s a mini glossary for non-mountain bikers:

  • fully = full suspension bike
  • mtb = mountain biking
  • single track = a narrow trail wide enough for one bike
  • braaaap! = something mountain bikers shout when speeding around a berm ?

 


Heading to other places in Bolivia? You might wanna read this!


 

Let’s not forget about this – pin it for later!

Pin for cycling the Death Road in Bolivia - text plus an image showing the winding road from the distance and a mountain biker on it.

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