What’s it like to ride the world’s most dangerous road? Backpacking is about many things. Culture. People. Exotic new foods. Getting lost in an arid scrubland surrounded by ravenous wild beasts. It’s all part of the experience. Adventure is pretty high up the list as well. And travel doesn’t get more adventurous than the possibility of a moderately dangerous and adrenaline-fueled journey. The North Yungas road in Bolivia is one such adventure. I rode it, obviously. And more of that later. But first: some backstory. This 69-kilometre stretch of road starts out at an altitude of 4,700m in the bitterly cold mountains north-east of the capital La Paz, and finishes at a subtropical 1,200m in the humid town of Coroico.
A Dangerous Journey
The Yungas road has gained its ‘Death Road’ reputation over the years due to the thousands of deaths along its route. In 1983 a bus plunged over the edge of the road, killing more than 100 people. It was Bolivia’s worst road accident. In 2006 a new, safer asphalt highway was built that bypassed the Death Road and cut the fatality rate, but before this an average of 200-300 people died on the road every year from crashes and falls. A chilling reminder to take out bike insurance before any road trip. It’s not surprising many have long considered the old La Paz-Coroico journey The Most Dangerous Road in the World. But even with the modern bypass, the Death Road in Bolivia is still a perilous place to be. It’s a tight, twisty dirt track, barely wide enough for one vehicle. There are blind corners and no guard rail to protect you from the 600-metre drops into the abyss.
In the wet season the rains combine with gravel and mud to create a treacherous gauntlet that challenges every driver and cyclist, regardless of ability or experience.
Add poor visibility and momentary lapses of concentration into the mix and it’s easy to see why more than a dozen thrill-seeking riders have lost their lives in the last decade, in addition to numerous local drivers and their passengers.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: this sounds kind of dangerous, right? It does, and it is. But riding the Death Road in Bolivia is also one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, and there are many different companies that offer to guide you down the route. Gravity, the most established local adventure tour company, charge US$110 to do the trip. However, when I arrived at The Adventure Brew Hostel in La Paz during early December, I learned Gravity don’t run trips down the Death Road during the wet season (December – February) as they consider it too dangerous. So I found El Solario, a cheaper company that run the Death Road throughout the year, rain or shine. This wasn’t some faceless danger-merchant, though; El Solario was safe, organised and friendly.
Taking on the Death Road
The day we headed out was bright and clear. Perfect. We were a group of six: me and my travel buddy Beat; two Swiss backpackers; two Aussies; our German guide Christoph; Bolivian driver Alberto – who travels the Death Road every. Single. Day. Lucky him.
I was a little nervous before starting off. I’m no adventurer. I don’t even like going on the fast rides at theme parks. And this was going to be one hell of a fast ride.
The first segment of the road is all icy asphalt in the frozen mountains outside La Paz, but it’s actually pretty safe. This part of the road is a beautiful stretch of highway to ride, surrounded by epic wintery vistas, vast valleys and roadside waterfalls. It’s only when you descend down to the temperate greener world beneath the mountains you become aware of the road danger. You ride through more waterfalls along a gravelly, stony dirt road, racing through the spray and earth through numerous sudden changes in elevation. While this is fun, some reality hits when you see crosses marking the spots vehicles have veered over the edge of the road into the deep valley below. Occasionally tyres and shards of metal come into view just beyond the periphery of the road; mechanical carcases that fell victim to the precarious plight of local travel in this part of the world.
Acceleration and Exhilaration
Descending the Death Road puts you into a state of dizzy euphoria, tempered with the cautious reserve that lends itself to being super sensitive on the brakes. It takes about four or five hours to cycle the Death Road from start to finish, and it’s virtually all downhill, although the few kilometres uphill were pretty tiring at that altitude.
I was by far the slowest member of our group on the most dangerous sections of the road, but I refused to try and keep pace. It’s not a competition. People die on this journey by going beyond their skill and comfort level. Don’t become a statistic.
The Death Road adventure is marketed on danger and adrenaline, but I found the most enjoyable aspect of the day was the awesome scenery, and the contrast between starting the day in the mountains wearing jackets, gloves and trousers, and finishing on the muggy valley floor wearing t-shirt and shorts and getting bitten by busy mosquitoes. After the last leg of the trip we all enjoyed one of the most refreshing cold beers I’ve ever drunk. I was sweating, sore and exhausted. We had some food and Alberto drove us back up the Death Road to La Paz, which was probably a more nerve-wracking experience than the trip down, as you have no control over your own destiny. For about 40 minutes, my life was in the hands of a mischievous-looking old Bolivian driver.
Reflections on Survival
I decided not to sit on the side of the minibus which overlooked the precipice. I settled into a seat on the opposite side and started thinking about the trip. When we hit asphalt again I literally breathed a sigh of relief. My thoughts on the Death Road in Bolivia? This dangerous stretch of Bolivian highway might be responsible for thousands of deaths, but if you don’t push past your personal limits and cycling ability you’ll probably be fine. After all, more than 25,000 tourists have faced the road and come through unscathed.
In the hostel that night everyone from the trip admired their ‘I survived the Death Road’ tees and relived the experience over a few beers. The experience of taking on The World’s Most Dangerous Road is a highlight of backpacking through Bolivia, maybe even a highlight of South America overall.
In a separate article I’ve picked it as one of the gap year things to do before you die and I stand by that choice. The Death Road in Bolivia is fast, dirty and electrifying. The landscape is dramatic, diverse and beautiful. I recommend it to you, whatever your cycling ability.
And with a bit of luck, you might just live to talk about the experience.
About the author:
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He has spent more than a year volunteering and backpacking around the world, and has worked as a travel editor for gapyear.com. Andy loves films, food and F1 – partly because it travels through some of the most exotic and exciting destinations on the planet.