This is an honest review of our experience biking the Death Road in Bolivia – a 70 km winding dirt road starting outside of Bolivia’s capital La Paz to the town of Yolosa in the Amazonian rainforest. It’s a several hour downhill ride from 4,650 m to 1,525 m.
Biking Death Road is the most popular attraction in Bolivia, together with visiting Salt Flats. But these two are incomparable.
Biking the Death Road is known as a thrilling adventure on the most dangerous road in the world while Salt Flats are nature’s miracle, a journey through high altitudes, volcanoes and world’s highest salt flat. Many superlatives, I know.
While visiting Bolivia on our trip around the world, we were excited to experience both.
Although I had some doubts about biking the Death Road. I’ve heard from several people who’s done it that you’re very limited in what you can and cannot do. That is understandable since the road has in its name the word “death”.
But then some of them said they haven’t biked for years. So how hard could it be to bike down a dirt road? Every bike has brakes.
We are mountain bikers for the bigger part of our lives. We had to try it ourselves, so we could have a better idea about this exhilarating biking adventure.
To give you a bit of context about our biking experience – we’ve tried to bike up the Haleakala volcano on Maui (when most people book a downhill tour), biked thousands of kilometres on cross-country trails in Europe and in the Canadian Rockies, and shortly before Bolivia, we’ve experienced what I call the scariest bike ride of my life in Canon del Pato, Peru. Suffice to say, our level is far from beginners. This may or may not influence your judgment/opinion of our review.
Why did we want to go biking the Death Road?
- to find out what all the fuss is about
- how on Earth does it take 4 hours to bike down a 60km gravel road?
- because of the adrenaline
- and the downhill
We usually need to bike up first before going downhill, but we haven’t found an option to bike up and down the Death Road.
Ok, enough for the introduction, you want to read about the Death Road. Here is info about the Death Road, our experience and of course our tips for beginners:
Understanding the Death Road, Bolivia
The Yungas Road or “Camino de las Yungas” was built in 1930 by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War into the side of the mountain. This gravel road stretch between La Paz and Coroico is 69 km long. It climbs up to 4,650 meters (15,260 feet) at La Cumbre Pass and ends in the Amazonian rainforest, in the town of Coroico at 1,200m (3,900 feet). Until 2006, it was the only road that connected the capital to the Yungas region.
The “Death Road” name originated due to the high death toll that it has taken over the years. Overcrowded buses and trucks were driving the road in the rain, fog and rock slides were daily occurrences. The road is usually muddy, slippery and had no guard rails. Falling over the 1,000 meters high cliffs has resulted in the death of many victims.
It is estimated that 200-300 people died here each year. One of the most tragic accidents on the Death Road happened in 1983. The overcrowded bus fell off the cliff and killed more than 100 people. In 1995, the Death Road/Yungas Road was labeled as “The most dangerous road in the world”.
Up until a few years ago, once you biked down the Death Road, you were taken in a van up the same road. I imagine that must have been quite a scary ride. In 2006, after 20 years of construction, a new road was opened which diverted most of the traffic off the Death Road. It’s a modern two-lane asphalt road with guard rails and drainage system. This is the road which tour companies take to get back to La Paz.
The Death Road was widened, some guard rails were installed and the motorized traffic usually consists of vans following the biking tours. The hype among backpackers still exists though. Only few admit they biked what used to be the world’s most dangerous road. Luckily it’s not anymore.
Biking the Death Road / Yungas Road in Bolivia
We were picked up in La Paz at 8:00 am in the morning. Our van was loaded with bikes and eager bikers. After a one hour drive through the high Andes mountains, we arrived at La Cumbre pass. La Paz is 3,640 m above sea level, making it the highest administrative capital in the world, and we drove up to 4,700m when the ride started.
It might not seem like a big altitude difference, but we all felt the increased pressure and slight symptoms of a headache. (I’ve since heard of other agencies doing a ritual of drinking a pure alcohol to build up the courage. Ritual or not, alcohol before a bike ride at high altitude doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.) Dealing with high altitude is no fun and we were ready for the descent.
Surrounding mountain peaks were hiding in the morning fog as we layered up. Apparently, we needed to wear the agency’s jacket and pants, which will shortly be soaked up during the rain. We put on elbow and knee protectors, a full face helmet and after endless group photos were finally allowed to start the bike ride.
If the agency’s mission was to put safety first, I guess they made their statement loud and clear (a full face helmet for what was awaiting us was a little overboard in my opinion).
From high mountains of Altiplano to the Amazonian rainforest
Off to a good start – it was cold, windy and started to rain. The first part was 20 km long on the asphalt road, considered a warm-up (in this case a freeze up). After few minutes of riding down we were soaked and could barely see the road. Either all the rain was dripping from my helmet on the sunglasses or I didn’t see anything at all without them. Luckily we wore our waterproof jacket underneath so we were freezing just a little bit.
Then it seemed like a good idea to have a break in the pouring rain to fuel up and got some snacks from our guide. A bit disappointed, we were instructed to get in the car for a short uphill section.
When we arrived at the start of the gravel Death Road, the weather was clearing up and temperatures rose. We patiently listened to the long instructions, which were mostly aimed to “non-bikers”, while silently envied travelers who came with their own car to bike the Death Road independently.
The road was carved into the side of the mountain with almost 1,000 meters high cliffs and constant rain was creating several waterfalls. No wonder that rock falls and mudslides were common.
Just as I was starting to have fun, we had to stop for a group photo. From now on, every stop for photos was getting harder to swallow. Are we biking the road or taking pictures with strangers, goddammit!
Our second guide was taking pictures while we were biking so why do we need thousands of photos with strangers we don’t know? To slow us down? To ruin our experience? We were reminded to slow down many times by all the crosses of the Death Road victims lining the road.
95% of the gravel road is very wide (wide enough for two opposing going cars) and it would be really hard to fall over the cliff unless you’re a maniac. Although there are few sketchy parts were the speed should be decreased significantly.
Unfortunately, most of the tourists killed or injured while biking down the road were either not paying attention when taking pictures of each other or didn’t adjust their speed to the weather conditions or their experience. They even built several guard rails along some of the riskiest turns. I can’t say I had a feeling of biking down a dangerous road. (Driving in the car would be a different story though, watch this video.)
We had no choice but to put up with the guide’s pointless photo stops. When you are forced to stop shortly after gaining speed because of some pictures (not because of the dangerous speed), you get fed up quite quickly.
Around 10 photo stops on a 40km road stretch? Com’on!
It was hard to tell if it was raining or the spray came from the waterfalls. Either way, we were having fun. The temperatures were slowly rising as we were descending and we didn’t mind the soaked bodies anymore. All we wanted was to enjoy the adrenaline that was hardly built up after each break.
Trying to convince our guide that we don’t need another group photo was pointless. He had to go first and lead the group. (Arghhh, I hate group tours)
All of a sudden a heat wave came, the waterfalls disappeared and the mud on the road turned into dust. We could finally take off wet clothes. The van was following the group so we could put away the soaking clothes.
And that was it. The end of the Death Road.
We arrived in Yolosa after 4 and something hours. At 1,200m the air was hotter and much drier than the last few hours. We had a delicious lunch buffet, plenty of time to hang out in the hammocks, take a shower or soak the tired body in the Yolosa river.
We said goodbye to the rainforest with hope not to ever hear of another lost life on the infamous Death Road.
Is this experience for you?
As if you couldn’t tell already, this ride is not for everyone. The road is not an advanced ride by any means but requires concentration, especially in a few narrow sections with high cliffs on your left side. Experienced bikers or travelers with the low level of fear will be annoyed by countless photo stops and waiting for slower bikers.
At least two other groups were biking down the Death Road at the same time and not all bikers were listening to the guide’s recommendations. Irresponsible drifting and passing was a real safety hazard. The less the experience bikers were, the more reckless their ride was.
This bike ride is vastly enjoyed among very young backpackers who use words ‘cool’ and ‘sick’ way too often,and by people who don’t bike often, or at all. One girl said she hasn’t been on a bike for years. And yes, she looked like she had just conquered Mount Everest. But, good for her! At least someone pushed their physical limits.
If you’re up for an adrenaline ride, Sorata single track looks like fun. You won’t find any non-bikers and crowds on the trail. This might be a real deal. I should also mention we’ve heard of a downhill ride from around 5,000 meters to 1,000m. I wish this was offered at the time we’ve visited La Paz. And I’m sure there are many other great rides.
In our honest opinion, biking Death Road is an overrated tourist attraction celebrated by wearing a cheesy t-shirt saying you’ve “survived the Death Road” to tell the tale.
Beginners, read further…
But if you are a beginner, given the big size of the groups, leading guide, extensive instructions and well-maintained bikes, it might be a good introduction into downhill biking.
If you’re lucky or the possibility is offered by the agency, the group might be split into fast and slow, which will increase the joy of the ride rapidly for both groups.
Tips for biking, gear and choosing an agency for biking the Death Road
From our experience and many reviews I’ve read, these are the best tips I can give you if you decide to go biking the Death Road.
We went with the first agency we found in La Paz offering the tour. It cost Bolivianos (52 USD) per person through No Fear Adventure travel agency. The only thing that matters when choosing a travel agency is the quality and maintenance (!) of their bikes. We were assured their bikes are in great conditions so we didn’t look any further.
Experienced guides are obviously in every agency. As with any guides on a group tour, you just need to trust their experience and let them do their job. All agencies put safety first, their livelihood depends on it.
They offer different types of bikes: front or full suspension and hydraulic or mechanic disk brakes. We chose bikes with the front suspension and hydraulic disk brakes. Full suspension is not really needed since the road is quite smooth for a gravel road. Hydraulic brakes were our preference since they have bigger braking power. But both brakes are fine, they are the most important part of the bike for this road, therefore it is the most maintained and checked component before every ride.
Before the ride, learn to use left and right brake and which one is connected to the front wheel and which one is for the rear. You want to use the rear brake more or both equally. If you were to use the front brake separately, it is more likely you fall over the bike. Hopefully, you knew this already.
We were provided with a jacket, pants, elbow & knee protectors, full fingers gloves and full face helmet. You should wear sneakers and waterproof jacket underneath if it rains in the beginning. When going biking, downhill especially, don’t forget glasses. Sunglasses are fine and will protect you from dust, gravel, and tiny flies. You don’t want anything to get into your eyes compromising your vision and balance.
Carrying a camera would be annoying and most of the agencies won’t allow you to take it. The reason is simple – prevent taking too many pictures and endanger others. We used our GoPro camera, which you can easily use during the ride. For your own sake and sake of others – take pictures from the side of the road closer to the rock wall. Don’t stand near the cliff edge or in the middle of the road, we’ve seen it too many times. It’s when the most accidents happen.
Price of the tour varies quite a lot. We paid 52 USD for a middle range bikes, skipped breakfast and also the t-shirt. Everything else was included in the price – gear, guide, lunch, transport, photos.
You can pay up to 130 USD in some agencies. From my extensive research, I found that all agencies basically offer the same. The higher price will get you (naturally) a full suspension bike, pool at the end of the ride and visit to an animal refuge.
There is a mandatory fee for entering the Death Road of 50 Bolivianos (7 USD) used towards maintenance and safety precautions on the road.
Road rules & safety
Guides are there to ensure the safety of all bikers. But remember that you are the one that is responsible for your very own safety. If you’re unfamiliar with road conditions or downhill biking, listen to the guides carefully.
The most confusing rule is driving on the left. Let me explain – cars drive on the right side in Bolivia, except for the Death Road where you are required to drive on the left. Why? The reason is simple – so that the driver (sits on the left side) has a better view of the edge of the road and can see the wheels of the car. It’s a safer practice when passing the upcoming traffic. You don’t want to guess on this road how much further you can go to the side when passing on narrow sections.
When we biked down the road, we didn’t see any traffic going up. Therefore there was a lot of space on the road and bikers were usually riding in the middle.
You will be instructed by your guide but I need to emphasize it here: when passing others, shout while approaching (give space at least 1 meter) to let them know you’re passing from left or right. People get too excited during the ride, forget to follow basic bike rules and can crash into each other.
You will be constantly using brakes on a gravel road. If you’re not used to doing that, your hands will get shaky and your fingers might go numb. Use the regular photo breaks to stretch your fingers and shake it off.
Whether you bike this road or any other, don’t forget to get travel insurance. In fact, you should already have insurance when you come here. Better be safe than sorry.
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If you decide to go, have fun! If not, let us know of other great rides you did in Bolivia or South America. We are always interested to hear about more biking trails!
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Great post! The Death Road has been on my bucket list for a while. After reading a post like yours, I just want to get up and go, but it will have to wait. Too many other places on the list…
Based on you comment, I don’t think you actually read the post.