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The Day I Cycled Down Bolivia’s Death Road

A road where 200 to 300 people are killed every year. Let me repeat this: 200 to 200 people EVERY YEAR. When I read about the Death Road for the first time, I felt distressed, and was freaked out about traveling on this narrow road when we would make it to Bolivia. Officially known as the Yungas Road, it winds through the mountains from Bolivia’s Yungas region all the way down to Coroico in the jungle region of the Amazon. The road, which is not even asphalted, is actually not very long – only 43 miles (69 km), and yet, there have been so many accidents that it is lined with crosses. Entire buses and trucks dropped off the cliffs regularly, never to be seen again. This is how the road earned the dubious title of the World’s Most Dangerous Road in 1995.

bolivia yungas roadWhen we started to plan our trip through South America, I found out that you can now take mountain bike tours down the Yungas Road – an agonizing leisurely 40-miles (64 kilometers) bike ride along the 2,000 feet (600 meter) deep cliffs, surrounded by lush green mountains and what was supposed to be some of Bolivia’s most stunning scenery. I was terrified and intrigued at the same time.

death road yungas road boliviaI later learned that the original Death Road had been replaced by a new, safer (asphalted!) road several years ago and was mainly used by thrill-seeking cyclists these days. Car traffic was apparently minimal – so the deal was sealed. The thought of cycling down this road didn’t seem as terrifying anymore now that I knew that I couldn’t collide with a truck or bus. Of course I could still drop off a cliff, since most of the road doesn’t have any guard rails, but I figured with some caution I would be fine. When the road was still in heavy use, the main reason for accidents was that in many spots it was too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other at the same time, causing the bus or truck on the cliff side to fall off.

death road panorama boliviaA leisurely bike ride along a 2,000 feet deep cliff

And so I found myself in a minivan leaving La Paz for the mountains on a gloomy morning, along with a few other travelers who were stupid brave enough to take on the Death Road. Our group of foolish daredevils consisted of Jess and me, a German couple, a French couple, a Bolivian couple, a young American solo traveler and a Brazilian guy.

bolivia death road mountainbikersWe started at La Cumbre, the highest point of the mountain range at 15,320 feet (4,670m). Our end point would be in Coroico, 12,000 feet lower than La Cumbre, at 2,950 feet (900 meters) – a crazy difference in altitude! We even had been told to bring bikinis to relax in a swimming pool in tropical surroundings after the ride – something that seemed completely ridiculous when we were shivering up on top of the mountain in the cold of the early morning.

death road riding through the fogWe were fitted into our gear – a jacket with elbow pads, pants with knee pads, gloves, and a full-face helmet, tested our mountain bikes (the brakes worked great, which was excellent news!) and off we went. For the first 20 kilometers we didn’t cycle on the actual Death Road, but on the new asphalt road to Coroico, to get used to the bikes. This part should have been an easy ride, but it was so foggy that you could barely see anything. I prayed that the fog would lift by the time we’d reach the Death Road. What if we weren’t even able to see the steep drop?

Jess ready to rock n roll

Fog and rain – nightmare #1

In terms of actual cycling, this part turned to be easy, since we basically just rolled down the mountain while holding down the brakes. At this point we were so cold that our fingers were completely stiff from holding on to the brakes so hard.

fog on the death roadThe weather gods didn’t seem to be on our side that day – as if the fog was not enough, it started to rain. After riding through the fog and rain for an hour and getting close to freezing to death before even reaching the Death Road, we stopped for a snack in a little village while the bikes were loaded up on the van. The next 8 kilometers were uphill, and since it was pouring now, we got to ride in the van for a few minutes.

fog on the yungas roadThen we arrived at the original Death Road. The fog had lifted, and we could see the road snake along the mountainside for miles, with imposing cliffs on the left side of the road. I started to feel a little uneasy, especially when our guide told us that we’d be riding on the left – the cliff – side of the road! This is the only road in Bolivia with left-hand traffic, the reason for this being that drivers who ride on the left see the cliff (since the steering wheel is still on the left side), and drivers who come up the road see how close they’re to the mountainside.

death road bolivia van

Oncoming traffic on the Death Road – nightmare #2

We also learned that since a landslide had covered part of the new road eleven months ago and the clean-up was still ongoing, trucks and local cars were using the death road again! This meant there would be oncoming traffic. I have to admit that had I known this before, I would probably NOT have signed up for the tour. I felt a bit better when our guide announced: ‘This is a tour, not a race. Take your time and enjoy the scenery.’ After being passed by some of the other tour groups, I realized that they saw this ride as a race, speeding down the hill as if it was about making it first over the finish line rather than alive and in one piece.

Death Road with TruckLuckily the rain had stopped, and so we started the ride in good spirits. Every time I dared to look down to my left, it resulted in my heart racing and sweaty palms. The drop was unbelievably steep, and you couldn’t see the bottom.

death road boliviaWe stopped several times to take photos – most of the time our guides took photos of all of us, since we were too busy holding on to the brakes and our camera gear was in the van that was following slowly behind us. After riding for a while we were even relaxed enough to pose for some goofy photos at the edge.

dani death road

Not one, but two accidents

The scariest moments were when cyclists of another group tried to pass us. There were eleven or twelve groups with around ten cyclists each, which means in total, well over one hundred people were biking down the road that day (and every other day of the year, in fact). We were supposed to yell ‘Passing on your left’ or ‘Passing on your right’ when overtaking other cyclists, but not all of them did that when they passed us. Some would just appear scarily close to my right – seemingly out of nowhere, at lightening speed, causing rocks to fly against my bike, which can result in ugly accidents.

death road cyclistsOur group of ten had two guides, and Jess and I were riding slower in the back with the Bolivian couple, and while one guide was riding with the daredevils of the group, the other guide was always in the back with us. The other six were much more daring than we were and were always way ahead of us – whenever you could see the road ahead of us on a less winding part, they were nowhere to be seen.

Death Road SurvivorsAfter about two thirds of the way, we rode on a flat part for a while – the first time all day that we had to use our pedals! Most of the time we just sat on the bike and hit the brakes hard, trying not to go over the edge. Because there are so many curves on the way, the cars that come up the road usually honk before turning around a corner. At some point, a car turned around the corner so suddenly that the sound of honk took me by such surprise that I hit the brakes too hard – and I flew over the handlebars. Luckily I didn’t go over the edge and was able to catch the bike before it went over, making this an incident without a tragic outcome (except for me being terribly shaken up with visions of me on a rock at the bottom of the mountain).

death road daniNot long after that, I heard a loud crash behind me and when I turned around, I saw Jess on the ground, her bike upside down in the slope next to her. It turned out that she had also been lucky and the accident looked much worse than it was – a minute later she was back in the saddle and raced towards the end, having become much more comfortable than me on the bike.

Death Road on a rainy dayA few minutes later, we arrived at the main road – we had survived the Death Road! Not quite accident-free, but we lived.

All of the Death Road cycling tours include a buffet lunch at a hotel with a swimming pool in the valley, and our group celebrated our survival over some beers and lunch – though it was already late afternoon. Somehow it had taken us much longer than the two to three hours we’d been told to cycle down the road.

dath road bolivia

The Death Toll Is Still Rising

Before we drove back to La Paz, our guide told us that the day before, a guy had gone over the edge – he lived, but was in the hospital with several broken bones. He had cycled with a company called Overdose, whose group we had met briefly early in the morning, and we weren’t surprised to hear that it was this company – they were among those cyclists that were racing down the road at full speed. We learned that in addition to the thousands of people who had died in cars and buses on the Yungas Road, 21 cyclists and 5 guides have died since the road had been opened for mountain bike trips. It might not be the most dangerous road in the world anymore, but it is still the Death Road.

death road yungas road cross

Tips on surviving the death road

Keep in mind that even though between one and two hundred people survive the death road every single day, accidents also occur on a daily basis.

Make sure to choose a tour company that provides you with full safety gear, especially a full-face helmet. The most expensive tour company, Gravity, only provides vests and not always full-face helmets – you can read here what this can result in.

Cycle at your own pace and be careful when passing other cyclists.

Don’t try to take pictures while cycling! That is one of the most common reasons for accidents.

Check Tripadvisor for the latest reviews for the company of your choice before booking your trip.

Death Road Drops

Our tour company

We went with Vertigo Biking, and were happy with the service they provided. The bikes (Haro mountain bikes) were excellent and I was thankful for the full-face helmet.

Vertigo charges 480 Bolivianos (US$70) for the Death Road trip, which includes a snack, full lunch buffet, a T-Shirt and a CD with all photos of the day.

Would you cycle down the Death Road? Or have you been to Bolivia and are the proud owner of an ‘I survived the Death Road’ T-Shirt, too?

hanging out at the edge***

Thanks to our guide Kenneth for taking some great shots of our group!
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38 Comments

  1. Wow! I;ve read about this before! Poi would love to cycle down the death road but I’m not sure I have the balls to do it!
    I would be so nervous I think I would create an accident like you did!

    1. Kirsty – He’d probably be one of the guys in front racing down as fast as possible 😉 Are you planning to head to South America any time soon? Love the new look of your site, btw!

    1. Haha, instead of getting paid to do it we were actually forking out quite a bit of money to do this .. at least for Bolivian standards 😉 (and possibly not even make it down alive!)

  2. Well done for doing this! I have read a lot about these trips and I go back and forth between whether I want to do this on my trip to South America. I think I just wouldn’t be confident enough on the bike. I don’t even like riding my bike on the roads when there’s not a cliff around!

    1. Thanks, Miriam 🙂 A rush for sure!! Somebody just asked me if I’d do it again and I don’t think I would. Would you?? 😀

  3. Loved this article, I’m a fellow death road survivor! It’s amo nice you were in a small group, my group had about 35 people in it which I thought was too much (I paid the same as you). It was a great one time experience, but I would never do it again!

    1. High five for surviving the death road, too, Hannah! I can’t get over the fact that you were 35 people in your group!! That’s insane! Did everybody make it down accident-free?

  4. I loved biking the Death Road! My favourite part was actually the first paved downhill road before reaching the Death Road. I love zooming down paved roads and we had spectacular weather and the scenery was amazing. I started off slow on the death road but after teh first stop I gained my confidence and was in the middle of the pack rather than the back. My tip would be to not break hard as you can skid out and go over the edge, if you slowly slow down before getting to a corner there is much less chance you will skid on the loose gravel. We stayed a couple of nights in Coroico after and its a great little town too.

    1. The paved part would’ve been so nice had it not been so cold and foggy when we did it. I knew that I shouldn’t have hit the brakes so hard but because the honking caught me by such surprise I was too stunned to remember it in that moment 😉 I wish we would’ve spent a couple of nights in Coroico as well – I couldn’t believe how tropical it was down in the valley compared to La Paz! Such a short distance away, yet so different.

  5. Wow! I am so intrigued by this. Must have felt like such an accomplishment to finish! I don’t know if I would be brave enough to attempt this, though it sounds awesome. I’m not very graceful on a bike.

    1. It felt like an accomplishment to SURVIVE, Miquel! 😉 There were quite a few people who weren’t very experienced on a bike but they still couldn’t resist the thrill. Or they got talked into it by their partner 😀

  6. So glad that you came out the other side okay!

    It’s fascinating to read about the ups and downs of the journey and the sad dark reality that is the yearly death toll.

    1. Yes, I had no idea there were still so many accidents on the road, Dale. However, having seen how fast some of the cyclists race down the road, it doesn’t surprise me! It seemed like many of them didn’t value their lives very much.

      1. Maybe they’re just really super happy with their lives and they feel that they’re done all they could? It could just be that they think if happens, then it must just be there time to go.

  7. That in insane! Part of me wants to say that of course I would do it – my boyfriend is really into cycling and this would be right up his alley. But the other part of me knows how terrified I would be the entire time!

    1. Amanda – I think you’ll end up doing it when you make it down to Bolivia 😉 Trust me, I was terrified the entire time but I still did it 😀

    1. Brave or simply stupid?! I am definitely glad I didn’t look up too many reviews for the tour companies beforehand.. some of the accidents sound horrifying! I wish the road was a little bit safer (or less idiots on it!) because the scenery was simply amazing.

  8. Death Road is definitely a must do when in Bolivia. I didn’t do the ride but took a bus from La Paz to Amazon Basin 12 hours along the road. Oh we what an adventure lets just say on the way back decided to spend the money and fly. Glad you got to experience that adventure though.

  9. Soy argentino, hice la “death road” in march 2013, en camioneta (Toyota 4×4), nunca sentí tanto vértigo y pánico. Para sentir adrenalina hay que hacer esa ruta en automóvil o camioneta 4×4 antes que moto o bicicleta. Viajé especialmente desde Buenos Aires a La Paz en camioneta y luego, hice esta ruta. Los testículos en la garganta del miedo, no miraba al costado cuando manejaba porque parecía el hades. El menor error y te vas con el vehículo al infierno. Bellísimo, cascadas de agua, el camino muy resbaloso, en pocos kilómetros se desciende del altiplano a 3.700 mts. a la selva amazónica, precipicios impresionantes, muy angosto, para crazys y temerarios.

  10. I have tickets to fly to Bolivia this January over my winter break. I had fully intended to go biking on Death Road, however, I also read that it is the rainy season at that time so it would be very dangerous. Has anyone else done it in early January?

    1. Scary for sure! I was talking to a friend about traveling through Bolivia with her and was wondering if I’d do it again… I think that would stretch my luck a little too much though 😀

  11. Soy argentino, Yo la hice en febrero de 2013 pero no en bicycle, en camioneta, una toyota hilux, sólo en vehículo automóvil se siente emoción y vértigo, en bicicleta es tranquilo, pero en camioneta se siene miedo y pánico, fue un flash, onírico, no miraba los precipicios mientras manejaba porque me asustaba, caídas de agua y niebla que te impiden la visual, el suelo muy enjabonado, resbaloso, cientos de cruces recuerdan a los muertos, el menor error y te vas al Hades, una aventura exótica pasar el reten militar previo a tomar la ruta porque llevaba gasolina y la consideran un precursos químico para la producción de cocaína, antes de llegar a Coroico ya se ven los cultivos y las cholas secando las hojas de coca, espectacular el viaje, sólo para locos y temerarios, asustadizos abstenerse.

    1. I don’t know how independent travelers get to the start of the road, because all the tour companies who offer the ride arrange transportation from La Paz to the start of the Death Road (mini vans). The starting point is La Cumbre.

  12. Hey There,
    this is a great piece, I am just researching now for our family trip later this year. I would love to do Deat Road although it scares the bejeezus outta me. I have two boys who will be 16 and 17 when we go …. tell me honestly what are your thoughts about going with teenagers?

    Cheers!
    Elizabeth X

  13. Great post and advice! I just did the Death Road yesterday and had a fantastic time. I admit I was a lot more scared than necessary at first but then relaxed. That is, until two people on our tour were taken away on ambulances. Yikes! Wonderful tips and glad you survived!! I hope you don’t mind but I linked your blog on my own about the Death Road 🙂 Thanks again!

    PS. I think it’s important to know that 200-300 people don’t die anymore on the road. That was the case in the 80s but between the new road and guard rails, things have vastly improved. Since dangerous though (as my tour group found out!)

    Tam @ http://freshcoffeestains.com/death-road/

    1. Hi Tam, wow!! That’s insane, what happened to them? A bad fall? I am so glad you survived! I have to re-read my article.. I thought I had made it clear that those are the numbers of people who used to die there, but not anymore.

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