Sheer thousand foot drops await anyone daring enough to take on this 60+ kilometer downhill thrill ride. Bolivia’s Death Road has gained notoriety and infamy among travelers across the world. It’s pretty easy to see why this adventure has piqued the fascination of anyone traveling through Bolivia. When the road was still in use, hundreds of people died every year from accidents.
A single lapse in one’s attention can lead to a tragic death. Despite this, thousands of cyclists choose to take on this feat every year, ignoring the extraordinarily high body count. A newer (still pretty dangerous) road has thankfully taken the place of Death Road and all that remains now is a touristic rollercoaster ride with some killer views, pun intended.
Sorry, Death Road is nothing to joke about. Before you go traipsing off to ride a bike potentially to your death, remember one thing. People die. The death toll is nowhere near what it was when it was used regularly by actual vehicles but a number of cyclists have still fallen to their deaths since it became a popular tourist attraction. Death Road is incredibly dangerous and even skilled mountain bikers will find that this is not your typical cruise through the park. Impeccable concentration, focus, and reflexes are required if you want to survive this several hour ride with nothing more than an aching bum.
With that being said, biking down Death Road was a ridiculous amount of fun. It was the thrill that I had been waiting for during my South American expedition. It actually pushed me to bike down a volcano a week later just to try and re-experience that adrenaline rush. If you are fearless and capable of not falling off a bike (you hardly have to cycle as it’s all downhill), then you can do Death Road. Again, this doesn’t mean everyone should do Death Road because it is dangerous, terrifying, and most importantly, long.
Sixty kilometers is a long distance. It feels even longer when you’re biking down an unpaved rocky cliffside. Your hands and butt will hurt. You will hardly be able to last ten minutes without stopping just to let your tightly clenched fists stretch out for a second. If you are terrified or struggling from the get-go, remember that you have several more hours of this to go.
If you go through a tour company, you might be able to hop on the bus and ride through Death Road on there but that might actually be even more terrifying. Death Road requires a lot of physical and mental endurance. It would be extremely dangerous for everyone involved if even one hopelessly unprepared tourist decides to hop on a bike just to get a cool picture.
I definitely went on way too long about whether or not you should take on Death Road but I really can’t stress enough how different this tourist activity is from other “tourist” activities. This isn’t your everyday walking tour or a trip to see the Colosseum. You’re biking down a goddamn mountain for several hours, using every bit of mental and physical endurance you’ve got available.
Promise that you won’t be an idiot? Okay, good. Read on.
Picking Your Tour Company
Almost every tour company in La Paz offers a Death Road Excursion. Some of the most popular ones are Gravity, Vertigo, and Barracuda. I went with Barracuda and they handled everything extremely well. We were provided with proper equipment, patient guides and a good supply of food and water.
Death Road can be an expensive trip, usually around $100 US. You might try to save money on a hostel or skimp out on a meal to make your funds last longer but booking a good tour for Death Road is not something you want to be stingy with. Trust me, going for the cheaper option sounds tempting until you find yourself trusting your life with a janky bike that feels like it will fall apart any second.
A quality mountain bike will make your experience so much better. More importantly, it will keep you safer than a cheaper tour with less trustworthy equipment. I do not generally consider myself to be a thrill seeker but I was having the time of my life. A big part of that can be attributed to being comfortable with my bike and my equipment. I had three friends go for a cheaper option and told me they were practically fearing for their lives the entire time.
The ride itself begins on a winding, paved road surrounded by beautiful scenery. Dark mountains looming in the backgrounds only add to the mystique of the name “Death Road.” It feels a bit ominous, almost as if you are riding towards Mordor and Mount Doom towers above you.
This early part is a good way to test your skills and get a feel for riding the bulkier bikes. A few potholes here and there are the only things keeping you from some smooth sailing down the highway. Enjoy this part, because it only gets worse.
Oh yeah, before you start, you are required to pour one out for Pachamama. What does that mean? Well, Pachamama is Mother Earth and a custom in this region of South America is to provide an offering to Pachamama before a big event. In this case, you pour a shot of this insanely strong alcohol onto the ground… then take a shot yourself. Is a shot exactly what you need before going on the most dangerous bike ride of your life? Confidence boost, I guess.
Taking On Death Road
This is where the fun begins.
Once you get off the paved road and onto the rocks, the only thing I can guarantee is a sore butt the next day. Another thing that you might not prepare for is how awful your hands will feel. You’ll be clenching as tightly as possible to the handlebars as the bike sends endless vibrations throughout your body. In this case, the gateway to your body would be your hands, so if you have them, bring gloves. The tour company might provide gloves, but to at least slightly ease the pain, one should bring gloves.
This stretch is going to be pretty brutal. You are either riding on rocks or dirt and as you can see in the picture above, it isn’t always dry. Pray that your bike’s traction holds throughout the whole way.
There are usually a few tour companies doing this on any given day so you will be sharing the road with several dozen other people. The road is long though, so it never really feels like it is crowded. A lot of tours have designated stopping points for pictures or just to make sure that everyone is still alive and doing okay. This means you’ll occasionally have to navigate through big groups of people, some of whom will likely be completely oblivious to the rest of their surroundings. It’s important to take this into account. A crash that isn’t your fault is still a crash, painful and potentially lethal.
Aside from the fact that you are just one mistake away from falling thousands of feet to severe injury or death, the only other scary part is the vans and buses that still use the road. The road curves and winds a lot so you might not even be able to see them coming. How they even squeeze by on the roads, I have no idea but all I know is I was glad I was on a bike and not on a bus. They call it Death Road for a reason as many cars and buses have fallen off the edge. Keep an eye out for the occasional gravestone or cross marking where some bikers have died.
The ride is scenic and lush, with the vast jungles and valleys likely among the greenest you will ever find in the world. You’ll have some rough terrain, some slippery stretches but once you’ve done the first hour or so, you’ve probably experienced everything you can expect. That doesn’t mean it becomes easy or fun or that you can relax for a bit. This is no ordinary bike ride. This is a survival ride. Stay focused. A single lapse in concentration can be your downfall.
Oh also, don’t look down.
Once you’ve finished the ride, you’ll feel nothing more than exhaustion, hunger, and an overwhelming need for a long nap and a hot shower. But you’ve done it. You’ve accomplished it and for a fleeting moment, you feel as if you’ve won an Olympic gold medal.
There is an incredible feeling of adrenaline and ecstasy during this ride. The rush itself was enough to make me want to do it again. Like I said earlier, it definitely isn’t for everybody. If reading this makes you queasy, I recommend not doing it, for your sake and for the other bikers’ sakes. However, if you are feeling bold and adventurous, this will be the ride of your life.
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Check out a glimpse of Death Road in my Bolivia video below!