Sheer thousand foot drops await anyone daring to take on the 60+ kilometer downhill thrill ride and a single lapse in one’s attention can lead to a tragic death. Despite this, thousands of cyclists dare to take on this feat every year, ignoring the extraordinarily high body count. When the road was still in use, hundreds of people died every year from accidents. 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 ordinary bike ride through the park. Impeccable concentration, focus, and reflexes are required if you want to survive the several hour ride with nothing more than an aching bum.
With that being said, Death Road was a ridiculous amount of fun. It was undoubtedly the thrill that I had been waiting for during my South American expedition, and it actually pushed me to bike down a volcano a week later 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, and it feels even longer when you’re biking down an unpaved rocky cliffside. Your hands and bum will hurt and you’ll 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 from the get-go, just remember that you’ll 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.
Mostly 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 great. We had proper equipment, patient guides, and a good supply of food and water. Death Road can be an expensive trip, usually around $100 US. Where you might try to save money on a hostel or skimp out on a meal to make your funds last longer, booking a good tour group for Death Road is not something you want to be stingy on. A quality mountain bike will make your experience so much better, and more importantly, will keep you safer than a cheaper tour agency that uses less trustworthy equipment.
The ride itself begins on a winding, paved road surrounded by some beautiful scenery. Dark mountains looming in the backgrounds only add to the mystique of the name “Death Road.” The 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.
Once you get off the paved road and onto the rocks, just expect an achy butt the next day. Something 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.
The rest of the ride is straightforward. You’ll have some rough terrain, and sometimes 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.
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.
Check out a glimpse of Death Road in my Bolivia video below!