There I was dressed head to toe in bright, protective clothing. Heart beating a thousand miles per hour. Hands sweating profusely as I gripped my hands even tighter around the handles. Dramatic cliff drops to my left, ahead of me kilometres and kilometres of harsh gravel road. And by harsh gravel, I mean jagged rocks, huge stones, mud and potholes. It was then that I thought to myself: “what have I gotten myself into?!”
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With a death toll between 200-300 people each year, Death Road was known as the World’s Most Dangerous Road. In recent times with road renovations and less traffic, the Death Road has significantly fewer deaths with an estimate of 18 cyclists dying on the ride since 1998. Despite the decrease in death toll, it is still a dangerous road – it has hardly any guard rails and is lined with cliffs, the heights of which can be up to 600 metres. This has made bike riding Death Road a popular tourist activity in Bolivia for many thrill-seeking travellers, like myself.
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Getting There & Geared Up
The morning began at 8am as myself and my travel group crammed into our blue van loaded with our bikes, equipment, 2 guides and 1 driver. As we drove out of the huge city, we made our way deeper into the mountain ranges and up to our freezing cold starting point at 4700m above sea level. It took us 1 hour to reach our starting point, La Cumbre Pass, from the inner city of La Paz. Surrounding us and the other cycling tour groups were spectacular ice-covered mountains and frosted-over paddocks.
Our group of 8 riders was a lot smaller than the other company groups, many of them reaching up into the ‘teens. It was probably better that we were a smaller group; we were less likely to have a huge spread of cycling paces then. We were each fitted with knee and elbow pads, pants, jackets, gloves and helmets – definitely not the most attractive outfits but I guess if we were crazy enough to bike Death Road we may as well look crazy doing it!
Our guides provided us with some tea, coffee and coconut cake while we each grabbed the right size bike and gave them a test ride around our van area. It was the first time I had ridden a bike, let alone a mountain bike, in a while so it took me a little while to adjust and find my stride. As we came to a stop, our guides attempted to pump us up with some upbeat music. Funnily enough just as we were about to set off, Internet Friends by Knife Party echoed out of the speakers with the line “now you’re going to die” – my mate and I exchanged a look and a nervous giggle.
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Death Road: The First Section
The first 24km was a breeze. The smooth tarmac was easy and helped us get used to our bike. I had never rode a bike so fast down hills, around corners and on the road before – it was exhilarating. Although somewhat frightening at first, as we kept going I gained more confidence and was able to glide down the long, windy road with ease. Without having to concentrate on every single section of the road, I was able to take in the absolutely stunning scenery around me. The view of the Andes Mountains and surrounding snow-topped cliff faces were pretty dazzling.
The ride was great, even when overtaking trucks around winding curves, until we hit our first section of loose gravel. I had never had any practice or experience riding on gravel before so I was freaking out at every large stone, pothole and change in the path. I was so frightened that my bike would skid out beneath me – and the girl in front of me had that very problem, as she did a scary, yet very graceful fall in front of me. She handled it well though, and was back up within seconds. We jumped back on the bus for 20 minutes as it brought us to the next section of the road. I had survived my first dose of gravel road, and completed the first section of Death Road.
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Death Road: The Second Section
We arrived at the start of the second section, and to my horror the road was once again made of rough gravel. I don’t know what I was expecting but I didn’t think I’d be so worried about how many times I’d be falling off or crashing on the way down. The views of the trail winding down through the fogged covered mountains were superb and terribly frightening.
Without a second to spare, our guide had set off down the descent. I had yet to build up the courage but that didn’t stop me from pushing my feet off the ground and starting the bumpy journey down the next 30km of road. Our group found our biking order pretty quickly, with the strongest and fastest riders at the front and the less confident and slower towards the back – I trailed behind in the second last position.
Surprisingly the road wasn’t as thin as I had originally thought, with the smallest sections about 2.5m wide – although it was still lined with steep drops on one side. We were told to ride on the left side of the road – the cliff side eeek!
I kept my hands over the breaks the whole way down, I didn’t want to get over confident and stack it. I found that if I kept going at a decent pace, the bike would find its way over the potholes and rough rocky patches by itself (mostly). The road became rougher as we went – I really admired the bravery (or craziness?) of the people in front of me who were riding straight into these rough patches without fear or hesitation! I tried to take a leaf out of their books and attempted to use my brakes a little less, and it definitely helped – even if I was clenching my teeth around every bend and over every rock. To be fair though, one mistake and you’d be over the edge – whether it be from hitting a rock, going too fast or by simply overestimating your turning circle.
Through waterfalls, around tight corners and rough sections, we made our way from the snow-covered mountain ranges and through the Amazon jungle. I was mildly freaking out as a few times my bike began to skid out underneath me but I was able to control it. We stopped several times over the course of this road – for snacks, stripping off layers and bathroom breaks.
While we were riding I started to develop some nasty blisters on my hands. They were super painful and got worse with each bump in the road – I don’t think I’ve cursed as much as I did on this road in my entire life. By the end of the ride, not only were my hands aching but my knees had begun to lock up and my backside incredibly sore – I couldn’t wait to reach the bottom of the trail. Finally the end was in sight, just a quick little downhill stint further. I gripped tightly and clenched my teeth and made it to the bottom, to be met with the others congratulating me. We had made it!
I had survived the most dangerous road in the world, with only a few blisters and a sore backside!
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Tips for bike riding Death Road
- Go at your own pace – better to be safe than sorry!
- Don’t stick too close to the mountain – believe it or not, more accidents happen from people hitting the rocks next to them rather than from the cliff side.
- Stand up and ride when you hit rocky section – you’ll have more balance and a less sore backside by the end of it.
- A bit of speed over the rocky sections is good as well – the wheel of the bike is less likely to get stuck and spin out on you.
- Don’t go too fast around corners – you don’t want to lose control around them.
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- Location: “Death Road” North Yungas Road, La Paz, Bolivia
- Company: Altitude Biking
- Price: $600 – $700 Bolivian Pesos (approx. $105AUD) includes transport, bikes & equipment, guides, videos & photos and meals + $25 Bolivian Pesos for National Park entry.
Photography Credit: Altitude Biking