I am not a mountain biker. At least I didn’t think I was. I am however, a bit of a risk taker. Nothing too crazy, but I will step out of my comfort zone once in a while. So why not try Death Road Bolivia on a bike?
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During my time in La Paz, Bolivia I learn about Yungus Road. Perhaps you know it as Death Road, or El Camino de la Muerte.
Built in the 1930’s, this precarious road was the only connection between La Paz and the northern part of the country. It rose to fame in the 1990’s after a series of accidents saw vehicles tumbling over the edge of the mountain.
Death Road is the most dangerous road in the world.
Having two way traffic on a one lane dirt road, carved into the side of a mountain, with a straight drop on one side, and zero guard rails will do that, I suppose.
Nowadays most vehicles us a different, paved road. Some locals do still use the old road because it connects to some of the more remote towns in the countryside.
The old road is now used for cycling, and has become popular with thrill seeking backpackers.
As it turns out, I am one such solo female traveller.
Let me tell you, I researched this idea to death (unintentional pun, but it fits so I’m leaving it. You’re welcome).
Which Tour Company?
I hear consistently awesome things about Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking so it is an easy decision on who to book with.
I don’t book anything ahead of time, because what if I chicken out? Instead, I book in person, the day before.
Gravity Assisted’s office is at 940 Linares in La Paz. Look for a small doorway into a courtyard. From the street, there is a flag above the doorway with their name, but it’s high up and very easy to miss. Once in the courtyard, Gravity Assisted is on the second level.
I am fitted for gloves, helmet and bike size when I sign up and am given a list of things to bring.
In a nutshell, bring a change of clean, dry clothes so you can shower at the end.
Before Riding Death Road
The morning of the ride I am suddenly very aware of the fact that I have zero coordination or balance. I’m convinced I’m going to roll off the mountain and become a statistic.
The meeting point is at Sol y Luna Cafe at the corner of Murillo & Cochabamba. As people arrive, the excitement is palpable and the guides are just as excited. It’s such a great atmosphere already.
The bus leaves at 7:30am. If your hostel isn’t serving breakfast that early, not to worry – Sol y Luna has a breakfast menu. You can eat in or get it to go and eat on the bus, since it’s a one hour drive to the starting point.
Also, the tour guides hand out snacks, sandwiches and water throughout the day so you really don’t need to bring much.
The guides on the day I rode were Rob and Simon and they were absolutely fantastic for experiencing Death Road Bolivia on a bike.
They carry a small point and shoot camera to take photos of us as we pass by at various points on the ride. Don’t expect clear, amazing photos but at least you get a few action shots of yourself.
On the drive to the starting point, our gear is handed out. The pants and jacket are fairly heavy, protective, and cover everything. Your clothes underneath will not get ruined.
Your shoes, however…don’t wear your Sunday best, let’s say that.
Most of your stuff stays on the bus and is completely safe, as the bus is always following the group.
The altitude of Death Road is 4,850m. By the end, you’ve covered about 65km and will now be at 1,900m.
You’ll experience every type of weather on Death Road!
At the starting point we go over the rules, what to expect, what not to do, and all that jazz. Then the bikes are unloaded, and we spend a few minutes riding around and getting acquainted with our bikes.
The bikes are absolutely fantastic! They are in perfect condition. The shocks, brakes and tires are top notch and brand new.
We group together one last time to do a good luck ritual. “Chichi de colla” is passed around.
Bolivian moonshine, basically.
As the bottle goes around, we each spill a bit on our bike (for luck to carry us through the ride), a bit on the ground (an offering to show respect to Mother Earth), and then took a sip.
Me, graceful as always, tried to only take a tiny sip but instead ended up pouring half of it down my throat.
I guess I wanted shots at 9am? So gross!
Then we’re off…
The first twenty or so kilometres is tarmac on a public road. I am really nervous and convinced I am going to fall off, get hit by a truck, and die.
I don’t overreact, you overreact.
Don’t worry about keeping up with your group if you’re not comfortable going at their speeds. There is always a guide leading and one at the back.
Plus, the bus will never pass the last rider so don’t fear being left behind.
The lead guide stops every few kilometres to give everyone a chance to catch up and to explain what’s coming up in the next section.
After the tarmac comes the gravel. I slide all over the place at first, and am completely intimidated. But once I get used to it, and figure out how to control the bike and let the suspension do most of the work, it was really – REALLY – cool.
The scenery from Death Road. It’s unreal. No photos will ever do it justice.
Isn’t that always the case with beautiful places though – you have to go and see with your own eyes, to really ‘get’ it.
As for actual riding, there is minimal pedaling involved for most of it. As amazing as the bikes are, it is crucial that you be comfortable in your ability to control a bike.
I gain speed so fast, it surprises me how easy it is to lose control. I know, I know…it’s downhill. Just be aware that things can get real serious, real quick.
This is the main thing to consider when thinking about Death Road safety, and if riding Death Road is worth it to you.
Also, if you are nervous and stiff with locked joints, and sit on the seat for the whole ride, you will be VERY sore the next day. Again, it is imperative that you understand the bikes suspension and let it take most of the impact.
This will save you.
There is a stretch of about seven kilometres that is uphill. Not a steep incline, but definitely harder than the downhill we had been doing up until that point. We have the option to ride in the bus, or bike it.
I get cocky because hey, I can handle stuff. I join the few who decided to ride it.
Turns out no, I cannot handle stuff. Not at all. What I failed to take into consideration was:
- the weight of the bike,
- the weight of the extra gear I was wearing, and, most importantly,
- the altitude.
I get about 800m in, and know there is no way I could finish. I’ve never been put in my place so fast. And by a mountain!
I end up walking the bike in the rain waiting for the bus to catch up to me. Not my finest moment. But I don’t regret trying.
What Should I Wear?
December is the start of Bolivia’s rainy season, and I ride on December 23 (Merry Christmas to me!).
Considering the ride will take you through almost every weather type possible, I had no idea what to wear. How exactly do I prepare to experience Death Road Bolivia on a bike?? I went with the golden rule of backpacking…layers.
I wear leggings, a t-shirt, a hoodie, the inner shell of a 3-in-1 North Face, and Adidas runners. On top of all of that, I have on Gravity’s riding gear. I am never cold. The opposite, in fact. I take off the hoodie and North Face very early on.
Near the bottom, it is much warmer. Most of us take all of the riding gear off, except for our helmets and gloves, which is the mandatory minimum.
The Zip Line Option
Another option is to go zip lining at the end.
I’m terrified of heights and have never ridden down a mountain, nor zip lined. Let’s do it! (I am on a face-your-fears kick today.)
It is a great end to an awesome ride.
I choose to ride superman (on my stomach for better views), but you can also go or sitting up.
The ride to the start is actually quite ridiculous, once I stop to think about it…
Three of us are strapped up into harnesses, limiting our mobility. We willingly hop into the open bed of a truck, driven by locals we just met three minutes ago, none of us speak Spanish, and we have no idea where we are going.
It’s only about a ten minute drive. A guide rides with me on each of the three lines to add more weight.
Finishing The Day
From there, we hop on the bus to an animal refuge.
Everyone heads into the locker rooms to take a hot shower, which felt amazing after all that!
Later we sit down to a late buffet lunch. The guides hook up the camera to the TVs so our photos play as we eat. It is an awesome ending to an amazing day.
The drive back to La Paz is about three hours. It is a serious struggle to stay awake by this point, but definitely try! The sunset views as you drive are amazing!!!
This turns out to be one of my most memorable days in Bolivia. If you get the chance, I highly recommend you do a Death Road tour! I promise you won’t regret it!