On a sunny Wednesday right outside of La Paz in Bolivia, I found myself adorned from head to toe in cycling gear, standing at the summit of a 40-mile downhill road. While technically called Old Road, the path is more commonly known as Death Road, even by locals. While I’ve written about numerous travel destinations with menacing names, such as Devil’s Tooth in Bolivia, Death Valley in Chile and Hell’s Gate in New Zealand, the name Death Road should be taken very literally.
The road was originally built by prisoners of war from Paraguay in 1932. Before 2006, Death Road was the only connection between La Paz and the jungle. According to Oscar, before this time there were about 25 cars per year and about 2 bikes per year that would fall over the edge. The terrain is rough and the road is narrow, so there isn’t very much space to move over. Along the trail you can even see memorials dedicated to lost lives, like an area called “The Balcony,” where several politicians were killed. If you climb down the steep valleys – which I don’t advise – you can still see some buses that fell over the edge. Even knowing these facts, I knew it was something I had to experience for myself. It’s kind of like flying; yes, people die on airplanes, but a majority of fliers survive the journey. I knew if I kept a positive attitude and focused, I too could survive Death Road.Before going, I made the mistake of reading other travelers’ accounts of the journey. After reading stories of almost toppling over steep cliff faces, skidding out of control on narrow paths and being so terrified needing to quit and ride in the van, I felt nauseous and anxious the day of the ride. However, my nervousness was overcome by curiosity at seeing just how dangerous this road was. While the road is safer now, accidents still happen. For example, in January there was a landslide that caused a bus to go over the edge. Furthermore, last year a Japanese tourist, who booked the tour through a cheap and unreliable company, lost control of her bike due to a brake failure and fell 200 feet to her death.
For this reason, my first piece of advice when undertaking a bike ride down Death Road is to choose a good tour operator. There are plenty of companies out there willing to give anybody a bike without caring if it really works or not. I highly recommend Vertigo Biking Co. Bolivia. The bikes are high quality, and they make sure to test them before each run. Moreover, there is a guide in front and a guide in back of the group the entire time. A van is also following nearby, in case anybody gets altitude sickness or can’t make the full journey. And if you’re extremely slow like me, it helped that the guides stopped the group for pictures every 10 to 20 minutes. The company also does a lot to help make the area safer. In 2009, a man taking a Vertigo tour fainted on the trail, and passed away from a punctured lung on the way home. The company has a good relationship with the family of this man, who has helped donate an ambulance and worked with Vertigo to build fences and memorials on the road.
The first part of the ride entails driving on the highway to get to the entry point at Unduavi. Don’t get too comfortable though, as this is just to help you get used to the bike. From there, the road gets extremely rocky. I don’t just mean gravel, but a mixture of large stones, pebbles and jagged rock. Because of this, it’s quite easy to lose control of the bike, and there are basically no guardrails to save you.
This leads me to my next piece of advice, which is to take your time. I was 20 minutes behind the group the whole ride, and didn’t feel the least bit bad. I wanted to feel safe and enjoy the scenery, not feel unstable and scared. Additionally, sharp turns, dangerous corners and downhill sections can make the journey precarious. Oscar was great about it, joking with the group “this section will take us 10 minutes. Well, 30 minutes if you’re Jessica.” No matter how slow I went, the back guide stayed with me, as well. Going at a slow pace, I never felt like I was going to fly over the edge. Don’t get me wrong, looking down the endless cliff will definitely bring butterflies to your stomach, but stay away from the edge and keep control and your biggest concern will be a busted kneecap – still not fun, but better than dying. Our guide actually told us that about once or twice a month, he gets riders who panic and cry because of the heights. However, being afraid of heights myself, I never felt scared, as long as I cycled away from the edge.
Along the way, you’ll pass villages, waterfalls and beautiful mountain landscapes. The last 20 minutes of the journey are on a mix of mud, dirt and rock. Once you finish, you will be greatly rewarded. The tour ends at a tropical-themed hotel in the Coroico area with a delicious buffet lunch of soup, salad, rice, pasta, fried chicken, plantains, French fries and sauces. You can also swim in the pool and tan in a tropical setting. Shampoo and towels are provided if you’d like to shower.
For me, a great tour means feeling safe, getting a worthwhile experience and having a guide who feels more like a friend than an instructor. This tour provided just that, as Oscar told us funny stories and dedicated silly songs to us on the way home, even inviting the group to dinner and to play soccer with him the next day. The tour cost me 450 Bolivianos (about $65), but I was told they were having a sale for people purchasing in person, and the price is usually 540$BOB (about $78). Along with the tour, you will also get photos, a video and a free T-shirt to show everyone that you lived to tell the tale of conquering Death Road.