Rocks and mud. Sheer drop-offs. Hundreds of fatalities a year. These are some of the hallmarks of Bolivia's North Yungas Road, aka Death Road. Yet it is these very ominous attributes that draw throngs of people to the spiraling, downhill path every year, where the challenge is to bike down the road — and live to tell about it.
Death Road, or El Camino de la Muerte in Spanish, tumbles downward some 43 miles (69.2 kilometers) from La Paz — the world's highest national capital at 11,942 feet (3,640 meters) above sea level — to Coroico, a sleepy town near the Amazon rainforest with an elevation of 4,826 feet (1,471 meters). Death Road isn't insanely steep; many stretches dish up grades in the single digits. But it's long, filled with sharp curves, and sports a sheer rock face on one side and a steep drop-off into a 2,000-foot (610-meter) abyss on the other. To top it off, the weather here is often rainy and foggy, hampering visibility.
Paraguayan prisoners chipped this narrow gravel path into the side of the Cordillera Oriental Mountain chain in the 1930s, during the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay. For decades, this one-lane road was the only way to travel between Coroico and La Paz, so farmers and merchants routinely risked the trip, even though many paid with their lives.
Experts estimate some 200 to 300 people perished annually on Death Road over the decades, as the vehicles they were traveling in plunged off the precipice. The worst accident is believed to have occurred in 1983, when more than 100 people died in a bus crash at a spot known as Devil's Curve. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed Yungas Road the most dangerous in the world, according to the BBC.
That sinister designation threw an international spotlight on the Bolivian trail. Soon mountain biking tour companies began popping up to guide thrill-seekers down the adrenaline-producing path, which also dished up spectacular vistas. Finally, in 2009 the government built an alternate two-lane highway nearby. Death Road got an upgrade, too, when it was widened to about 10 feet (3 meters). A smattering of guardrails were even installed.
Biking Down the Death Road
Today, North Yungas Road is mainly a tourist attraction for mountain bikers. Officially closed to vehicular traffic, only tour company vehicles are allowed access. Guided rides cost anywhere from about $50 to $150, plus a Death Road entrance fee of 50 Bolivian bolivianos or $10, which is collected en route. The trip — broken down into multiple stages — lasts about five hours and works something like this.
- Your tour company takes you by van from La Paz to La Cumbre Pass, the tour's starting point, which has an elevation approaching 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). Here, you eat breakfast and receive protective gear such as a helmet, heavy jumpsuit, gloves and pads. You're also fitted on your bike.
- The first 15 miles (24 kilometers) aren't too difficult, as the road is paved and relatively flat. It's a good place to get used to your bike, although traffic is allowed here, so you have to take care. This is also the highest elevation you'll be at during the ride, so it's often chilly. Be prepared for cloudy, foggy and/or rainy weather.
- The fun begins when you hit Death Road proper. Unlike the initial stretch, this path is rocky, rutty and winding. It's also steeper, so you'll begin to pick up speed. all vehicular traffic — mainly tour company vans and the occasional local car or truck going rogue — must drive on the left side of the road, and downhill traffic must yield to those going uphill. This means when a vehicle approaches you heading toward La Paz, it will be on your right, snugged against the mountain — and you'll have to move left, to the edge of the precipice.
- During your trip, the guides will regularly stop the group to take breaks, eat snacks and snap photos. The last stretch is the narrowest and most difficult.
- When you reach the path's end, in a town called Yolosa, rewards await in the form of food, beer and showers. There's even a zipline, if you need a second adrenaline rush. Then it's back to La Paz.
Jaclynn Seah, founder of The Occasional Traveller blog, biked down Death Road and had a blast. Like many others, though, she says it was surprisingly tiring, mostly due to the constant braking that's necessary to stay in control. "Mentally, I was also on full alert most of the time to make sure I didn't slip up," she says, "so I think that probably added to it."
While Death Road is much safer today, with only about one death per year, accidents and various mishaps are not uncommon. Online accounts talk about flat tires, pedals flying off bikes, riders hitting rocks and tumbling over handlebars and more — which is probably why many tour companies award riders commemorative T-shirts emblazoned with proclamations such as, "I Survived Death Road."
Seah was fortunate; both she and her bike stayed intact during her trip. The scariest part? "Having to keep to the outer edge of the road when cars come around," she says. "It's a bit unnerving at first, when you're not used to it."
Eager to tackle Death Road yourself? Veterans say to pick a reputable tour company offering well-maintained bikes and gear. Purchase travel insurance that includes mountain bike coverage. Don't ride aggressively or try to keep up with others in your group; stay within your limits. Perhaps most important: Before you leave home, clear out a space in your closet. That hard-won T-shirt will deserve a place of honor.