The “Bolivia Death Road” has an unquestionably sinister name to it… it also has some terrifying statistics and a rough history to back up its menacing nickname.
This aptly-titled route has been seducing adventure travellers for quite some time now and I had my chance to take it on while visiting the raw, gritty city of La Paz, during my massive over-landing trip from Colombia, all the way down to ‘the end of the world’ in Argentina.
With very little safeguards and a probability of mishaps, why would anyone want to hop on a bike and cycle down this wet and windy, infamous Bolivian mountain pass?
For glory, of course.
There’s a fine line between abject recklessness and educated risk. Take note of the advice and warnings in this post and you’ll be knocking back glasses of celebratory singani (official national drink) in a dodgy local bar before you know it, safe in the knowledge that the Bolivia death road did not get the better of you.
History of The Death Road
Officially known as Yungas Road, its history dates back to the 1930’s and the Chaco War, which was a conflict between Bolivia and Paraguay surrounding a fierce territory despite, resulting in a Paraguay victory.
During this war, Paraguayan prisoners built a 43 mile stretch of road into the Cordillera Oriental mountain chain. These mountains connect the hilltop city of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz.
The two countries have kissed and made up since then via a peace treaty and the road is very much now a Bolivian landmark.
Bolivia Death Road: Accidents and Statistics
At its starting point in La Paz, the Death Road is approximately 3,640 metres (11,975 feet) above sea level. Travelling through you’ll reach its highest point, La Cumbre Pass, which is approximately 4,650 metres (15,260 feet) above sea level. The road ends in Coroico, which is considerably lower at 1,200 meters (3,900 ft) above sea level.
The road’s grim nickname is due to an astoundingly high death rate caused by the following:
- A 10 foot wide road
- Hairpin turns
- Rain, fog, & limited visibility
- A lack of guardrails
- Cliffs with a 2,000 foot drop
These factors led to the deaths of an estimated 200 to 300 people per year, with one of the worst accidents happening in 1983, when a bus carrying over 100 people plummeted off the exposed side of the road.
Recently, Bolivia modernised Yungas Road to include dual lanes, asphalt, guardrails, and a drainage system for the rainy weather. In 2006, a secondary, safer road was completed, which motorists now use. While these improvements have curbed deaths, they have not eliminated them completely as local workers, tour operators, and backpackers still use the road.
Tourism has increased from roughly 25,000 to 60,000 people per year due to tour operators taking advantage of this boastful bucket list item. Notable operators are: Gravity Bolivia, Barracuda Biking, and Altitude Travel. The average cost for this tour is between $65 and $130 USD, but bring extra cash to pay a small fee (50 Bolivianos) to the locals for entrance to the road.
12 Tips For Staying Safe (& Alive) on The Bolivia Death Road
Some of these tips are obvious, while others may seem a little obscure. They’re all equally as important with regards to avoiding injury and keeping the Grim Reaper at bay (until your next questionable adventure).
Choose a Good Tour Company
First things first, make sure you go with a reputable tour company. I went with Barracuda, and can’t wax lyrical enough about their professionalism, and the quality of their bikes. Depending on the bike you choose, expect to pay between $65 and $85 for the bike and tour.
The road itself is quite dicey in parts, so going with an experienced tour operator provides you with the knowledge to make it back unscathed. They’ve been on the road countless times and will be more familiar with things like it’s condition, where the tricky areas are, and how to navigate it in harsh weather.
Check Your Brakes (Including WHERE they are)
This was something that surprised me, it’s important you make sure your bike’s brakes are not only working… but are set up in a way you’re familiar with. In the UK, bicycle brakes are configured with the left hand operating the rear brake, and the right hand operating the front brake. In Bolivia, it’s the opposite.
(I’ve since found out that not all bike breaks’ positions around the world are created equal. I live in Thailand and it’s also the other way round to how we roll in the UK).
That muscle memory is something that you cannot mess with while on The Death Road. Thinking about which break you need to pull can mean the difference between life and death, or at least a nasty injury. The good news is that the brakes can be configured to your specification, so don’t be shy and make sure you have them set up according to your preference.
Watch Out For Traffic
With the creation of a safer road, The Death Road became closed to motorists. But that doesn’t mean you can let your guard down while cycling it. There will still be oncoming traffic at times, as certain destinations can only be accessed via The Death Road.
You’ll be able to see any vehicles fairly easily on straightaways, but with so many twists and turns on the road, you need to keep your wits about you. Always slow down going into turns, and don’t blindly turn a corner without first checking for any traffic coming your way.
Leave The Photos To Your Tour Company
What good is completing a death-defying feat in a foreign country, if you can’t brag to people via social media that you actually did it? If you didn’t capture the moment on Instagram, did it really happen, brah?! Jokes aside, the Cordillera Oriental mountains provide stunning landscapes and Insta-worthy photo ops that will tempt you to pull your bike to the side of the road more than once (weather-permitting).
One of the last non-Bolivians to die on the Bolivia Death Road, sadly, was a Japanese tourist who was allegedly taking a rolling selfie at the time of death.
The Bolivia Death Road requires a lot of focus. We all want to take photos for souvenirs, but this road isn’t the time nor the place. Instead, prioritise your safety and let your tour operator take pics for you. Not only do they do a better job, but they’ll also get some epic shots of you biking the road.
This of course is not their first rodeo. Hold on tight and focus and you’ll be treated to cool, action-shot photos to take home as happy memories.
Cycling The Yungas Road isn’t a race. If you try to make it one, you’ll probably end up in an accident. Oncoming traffic, fellow bicyclists, and road obstructions like large rocks require you to be extra cautious.
Speeding around can also throw off others around you, who may not be as confident as yourself. For your safety, and the safety of everyone on the road, go slower in the sketchier parts, or if you’re passing someone who’s clearly not so self-assured .
If it’s Not For You…It’s Not For You (& That’s Perfectly OK)
Tour operators and improvements to the road have made The Death Road a popular tourist attraction in Bolivia. The likelihood of losing your life on it is a lot smaller than in the past, but there’s still a certain degree of risk involved.
If you feel it’s too intimidating/challenging for you, or that you simply won’t enjoy it – there’s nothing wrong with that and you shouldn’t feel as though you have to do it to “conquer” your fears or prove yourself to anyone.
And from another angle; don’t be selfish. I met a cool and friendly guy on the ride whose girlfriend was absolutely miserable. She was a cloud of negativity, who didn’t want to be there and said from the start that she didn’t really fancy it, but she wanted to tag along for some unknown reason.
The poor guy became a babysitter while she moped around, scowling all the time and sucking his joy. If you’re travelling in Bolivia with someone and you don’t think this is for you – put your big boy/girl pants on and let them do their own thing, (my girlfriend at the time didn’t want to come and so she ate chocolate in the hotel bathtub until I came back, hell, I think she had a better time than me!)
Stick To The Left (But Not a Hard Left)
One of the most dangerous aspects to this road is that you need to stick to the left hand side. This makes passing safer, but it also means you’ll be on the cliff side, which can be precarious at the best of times.
The theory is if you stay on the left you will have a better view for oncoming traffic and will be able to make better decisions as you’ll have more time. Just don’t go too left…it’s a long way down!
Wear “Ready For Action” Clothes
Part of this perilous journey is the weather you’ll encounter.
When you’re at high elevations, the weather will be a lot colder than the lower elevations. One moment you’ll be freezing and the next you’ll be overheating. To prepare for this you’ll need to dress in layers.
Also, if you’re biking in the rainy season (November to March), you’ll need to wear the appropriate attire (waterproof jacket, pants, and shoes) so you’re not soaked to the bone. An additional piece of gear you should use are waterproof gloves. These will keep your hands from slipping off the handlebars/brakes and also keep your hands warm on bitterly cold days.
Listen To Your Guide
As mentioned before, your guide has been on this road a countless number of times, while you’ve been on this road never. This isn’t the time or place to leave the group and explore on your own. Take their advice seriously and you’ll greatly increase your chances of surviving this trek.
My school reports used to often say things like “Anthony resents authority,” and while I have grown up somewhat since then, I still don’t like being told what to do. However I managed here, so if I can – anyone can. 🙂
If you’ve travelled for long enough, you’ve probably come across fellow travellers who have acted in a reckless manner, or entered many pissing contests (you might even be one of them!). On The Death Road, this type of behaviour could earn you a one-way ticket home in a body bag.
Don’t be the person popping wheelies and acting like they’re competing in the Red Bull Rampage. This is all about educated risk, not stupidity.
Get a Good Night’s Shut Eye The Night Before
A 69 kilometre (43 mile) stretch of well-maintained road will take hours to bike, so you can imagine how long The Death Road will take you to complete. Getting quality sleep the night before is vital, as being refreshed helps you focus and gives you the endurance needed to complete the journey.
Your day will start at sunrise, end at sunset, and you’ll be biking in a tropical climate for the entire day, so get a lot of rest the night before.
Contact Lenses or Glasses?
For the visually challenged, biking with contacts or glasses is a personal preference. While contacts can dry out, many cyclists still use them, pairing them with either clear safety glasses, or sunglasses. “Extended wear” contact lenses are a great option for long rides, and you should always bring some eye drops just in case.
Wearing glasses will help protect your eyes from bugs and things that kick up, such as dirt, dust, and rocks. If you wish to wear your everyday glasses, pick up a pair of polarised clip-on sunglasses. These not only protect your eyes from the sun and make it easier to see, but they’re easy and quick to flip-up when you no longer need them.
Cycling Down The Bolivia “Death Road,” La Paz: My Experience (& Conclusion)
I chose to go with Barracuda Tours and I can’t wax lyrical enough about them. As mentioned above, when cycling abroad, not all bike brakes are created equal.
To reiterate, back home in the UK – the rear brake is on the left hand side and the front brake is on the right. It’s the same in Brazil, but I discovered (the hard way, my poor elbows) in Baños that some countries have them the other way around.
The Death Road is not the time or place to experiment with the unknown. If you’ve ridden a bike before, your brain is programmed to pull according to what you’ve always known.
Barracuda were very privy to this and asked what my preference was. It only takes a few minutes and any bike tour company that can’t do that for you should be considered hopeless, and not worthy of your money.
So, “how much of an idiot do you have to be to die on the Bolivia Death Road” was a question that I received via direct message, after sharing this experience and it’s certainly worth pondering.
Some have died in vans, cars and on bikes due to bad luck or because of 3rd party negligence. But I’m a big fan of personal accountability and in this case you’ve got to take responsibility for your life.
We were reminded at the briefing that one of the last tourists to die was a Japanese lady who decided to take a selfie on a wicked bend. She was on the tour with her husband and she went flying off the edge.
While I refuse to mock the dead and unfortunate here I think we can all agree that this was a poor choice. Baracuda has a photographer who will send you pics later on via Dropbox to prove your journey – so you don’t need to worry about photos – prioritising your personal safety over vanity and social media points.
Feel free to go faster when you want to (within reason), but hold on tight and feel out the road every few seconds as it changes in terrain and angles an awful lot of times.
I had a squeaky-bum moment when I pulled my back brake too hard on a tight bend (don’t do that) and my back wheel almost fishtailed off the edge off the cliff.
I also lost a contact lense in my eye at one point on a serious decline, which provided somewhat of a sketchy swerve, as I rather annoyingly had limited vision for the remainder of the tour. But at least this was the straw that broke the camel’s back towards me getting laser eye surgery a few months after.
No dramas to report here, I survived to tell the tale and I’m delighted to finally tick off this long awaited travel bucket list item.
The views on the ride were absolutely stunning, but I did my best to not get too lost in the beauty – just keeping my eyes on the road ahead of me and our guides let us know when to stop, to pose for group photos (along with their impressive, individual action shots).
So hold on tight and focus hard for about 3-4 hours, and you will get to humble brag that you once conquered the Bolivia Death Road, the next time it gets featured on a documentary.
Just make sure that living to tell the story is your main priority. Have fun!