Scores of tourists have died biking the Death Road. The week before we cycled it ourselves, one girl had ended up in a coma after a crash.
And the week before that, a man had died after he’d stopped near the edge to take a photo and someone biked into the back of him, knocking him off the cliff.
The Death Road
Known as the most dangerous road in the world, the start of the Death Road is located around an hour outside of La Paz, high up in the mountains.
The twists and turns through the jungle as it winds down the steep road make it a scary path to travel. There are very few barriers stopping you from falling off the edge which makes it more dangerous than roads in other mountainous areas.
The dirt road is full of potholes and scattered gravel meaning you have to stay focused for the entire four hours it takes to bike the road, bouncing over dips and bumps.
Biking the Death Road
Our tour with Downhill Pro had us leaving La Paz at around 9am. The eight of us crammed into a minivan and we drove through the outskirts of the city into the rural beauty of the countryside.
After a short briefing, we clambered into our safety gear – which included elbow and knee pads, jackets, trousers, gloves and helmets – before getting the hang of our bikes on a paved road. Check out the video below for a sneak peek into our preparation.
Getting a feel for the Death Road
It was cold and rainy and as we sped down the bitumen highway I became soaked to the skin and started wondering why we’d even signed up for this in the first place. It was so misty that I could hardly see the view of the valley below which gave me a false sense of security because I couldn’t see how steep the drop off was to the right side of me.
All of a sudden there was a large BANG!
The tyre of the guy who was riding in front of me burst and rubber flew into the air.
“FUCK!” I swore, as the sound gave me a fright.
The group pulled over and the we had a look a the damage. The tyre had completely exploded, leaving nothing but loose rubber flapping about a metal rim.
Under the guide of our tour leaders, we rode slowly five minutes further down the road before stopping for a sandwich and getting a new tyre put on the damaged bike.
We piled into the van after this biking practise and lunch and set off for the Death Road. It was quiet as we drove.
I’m not sure what was going through everyone else’s head, but I had visions of my tyre bursting and me losing control of my bike, being thrown to my death in the valley below.
Adventuring along the world’s most dangerous road
At the top of the Death Road we received another briefing.
“Try not to stand up on your bike if you’re not a confident mountain biker. Try not to grip the brakes the entire time. Leave a good 10 metres between yourself and the person in front of you. Stay alert,” our guide told us.
Check out the one minute video below for an insight into what riding the Death Road in Bolivia is like.
The beauty of the Death Road
Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of the Death Road is that it’s so damn beautiful.
Valleys of green surround you and with each twist of the road there’s a chance you’ll come across a waterfall cascading down from the top of the mountain.
When the rain stopped and I got warm from the exercise, it was easier to notice the beautiful vistas around me.
But I didn’t want to look too hard – I needed all my concentration to stay safe on the Death Road.
As we bounced down the beginning of the dirt track on the most dangerous road in the world, I began to realise that it was near impossible NOT to hold my brakes the entire time.
As soon as I let go, I picked up speed and felt as though I was going to lose control.
So the whole way down the mountain I gripped the brakes. Gently at some points and more vigorously at others.
My hands aren’t in the best shape. My wrists make clicking sounds all the time thanks to working at a computer every day and when it’s cold (like when I’m skiing) my hands seize up and cause me agony.
So gripping mountain bike brakes for four hours was extremely painful, I tell you that now.
So many times I was tempted to give up and ride in the van that was slowly following us down the road, but I held out.
The only time I managed to let go of the handlebars was when I wanted to fiddle with my GoPro, which was attached to my chest.
And this was nearly the death of me.
Close call on the Death Road
Coming around a corner I thought that I’d been recording for awhile and wanted to preserve the battery of my GoPro. So I let go of the handlebar with my left hand and, whilst looking down, I tried to feel for the off button.
All of a sudden I found myself on the other side of the road, dangerously close to the edge. As I tried to swerve away from the cliff below, I jerked the handlebars too hard and fell towards the edge.
I felt as though I was moving in slow motion.
I screamed and tried to right myself but to no avail.
I was falling.
I had landed on a patch of ground that jutted out over the cliff. Just behind where I’d fallen, entangled in my bike, was the open air leading to the bottom of the mountain.
In front of where I’d fallen was a sharp drop.
I’d literally fallen within centimetres of my death or serious injury.
“OH MY GOD. Are you okay?” the guide pulled up behind me, out of breath.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I tried to laugh. It sounded strangled.
“You scared me!” he said as he helped me up.
“Sorry!” I replied.
See it all on the video below…
Coming to the end of the Death Road
I was shaken after my fall but not too shaken to keep on going. With hands tensed on the brakes, sending shooting pains up my arms, I managed to finish the Death Road with the other people in my group.
It felt like a massive achievement.
But the biggest reward for me was that I was still alive. My fall was a close call and really put a new spin on the term ‘living on the edge’.
What you need to know:
Cost: We paid 470 bolivianos (US$65.80) per person to bike the death road.
I thought this was good value because it included everything – bike hire and safety equipment, pick up and drop off at your accommodation, lunch which consisted of sandwiches and snacks, an early buffet dinner at a restaurant where you could swim in a pool and have a shower, and three guides – one in front, one behind and one in the van.
It also included a CD with an array of photos on it that our guide took throughout the day (which I’ve used in this post). We also got a T-shirt.
The only thing it didn’t include were any extra drinks (alcohol) that we wanted to have with our meals.
How to get there: Your booking should include transport to and from the Death Road. For some reason it took us an hour to get to the start of the Death Road but three hours to drive back to La Paz. I think it’s because they take a long route back over the mountain on the way back to the city because it’s safer.
We booked our tickets through I Seek Bolivia, a travel agency which is located next to the Wild Rover Hostel on Calle Comercio in La Paz.
When to go: We went in the rainy season (end of January). I certainly think it’s more dangerous at this time of year because it’s both foggy and rainy, impairing on your visability. Luckily, the lower down the mountain we went, the clearer the skies became.
What else: The company we chose was Prodownhill and it was only when I was researching for this article that I realised someone has died doing their tour(!) I think safety must’ve improved since then because I felt very safe and when I fell over my guide was immediately by my side.
However, the only company with international safety standards is Gravity. You might pay a bit more to go with them but perhaps it’s worth it.
Also note that you need to be relatively fit to do this. It’s quite tiring and you need to remain alert. That’s not to say you pedal – I think I only pedalled five times the entire journey because it was completely down hill. However, your body is always tense and your hands need to grip for a long time – and this gives your muscles a workout.