TEXT BY: Linda Cash
There is an infamous stretch of road in Bolivia which has become both popular and infamous with mountain bike riders. Its spectacular, exciting, but best of all, it’s all down hill.
Built in the 1930s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan Prisoners of War, this narrow winding mountain road was then the only connection between the northern Bolivia and its capital La Paz, so many had no choice but to brave this mountain pass despite how many lives it claimed.
In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank surveyed roads across the globe for insurance purposes. What they found in Bolivia, just a short drive from La Paz, was a single-lane gravel road, the North Yungas Road between La Cumbre and Coroico, which witnessed between 200 and 300 vehicle fatalities per year – the highest recorded anywhere in the world. Thus, the road became known as “Camino de La Muerte”, or “The Death Road”.
In 2006 a new, wider and more modern North Yungas Road was built after 20 years, and most of the traffic has been diverted that way. However, the original Death Road still gets a few curious cars passing through, but most travellers are thrill-seeking cyclists looking to tick off that bucket list item.
BREAKING DOWN THE CAMINO
From La Paz, the Death Road climbs to around 4,700m at La Cumbre pass, before gradually descending to 1,200m at the town of Coroico. This huge difference in altitude means travellers experience both the chilly Altiplano highlands weather and the hot humid conditions in the rainforests below.
The Death Road’s infamous downhill mountain bike ride has two distinct sections. The first leg starts at La Cumbre, at an altitude of 4,700m where you are surrounded by snow-covered peaks, and consists of 31kms of dual- lane sealed asphalt road descending to an altitude of 3,300m. This section of the road remains in use, but the vehicular traffic is light and there is plenty of room for bikes and vehicles to pass each other.
The second and more challenging section consists of 33kms of single-lane gravel road winding along the unfenced cliff edge through the jungle, dropping over 2,200m on the descent from 3,300m to 1,100m. This section, whilst remaining open to local traffic, has been bypassed by a new sealed road, which is now used by almost everyone in the area. The only traffic you are likely to encounter on this section is other mountain bikes and support vehicles of other mountain biking outfitters, meaning the Death Road is relatively safe from general traffic.
The preparation starts a day or two before your ride at the office of your chosen biking company in La Paz, where participants are fitted for bikes, helmets, gloves, etc, and the obligatory waivers to sign in order to participate in this ride down the infamous road.
The full day tour starts in La Paz at around 7am when you’ll board a bus to the starting point, at 4,700m. Just breathing is a little challenging at this high altitude. At the starting point, bikes will be unloaded as final checks and adjustments are done on each rider.
Before hitting the road comes the essential Pachamama ceremony, where each rider appeases Pachamama, the Bolivian Earth Mother, and asks her to keep them safe by taking a sip of Singani, the national liquor, and splashing a dash of it on ground.
The first half of the ride – the sealed road section – gives riders the opportunity to gain confidence with their bikes and brakes before the real challenge begins. Several stops are made along the way to ensure all riders are comfortable with their bikes and the ride, and to take photos of the spectacular mountains, valleys, tiny villages with their grazing llama and alpaca, and inevitable selfies. Just before the end of this section, the group crosses through the drug security check point which straddles the road and acts as deterrent to local traffickers.
The ride then turns off the sealed road into a jungle clearing where you can pause for a break overlooking the second section. The narrow dusty gravel track winds away below, clinging precariously to the edge of impossibly steep mountain cliffs.
The experienced guides are always on hand for on-site instructions – they’ll tell you to keep control of the front wheel by releasing the front brake so you don’t slide out, go hard on both brakes before corners, keep the outer pedal down to maintain ground clearance, and flex your knees to keep your balance while spreading your arms to absorb the vibration and maintain steering. Whatever you do, don’t look over the edge at the spectacular 1,000m vertical fall or you might just lose control.
There are plenty of things to keep you occupied along the road – hairpins aside. Waterfalls spill onto the road from the cliffs above, while breathtaking panoramas of jungle valleys and towering vine-covered cliffs vie for your attention off the road.
As you gather speed on the steep, straight stretches, there are plenty of hairpin bends – these take you through a cloud layer or past jungle-smothered cliffs – that force you to slow down and take it easy. If it gets tiring, there are always opportunities to stop for a snack or break.
You can tear down the road on the tail of the lead guide, with dust flying, tyres scrabbling for purchase, and your heart pumping as you corner just inches from the cliff edge with water spraying as you splash through the streams. Or you can cruise slowly down the road with the tail-end guide, taking it easy and enjoying the wonderful views with plenty of stops for photos and rest.
This is a ride to suit all tastes and most ability levels, and plenty of time is allowed for all riders. The ride ends with everyone dusty, hot, and tired, in the warm and humid jungle valley at Yolosa where you will be met with a cold beer (or juice). Dinner will be provided before a bus drops you back in La Paz around 9pm, ending what is a very full and adrenalin-filled day.
Some confidence in cycling on gravel surfaces is recommended, since most of the ride is down a steep and winding gravel road. If you find yourself tired, becoming wary of the next stage, or just fancy a rest, the support vehicle is always right behind the group and you are welcome to jump on and off the bus as often as you like.
The Death Road stretches roughly 64kms, taking the average group about 4-5 hours to descend. There are several companies in La Paz offering Death Road MTB experiences, offering a range of options in bike quality, safety gear, inclusions, alternate cycling excursions, and price.