Death Road, Bolivia

Surviving the Death Road – downhill for 65 kilometres

One of the most well-known attractions in Bolivia is the infamous “Death Road”, also known as the World’s Most Dangerous Road, so called because of the alarming number of road fatalities. For a fee, tourists can experience this for themselves and mountain bike down this perilous route. Since we were here, it seemed like a good idea to join in on this madness and experience it ourselves.

I am not a mountain biker at all, and although I used to be a road cyclist, going downhill was never my favourite. I was one of those weird people who preferred the uphill climbs, so I was a little apprehensive about going down the “Death Road” to say the least. I had done some online research and decided to go with Gravity Bolivia, as although they were more expensive than many of the other operators around, they had a really good reputation for safety.

Death Road, Bolivia

We left La Paz at around 7.30 am. We were a very small group of only 5 riders, with two guides, Moe and Andreas, and our driver Johnny. We were fitted out for the right sized bikes, helmets, gloves and a jacket and trousers. Once kitted out, we made a traditional offering to Pachamama (Mother Nature) and Moe told us to that he carried a stretcher board and 150 metres of rope with him. I’m not sure if this was supposed to reassure us or not!

He also gave us plenty of safety instructions, and as an inexperienced mountain biker I hung on his every word. He told us not to go too fast, it wasn’t a race, and no one would ever ask our times for completing the ride. He may have regretted having said that later as I was definitely the slowest of the bunch, riding downhill very cautiously. I can say that I gave the brakes a good workout, tested them thoroughly – they definitely work!

Death Road, Bolivia

We started at La Cumbre, which is about 4700 metres high, so it was pretty chilly, and the jacket and trousers were great as they added a layer of warmth. By the time we got to the bottom, 64 kilometres later, it was 1200 metres, and quite a different temperature. However I decided to keep the jacket and trousers on for the whole ride as protection in case I fell off. Not what you’d call optimistic, however I am happy to say that I survived the ride in one piece and without any spills.

Death Road, Bolivia

The first section of the road was on the new highway, all bitumen, so we were sharing with busses, cars and trucks. We could get to some pretty good speeds and at times were over-taking the trucks which travelled extremely slowly. This section also included around 8 kms of uphill riding, which was the only time I managed to stick with the rest of the group.

However the bulk of the ride was on the “Death Road” proper, an unpaved road that was very rough with gravel and loose stones, and at times extremely narrow – at one point only 3 metres wide. This road is also shared with cars and mini-vans, however these days there is a new paved road which takes most of the traffic. In Bolivia they normally drive on the right, however Moe explained that going down we would be riding on the left hand side, which is the side of the cliff face. This is because the drivers of the vehicles are closer to the edge and can see where their wheels are. He suggested to us that we follow the tracks on the furthest left hand side, which would ensure that we were around one metre from the edge. I did not feel like I had full control of my bike so the idea of only being one metre from the cliff edge with a drop off of hundreds of metres horrified me. I decided to take my chances with the cars and kept mostly to the right! Luckily there wasn’t a lot of traffic as it was Sunday, and the cars went very slowly and honked as they came around corners.

Death Road, Bolivia

It was a very rough road, with plenty of loose gravel and stones, which were really skiddy. Moe’s advice was that momentum was our friend, we should not brake over the loose rocks as then the tyres wouldn’t roll over and we would slide – just keep pedalling. This frankly felt quite terrifying however I repeated this mantra over and over as I rode down the hill: “Momentum is my friend. Momentum is my friend!”

We stopped several times as we went down the perilous road, so that Moe and Andreas could explain what to expect in the next section of road. One of our stops was rather gloomy as Moe pointed out a memorial to a young Israeli biker who had died some years before. He also noted a large cross on the side of the road which was where a bus had gone over the edge and killed 94 people. To be honest I didn’t really want to know about these accidents at that point of our descent.

Death Road, Bolivia

The scenery was beautiful, lush, dense and green and at times we were riding through waterfalls. It is the perfect environment for growing coca, and there is a lot of it cultivated in this area. Moe was very passionate about it, as although it has a bad reputation due to it being used for cocaine, he explained that it is a sacred crop to the local indigenous people in the area, high in vitamins and could in actuality be considered a ‘superfood’ because of its qualities.

I am happy to report that our little group all survived the ride without incident, apart from me probably taking the title for slowest ever downhill ride. By the time we finished it was hot and dusty and I have never been so pleased to see a beer, or have a shower. We had a late lunch at a wild animal rescue shelter, then believe or not, it was back on the death road this time in the van.

We travelled the “Death Road” twice and we survived!

Death Road, Bolivia

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