Biking Bolivia’s Death Road

I was bearing down on the end of my six months travelling around South America and, like any traveller, was worried that I hadn’t done enough or seen enough or experienced enough. Which is why, when I ended up in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz and saw rows of tourist agencies offering the “Death Road Experience”, I was hooked.

The ‘Death Road’ is actually called the Yungas Road, and connects La Paz to the outlying city Coroico on the edge of the Amazon Basin. Although it used to be the only way to reach Coroico, a new road was put in and the Yungas became a tourist attraction. Every year thousands of tourists bike portions of the 61 kilometer track which hugs the side of a cliff and features expansive views of steep jungle valleys and waterfalls. And every year, several hundred people die on this perilous stretch.

This is not something that tourist agencies advertise – I only discovered after I’d biked it that a Japanese woman had died the day before when she failed to brake and hurtled off a precipice. The Yungas is in many places barely able to accommodate a single vehicle, and is pockmarked with instabilities, puddles, and greasy black mud. However, for a thrill-seeker and someone passionate about mountain biking, the Death Road represents an exciting and formidable challenge.

It’s also a great way to meet new people while abroad, especially if you’re travelling alone like I was. I ended up meeting a group of Israeli kids my age who later invited me out with them afterward. Sometimes the best thing about visiting another country is meeting fellow travellers who you can share your stories with. We ended up going to a bar and laughing about the bike ride and the conditions we’d run into (early in the morning it had been pouring rain, and we had all become soaked after five minutes of riding.)

But to the credit of many tourist agencies, they are diligent in supplying top-of-the-line gear (from helmets and padding to reinforced bikes with full suspension). At one point near the end of the road I hit a sharp stone and popped my tire, and within a minute one of the support guides had stopped and lent me his bike while he stayed behind to fix the puncture. Safety is definitely one of their main concerns, especially now that the Yungas has gained such a widespread and global popularity.

However, the Death Road is not for everyone – if you’re an experienced biker, and not prone to showing off, than it offers a spectacular opportunity to explore a part of the world that is beautiful, wild, and otherwise hard to access. At the same time, it’s important not to forget that it is dangerous, and even though most agencies hire a support vehicle to follow behind, help is very far away if anything should go wrong. So remember the three basic rule: make sure you know the bike you’re riding (and that the brakes work), stick to the inside track, and don’t try to show off.

About the author: Simon is a writer and content specialist who is addicted to being on the front page of anything. A graduate of Dalhousie University, he specializes in using the em dash too often. Currently, Simon rests his typing hands in Vancouver, Canada. 

Photo credit: ralky