“You always have two choices, your commitment versus your fear”
Yes, this is what I thought while plunging down the world’s most dangerous road – The Death Road, where 200-300 people die every year as packed busses, trucks and cyclists have gone over the edge of the 2000 feet cliff, never to be seen again.
Mountain biking down the 64 km stretch of continuous downhill riding with only one short uphill section of Yungas Road known to many as The Death Road or Camino El Muerte in La Paz, Bolivia, is one of the legends of the gringo trail in South America.
About The Road:
The road was constructed in the 1930’s during the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay. This is one of the few routes that connects the Yungas region of northern Bolivia to its capital city. Yungas Road was built by the bare hands of 1000’s of Paraguayan prisoners of war. Sadly, every single prisoner who built this road died, whether it be from a natural cause or an accident. Those who didn’t die from these causes were often pushed off for disobeying instructions. It is believed that the road is still cursed.
Choosing The Operator:
Choosing a quality operator will have a major impact on your experience. There are over a dozen of operators running the tour. Yes, some offer cheap prices too, but your life is worth all the money in the world and things like this aren’t worth saving a few quid. The last thing you want is an inexperienced person guiding you along the world’s most dangerous road or your brakes failing in mid corner.
I browsed inquisitively for an agency that not just has good safety records but is also affordable and reliable. After a thorough research, I decided to overcome my fear with Barracuda Biking.
Why Barracuda Biking?
The next morning I was in their office, after strolling through the witches market. The booking process was simple, they measured the size for my helmet, jacket and gloves before I signed my life away. (I am just kidding, Barracuda Biking are among the few safest agencies offering tour down the death road).
They are known for their top-notch safety standards as their guides have over six years of experience guiding on Death Road and are certified in first aid and rope rescue. Their bikes were legit, they are among the few agencies to operate using Kona bikes with full suspension and hydraulic disc brakes. Equipment was sturdy and the instructions were very thorough. Barracuda caters to a budget–conscious audience, without sacrificing safety. We had a really fun group to ride with which made the tour little bit more enjoyable.
The Day Of The Tour:
We met at the center of the city, where a minibus was waiting for us, a group of eight thrill seekers.
Just as we were leaving La Paz, a voice came out on the radio and said “there’s a strike broken out and the roads were blocked with stones” it seemed impossible to continue the journey, we felt shattered, the excitement began to drop. Our guide was determined to get us to Yungas. Shortly we found our bus driving off the road through some terrains. It wasn’t surprising to see that we were followed by buses from other agencies too.
The ride itself was nerve-racking, with a steep cliff on one side of the narrow road, too narrow for a vehicle to pass comfortably.
Driving through the dusty, winding paths we finally overcame the obstacle and were on our way to bike down the perilous road. As we started approaching, we felt the adrenaline rushing through our bodies. We reached La Cumbre where we were given our bikes, helmets, gloves, pants and windbreaker jackets. Each bike was adjusted to our size and our preferred break i.e. left or right front break.
The ride is broken into two parts, a warm-up ride along 22 km of paved road and then the terrifying ride along 33 km of narrow gravel roads.
We took a sip of alcohol, after offering a drop to “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) and poured some on our front wheel to get us to our destination, alive, where we would be awarded a Death Road Survivor T-Shirt.
Part One (Along The Paved Road):
This is the part of the ride where you will have time to warm up and get a feel for the bike. As we started pedalling down the gradually winding smooth road, a guide rode behind us and another in front to make sure everyone was under control. We stopped at every 5-8 km to make sure that everyone is faring well.
Once we reached a checkpoint we paid 50 Bolivianos to the local community who gave the access to the world’s most dangerous road. We then got back on the bus for 30 minutes up-hill ride to The Death Road.
Part Two (The Death Road):
The 33 kilometres long Death Road starts at La Cumbre Pass at 4,650 meters and finishes in the jungle town of Coroico at 1,200 meters.
The bus pulled over next to a giant yellow board, with a sign “Bienvenido a Camino Muerte“ (Welcome To The Death Road). Our guide went over all the ins and outs of the road, the do’s and don’t and the rules with a few scary stories!
We then braved ourselves and started skittering down the road following each other in single file. As on the paved road, we had a guide behind us and another in front. We stopped regularly to make sure the bikes were working and to click some pictures along the way.
As we started becoming more confident and comfortable with the ride, we reached a stretch of the road, rimmed with cross markings and memorials of the people who have fallen.
Over time we dropped an incredible 3450 meters. We reached a restaurant with a swimming pool where we wore the pride ” Death Road Survivor’s T-Shirt” and lunched on a lavish meal before driving back to La Paz.
How safe is the ride?
Most of the pot-holed, rock filled road is not wider than 3 meters and the hazards include extreme drop-offs, constant fog, tropical rain, the occasional waterfall, loose gravel and at times, limited visibility. At least, 18 cyclists have died since 1998, but the ride is safe with a good operator. Choose gears that fit you right and most importantly, follow the instructions of the tour leader. As the saying goes, “It’s better to be safe than sorry”.
- Go at your own speed, it isn’t a race.
- Don’t wear a heavy backpack, it can put you off-balance around corners.
- Carry sunglasses, it could be quite windy during the ride.
- They do provide some snacks but bring some of your own too.
- Always pass on the right side and vocalise when you are doing so.
Author: Sreeram Hariharan
Sreeram is an explorer, adventurer and thrill-seeker whose on a mission to travel as many countries as possible and Backpackways is a platform through which he intends to take everyone on his journeys through posts and pictures.