“Have you ridden death road? Did you shit yourself?” was a question I asked many unassuming female guests who looked roughly my age and had potentially my level of fitness (i.e. none) while at my hostel in La Paz. With an overwhelming response of “it’s absolutely amazing” and “you’ll regret it if you don’t do it”, I plucked up the courage to book my “Death Road” tour.
By “plucked up the courage”, I mean that I sat around on my phone for half of the day watching terrifying YouTube videos and reading horrifying blog posts while it poured down with rain outside and almost convincing myself not to go through with my plans. Once the rain cleared, in a moment of complete madness, I sprinted to the Gravity office to book my tour for the very next day (and sign a waiver wishing my life away).
If you couldn’t already tell, it’s safe to say that I was absolutely terrified of the prospect of cycling down “The World’s Deadliest Road” (affectionately coined “Death Road” by tourists and tour companies alike). I have an immense fear of heights and before this trip, it’s safe to say that I hadn’t ridden a bike in at least 10 years.
When combining a 64km downhill bike ride, 4,700m steep cliff-face drops, terrifyingly narrow paths and an rider who is pretty much incompetent on a bike, what could go wrong?
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Given my extremely high levels of fear, I wanted to choose a reputable company who were reassuring and had stellar safety records.
There are lots of tour companies to choose from and each has a varying price tag. While I am a budget-traveller at heart, I don’t think you can put a price on your safety. I ended up booking my tour with the most expensive tour company on the market (Gravity) but I honestly wouldn’t do it any other way! You can book a tour with Gravity online via Viator.
A few like-minded travellers had recommended Gravity to me previously and reading the reviews online reassured me that I was making the right decision. Included in the $124 price tag is the journey to and from La Paz, assistance of two guides (one remains at the front and one at the back of the entire ride), a support vehicle which follows the group at all times, lunch, an obligatory “I survived death road” t-shirt, photos of the journey and entrance into an animal refuge at the end of the tour.
While the price is substantially higher than other firms, I would wholeheartedly recommend Gravity. We saw plenty of the other cheaper tour groups on our trip, many of whom hadn’t had a proper safety briefing and were hurtling down dangerous areas of the road at uncontrollable speeds (we witnessed on girl come flying off her bike while taking a turn through a waterfall too quickly – luckily, she landed on the path ahead and appeared to be fine other than some cuts and bruises).
RELATED: This wasn’t the first (nor the last) time that I spent a little bit more money for a superior experience. Read about how much I spent in three months in South America here!
The day started bright and early (7am) at a cafe in the city centre. After meeting my fellow riders and guides (Noel and Jorge) for the day, we set off on the 1 hour journey to La Cumbre where the ride would begin. To settle my nerves, I adopted my usual coping method for the entire journey – sleeping!
Before we knew it, I was woken by “Highway To Hell” blaring from the van’s speakers, signalling that it was time to hop on the bikes.
The ride starts at high altitude (4,700m), so it’s pretty chilly up there! My advice would be to wear a couple of layers on your top half that you can remove from under your protective gear as you reach lower altitudes/warmer weather. We were handed our protective gear and given an in-depth safety briefing as well as instructions on how to use the bikes (spoiler: the brakes will become your best friends) before making a tribute to the Pachamama!
You only need to have been travelling in Bolivia for 5 minutes to know that the Pachamama is “mother earth” and she is a very well respected figure in the Bolivian community. After a quick swig of a strong alcohol (which is also splashed on the floor and your front bike wheel as a pray to the Pachamama), we were ready to rock and roll!
Now was for the bit of the journey that I was looking forward to the most – the paved road! This actually turned out to be one of the scarier parts of the ride for me. It’s no secret that I’m not a confident bike rider, so having cars on the road with me really threw me off.
South American drivers are not particularly careful and crashes do happen more often than one would hope, but as long as you keep your wits about you and act sensibly on this section of the road, you will be absolutely fine! If you cycle more regularly than me (which isn’t hard, before this trip I had never cycled on the road), you will feel perfectly at ease for this section of the journey!
While you are blessed with a smooth road surface and a safety barrier on the cliff edge, make sure you take the opportunity to soak up the incredible views. One thing I really didn’t anticipate about this ride was just how beautiful it would be. Everyone heads to Death Road in search of adventure and fun, so the beauty element of the trip is often overlooked!
Before long we had reached a tunnel which separates the cars from the cyclists (the tunnel is now out-of-bounds for tourists after a truck crashed into a traveller who was hoping to cycle down Death Road).
You could almost hear my sigh of relief at this point, “yay” for getting rid of the cars! Little did I know that this tiny section of the ride would be the worst part of the entire thing. To avoid using the tunnel, cyclists have to ride across an un-paved section of the road just to the right of the tunnel entrance.
Noel grouped us all together again and warned us that this section would be rough but given the fact that we hadn’t actually reached Death Road yet, I almost didn’t believe him that it would be that bad.
Seconds into the ride, I was being thrown left right and centre by the insane bumps in the gravel. I/the bike was bouncing so much that I could barely see (I think you can see the terror in my face in the above picture).
Suddenly, panic set in and I wondered how on earth I was going to actually ride down Death Road on conditions like that (spoiler: the conditions of Death Road are actually much nicer and I had nothing to worry about).
After lots of reassurance from Noel, I felt ready to finally conquer Death Road! The morning of our ride was pretty foggy, which I think helped me massively as it was impossible to see quite how steep/long the drop beside you was.
My motto for the day was “slow and steady wins the race” and I set off at a ridiculously slow speed ready to tackle the road. It only took a few minutes before I had been thrown from my bike due the fact I wasn’t riding quickly enough and hit a bump in the road. Apparently, riding at an absolute snails pace isn’t the best thing to do, you need a tiny bit of speed to keep the bike upright!
Dusting myself off and jumping back on the bike, I set off with slightly more speed than before (let’s not get excited, I was still going pretty damn slowly) and before I knew it, I was LOVING it.
Yungas Road achieved the nickname “Death Road” as the path is (at times), not wide enough for two cars to pass each other leading to many accidents and lives lost as cars plummeted off of the steep cliff-edge. However, now the tunnel and “new road” have been built, cars very rarely use Death Road (other than the support vehicles assisting cyclists).
While not wide enough for cars, the path is plenty wide enough for cyclists (and Gravity ensured that we kept a safe distance from each other at all times). In fact, it’s so wide in comparison to a bike that I almost forgot about the fact this could actually be considered dangerous!
With my new found confidence and the incredible guidance by Noel and Jorge, I was loving life! Noel made sure to stop the group every 10-15 minutes to re-group, check everyone was okay, take photos and warn us of any upcoming tight corners, areas where we should change gears amongst other things (something I really appreciated)!
As Noel signalled for us all to stop at a wide section of the road next to a monument, he began to explain the importance of this monument and hand out our lunch. Suddenly, we had the feeling that something was wrong… despite being a confident rider, one guy (Joe) hadn’t arrived back with the group meaning our 2nd guide and our support vehicle were nowhere to be seen.
Noel then received a walkie-talkie message, quickly let us know that there had been an incident whereby Joe had fallen off the side of the cliff and then sped uphill to help the crew rescue him. We sat waiting patiently for our guide to return, worried about Joe and with my nerves suddenly returning.
Thankfully, Joe had fallen about 8 metres down the side of the cliff and had been caught by a large bush which saved his life. Once Joe had been rescued, Noel returned to us with still no sight of Jorge, Joe or the support vehicle.
He explained that Joe had set up his drone to follow his movement as he raced down the track. The drone headed towards a tree and as Joe looked up to check on it, he and his bike fell off the side of the edge (rule number one of Death Road is to keep your eyes on the road directly in front of you otherwise you will veer in another direction).
While Joe was fine, he, Jorge and the support vehicle were trying to rescue the drone from the tree before catching up with the group.
Despite the drama of the lunch break and the fact we didn’t have a support vehicle behind us, we made the decision to continue riding as it would have been far more dangerous to ride after sunset. My nerves were back in full swing now after being reminded that this road was actually dangerous (but only if you weren’t careful).
It didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things, the adrenaline of the bumpy bike ride and the incredible views just kept getting better and better!
My body doesn’t react well to drastic atmospheric changes and I started to feel light-headed after coming from freezing cold high-altitude conditions to hot, humid low-altitude conditions. I jumped into the support vehicle for one 10 minute period towards the end to combat my headache (where I obviously grilled Joe, who wasn’t allowed to ride for the rest of the journey, about his near-death experience).
One of my favourite things about Gravity was that they really encouraged you to go at a pace that you felt comfortable with and with rest points every 10-15 minutes, there wasn’t any issue with you jumping into the support vehicle for any sections that you didn’t feel comfortable doing.
After 4 hours of cycling, we crossed the “finish line” and arrived at La Senda Verde animal refuge centre for a buffet dinner, showers, time with the animals and chats with fellow riders about how amazing the experience was (well… for everyone other than Joe).
Before entering La Senda Verde, you are given the option to do a zip-line (at an extra cost) across the gorge! I’ve done lots of zip-lines in my time, so didn’t opt for this, but everyone that did do it really loved it!
One thing that I highly recommend you bring is mosquito-repellent. While it’s not necessary at the top of the ride, I was attacked by sand-flies on arrival at La Senda Verde. Spray yourself before you arrive at the refuge or it will be too late!
It was then time to return to La Paz, using the nice “new road” which has replaced Death Road for cars. After such an adrenaline filled day, it’s safe to say that I slept for the entirety of this journey too!
I wish someone told me how much I would love this experience beforehand. I almost didn’t book my Death Road trip and was only swayed by the fact that I would regret it if I didn’t try it.
Yes, the day was filled with adrenaline and the feeling of pride when you cross the finish line is something special. However, I truly think that one of my favourite elements of this trip was learning more about Boliva. From the incredible support from Noel and Jorge to the stunning scenery, stories of this road and stories about Bolivian cultures, it was an all-round PREFECT day.
During the rest of my travels, I met so many young girls who (like me) said they weren’t confident on bikes/scared of heights/didn’t think they would enjoy it. I encouraged each and every one of them to give it a go. The one thing that you need to remember is that the road is only dangerous if you are doing something stupid (like watching a drone – sorry Joe). If you’re careful and courteous, you’ll be absolutely fine!
I was so surprised by how much I loved this day and would even go as far as saying that it was one of my favourite days of the entire trip. Getting out of your comfort zone every once in a while is clearly a good idea!
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