They say, “don’t look down” but what do you do when you’re hurtling downhill on The Death Road at breakneck speeds with huge cliff-side drops just a few feet away? How can you not look down?
Looking down is not only inevitable, but it’s what keeps you alive (more on that later!)
What is The Death Road?
The Yungas Road in Northern Bolivia was constructed by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco war in the 1930s.
Cut into the steep mountain face, the road starts in La Paz and climbs to an altitude of over 15,000 feet in the Altiplano highlands of La Cumbre. From there, the treacherous trail twists and turns for 80 km through the mountains, descending into the rain-forest to finish at the little village of Coroico, some 11,000 feet below.
While improvements have been made over the years, the road lacks barriers in most areas and is little more than a narrow, gravel mountain pass for much of its length. This leaves no hope but good brakes to stop drivers from sailing hundreds of feet into the abyss below.
Despite the dangers, the Yungas Road has drawn adrenaline junkies and wily backpackers from all over to tackle the perilous course on mountain bikes. And, because of the dangers, many have perished.
As a result, the ominous moniker El Camino de la Muerte has been well-earned. The Death Road is no joke.
How many people have died on The Death Road?
The number of casualties from riding The Death Road varies depending who you talk to. The worst was a tragic bus accident in 1983 that cost over 100 lives as the vehicle plunged off the edge and tumbled down the ravine.
With a narrow road made from crumbling rocks and wet mud, potential for landslides and notoriety for drunk drivers, the perfect storm has raged strong in Bolivia. Throughout the 1990s, there was an average of about 200 deaths every year on the road.
So why the hell would you want to mountain bike down The Death Road?
I’ll answer that question with another question. When you travel, do you prefer to see amazing places or do incredible things?
You may like to do both but how much can you really grow from taking photos of beautiful places? Your Instagram will look great but isn’t it better to be in the photo truly enjoying the experience as opposed to being behind the camera, fretting about documenting everything?
Ok, that was more than one question. But you get what I’m saying, right? Do your travel mostly for sights or experiences?
Personally, I don’t like to waste too much time with photography. I’d rather quickly take some good snaps of these places and then put the camera away and dive into the adventure.
To paraphrase Irish comedian Dylan Moran, a vacation with too much focus on photography could end up with you looking back on “where you weren’t”.
But won’t I die riding down The Death Road?
Having a great adventure on your travels isn’t really that great if you get completely banjaxed in some horrible accident. Ending up with your leg twisted up through your rib-cage is not something you want to pay for.
And in the worst case scenario, if you died, well that could really ruin everyone’s day.
Personally, I hadn’t ridden a mountain bike since childhood and had no relevant experience for a challenge like this, except for that one time on a family bike ride in the mid-90s when my brakes failed on a huge hill in the town centre. My family froze wide-eyed and helpless at the brow of the hill as I zoomed down, cutting through two lanes of traffic before smashing into a brick wall on the far side.
While the incident almost stopped my father’s heart, my little mind never considered how close death was in that moment. Had I registered it, I may well have done something tragic like turn into the traffic or slam the brakes on during my rapid descent. I got lucky because I was ignorant of fear.
So, surviving The Death Road is all about luck?
Here’s the thing..
The horrible tragedies that have happened on The Death Road were for the most part, avoidable. Of course they were unlucky but ultimately, with every rider who went over the edge, there was a degree of ego and lack of respect for the dangers involved.
In 2006, two decades of restoration and improvements to the Yungas Road were completed. Most notably, there is now a new road for motor traffic, which means you no longer face the prospect of oncoming traffic as you rocket down the hill.
In the good old days of riding The Death Road, cyclists had to move to the outside when traffic came along. Imagine speeding downhill and seeing a huge truck come blazing around the corner, forcing you to the perilous edge, watching loose stones crumble over the precipice as your tires roll frightfully close to the drop…
Alas, that was then. It’s a little different now. However, not to say it’s without danger. As recently as 2012, a bus tumbled over the edge. When we tackled The Death Road in October 2017, our guides told us about a Norwegian guy who had flew off a corner just a few months earlier.
Ideally, you don’t want to be the next statistic. So if you want to have this incredible adventure and live to tell the tale, there are a few things you need to do.
10 steps to survive The Death Road
1. Research companies
There are umpteen companies for you to choose from. Give yourself the best shot against The Grim Reaper by picking a good one. Ensure the company has good quality bikes with reliable brakes. Riding down The Death Road on a rusty antique is a recipe for disaster.
2. Know a little practical Spanish.
The guys may speak English but it doesn’t hurt to know a little lingo before the ride. You’ll be able to bond with the guides and that’s only a good thing. What’s more is that many people may revert to their native tongue in panicky situations. It’d be good not to misunderstand potential life-saving information in a hairy moment.
3. Turn up fresh
The Death Road may have improved in recent years but it’s no cake walk. If you show up after a rough night out on booze or the devil’s candy, you’re really asking for trouble. You want to be fully functional, arriving in plenty of time to get all the instruction without any hurry or hangover.
4. Test everything
Sure, the company has great reviews on TripAdvisor, but you still need to be comfortable on the day. You’ll get a few minutes before setting off to check all your gear fits and your bike is ready. Take it for a test ride on the flat ground, check for smooth gear changes and ensure your brakes are responsive. Adjust the height of your seat and make sure your helmet fits properly.
5. Limit the Selfies
Speaking of helmets, they can be a pain; especially if you’re also dealing with sunglasses and long hair. Also, a bandana may not work so well under a tight-fitting helmet. Every so often, your guide will pull the group up for some photos and a little break. Take your photos fast and then get ready to go again. Mess around with the camera too long and you may be scrambling to reassemble your head gear as your group rides away without you.
You may even panic and simply take off with your sunglasses sitting askew, half-crushed by your helmet as your hair blinds you, riding downhill rapidly with one eye shut, clinging to the hope your sunglasses don’t fly from your face. That could happen, believe me. It happened to…em…a friend of mine.
6. Ride Confident
Blind luck will only get you so far on The Death Road. The road is full of loose gravel and small little rocklets (yup, that’s a word now). Doubting your abilities constantly will only serve to attract irrational decisions and impulsive, frantic movements.
That could well be the difference between you coasting straight downhill or flying straight over the handlebars. Believe you will navigate the little rocklets and handle the corners and you will. Fear that you’re going to fall any moment and you’ll do exactly that – probably quite spectacularly too.
7. Be confident, but don’t be arrogant
If you are an experienced downhill rider, feel free to tear it up. You don’t need my advice. However, if you’re the average Joe Backpacker here to tick another item off the bucket list, it’s best not to get cocky. Of all the people who have lost their lives cycling on The Death Road, every one of them done something beyond their skill level.
They rode too fast, they approached a corner too hard, they trusted too much in their ability while enjoying the scenery. Whatever it was, they were pushing their abilities to the limit and went bust.
Follow the trail of the people in front but don’t get too close. If they brake too sharply and you’re hot on their tracks, it could spell disaster. Keep your eye on the road, anticipate turns and slow for them. That’s right, keep looking down the hill and you might stay alive. (remember that?)
8. Don’t get distracted
The views on The Death Road are amazing. It may be tempting to get that selfie stick on the go as you ride down. Please don’t do that. You’ll get plenty of breaks for photos along the way. There’s no need to risk your life for a photo.
Consider how much of a muppet you’ll feel like when you’re back home telling the story of how you broke your collarbone and had to cancel the rest of your trip. But hey, cool photo, right?
9. Breaks and Brakes
You do get breaks, but sometimes it’s not enough. If the pace is too hard, don’t be afraid to pull up and take a breather. Get plenty of water at every opportunity too. It can be tough work out there and you don’t want to get so exhausted or dehydrated that thinking becomes a problem.
As for your brakes, don’t worry about the front one unless you fancy doing somersaults at every corner. Keep two fingers just above the back brake, ready to use when needed. Slow for the corners and just tap lightly on the brakes when on loose stones.
10. Enjoy it!
It may be called The Death Road, but it doesn’t have to be tense and scary all the time! If you follow the advice in this guide, you’ll not only survive the adventure but you’ll also have one of your greatest days in Bolivia. Relax, take photos when you can and enjoy the ride!
What’s the craziest adventure sport you’ve done on your travels? Do you dare mountain bike down The Death Road? Skid by the comments below to let me know!
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