Bolivia was not on my short list of places to visit, but on this trip I compromised and we spent a couple days in Bolivia. I had heard about this day trip by bike you could take from La Paz that really intrigued me.
See La Paz was connected to the Yungas River by the Yungas Road. The road is 65 kilometers (40 miles) and goes from 4,700 meters (15,500 feet) in El Alto (La Paz) down to 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) to the town of Coroico. This road brought tons of supplies from the river up to the city, but despite it being a major passageway, the road was barely one lane in each direction and at some points it isn’t even that wide.
Not only was the road narrow, only about 35 kilometers were actually paved. The remaining 30 kilometers were just gravel or dirt. If that wasn’t unique enough, the road snakes along the side of the mountain and in many spots you find a 1,000 meter (3,000 feet) shear drop off on your left and a near vertical rock wall to your right. There are no bike lanes and no guard rails. The road was also filled with what our guide called “baby heads” – these were large rocks / small boulders the size of a baby’s head. These were especially treacherous because if you hit them they could immediately turn your front wheel and you could fly over the handle bars or worse, over the side of the mountain. While the official name of this road is the Yungas Road it is more commonly known as the World’s Most Dangerous Road or, my favorite, the Bolivian Death Road.
Obviously we didn’t do this ride on our own, we joined a tour company, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This locally owned company hired guides from all over the world. Our guide, Wolf, was a 30 (ish) year old German guy, with dreadlocks that were half a meter long. His English was great. We had two other guides on our tour too – both were very nice, but took a back seat to Wolf and his very strong personality.
We arranged this tour before we arrived in Bolivia. The night before the tour I was a little nervous. We were watching videos of the Death Road before we hit the sack. Not the smartest move.
We met in a restaurant a few blocks from our hotel. There were two groups going up on the ride our day. A private Group with one family (about eight guests) and our group. Our group was made up of four separate groups: me and Mike; three 25 (+/-) year old Canadian women; three Australian Navy men; and three Frenchmen. We quickly boarded our bus and headed up to the summit at La Cumbre (about 4,700 meters).
Once at the top, we suited up with gear provided by Gravity (it was pretty cold so we all put on pants and coats, dust masks and helmets). We tested our bikes on the flat surface, perfecting the seat height, confirming the brakes worked (critical), and finally before we began our descent we said a prayer, toasted with some high octane grain alcohol and sacrificed some of the booze to Pachamama (a diety of the region).
Let’s go! We started down the mountain on a wide, paved and we’ll maintained roadway. We rode for just a few kilometers before we stopped to make sure everyone was comfortable on the bikes, to take a couple of pictures and to hear a bit about the area.
While I do love pushing myself to try new things, I was by far the most cautious person on the ride. I rode slowly and didn’t screw around at all. The Aussies and the Frenchmen were going at breakneck speeds and the Canadian women weren’t far behind. I was like the turtle – slow and steady. No one made me feel badly for taking a slower pace. Everyone was really welcoming and encouraging.
We stopped about 8 times throughout the whole 65 kilometers journey. Sometimes we’d stop for the view, sometimes we’d stop to see where cars, trucks or other bicyclists had flown off the road to their deaths (that’s a sobering experience to see a burned out bus frame, or a cross for a fallen cyclist).
The road isn’t used as a main route of transport anymore, a more modern freeway (of sorts) was put in just a couple kilometers away. You still see some locals using this road though infrequently on our day. We passed only four vehicles and the drivers were very respectful, slowing or stopping and allowing us by (mostly they were heading up the mountain).
Gravity isn’t the only tour company, but from what I can tell they take safety the most seriously. Another group (which the Gravity guides called the Power Rangers because of their outfits) had fully enclosed motorcycle style helmets. Evidently these helmets are much more dangerous because they almost completely destroyed your peripheral vision and limit your ability to hear what is going on around you. That’s just terrifying. These guys were hot shots too – they would come up behind you at a high speed and pass you on all sides. I felt very uncomfortable when they were nearby.
The ride itself was downhill and you could just coast most of the way. There was a section where there was a bit of flat land and even some elevation gain – nothing major, but it was tiresome at that point.
The only wildlife we saw on the ride was a couple of monkeys standing in the middle of the road at the very end. It was like they were trying to hijack us as they stood in your path and when you would swerve they would lunge after you. A Canadian woman was in front of me and really distracted those monkeys allowing me to shoot on past without getting my pockets picked.
We arrived at the end point – a village with bathrooms and beer about 90 minutes before we were schedule to – Wolf said we were one of his fastest tours ever…even with slow poke Tim on the ride. I was proud that we went at such a great pace. We drank beers and got to know each other better.
We had an optional excursion at this point too – zip lining. I’ve zip lined in Mexico and in Zimbabwe and I love it. I hate heights, but I want to push myself to try new things. I joined the Australians and the Frenchmen for a few circuits of zip lining over the valley. I didn’t snag any pictures of this, but I was glad I did it. I was nervous before I stepped off the first platform, but those fears just melted anyway so I was flying between the stops on the circuit.
The trip ended with a visit to a wildlife sanctuary where we ate a big pasta lunch (mediocre at best) had a hot shower and saw some animals. This last part wasn’t anything to write home about.
The worst part of the trip was the 4 hour drive back to La Paz. Everyone had gotten a little bit drunk and were acting dumb. Our guide, Wolf, kept asking the same question for the first hour, then repeated it every 30 minutes uses until we got back to La Paz, he’d say “Who is going to suck my dick?” Not sure where that came from, but he just kept on asking. So strange and awkwardly inappropriate.
We were asked if we wanted to take the old road (the one we rode down) or the new modern road back to La Paz. We were told the old road had stunning views, that we likely missed on the way down. When riding down, you are mostly focused just on the road ahead, trying to avoid baby heads, understanding the terrain and not falling off the edge – you have limited ability to see the breathtaking vistas. We all agreed the old road was the way to go. Little did we know or realize that almost all of our trek back would be in utter darkness – we couldn’t see the panoramic views. Making this 4 hour schlep even better, I was starting to get sick. I was frozen to the core. About half way through our return, I was just tortured and wishing we had taken the new road so I could be back in my cozy bed again.
Biking the Death Road was an amazing experience. It was my favorite thing we did in Bolivia. A once in a lifetime experience that I can’t recommend enough. I really felt safe with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. When the road was in full use and there were no viable alternative routes, on average more than one person would die each day. Now there are only a handful of deaths each year. Some of those are Mountain Bikers – but the stories we hear is that the riders were screwing are round or not paying attention. At each stop along our trek, Wolf explained to us the safety concerns for the next leg and would also tell us tales of people who got hurt on this specific leg.
What do you think? Would you bike down the Bolivian Death Road? What are some of the more harrowing things you’ve done on vacation?