Biking Down the Death Road
The North Yungas Road, also known as El Camino de la Muerte (Spanish for ”Road of Death”), is a 69 kilometre road from La Paz to Coroico, 56 km northeast of La Paz in the Yungas region of Bolivia. This road is known for its extremely dangerous driving conditions due to the many lives it has claimed. It’s estimated that 200-300 people die yearly from the road’s dangerous driving conditions. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank christened the death road as the “world’s most dangerous road”. A trip down the road reveals the many lives it has claimed as the drive is littered with crosses marking the points where travellers have perished.
While many travellers rave about their experiences biking the death road in Bolivia, I couldn’t help but wonder about the safety of a road nicknamed the “death road”. I spent some time both prior to my trip and while in Bolivia deciding whether, despite my desire for adventure, the death road was in fact safe for the average biker.
While reading reviews, I came upon testimony upon testimony involving trucks, cars and cyclists plunging to their death on this famed road. While the Bolivian government had enough sense to open up a slightly safer road in 2006, the road is still open for motorized vehicles and cyclists wishing to see some of Bolivian countryside while biking down hairpin curves of single lane width with little to no guardrails and extreme drop offs. Weather conditions can make the road even more treacherous as the visibility is low, the road surface muddy and the rocks become loose from the hillsides above.
Ironically the numerous deaths resulting from the road’s poor driving conditions has only added to its notoriety as a must – do activity in Bolivia for adventure enthusiasts looking for some serious downhill biking. It is estimated that this road draws 25,000 downhill thrill seekers per year. Sadly it is estimated that the death road has claimed at least 18 cyclists’ lives in the past 12 years and many more seriously injured.
So what’s the attraction to this dangerous downhill adventure? I think it’s that very question that makes it appealing- hurling 48 k/h down a dusty, windy road thinking you are invisible entices travellers year after year. While Bolivia doesn’t have your typical adventure activities such as bungee jumping, its does have more off the beaten track activities; for instance, zooming down the world’s most dangerous road or searching for anacondas in the Amazon in knee-deep muddy water. The only difference between cycling down the death road and jumping off a bridge is that someone controls the cord and monitors the safety. While the thought of jumping off a bridge seems like a death wish, both sky diving and bungee jumping facilities have incredibly high safety ratings. I can’t really say the same for the death road. Even the death road’s most reputable company Gravity has had one fatal accident. There are tons of companies in La Paz promoting death road tours but many of them have sub-par bike/guides. Even if you do manage to pick a reputable company, there is no safety net and no one to guide your propulsion as you speed down the road.
As one travels through South America there are hordes of travellers wearing company t-shirts declaring “I survived the death road”. There is a sentiment among backpackers that the death road is a South American traveler’s rite of passage. If you ask almost any traveller that has “survived the death road” they will quickly admit that the road was terrifying at points but once they have conquered the road they have death roads bragging rights, which is a high commodity in Bolivia.
Personally I choose not to do the death road for fear that one false turn could lead to my death. While I travel to take chances and challenge my fears I am also very calculated. I decided while in La Paz that I could not put my own personal safety above my desire to cross the activity of driving down the world’s most dangerous road off my must see/do list. In addition, while I love biking I had no real experience mountain biking and I figured the death road was probably not the best place to try and improve those skills. Ironically, I went biking later in my trip in Sucre, a quaint town in South-central Bolivia where I went downhill biking down a dusty, windy, rocky road. My bike had no gears and while slamming on my breaks I toppled face first over the side of a cliff. Luckily I only suffered some terrible cuts and bruises. But that fall only reinforced my decision to avoid the death road. Call me a scardey-cat but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Note: if you do decide to brave the death road, Gravity is the most well known and trusted company in the biz. While they have had one fatal accident they have higher safety standards than most companies (i.e. great bikes and experienced guides) and come very highly recommended by Rough Guide, Footprints, the New York Times and Lonely Planet.
Deciding whether to do the death road is based on preferences – if you feel as if you have the experience to handle the road’s sharp turns than you may want to give it a shot, but if you have second thoughts its probably better to listen to your instincts.