North Yungas Road (more commonly known as Death Road) is one of Bolivia’s most famous landmarks, connecting La Paz to Coroico, around 35 miles Northeast of La Paz. It has been named as the world’s most dangerous road due to its hairpin turns and very narrow roads, and of course, the many deaths on the road over the years. The road was built by Paraguayan prisoners back in the 1930’s, and it is said that many of them fell to their death while constructing this road (lending itself to the name Death Road). It was once the only way to get from La Paz to Coroico, so many vehicles have had to drive the this lengthy, and very rocky path in order to cross from city to city. The entire length of Yungas Road is actually 49.71 miles/80 kilometers for those curious. Before the 1980’s, there were an average of 300 deaths per year on the road (mostly from vehicle accidents). The worse accident occurred in the mid 1980’s, when 103 locals were traveling at night back to La Paz from a party in an open truck and everyone fell to their death (reportedly because the driver also had a few drinks). There is even a large cross and memorial their to mark the accident and pay respect to those who lost their lives.
So after all these facts, it's only natural that we wanted to mountain bike 34 miles and over 3,300 ft to our doom right? I mean, we thought we were a bit crazy too. Death Road always came up while we planned for Bolivia, but after consulting many blogs and talking to some of our friends whose families are native to Bolivia, we decided against it and filled our itinerary with other tours and sights without too much thought. But the best part about traveling sometimes is the spontaneity and last-minute plans. When we got to La Paz and Uyuni, we met many backpackers and had quite a few conversations with people from all over the world who already biked Death Road and highly recommended it as a safe activity with the right tour company. So we took the plunge (not literally)!
After thinking about it for a while, we decided to visit a few local biking company offices around town, and ended up choosing Gravity Assisted (the most popular on Trip Advisor as well). They are by far the most expensive tour company by far, at $124 USD per person + 50 Boliviano (about $7 USD) road tax, versus half the price for other companies. But when it comes to safety, especially for a DEATH ROAD tour, we were willing to pay up some extra money since Gravity prides itself on safety first. Gravity has been around for over 20 years and is the original Death Road tour company, which is a fun fact for those shopping around. They claim to be the best, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision for us. We signed up at the main office office, which was convenient across the street from our hostel on Calle Linares just one day before our tour. We received an email confirmation right away for the meetup point and were set to go!
6:30am | Meet up at Café del Mundo (city center) to meet tour guide and rest of the group
6:30 – 7am | Check-in process and welcome briefing
7-8am | Drive to starting point - La Cumbre (elevation of 15,400 ft); apparel distribution (jackets, pants, helmets, and gloves)
9-10am | Gear up, bike distribution, and safety instructions
10-12pm | 22km biking on asphalt (with 2-3 stops in between) toward Death Road
12-3pm | 34km biking on Death Road (with 3-4 stops in between); Our group decided to skip the additional 10km of uphill biking
3-5pm | Lunch at La Senda Verde Animal Sanctuary with pasta buffet and beer
5:30-8:30pm | Drive back through Death Road and drop off in La Paz
We began our ride in La Cumbre, where we finalized gearing up and began the first 22 mile leg. I actually enjoyed this part of the ride the most, since I was less worried about navigating a rocky road, and more riding and taking in the view around me. While riding at the speed of light, I made sure to slow down a bit to take in the scenery of the stunning waterfalls, snow covered peaks of Huayana Potosi, and small villages along the way. It was so cold that my eyelashes actually froze while I was on my bike! We stopped for a few breaks in between, but this ride was absolutely breathtaking and I will never forget it.
As someone who is not a very strong biker, I was definitely very, very hesitant about mountain biking through a road that has claimed many lives. But sorry mom, I just had to do it! Gravity was absolutely incredible. They have very knowledgeable and well-trained guides who speak English well, so communication is never an issue and I never felt unsafe. We were taught how to properly use our brakes, what to do if we saw large rocks coming ahead, and even how to fall properly if it was inevitable. Even our driver was incredible since he basically knew every inch of the road and drove us back home through Death Road safely even though it was incredibly nerve wrecking not seeing any of the road for many parts of the road as a window passenger. The shuttle bus we took from La Paz to North Yungas Road actually follows the biking group from beginning to end, and since there are two guides, one always leads, and the other will trail behind the last biker.
I won’t lie, I actually did fall once on my first few km once we got onto the extremely rocky Death Road. I bruised my left thigh, left bottom palm, and even my left forehead a bit, but nothing that a few days of resting wouldn’t heal (scroll down for pics!). From the other horror stories, I heard, I am extremely lucky that I didn’t break my collarbone, chip my front teeth, or even bleed for that matter. I got back up, rested for a few minutes in the shuttle, and got back on my bike for the rest of the day. And guess what! I made it the rest of the way down without falling again. Trust me, it took a lot of mental strength to bike all 34 miles, and it was a seriously a trip when it came to passing by crosses and memorials along the way. I'm including some pictures of my injuries (sorry mom!) from my fall because I want to warn you guys that while a lot of people in my group didn't take a tumble, it really isn't too difficult to take a nasty fall here, so BE CAREFUL and you'll be fine!
Hanging out the narrowest part of death road in the rain!
Just some minor injuries a few days post-ride plus a few bruises on my left forehead:
La Senda Verde Animal Refuse
Our group of 10 was definitely feeling the heat and dust by the last few miles of our ride, and I was especially excited to finally complete what is the longest bike ride of my entire life! We rode all the way to the bottom of the village of Yolosa to the La Senda Verde Animal Refuge, where wee saw plenty of monkeys, dogs, and even the capybara, known as the world's largest rodent! We snacked so much throughout the day that we didn't end up eating our actual pasta buffet lunch until later in the afternoon. My friends and I decided to skip the shower option here since we were planning to change and shower once we got back to our hostel later that night. Instead, we spent the 2 hours here eating, chatting with others from our group over beers, and learning more about our tour guide who used to run a bike tour in Thailand before coming to La Paz and working Gravity Assisted.
We chose the option to head back to La Paz that night, although GA can help you organize staying at La Senda (also a hostel). Some people may choose this option in order to take a bus from Coroico to the Bolilvian Amazon Jungle the following day. It sounds like an incredible next adventure, and I'd love to visit the Amazon one day!
In total, we biked 34 miles and descended over 11,800 feet during our ride. We experienced every type of weather condition during those few hours; I went from cold and dry to hot and wet in the duration of our tour and then bruised and tired by the end with a huge smile on my face! Although I highly doubt I will ever ride down this road again (though my visa is valid for 10 years), I do highly, highly recommend that you don’t pass up this opportunity during your visit to Bolivia like we almost did. It was exhilarating, thrilling, and so incredibly fun. Take the proper precautions and do your research before literally living your life on the edge, but I promise you will not regret it and will survive to tell the tale!