This article has been updated on March 13, 2021
Riding the Death Road is a popular tourist activity for backpackers from all around the world. We are talking about a super-fun nearly 70 km long downhill bike ride on an unpaved road that cuts through stunning valleys on the slopes of Andes, with an unbelievable 3450 metres of descent that goes up from the cool Altiplano terrains down to the hot and humid rain forest.
Why is it called Death Road?
The North Yungas Road, which is the official name for this road from the town of Coroico to the country’s capital La Paz. The original road was constructed by Paraguayan POW in 1930. As we all know, many conditions, as well as requirements regarding transport of goods and people, have changed quite drastically since then, the road was however still in heavy commercial use up to 2006. Prior to the completion of its much needed safer replacement (Bolivian National Route 3), it was estimated that 200–300 commuters died here each year, hence the unfortunate nickname. Currently, the road is only used by locals living in the area and the bikers.
Why was it so dangerous? Yungas Road winds down through steep hillsides and deep cliffs. It consists of a narrow single track only, many sharp turns with blind spots. The pre-2006 heavy traffic (as you can see in the picture below) meant that this was a very accident-prone route for anyone to take. Furthermore, as the road descends from 4650m at La Cumbre Pass to 1200m at the town of Coroico, which means that the road passes through several different climate ranges and I’m sure that the consequent weather conditions also didn’t help.
Which tour operator to pick
There are many agencies offering the Death Road tours in La Paz. More precisely, there’s about 20 certified and a number of non-certified companies that provide the tours. To be honest, the whole Death Road related tourist industry appeared to have a somewhat fragile microclimate, which demonstrated itself with a diplomatic question-skipping kind of professional attitude about any competitors.
As a result, we were not exactly sure what was the honest information and what was the professional attitude. So how did we pick one of them at the end? Like many others: reviews + budget factors helped a bit but at the end of the day, it was the quality of the bikes that made the decision-making process far less difficult.
The cheapest option we have found started at 320,-BOB (€41), which would mean riding a bike with the front suspension only and the bike itself looked like a fake or a refurbished model from the 90s. The most expensive option was just above 800,-BOB (€102) and the bikes were apparently not more than one-year-old Konas.
We have opted for a mid-range-priced company called Barracuda. Bikes were Konas, in this case, they were original and visibly well maintained. The bikes had both wheels suspended and the obligatory helmet, gloves as well as optional suits, elbow and knees protections were provided. Snacks and dinner were also part of the package for 545,-BOB (€70).
The Tour itself
After about an hour’s drive out of La Paz, we have arrived at the spot, still in the early hours. After trying our bikes and the gear, we were given detailed safety instructions by the Barracuda team. They took it seriously and stressed the dangers many times over and over again.
The spiritual safety precaution before the ride is to give a bit of booze to Pachamama AKA Mother Nature the ancient Inca god to keep you safe. Everyone was also required to have a tiny wee bit themselves (as a safety precaution). It was apparently 96% alcohol – except that it was not 96% – it wasn’t even 50% 😉
Unlike other Bolivian roads, vehicles on Death Road are required to drive on the left, so drivers have a better view of their outer wheels and passing is also safer. We were a bit lucky because due to the landslide, there were almost no cars present on the road so we didn’t have to watch out for them as much. The thing is that the road itself is rather narrow. The largely single-lane road follows cliffs with drops of up to 600m. The width of the road is mostly designed for a single vehicle, and on average it apparently is about 3.2m.
I must admit that at the beginning I found it rather bizarre to enjoy riding down a strip of a road where so many died ): At points it felt a bit disrespectful to me personally doing cheesy photoshoots in such a place marked with so many crosses. To feel better about this dilemma, I concluded that it was all but disrespecting those who died here. After all, Pachamama serves us with all things, death included for everyone at some point…
Then we just rode and rode further down. Pachamama further rewarded us with riding through the waterfalls and many places with magic views. As we descended to lower altitudes, the climate changed drastically, the beauty levels however remained equally high. It was very hot down there at “only” 1200m above sea level, the lowest I’ve been in weeks. I’ve noticed that being high up all the time doesn’t suit me so much because I like Oxygen too much 😉
Some of us have ended a tour with a zip line adventure (not included in the price) and then we have all met in a hotel for a little swim in a pool and a delicious lunch. Overall, it was rather an expensive day, given the fact that it was nearly for the same money for which you can get driven and cared for around Salt Flats in Uyuni for 3 days in a 4WD but it was worth it. It was a great day 🙂
Drive safely please
The road’s dangerous nature has made it a popular tourist attraction from the 1990s on, drawing some 25000 visitors annually. Nevertheless, the road remains dangerous; at least 30 cyclists have died on the road since 1998 ): Please note that the more expensive tour doesn’t necessarily mean to be more secure, the latest tragic accident that took place just a few days before our tour in January 2019 sadly proved that point right ):
Without trying to sound cynical, I must say that if you add up the numbers, it is not such a bad statistics. But still. Even our guides stressed the potential dangers many times before and during the tour. They have made many group stops to warn us about the more dangerous parts ahead, but it was still up to an individual driver how fast he or she went.
I am only saying that because my inner teenager has woken up turning me into a bit of a stupid downhill racer. If you are or if you used to be into this kind of thing, Death Road might get quite tempting. Only about halfway down I’ve decided to take it easy and it was only because at that speed I could not really fully enjoy the scenery.
It was just then when I realised how stupid I’ve been up there racing down at 30-40km/h at some points because anything could happen at this kind of speed, especially when driving on an unpaved dirt road. Just look at those drops on the pictures, they are enormous and it only takes a second to… Anyway, what I’m trying to say is: please ride carefully and don’t let your testosterone overcome your abilities, that place is not called Death Road for no reason.
Things to know before the Death Road tour
Except for the safety, please remember that in the early hours you’ll be over 4000 metres above sea level, which means it’s gonna be cold. However, at the end of the day, you’ll be sweating like a pig so if you can, make sure that you can upgrade your outfit accordingly.
You’ll also drive through the waterfall so you’ll get wet but it will be in the hot part already. You’ll be given snacks throughout the day so all you’ll need is water. Please note that the guides will take many pictures of you and your fellow bikers. If you want high-quality pics, take your camera as I’d presume that they will have just a standard mid-range one.
If you can pick the timing, consider doing the tour during the dry season, which is generally from May to October. The activity is however running all year round.
Other popular destinations to consider in the region
If you are in the region, do not miss out on visiting Lake Titicaca. From La Paz as it only takes about 3 hours to get there. We’re talking about a stunning lake that also happens to the largest in South America and 18th in the world. It also plays an important role in Incan mythology as well as general history, which is still very present nearly everywhere around the lake. Read more here, in case you were interested.
La Paz and Sucre
Sucre and La Paz, the two capitals of Bolivia. Are they worth visiting? And why there are two capitals in the country? Read more details about those two cities here, in case you were interested.
Uyuni Salt Flats
Arguably the most popular attraction in Bolivia, as well as one of the most surreal and incredible places I’ve ever visited, is Uyuni Salt Flats, the world’s largest salt flat with an enormous area of more than 10 000 km2 (3 900 square miles). Read more details here, in case you were interested.
Salta and Jujuy provinces
You can also head even further south from Uyuni to hit the stunning Humahuaca Valley and explore the beautiful provinces of Jujuy and Salta in Northern Argentina. You’d get rewarded by more surreal nature, vibrant colours, excellent trekking options and Argentinian hospitality. More details about those two provinces could be found here.
Well, if you are into surreal nature, then there also is the Atacama Desert in Chile. We’re talking about the driest non-polar desert in the world that comes with many extraterrestrial-like views. Read more about Atacama Desert here, in case you were interested.