Rip down ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ on a mountain bike. It sounded a little edgy so we headed along to Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (bit of a mouthful for a company) to see what the deal was. They were offering (for $100USD) to take us to 4,800m in a van and then guide us all the way down to 1,200m. After starting off for 15km on a mountain pass road, we’d then head down 50km on ‘Death Road’. Why would you name a road, ‘Death Road’? The graveyard of buses and cars sitting in the valley below would give us a pretty clear idea why. We booked in and were set for another day of adventure, albeit one with a slightly concerning name!
‘Death Road’ was classed as the worlds most dangerous road by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995. It’s about 65km in length and connects La Paz with the small township of Coroico. I did a bit of reading and found a claim that, when it was the main road for traffic, approximately 200-300 people a year died on the road. Why is it dangerous? It’s more or less a one lane road (which used to hold 2-way traffic) and has shear drops of 600m or more at many points. We could still see the wreckage of cars down the bottom of the steep cliffs.
Death Road Day Out
We started nice and early, as per usual, 7:30am down at a local café in La Paz (the biggest city in Bolivia). The first hour or so was simple, sit inside a van and get to know the other guys who were hitting the road with us that day. We had another kiwi girl, a Brit and a Swiss couple, all seemed like good sorts. We arrived at our starting point high up in the mountains, albeit next to a well trafficked road. After sorting out our gear and getting the bikes set, we set off down the paved road, winding our way down into the valley to get to the start of Death Road. The first 15km was good fun, we got up plenty of speed and got to weave our way through a little bit of traffic. Everyone survived, so it was on to the main event – the so called world’s most dangerous road.
We were briefed that we’d be riding on the side of the road that led to a sheer drop off to the valley below – clearly we weren’t expected to keep as far left as possible! The road itself is like a metal road back in NZ, dusty shell rock with a few stones and boulders thrown into the mix. Cel and I were feeling pretty easy with the task ahead, the road was pretty wide and not as steep as the canyon road we’d ridden in Colombia. Marcos, our Australian guide, set us off and we all followed behind testing out the bikes and brakes in the early stages. After a few minutes it was clear we could give it a bit of stick as the road really was nice and open – so long as you could get over the fact that there was a 600m sheer drop just off the left hand side of the road.
I did my best to keep up with the guide and push things a little harder than I probably should have, while Cel led the rest of the crew down behind me. Cel was flying around some of the corners and my protective voice was trying to tell her to slow down, but I wasn’t exactly setting a great example! We made plenty of stops on the way down as Marcos briefed us on each new section. Thankfully the Gravity team were taking the photos along the way meaning we could keep 100% focussed on the road.
There had to be someone and chances are it was going to be the idiot trying to keep pace with the guide….me. Marcos had warned us about a particular corner in a section, saying it was really tight due to a landslide and we’d need to take extra care to get around it. “Plenty of early braking once you see the black and yellow markers” was the instruction. It wasn’t until I was about half way into the corner that I realised that this was the corner he’d been talking about and I clearly had not employed much braking, early or otherwise. I tried my best to hold things together but as the corner ended I ran out of road and ended up in the ditch with the bike on top of me. Thankfully it was the side of the road that hugged the cliff and didn’t drop away to an abyss. Surprisingly nothing ached and I only had a light scrape on my forearm so I was back up and on the bike trying to make up lost ground on Marcos!
We all made our way safely down to the end of the track. It had been an epic ride with some good speeds and the ever present danger of the edge. The Gravity team took us and the bikes through to an animal refuge centre where they fed us and dropped a beer on the table. A couple of bottles later we were all feeling relaxed and stoked to have made it down alive. A swim in a nearby river and a shower at the animal centre had us all back to normal and ready for the drive back up death road and back to La Paz.
On the way up Marcos told us a few of the stories of the road. It’s believed that about 15 tourists have died doing the ride down death road. One was a girl who was stupidly filming her boyfriend on his bike behind her and flew straight off the cliff without even seeing the corner coming. Another girls goggles had fogged up and she’d not reacted quickly enough and plunged down the valley. Even a guide had ended up in the ditch after looking around to check on his group and not anticipating a corner coming upon him. These are only the tourist stories, hundreds of locals have had their lives ended as buses, trucks and cars have slipped off the edge in the day and night. The road is now only used by a few vehicles besides the biking outfits, most traffic uses a newly constructed road – but even that too is seeing problems with vehicles plummeting over the edge.
Death Road: a unique experience and something that has to be done in Bolivia. We were glad to have ticked it off and survived to tell the tale. We’re not sure it trumped the Colombian downhill, it lacked the technical aspects and was obviously overrun with more tourists given its iconic status. All the same it was enough to get the adrenalin pumping and give us a reason to get up the next morning happy to be alive!