I’m biking down Death Road, when a massive semi-truck appears as I round a turn. I have a split second to decide: I could try to slow down to see around with a high-risk of losing control of my bike and face certain injury or I could go for it and overtake it and face possible death and get hit by a car that could be coming around the bend.
I decide to risk it and speed around it. There’s no car and I emerge unscathed. Not today, Death Road.
I make many of these life or injury or death quick decisions during my bike ride down the Yungas Road—more popularly referred to as “Death Road”—in La Paz, Bolivia. One mistake, and you go down…possibly over a 2,000-foot cliff.
In 1995, The Inter-American Development Bank dubbed it “the world’s most dangerous road.”
With narrow passages, hairpin turns, no guardrails, deep cliff drop-offs, thick fog, waterfalls and their runoff, corroded ditches, rock falls and dust, it’s no wonder it claims an estimated 200-300 annual deaths.
So, of course, when I arrived in La Paz to live for the month, I knew I had to bike it. Locals and expats alike kept telling me it was an activity not to be missed, that it was safe to do with a guide, and that I would be fine.
I thought I might not be in mortal peril—but knowing me, probable injury—but I couldn’t let that stop me from doing the activity in La Paz. I found myself in a van with 17 other nervous participants early on a Saturday morning my first weekend in town.
“20 bikers have perished since 1998, and I am super scared to do something this dangerous,” said my fellow inexperienced mountain biker Marina Lvova. “What scares me the most is the possibility of feeling out of control, of getting hurt.”
It’s easy to think we would be safer in our cozy van, forgetting most of the deaths the road claims each year are vehicle (and unfortunately, alcohol) and not bike related; but, that didn’t help to stop my nerves either.
I knew many experienced bikers had faced peril. Three bikers, including a guide, have died since January 2014.
In 2011, a 32-year-old Japanese woman was filming her boyfriend on her iPhone, lost control and fell off an edge, dying from a blow to the head despite wearing a helmet. In 2010, an Israeli backpacker died after going over the edge. No one knows how the accident happened.
The 40-mile road that extends from La Paz to Coroico, Bolivia is mostly all down hill and the bike trip starts at an altitude of 15,260 feet and ends at 3,900 feet.
In 2005, a newer part of the road was added to help with safety concerns, which includes pavement, wider lanes and guardrails.
But that’s not what we’ll mostly be biking.
My guide, Hector Vargas of Madness Mountain Biking assures me I’ll be fine. I try to trust him because he tells me he’s been doing this for over 16 years with 250 rides each year.
“There are injuries because you get excited and you get over your limit,” he tells me as our van climbs up the Andean Mountains. “It’s important to have good bikes, someone with experience and clear instructions. You have to follow the rules. People in Bolivia don’t normally follow the rules, so they take the risk.”
After some alpaca sightings and snow-capped mountain views, we reach the top and hop out. Hector and his assistants begin unloading the bikes and pulling gear out. We suit up with helmets that look more for moto-crossing than mountain biking, bright orange vests, and gloves.
We’re given a safety talk—make sure we go at our own pace and not worry about what anyone else is doing, stay single file and at least 5-10 meters apart, and stay to the left.
Wait, what? Stay to the left? The side of the road that is closer to the edge of the cliff with no guardrails?
Apparently on the mountain, cars and bikers alike drive on the left side and downhill drivers never have the right of way. I’m understanding more and more why this road claims so many accidents and lives. Oh, Bolivia.
I’m handed a bike and we’re on our way. We begin to cruise and stop at various points to take pictures and catch a breath. It’s freezing and I immediately need to retrieve my down jacket from the van following us with supplies and in case anyone feels like they want to stop (or if medical assistance is needed).
As we’re meandering down the winding asphalt path, I get very comfortable and feel good about how I’m doing—what’s the big deal?
I don’t yet know this is the new road. When we stop at a tunnel, Hector says we need to bike about a 30 meter strip of gravel around the tunnel and that will give us a sense of the what the majority of the rest of the road will be like. Oh.
The path isn’t so much gravel as it is rocks, and I find it incredibly challenging. My back wheel keeps veering off to the side and I’m having a hard time controlling the direction of my bike.
It turns out we started out on the new road to get us comfortable and now they’re going to take us to the real start of the old road, the real “Death Road.” I begin to panic again.
We load back up in the vans and watch as the land turns from sub-tropical to tropical and I catch my first glimpse of the mountainside, winding road in the distance. We hop out and now the real challenge begins.
The first stretch is a little rough, but I ultimately get the hang of it. I pass fellow bikers and join the front of the herd. And it’s so damn beautiful.
I strip off my layers and take in the massive mountains that surround me, the sprinkling waterfalls I ride under and their foot-deep rivers I cruise through, and the lush greenery I blaze by.
Every so often I have to refocus. It’s easy to get distracted by the scenery and get cocky about how the ride is going, and I know it’s at those moments that accidents will happen.
I’m looking ahead to watch out for holes and rocks, but sometimes I look down and realize exactly how fast I’m going and how close to the edge of the cliff I am. There are quite a few times where I almost fall, mostly hitting creases in the road.
At some of our stops, Hector points out the occasional markings where deaths have happened. One point is Mirador Balconcillo, where he says in the 1940s the military dictatorship would throw their opponents from.
At another stop, I see a few markings that look like mailboxes and I ask him what they are: “Memorials for some people who have died.”
He doesn’t know the story, but remarks on the mossy cross we just passed by marking the death of almost 100 people who went over in a bus late one night. There are countless markings and memorials along the road signifying deaths—some stories known, many of them forgotten.
At one point during the last stretch of our ride, I see a biker go down in front of me. “Shit, dude, are you ok?” I call to him. I almost lose my balance trying to stop behind him, but he gets back up as if nothing happened—clearly, a more experienced cyclist than me.
The stretch ends at Yolosa, where we cheer, high five each other and celebrate with a few cold beers. My adrenaline is running high and I can’t keep expressing how awesome it was to my fellow riders. We’re all grinning and laughing as we swap stories on how our ride went.
My fellow nervous rider Marina remarks, “Not only were the views spectacular—lush mountains with clouds draped on and around them, spectacular red cliffs, and awe-inspiring drops—but I also had so much fun biking! Once I felt comfortable with my bike, it really wasn’t that bad.”
I could have been dropped back at the top and done it all over again.
It wasn’t until the next day that I found out a girl in Sunday’s group fell and fractured her collarbone, and my guide Hector revealed he once fell and broke his face and needed to have many painful surgeries. Death Road will always live up to its name: that’s life on Death Road.