Only an hour or so out of La Paz lies the beginning of one of the most popular adventure tourism opportunities in Bolivia: mountain biking down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” The road was given this dubious title by a development organisation in the 90’s, after an estimated average of 200-300 travelers had died transiting the road every year for decades.
What could possibly make a road so deadly for vehicle traffic? Well, it’s barely a road at all, consisting mostly of one narrow gravel and dirt lane (with occasional wider spots) hacked out of a cliffside, with a vertical wall on one side and nothing but empty space on the other. Much of the time hundreds of feet of empty space, and no there are definitely no guardrails protecting that crumbly outside edge. Cars and trucks used to topple off the road alarmingly frequently, hence the Death Road moniker.
Nowadays there is a much safer modern alternative road connecting La Paz with the Amazonian lowlands, so the Death Road sees little vehicle traffic or accidents. Vehicles have now largely been replaced by hordes of tourists on mountain bikes, guided and outfitted by dozens of “adventure tourism” companies from La Paz. It has become very popular in the last several years and is big business, with tourists shelling out big money (over $100 usd for the pricier outfits) by Bolivian standards for the privilege of risking their lives.
What’s the draw? Well, there’s the chance to brag about your exploits afterwards, assuming your survival of course. All the companies knowingly give out “I survived the Death Road” tee shirts to participants. But more than that is the fact that it’s a truly incredible ride. You start at over 15,000 feet in elevation and zip down 20 or so miles of paved downhill, going as fast as you dare. Then most companies put you in the van for an uphill stretch, and drop you off at the beginning of the actual one lane Death Road. From there you keep descending, coasting down and down in elevation through different climactic zones, going from frigid mountain cold to steamy jungle heat, eventually ending up at a little town at around 3600 feet in elevation. That’s almost 12,000 vertical feet -well over two miles- of elevation lost over the course of about 40 miles of biking. With only a few flat and uphill sections you barely even have to peddle the whole way.
Even with barely any vehicle traffic to worry about, there’s still no denying the danger of the bike ride. Since the mid-90’s when the first people started making the trip somewhere around 20 tourists have gone off the edge and died. An unknowable amount of injuries, both serious and minor, have occurred. But really it’s completely non-technical and not out of the question for enthusiastic and able bodied beginners; it’s really just a long downhill gravel road, and if you ignore the omnipresent threat of death a few feet to your left it’s really not too big a deal. When you think about it that last sentence also describes a normal road ride with traffic zipping around you, and most people don’t worry too much about that either.
The only thing that made me really nervous about the trip was watching Denae gain confidence and start to really haul ass, as is her nature. Unfortunately she hit a rock wrong at some point and went over the handlebars, crashing pretty hard on the road, thankfully in non cliffy section. She was a trooper though, and after a short ride in the van to recover she was back on the bike and at least slightly more cautious, although she could barely walk for the next few days from all the bruises.
Also probably easing the fear factor for us was the unfortunate weather, with clouds and fog and drizzling rain obscuring the more terrifying views. We still had a blast though, and got ourselves some nice tee shirts. The trip rivaled the time we mountain biked down from the world’s highest motorable pass in India…
Note: we went with a company called B-sides, who had a nice office and gave a quality presentation, representing themselves as a nearly top shelf company. We paid extra to go with them, and were pretty disappointed. The bikes were junky (Denae’s back brake went out at one point; not cool and potentially deadly in the wrong moment here), safety equipment was beyond well used, and the guides were nice young guys but very cursory in their safety talks and attention to detail. If we were to do it again we’d either pay up and go with the gold standard- Gravity Tours- or not fool around with all this “safety” and use a cheapo. Midrange didn’t seem to work out for us.