Death Road may sound ominous, more accurately called Yungas Road until 2006 it was worthy of its macabre nickname. A 60km stretch of road of which the North Yungas section used to be perilous by any description or comparison! Mountain biking down Death Road was by far one of the best “fun” days I have had during my travels! No wonder it has become a huge tourist hit for Bolivia and one of the top “to do” things in La Paz. There was a few mishaps during the day, nothing serious, more technology problems…my fault too!
History of Death Road
In 1930 the road was built connecting La Paz to the Yungas Region. Starting in Santa Barbara La Paz, passing Cotapat then through the subtropical forest of the Yungas Region (North Yungas Road). Even the initial section from Santa Barbara to Cotapat was dangerous, now a well-maintained tarred road. When this first section was built it was a gravel road with no barriers as it wound up and down the mountain heading out of La Paz. It would have been treacherous in normal conditions let alone cloudy or rainy! From start to finish the elevation difference is around 3600m, peaking at 4700m above sea level, the lowest point is around 1100m.
The range of altitude can result in 4 extreme seasons in a 60km stretch. On our way down the initial section two trucks had blown over because of the wind! In the North Yungas, mountain biking through the forest is difficult to imagine this stretch used to be a main artery for transport. There are sheer cliffs dropping off nearly 500m…did I mention there are no barriers! Cut into the mountain face, the single lane road twists and turns as it embraces the curving mountain like a python coiling its prey. There isn’t 50m of straight-line road in the North Yungas road with to man blind corners to count.
In Bolivia they drive on the right-hand side of the road, except on the North Yungas…here they drive on the left-hand side. Why? With no barriers to stop you falling off sheer cliffs, driving on the left-hand side gives the driver the best vantage point to judge how close they are to the edge…preventing a likely tumble into the green abyss of the forest far below.
Death Road Mountain Biking
Mountain biking down Death Road is a major tourist attraction, with many companies offering guided tours. In La Paz there are between 30-50 companies almost all which are located within 100m from Hotel Sagarnaga. In 1995 between 200-300 people died on Death Road, at which point it was designated the unenviable title of “most dangerous road in the world”. Even in more recent times at least 18 cyclists have died on the road since 1998. I’m not scaremongering, but I do think choosing a good tour operator is paramount. By and large Death Road has its perils and precautions should be taken however it is safer than cycling through London!
What I am saying is, your experience of Death Road is enhanced by who you choose as your tour guide. I had done some research into operators and so did Garry & Maddy (Cholita Wrestling, Bolivian Chola and Moon Valley); they had taken it a step further having gone to see a few of them and messaged me to say they had negotiated a good deal too. To summaries, we ended up choosing (Garry & Maddy chose, I followed suit) Barracuda Biking which I had also looked into and they had great reviews. About reviews, years ago I used to use TripAdvisor, but not anymore. Personally I don’t believe many of their “reviewers” are genuine. Now I tend to use many independent reviews, web sites etc. those without a financial benefit to distributing positive reviews.
Choosing a Death Road tour operator
I didn’t simply agree to Barracuda Biking because of the price nor the reviews. Located around the corner from my hotel I paid them a visit asking as many questions as possible from their bikes, gear and guides etc. Barracuda Biking were great, good equipment, excellent guides and service from start to end. Our guides were Cristian and Kenneth, both proper riders. If my memory serves me correct Kenneth is (was then) a sponsored downhill mountain biking rider. That’s not to say you need to be an expert rider, not at all. Cristian and Kenneth alternated between leading and the other following the last rider, the bus driver following behind too. The leading guide accommodating faster riders and the tailing guide ensuring everyone arrived safely. At no stage did they push anyone out of their comfort zone, letting people enjoy the experience no matter what speed they wanted to go.
Price, normal price is 630 Boliviano, Garry & Maddy negotiated it down to 520 (about £60). They G&M, also managed to rope in another couple Grace & Joe. In the end our group was a good representation of the European Union with 14 of us. We were lucky that the group were all about the same age (me the oldest), all wanting a good day of fun. No matter how good your guides are, if you’re with a difficult group it will be a long day.
NB – No I didn’t colour coordinate my bike with my outfit! Pure coincidence, or unlucky, that my bike and raincoat/windbreaker was also orange…and the only orange bike too!
Summary of what’s included with the mountain biking tour:
- Collection from their office in the morning and returning that evening
- Bike, mostly Kona full suspension (all in good condition). Helmet, gloves, jacket and trousers, elbow and knee pads too. Protective equipment is optional, the helmet is obviously compulsory.
- Any adjustments you want to be made to the bike within reason. They get your measurements when you book to ensure they have enough of the correct size equipment and gear. Obviously any breakdowns or flat tyres they fix along the way too
- They take photos throughout the day, posting them on their Facebook page and emailing them to the whole group too
- Lunch, like a snack box but with ample food. More than enough bottled water throughout the day.
- A large sit-down lunch at the end of the tour in the middle of the jungle. There is a swimming pool and showers too.
- Of course you get a free t-shirt too ?
I’ll try make be as succinct as possible. We were collected from Barracuda Biking’s office in La Paz, quite early in the morning (7:45). If I were you I’d make arrangements to have breakfast before leaving because it’s a long day, we got back after 19:00. Cafe del Mundo accommodate these early starts and I’m very glad I arranged for a breakfast takeaway and double espresso (FYI – no I’m not being paid by Café de Mundo…or anyone else for that matter!). Back to the route! After pick-up we drove up the mountain pass to the starting point (16°20’19.0″S 68°02’25.4″W). Here we got our bikes, gear, any adjustments to the bike, an overview of the day including safety briefing.
The first part of the route is a beautiful tarred road with stunning scenery. Unfortunately you can’t fully appreciate it because it is better to focus on the road than everything around you ?! Throughout the hole day you stop many times, ranging from every 5-10km. After the around 15km you hit the North Yungas, the actual start of actual Death Road (16°17’20.7″S 67°49’38.3″W – North Yungas Road). It’s downhill for 95% of the whole day, except for the very end there is a very short steep climb.
First video of the day, stopped with the wrong group so headed back on the road to catch up with our group – Death Road, Bolivia
Second usable video because of the size limits to uploading on WordPress. This was not to far from where the road splits to the North Yungas – Death Road, Bolivia
Simple, every season in one day. Starting at 4700m in the morning in late June is bound to be cold, it was, though not freezing. Wear layers and peal the off as they day progresses. Only after the second stop on the tarred Yungas Road did my lips begin to freeze up and my fingers near locked frozen ?! Starting off cold the ride went to damp, then humid then hot. At the beginning we were all dressed warmly i.e. jackets/raincoats, trousers etc. by the end of the day we were in shorts and t-shirts and swimming right at the end of the day! What am I trying to tell you? It starts cold and ends up warm, at least that was our weather. If I were you I would plan for all seasons. The bus followed us from start to finish making it easy to store any excess clothes taken off or needed to put back on.
Awesome!…the end! Death Road is great fun for all shapes, sizes, age and fitness levels. It can either be done in a challenging way or a meander freewheel taking in the scenery. Cristian & Kenneth started the day off hyping us up setting a positive tone to start the day. Oh yes I forgot! Before the day started we all made the obligatory (obviously not forced) offering to Pachamama to watch over us during the day and keep us safe. This was done with alcohol, hectic, like rocket fuel. Pour a little on the ground, a little on the bike and then a little sip! Don’t know what alcohol it was but hell it was strong!
From snow-capped peaks to dense forest with waterfalls. I lost count of the waterfalls; some small trickling creeks, others cascading from high up the mountain crashing on the road. North Yungas during the raining season must be a sight to see, though I don’t know if I’d like to do Death Road during that time. You stay dry most of the day but need to cross a few streams a few inches deep. Don’t fret, within 10 minutes you’re dry again. I didn’t push myself during the ride and still it was exhilarating in an effortless manner.
We stopped many times during the day to regroup and refresh. I would have liked to keep going for longer periods, but appreciate we did this venture as a group, so we stopped appropriately. It didn’t detract from the day’s fun and excitement. For Cristian and Kenneth I’m sure we were riding at a snail’s pace, however they road the entire day with a smile and were great company.
Death Road is safe, but take care
North Yungas these days is dominated by mountain biking, however the region is filled with farms and residence. Meaning, most of the traffic is other Death Road tours and support vehicles. But, there were a few occasions when coming round a corner I was faced with a local driving up the road! One of our group fell, dislocating his shoulder. An ambulance came and took him away. I’d hate to know how bumpy the ambulance was down part of that road. If his shoulder wasn’t dislocated before I’m sure the ambulance suspension dislocated it ? Nothing wrong with the ambulance or paramedics, they were great. I’m referring to the road not being suited for cars. The guys made a swift recovery, I bumped into them in Sucre and he seemed fine.
Knowing your equipment is essential. No, not the mountain biking equipment, your (my!) camera equipment. I really don’t make a fuss about my equipment, I’m no photographer, like I’ve said I take pictures for me and me alone. If other people like my pictures great, but that is not my motivation. Sure if people say something positive about them I’m flattered and yes it’s always nice to get positive feedback. Still, my pictures are for me. I bought a GoPro in Houston and had hardly used it nor spent much time working it out. That’s where my disappointment comes in, though it is funny…retrospectively. My plan was to record the whole day. During the tarred Yungas Road I recorded most of it but didn’t check the camera angle meaning most of the footage is of my front wheel hahahaha!
Once we hit the North Yungas I thought I was still video, but alas I wasn’t! Instead I had accidentally changed the setting to photo-lapse…every 3 seconds! Only realising what I had done in the last 5km. By the end of the day I had nearly 4500 photos!!!! I ended up deleting nearly 2000 pictures, for the rest I stitched them together with a 0.25 second lapse. So, I’m asking forgiveness for the lack of decent video; made more challenging because WordPress only allows a max file upload of 100MB. I added the cheesy music to make it less boring. FYI – each pic/video has 220 pictures.
As for the rest of the pictures
For the rest of the pictures I used my phone. Waiting for to bus every time to get my camera just wasn’t feasible and it would have detracted from the moment. That being said, I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with the quality, but they will do fine for me. I’m writing this during the Covid-19 lockdown in Dubai, waiting to go to Saudi Arabia…I’ve been stuck in a hotel for more than a month now GRRRRRRR!!!. I emailed Barracuda in the hope that their pictures are still available (their hi-definition, not those on their Facebook page) as I didn’t download them when they sent me the DropBox link – my fault. If they do have them I will either add them to this blog or to my photos on my Batnomad Facebook page.
Summary of Death Road
I’ve waffled on enough without saying much. Death Road was fantastic, we had a great group, excellent guides, the route is beautiful, the mountain biking was thrilling, and I’d do it many times over again. Ending the day off with a swim in a refreshingly chilly pool and a tasty lunch at a local artist’s house; where we where treated like family all sitting around the same table. There were showers, towels, shampoo and soap to clean up before heading back to La Paz to end a spectacular day.
First stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Second stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Third stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Forth stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Fifth stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Sixth stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Seventh stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Eighth stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Ninth stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Tenth stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Eleventh stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia
Twelfth stitched picture-video, apologies for the cheesy background music – Yungas, Death Road, Bolivia