One of Bolivia’s most recent claims to fame came in 1995 when the North Yungas Road, that connects the country’s capital city of La Paz with the Amazonia region below, was named the World’s Most Dangerous Road. The Death Road or El Camino de la Muerte, as it’s now called, is a 69 kilometer or 48 mile section of road that is so treacherous it claims up to 300 lives per year. Luckily in 2006 a new and improved road was opened and the majority of traffic diverted away from this scary stretch of loose rock, landslides, and fog reducing that annual number dramatically.
Far before the traffic left, adventure seekers discovered that it’s a great downhill bike ride and a new attraction was born. Thrill seekers can ride the Death Road with one of some 20 companies that have sprung up over the years and spend a day grasping a bike break for your life and trying to miss all of the large and loose rocks as gravity pushes you down the World’s Most Dangerous Road. So with that kind of reputation, how could I resist?
Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road
I selected Gravity, the original company to run tours to the Death Road, for my ride. While the bikes, guides, and transportation to and from the Death Road were good, the price tag was not. Now that it’s done I would feel more than comfortable going with another company that can be up to half the price.
The ride starts at the top of La Cumbre Pass which sits at about 4,650 meters or 15,260 feet. Aside from perhaps the Inca Trail, this is probably the highest I’ve been and I could certainly feel the altitude even though I’d been above 12,000 feet for months at this point. For the first section of road you get to road test your bike on a nice paved portion of the road with spectacular, though foggy mountain views. The pavement doesn’t last long though before the real fun begins.
After the pavement you’re greeted with a dirt and gravel road that’s barely 10 feet wide (in some places much less). Local laws require that the downward driver stay to the outside of the road so to avoid being hit by oncoming traffic you have to ride within a couple of feet of the edge of a cliff. For most of the journey the cliffs give way to 600 meters or 1,830 foot drops. It’s more than a little scary to look over the edge.
While there were certainly some scary moments hitting large or loose rocks, overall I didn’t think it was the dangerous ride it had been made out to be. Don’t get me wrong, 18 bikers have died after falling to their deaths since bike tours started on the road, but given the number of people who rid the Death Road every day, that’s a really low number. Also, I wasn’t exactly a speed demon or doing anything crazy. Those that did probably found it to be a bit more adventurous but I wasn’t trying to fly off a cliff that day.
To check out my ride in all its glory I videoed my whole Death Road experience so you can see it for yourself.
The Death Road by Car is Not Recommended
Driving the road in a car is a totally different story. That would scare even the heartiest adventurers to death. For some examples you can check out Season 2 of IRT: Deadliest Roads (a spinoff of Ice Road Truckers) or here’s a good video on the making of a commercial for the Mitsubishi Outlander.
When it comes to driving the road, it’s extremely dangerous and many thousands of people have perished on their journeys since the roads inception in the 1930s. In 1995 a bus carrying 100 people went over the edge claiming the lives of all on board. That is still the most deadly accident in Bolivian history but there have been many others. Wooden and metal crosses line the road from top to bottom along with some plaques for larger incidents.
Today there are much fewer cars but there are still incidents. Just a few weeks ago the road claimed the life of a bus driver who was struggling to navigate past a washed out portion of road. He had asked all the passengers to get off the bus while he crossed this portion of road, but unfortunately he didn’t make it and the bus with him inside went over the edge.
Want to Ride the Death Road?
If you want to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road on a bike go for it. As long as you’re somewhat comfortable on a bike (I hadn’t ridden much in years before the Death Road) you will do just fine. Just make sure that your listen to the guide and test your bike and the brakes extensively before you take off downhill.
If you really want an adventure, try driving the Death Road. By car you’ll really get a death defying adventure, if you make it that is.