La Paz is a crazy city. Noisy, dirty and rough around the edges. It is also a city of adrenaline-inducing experiences. There is one particularly mad locale just 60 km away from the city, The North Yungas Road or Coroico Road. It is also known as the “world’s most deadliest road” or Death Road. You can ride it down with a mountain bike. I decided to take the risk and it ended up being one of the best things I have done in South America.
About the road
Back in the days, Death Road was the only road from La Paz to the neighbouring Yungas region. Local people with livestock, and overcrowded buses would overtake each other on the three meter wide road. Many people never finished the road: cross markings and memorials along the road are reminding of this horrific events.
One special rule on the road is that the downhill driver never has the right of way and must move to the outer edge when facing traffic. Unlike anywhere else in Bolivia, vehicles drive on the left hand side (like UK and Hong Kong) to get a better view on the outside wheel.
The road was modernized and a new stretch of fresh pavement, east of the old road, has replaced the dangerous 64 km stretch.
Death Road Tour
At 6:30 A.M. on a murky Monday morning (I had had problems with the altitude for several days in a row!) I got picked up by the guide from Xtreme Down Hill (extremely suitable name for the company!). Still scrubbing off the morning eye boogers, me and eight other adrenaline junkies started the steady climb to almost 4,700 metres.
Chilly start from altiplanic altitude
We drove for an hour to the meeting point in La Cumbre pass (4,650 meters), the highest point on the journey. The driver started to unload the bikes from the top of the bus, while us, the fearless bikers, had a Bolivian breakfast, consisting of coca tea, bread and delicious dolce de leche (slowly heated sweatened milk). At this point, I thought it was going to be one of those, “holding your hand” or “let’s drive in a neat line“- tours.
I was in for a surprise.
We were given a short safety instructions about the road and a quick walkthrough on how the bikes handle. Then, it was time to hit the road. No pampering, no bullshit, “just drive at your own pace and be careful“. We started with a good 15 km ride downhill . White knucklin’ my handlebar, the front suspension mountain bike turned into a motorcycle. The bike was excellent: brakes, gears and everything worked like a charm. I think I got even too confident since there was a part where I overtook a car.
Deathly descend to Coroico
After the paved part, we hopped back in the bus and continued to the start of the Death Road. This is the only stretch that goes uphill during the trip, and the tour companies chose to drive this part with the bus, since it is a rather exhaustive ride at over 3,000 meters.
Another short safety briefing and we were released to the hot and humid serpentine road. At this point the speed was drastically slower. The road was bumpy, but the front suspension took care of that. For extra 100 Bolivianos (14 US$) you can get a bike with front and back suspension, but I found my budget choice was good enough.
There are occasional rivers, waterfalls and even a drug check-post on the way. At times, it was hard to enjoy the scenery as I was aggressively crushing the handlebar and small rocks were ricochetting from the wheels as I was trying to survive another steep curve. I was sure my travel insurance wouldn’t cover the fall to the vegetation below.
In the end of the trip in 1,200 meters, the weather gets hot humid; a stark contrast of the beginning of the trip from 4,650 meters.
Finally, we reached the city of Coroico and a small guesthouse where we had late lunch and some reward beers for surviving the Death Road. After a long three hour trip back to La Paz, you are taken to the tour office where everyone gets a DVD with videos and photos of the trip. You also get a tacky “I survived the Death Road”- shirt that I am going to wear when all my other shirts are in the laundry.
Worth the risk?
Definitely! The road is for confident beginners to experts, from average fitness and above, and for those looking for a 64 km long downhill biking experience.
It is good to keep in mind that there are multiple deaths on the road every year. The Inter-American Development Bank conducted a study where it was estimated that there were between 200 and 300 deaths per year on the Death Road. After the improvements made in the past 20 years, it is still a really dangerous ride.
In general, I am not a big fan of guided tours with a large group. But this was the bomb! Like I said before, the tour was one of the best things I have done in South America. And a cold lager had never tasted as good as the one I had in the end of the ride.