There is a reason it’s called Death Road. For centuries, it claimed countless lives as the only treacherous passage through the mountains north of La Paz.
A snaking, bumpy, unsealed road that stands between you and 50 meters of sheer cliffs the whole way down, it has seen many buses and cars overshoot a turn and plunge to oblivion in the cloudy mist.
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These days, with a new sealed highway offering a safer, faster alternative, only local vehicles use the Death Road now, leaving the rest of it to the hordes of cycle tours that make their way down the 32km stretch every morning.
And yes, people do still die on this road.
Every few kilometers your guide will stop, let the group catch up, and pay homage to the Israeli, Italian, German, or even local guide that lost the battle with the most dangerous road in the world taking a corner too quickly, a selfie too frivolously, or an overtaking too widely.
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The truth is, if you take it easy, use quality equipment, and concentrate around the bends, there should be no reason whatsoever that you would come close to a perilous demise.
But still, like many adventure sports, every year sees its handful of accidents and overzealous participants continue to sustain the validity of the moniker.
Where to Buy
When you get to La Paz, you’ll realize that every tour company on the street is offering a Death Road experience.
From the foremost provider, Gravity Assisted, which has the largest bike workshop in South America and dominates all google searches, to the local one-man operation you’ll notice some things are different and some are the same.
The route – at the end of the day, there is only one Death Road, so every company will start from the same muster point and take you down the same road. Some go a little further, but they add no value.
Free T-shirt – it doesn’t matter which company you go for, each will provide their own customised ‘I survived Death Road’ Tee.
Transfers – Every company will pick you up from your hotel and drop you back after 6pm
Snacks – whilst the contents may differ, you’ll be given an adequate snack just before starting the Death Road section of the cycle
Lunch & Shower – although different companies may take you to different locations, even the cheapest option (I took both) will have you sat down for lunch in a Caroica hotel with a pool, shower, and wholesome buffet lunch
The DVD – at the end of the tour, each company will take you back to the office to pick up a copy of the photos and videos of the day for you to use
Maintenance – It’s one of those things you don’t notice until your brakes wear down halfway through a turn. And this is where you need to weigh up the assurances of the big companies with their strict maintenance policies against the smaller ones that generally have a ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it’ approach.
The bikes – Be assured, the companies like Gravity Asssisted and Barracuda spend much more on their bikes, renewing them regularly. But that’s not to say the smaller companies don’t have adequate equipment for a safe and comfortale ride down. It will be up to you to decide whether double suspension and hydraulic brakes is a bit of overkill for a bike ride.
The DVD – The big companies do a better job of putting together a package with better quality cameras, but you’ll find your own pics along the way will be the ones you cherish most.
The equipment – With the big companies, your gear will be fresh. You’ll look like a pro. But all in all, every company offers the same protective gear. All of it is adequate to protect from a slip over the handlebars. The cheaper ones just look a little more tattered.
This is where you notice the biggest difference, all before you hop on the bike.
As explained, every company offers the mandatory experience with extras. But each company offers you to choose your level of bike from a standard suspension mountain bike all the way up to something that looks more like a monster truck. All of them come with fat wheels for extra traction.
Spring Suspension320 Bolivianos
Front Hydraulic Suspension450 Bolivianos
Front & Rear Hydraulic Suspension550 Bolivianos
Spring Suspension550 Bolivianos
Front Hydraulic Suspension650 Bolivianos
Front & Rear Hydraulic Suspension800 Bolivianos
How it works
Depending on where your hotel is, you’ll be picked up between 7:30am and 8:30am, and join the rest of the tourists in the mini-van for the 1.5hr journey out of La Paz towards the muster point.
You’ll head north through the valley, hugging the mountainside, passing villages and various police checkpoints.
Eventually, the van will reach a large gravel carpark where the rest of the tour companies are setting up.
You’ll be given your protective equipment, assigned a bike, and given a few minutes to ride around and get your bike legs ready.
Then you’ll be off, down a 22km stretch of newly-sealed road, dodging cars and trucks on a continuous downhill slide where you’ll never pedal and always have your fingers gingerly waiting on the brakes.
It’s a massive rush and reminds me of the skeleton competitors in the Olympics.
After about an hour of fun, you’ll get to a little checkpoint where your guide, who has been leading the whole way, will inform you that because of the extremely unsafe topography of the next 8km of road ahead, the police force everyone to get back in the vans (who follow behind you the whole way) and get shuttled to the start of Death Road.
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And that’s where you will go. A little old lady will pull up a barrier and let the van into a fairly misty and nondescript off-road. And whilst you take 10 to have a snack and head to the toilet, you’ll pay your 25 Boliviano (yea, that’s extra) local fee.
From there, Death Road starts.
The road is now a mixture of gravel and cobblestone, and it’s time to focus.
From a width of 3 metres to 5 metres along the way, all straddled by sheer cliff drops and thick fog, if you fall over, its doubtful people will see where.
The road is also made slipperier by the many small waterfalls that feature along the way.
Despite all this, 99.99% of the thousands of tourists that take to this historically significant path reach the bottom totally unscathed.
The only difference here is that the consequences for being a little too confident can be, well, deathly.
For 32km, you’ll tackle the rather ‘off-road’ quality, dodging large stones and potholes, whilst keeping an eye on the distance for tricky turns and oncoming traffic.
Your guide will make sure to stop every 10 minutes or so, giving you a chance to take photos or telling you about the unfortunate ending of a tourists in years gone by.
3 hours later and the path will start to flatten. You’ll need to pedal just a little to continue, but not for long.
Eventually, you’ll come to the first crossroad of the road, where your guide will either end the tour and pack you into the mini-van or take you a few kilometres further until you reach the town of Caroica where you can grab a beer and celebrate your triumphs!
Either way, by 1pm you’ll have arrived at your lunch stop where you can gorge on the buffet, take a dip in the pool, and then have a nice warm shower.
Hi, I'm Trent!
Come with me on a journey from Corporate Comfort to Wandering Wonder as I travel the world in search of the answer to living my wildest dreams every day, whilst building a successful future at the same time!