As easy as riding a bike. The world’s most dangerous road, La Paz, Bolivia
“If you go over the edge you have no hope of surviving. You fall for around 600m before you even reach anything you can grab onto.”
“At points the road only stretches across for 3m before ending in a sheer cliff face and a drop of around 1,000m.”
“Sometimes trucks and buses just come out of nowhere and you have to swerve towards the edge of the cliff to avoid them. And it’s really hard to stop that suddenly on gravel.”
“Two tourists die on Death Road every year!”
“Only a few weeks ago a woman died there. She pulled her front brakes instead of her back ones and just flipped herself over her handlebars and off the edge of the cliff. She never stood a chance.”
“I heard about two guys, best friends who were messing around. One gave the other a playful shove, not really thinking, and his friend stumbled and fell over the edge.”
Like most travellers visiting Bolivia we heard a lot about The World’s Most Dangerous Road before we got there. Probably the country’s most hyped attraction, Death Road (as it is also known) just outside of La Paz is a constant topic of conversation among backpackers who feel they have earned bragging rights. After hearing a few horror stories and talking to some people who had been to the front line and returned with broken ankles, ribs and egos, we had pretty much decided against the idea. It wasn’t that we were afraid for our own lives you see, it was more that we were worried about each other. What if Gary went off the edge? How would I ever forgive myself for letting him go in the first place or vice versa? No, if we were alone we would just leap at the chance to risk our lives needlessly but we had to be selfless, we had to consider the other person first….
It came as a bit of a surprise then to find ourselves kitted out in knee and elbowpads, protective trousers, high visibility vests and full face helmets waiting for our tour guide to lead us down Death Road. I thought there was no way we were going to do this? I thought we were too fond of each other to allow such a suicidal act? Obviously not. All of a sudden we were sailing down the side of a mountain in single file, leaning into hairpin turns and getting up to speeds of 65km/hr on the straights. Our guide had told us that we should only go as fast as we were comfortable with but with such a stretch of beautiful smooth road, with the wind whistling through our helmets and with such spectacular scenery all around us fear had somehow slipped pretty far down the ranks on our list of current emotions. In the van on the way up the mountain (one of the best things about Death Road is that the 60km cycle is all downhill) I had been toying with the idea of just walking the whole way yet for some reason I was now pedalling furiously, trying to overtake two cars and a bus on a corner. Adrenaline does strange things to a person.
All too soon the first section of our trip was over so we bid adieu to the lovely tarmac road, loaded our bikes back onto the roof of the van and tried not to think too much about what was to come. After a few minutes we rounded a corner and absolute silence broke out in the van. In front of us was a huge valley of emerald green mountains cut by a sandy ribbon of road. The narrow road passed under waterfalls and plummeted down mountainsides, always staying closer to the top of the mountains than the bottom. Were we really going to cycle that? The only alternative was staying in the van and considering the width of the van, the width of the road and the width of our top-of-the-range bikes, the bikes somehow looked like the safest option.
Lunch next and a bit of nervous banter over our stale bread and yogurts before we mounted the bikes and started down the hill. We moved slowly at first, getting used to the gravel roads, the constant twists and turns and the ever-present fear of death. The first fall happened within a few minutes – a girl somehow went over her handlebars but, wrapped in cotton wool as she was, she was up and back on the bike within seconds. So far so good. Actually, it wasn’t even that bad. The roads were pretty easy to handle once you remembered not to use the front brake and slowed before you got to a corner rather than during it and we were so busy concentrating on watching out for potholes and cars that we totally forgot that we were on a narrow road 600m above the canopy. By the time we took our first break (for most of the trip we stopped every 15 mins in case anyone had any issues) we were actually, God forbid, starting to enjoy ourselves. World’s Most Dangerous Road? Pah, this was easy. Give us a real challenge!
As the day went on we started to move faster and faster, becoming more comfortable with the bikes and taking the time to check out the awe-inspiring scenery around us. Everywhere we looked there were mountains covered in thick vegetation and shrouded in mist. Every now and then a condor swooped overhead, showing off no doubt and the silence was broken by a crashing waterfall. Dangerous or not, it wasn’t hard to see why people chose to drive this route to Coroico or La Paz.
Of course there were a few hairy moments too. A few corners where back wheels slid under the shock of brakes or where we met locals in cars (or in one case a truck), powering up the mountain. Death Road has been closed to traffic for four years, replaced by a better, lower, newer road, but many locals still use it to get from A to B for some reason – suicidal tendancies no doubt. It was always nerve-wracking having to siddle out to the edge of the cliff so they could pass, praying that a gust of wind wouldn’t take you away or that, as so often happens in life, you wouldn’t just randomly fall over while standing still.
The scariest but also most fun part of the trip was at the end when we opted to take the foot-wide single track down to the base of the mountain instead of the road. When we saw the track we regretted our decision. It was impossibly steep and narrows with huge sharp rocks jutting out here and there and ridiculously tight corners every metre or so. And just to make it interesting it nose-dived off the edge of the hill onto a road about 20m below. Our guide led the way, making it look simple with little bunny hops here and there, turning his bike on a sixpence piece with ease. Apprehensively we followed suit, two hands tightly clutching the brakes and, after a metre or so, faces flat in the dust. How did he stay on? Every time Gary or I tried to get on our bikes we fell off because we were holding the brakes too hard, because we hit a rock, because there is no way a bike could take that corner and because why bother even try anymore, we might as well just walk down. Eventually we got the hang of it though – the trick was to let go of the brakes and feign confidence – and before we knew it we were at the end, the bikes were back on the van, we were covered in beer and we were heading to a nearby hotel for a swim and some lunch. What a day.
There is no question that Death Road is dangerous. When it was the main road in the area there were 1,500 deaths a year on it alone – cars, trucks, buses and vans falling off the edge with families stuck inside. Since the road opened to tourists around 15 years ago, 31 people have died cycling down it – that’s an average of two per year. Yet those figures are far lower than the amount of tourists that die on the Salt Flats in car crashes and when we were cycling it, I rarely felt threatened. In truth, I was too focused on watching the patch of road in front of me to even notice the cliff’s edge right beside me and I know that Gary felt the same. Accidents do happen but, like muggings and bar fights, they tend to happen to some people more often than others.
I think that The World’s Most Dangerous Road is definitely bigged up by those that have done it and want to make it sound like more of an acomplishment than it is. Our advice would be that if you are considering taking a trip but have been freaked out by the boasts of other backpackers, go talk to one of the travel agents about all of their safety measures and see if you feel any differently afterwards. I would absolutely recommend Vertigo as a tour operator – the bikes, safety equipment, guides and souveniers they provided were really fantastic and, although they are half the price of Gravity, we couldn’t spot a single thing they had scrimped on. If you have the stomach for it, Death Road is absolutely one of the highlights of Bolivia.
There are more photos of The World’s Most Dangerous Road available in the gallery