This post is in partnership with Barracuda Biking. I received a discount on a Death Road tour in exchange for my honest opinion, but all opinions are my own!
Despite its ominous name, the Death Road is one of the best experiences in Bolivia. The narrow stretch of gravel road a couple of hours outside of La Paz gained its reputation as “the most dangerous road” by claiming the lives of some 23 truck drivers per year in its heyday. While a new road for trucks was built in 2006, a cycling trip on the infamous old road holds its place on every adventure traveler’s list. Who doesn’t want to live through something called the Death Road?
I ventured to the Death Road with Barracuda Biking on a biking excursion that was super fun and appropriately scary. Even if you already have a Salar de Uyuni adventure on the books, but this is another adventure in Bolivia you won’t want to miss. Here’s what to expect on your Death Road trip including notes on the route, how to pick a tour, and safety info.
ABOUT THE DEATH ROAD
The Death Road was built in the 1930s to connect Yungas to La Paz. In just 64km, the infamous road descends from an impressive 4,650 meters (15,260 ft) to 1,200 meters (3,900 ft). To add to the thrill, much of the road is just a single vehicle wide; when drivers have to give the right of way, they may end up balancing on three tires beside a 600 meter drop off… without a guardrail.
Starting in 1998, particularly brave cyclists traveled alongside truckers on the Death Road. While the new and improved (aka wider) road has helped curb the total death toll, the name has stuck and the classic route remains open for cyclists and nostalgic truckers. These days, cyclists can ride the road with little fear of oncoming traffic, but the drop-offs ensure it’s still sufficiently unnerving.
THE DEATH ROAD ROUTE (ITINERARY FROM BARRACUDA BIKING)
The Death Road starts at La Cumbre Pass 4,650 meters (15,260 ft) and finishes in the jungle town of Coroico at 1,200 meters (3,900 feet). You’ll drive about 45 minutes from La Paz to La Cumbre Pass. From there, the ride is broken into 2 parts: the warm-up ride along 22km of paved road and the at times terrifying ride along 33km of narrow gravel roads (with a quick uphill bus ride in between).
Part 1 | The Paved Part | 22km: As you get confident on your bike, you’ll travel down a gradually winding, smooth paved road. Sounds easy enough, right? You’ll still need to stay right to avoid oncoming trucks and keep your eyes ahead lest another peloton has made a sudden stop. At cloud level with forested hills on all sides, this part of the ride is absolutely beautiful. Your guide should make regular stops (every 2-8km) to ensure everyone is caught up and faring well.
Next, you’ll have a quick bus ride intermission for the uphill part, because no one really wants to pedal at 4,700m.
Part 2 | The Gravely Part | 33km: In case your confidence was too high, the real fun of the Death Road starts here. This section of road averages one-car-width and has the occasional 600m drop. The first 11km is well above the clouds, and you’ll just have to make assumptions how far you’d fall. While we’d rather not drive it, the road feels plenty wide for a bicycle without oncoming traffic. There are some bumps and loose gravel, but the decline is moderate enough.
Once the clouds clear, the next 11km are characterized by waterfalls and a noticeable shift to the rainforest. Along the way, you’ll see crosses and memorials for fallen drivers, but you’re in it now! You’ll keep going anyway!
Finally, the last 11km of the ride is a fun downhill where the drop-offs aren’t quite as steep and the climate is describedly hot. You’ll strip off your jacket and pants as you cruise through humidity, bypassing a few puddles, and peddling hard through a few straightaways.
HOW TO CHOOSE A DEATH ROAD TOUR
Picking a quality tour operator will have a huge impact on your Death Road tour experience. The last thing you want before your inevitable descent is a junky bike, shoddy equipment, or an unhelpful guide. Here are some things you’ll want to consider in picking an operator.
Cost: You can find Death Road tours costing anywhere between $50-$130, but cheapest is definitely not best here. Find an operator with the right balance of cost-effectiveness and quality.
Equipment: You’ll want good gear for your Death Road ride. Ask to see the bikes and helmets before you book, and make sure you’re comfortable with the ones you get. While deaths are uncommon, injuries happen quite a lot. The right gear makes a ton of difference.
Guide: Most tour operators will promise an experienced, English-speaking guide, but the definition of “experienced” can vary. Understanding your guide is important to get safety information straight, but it’s also nice to be able to understand the overview of each section of the trail.
DEATH ROAD TOUR OPERATORS
Gravity Bolivia | Gravity has an impressive track record. Running tours since 1998, they’ve taken more than 90,000 on rides and built an excellent reputation while doing it. Their tours are slightly more expensive than others in town. Tours from $125.
Barracuda Biking Company | Barracuda caters to budget travelers. While their tours are cheaper, they maintain a great safety record and get much better reviews than the other budget operators in town. Tours from $86.
Vertigo Biking Bolivia | Vertigo’s Death Road tours are also priced for budget travelers. They’ve been operating for nine years and claim to have the best rescue equipment of the bunch. Tours from $85
WHY I CHOSE BARRACUDA BIKING
There are tons of operators running Death Road tours, but I ended up going with Barracuda Biking for a few reasons.
1. The price was right. Barracuda caters to a young and budget-conscious audience, but not at the expense of safety. A tour with Barracuda Biking costs around Bs. 600 ($80).
2. They have a good safety rating and good gear. Barracuda Biking gave me a windbreaker jacket, pants, gloves, a helmet, and optional knee pads/elbow pads for the ride. The bikes themselves are Kona with full suspension with hydraulic disc brakes. I don’t spend much time on mountain bikes, but you can trust me in saying that the suspension is important! Barracuda Biking also services the gear after every ride, so I felt super confident in my equipment starting off.
3. Their guides are good. Hubert or “Jubi” – my guide for Barracuda Biking – was one of the most solid tour guides I’ve had. He had excellent communication, and was fun and built rapport without losing the group’s confidence. He tag-teamed with a guy named Mono, putting one person in the front and one in the back, to make sure even us slackers (me) were never the last ones on the road.
IS THE DEATH ROAD SAFE
Everyone wants to know the statistics on the Death Road. Cyclist deaths have occurred on the death road (17 since 1998), but the ride is safe with a good operator. The biking itself isn’t necessarily advanced – anyone with some biking experience and an in-check ego should be able to do it – but you will want good gear and a responsible guide to walk you through it.
The most important safety advice I can give is don’t be an idiot. Go as fast as you’re comfortable with and try to keep control as best you can. It’s better to be last than dead, right?