Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cycling the Death Road (La Paz, Bolivia)

Chiselled through the steep-sided travel wonder of the Yungas Mountains in Bolivia, the rough one-lane road from shrouded La Cumbre (at a lung-bursting 4700 metres above sea level) to Corioco (at a tropical 1100 metres) is variously described as the World’s Most Dangerous Road and El Camino de al Muerte (the Road of Death). There is supposedly a death every week or so.

With fog, rain, mud, dust, no guardrails and sheer dropoffs of many hundred metres, it hardly seems the description of the ideal holiday bike ride. Everyday adrenaline soaked cyclists share this treacherous but spectacular road with delivery trucks and vans. One slip and it is your last journey.

Your heart leaps every time two of the trucks pass each other. The downhill truck, belching fumes like a heavy chain smoker, moves gingerly to the outer edge, wheels teetering over a steep fall while the uphill truck carefully sneaks down the inside, the numerous paint marks and scratches worn like scout merit badges, a legacy of past successful journeys.

For the keen mountain cyclist, it is an exhilarating opportunity to plunge over 3,500 vertical metres over 60 kilometres (35 miles) of undulating dirt road with only two short uphill portions. Just think, 60 kilometres and hardly the need to turn a pedal.

Masked with thick fog and mist, little prepares you for the road ahead as your bikes are unloaded and you rug up for the freezing few first kilometres. The only two uphill parts of the whole journey are early on, which is great as pedalling starts to initiate enough blood flow to warm the fingers and toes and ears. Little can you believe that in a five or six hours, you will be sipping cold beer wiping away a dusty sweat in the steamy Amazonian jungle town of Corioco.

As the day clears and warms, your mind is a muddle. Peeling a layer of clothing every half hour as the temperature climbs with the dropping altitude, the mountains start to open up as the mist wafts away. Wanting to enjoy the staggering mountain vistas, waterfalls tumbling down the sheer cliff walls, your eyes dare not venture at all from the rutted road immediately ahead for fear of missing a turn. Your mind resonates all day with the strong message “control your speed” and “don’t use the front brake”. You get the feeling that one lapse and you could be swan-diving over the handlebars and into the jungle below.

Riding the World’s Most Dangerous Road is a truly great travel wonder and travel experience. And the scariest part – the ride back up the road in a truck returning to La Paz.

Recently, a new road has been built through to Coroico meaning the trucks and vans are no longer on the road. But the cycling continues. I travelled with Gravity Bolivia who were highly professional with good quality bicycles, a well-equipped support vehicle, enthusiastic experienced guides and a strong claim that they haven’t lost anyone to the road. As an update, Alistair, the head of Gravity Bolivia has left a message that "... even though the old road has not been closed to traffic, almost no vehicles use it. On the other-hand, an ever increasing number of bikers do use the road, and each group of bikers has a support vehicle, so sometimes it is still quite busy."


Ben said...

I did this a couple of years ago and it was an amazing experience, when did the trucks stop using the road? I thought they were still going to use it as it was quicker? Are they banned from the road now? Can it still be classed as the road of death?

Mark H said...

I also did it before the new road. This was feedback from a friend who biked the road earlier this year but I'm not clear if trucks are banned or just that the other road is safer and quicker. I doubt the biking companies will let it the road lose its name - adds to the marketing appeal!

Alistair said...

hi, I'm Alistair, the owner of, I can tell you the facts on the new and old roads. The new road was opened two years ago, and initially some traffic was still using the old road, however they soon found that it was less damaging to their vehicles to take the new road. As such, even though the old road has not been closed to traffic, almost no vehicles use it. On the other-hand, an ever increasing number of bikers do use the road, and each group of bikers has a support vehicle, so sometimes it is still quite busy. If you have any questions visit our site, look for us on facebook, or email us at

Mark H said...

@alistair: Thank you for the clarification and update.

Michael said...

I have just been to Bolivia the Most dangerous roads in the world. I did the bike tour, it was one of the most adventurous trip I've ever had. But it's really not as dangerous as it seems in the pictures. A bypass has been constructed so cars and trucks are not on routine travel on this road. It's now just for a tourists mountain bike down the road.

Mark H said...

@michael: I agree with you. Though I did it with the trucks, like most "dangerous" things safety is paramount and it is conducted very safely though I'd hate to be the one who rode off the road - the dropoffs were very steep.

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