It’s the T-shirt every adrenaline junkie passing through Bolivia wants: “I survived the World’s Most Dangerous Road.” In the hostels of La Paz, Bolivia’s breathtaking administrative capital city, and on the Gringo Trail throughout South America, the T-shirt provides instant bragging rights for the wearer, despite its ubiquity. It’s the prize for mountain biking from La Paz to Coroico down the North Yungas Road, otherwise known as El Camino de la Muerte, or the “Death Road.”
But why – you might rightly ask – why did over 25,000 thrill seekers risk their lives travelling down the Death Road in the last year alone? After all, the dizzying high-altitude outpost of La Paz remains well-stocked with options for those craving excitement; at 3,660 metres in elevation, a walk amongst the sky-high labyrinthine streets and local markets can become a breathless challenge in itself! Nearby, looming mountains and glaciers entice outdoor enthusiasts, whilst nightlife junkies can dine out and guzzle on at the infamous cocaine bar, called Route 36, and the city’s never-ending party scene. So what makes the Death Road so enticing?
Originating at the 4,650-metre La Cumbra pass, the road connects La Paz to northern Bolivia’s Amazon, descending through 69 kilometres (43 miles) of awe-inspiring rainforest scenery to arrive at the sleepy town of Coroico. The road itself is no wider than 3.2 metres at any stage and the lack of guardrails covering the 600-metre precipitous drops means that there is no room for error when negotiating its hairpin bends.
Sadly, accidents on the road have been commonplace. On 24 July 1983, a tourist bus fell into the canyon and over 100 passengers died in Bolivia’s worst ever road accident. The road eventually achieved its worldwide notoriety in 1995 when the Inter-American Bank christened it “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” According to one estimate, it has claimed between 200 and 300 lives per year.
Then, in 1998, Kiwi backpacker Alistair Matthew and a British friend raced down the road and revelled in the intoxicating combination of beautiful scenery and imminent danger. He then started the first company, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, to offer tourists the chance to cycle down the World’s Most Dangerous Road. Now there is a multitude of tour agencies offering the same thrill, all with varying degrees of quality and safety; no backpacker wants to miss out. Make no mistake, it’s big business, and you can expect to pay the price of a week’s accommodation to get a decent bike and guide to offer you the chance to die!
Although these days the road permits only one-way traffic and the surface is much improved, racing down it still gets the juices flowing. The road surface is still little more than a bumpy dirt track with large stones and mud pockets ready to catch the unsuspecting cyclist off guard. The weather is also unpredictable; a combination of clouds, rain, fog and dust makes visibility extremely poor, masking the 600-metre drop into oblivion. Even an experienced cyclist would have to have a hard heart not to quiver at the number of gravestones lining the descent, reminding those alive of those not so fortunate. And the deaths have not dried up: at least 18 backpackers have died since tours down the Death Road started, meaning the decision to tackle those precipitous drops should not be taken lightly. One wrong turn, one wayward rock, one unseen bump, and it could all go badly wrong.
So what’s it like? Awesome! The myth-like status of the road, the ever-present danger, the dizzying elevation, the beautiful landscape and the camaraderie of tackling something together with fellow bikers means it really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Depending on the weather and time of the day, you are more than likely to start the descent in clouds, and the sheer extents of the drops and beauty of the scenery will only become apparent as you ride down. When the clouds eventually clear, you can see why the route is not so popular.
The attraction of two wheels means you can breathe in the landscape whenever you like, stopping between the crosses marking those who have fallen off to admire a series of stunning waterfalls and seductive precipices. Brave bikers are gifted some incredible photo opportunities; the greenery stretching into the distance makes a refreshing change from the rock hue of La Paz. Once you become settled, the experience is more of a beautiful scenic route with a health and safety warning, rather than a terrifying, death-defying spiral into doom. Experienced mountain bikers will not see what all the fuss is about, but for the excitable novice, the ride really is a thrill a minute.
Most tour agencies offer the chance at the bottom of the Death Road to relax in Coroico and have a well-earned lunch and beer with fellow thrill-seekers. You can spend the night or get the bus back to La Paz, T-shirts emblazoned with the coveted phrase. Upon finishing – if you are so lucky – spare a thought for the fallen. That’s before the combination of altitude and adrenaline takes you through the non-stop celebration in La Paz! It might be dangerous, but it’s a must. On yer bikes, travellers!