As I was eating breakfast in my hotel’s lobby my first morning in La Paz, there was a tour group next to my table speaking loudly about something that “was the best thing they ever did in their life” and that they would “come back to Bolivia JUST to do it again” and then mentioned that “Paul was in surgery because he broke his collarbone.” I called over, “excuse me, what adventure are you talking about that is so epic?” and they replied that they had gone mountain biking the day before with Gravity down the most dangerous road in the world.
Awesome, I thought to myself as that had been on my list of things to do while in La Paz anyway, and after the stupid witches market I saw yesterday, this place needed something to redeem it. So after breakfast, I marched on over to the travel agent and had her book me for the next day.
I knew I was in for something real good when she asked who I had medical insurance with. Well since I just quit two weeks ago and am out of the US, I actually don’t have any and I told her so. She just looked at me with a horrible look, picked up her phone and told me I could buy 3 days worth of insurance for $16 tomorrow. Sure, whatever. I paid her the money for the adventure, she gave me my voucher and told me to meet at Oliver’s Tavern at 07:15 the next day for departure.
After meeting up with the group, we headed out into the mountains above La Paz. We passed a few checkpoints on the way and I would get out to stretch and talk to the people…
Our first stop was La Cumbre which had an altitude of 15,400 feet. Here, we were given our bikes… mine was “Ironman” and we all took turns giving a blessing to Pachamama, to our bikes and to ourselves by pouring some Bolivian moonshine that tasted like rubbing alcohol onto the ground, onto our bike and down the shoot.
Then we were off on a paved downhill asphalt section to get comfortable on our bikes. Along the way we had amazing views of the Yungis Valley….until we stopped at a drug checkpoint.
Each year, 60000 kilograms (~1.3 million pounds) of coca is grown in the North Yungis valley and 1/3 of it magically goes “missing.” Here in La Paz you can buy high quality grade cocaine for $22/gram.
At the check point they actually aren’t looking for finished product, but for chemicals to make cocaine. It is strangely closed from midnight until 0500, when the road just happens to be busiest
So why does the most dangerous road in the world even exist? The origin of the death road was that it originally started as a trail, where farmers could haul agricultural products from the Yungis Valley to La Paz. As you can imagine, at altitude and on steep hills it is quite difficult to move a lot of heavy agricultural products, so it was decided a road was to be built and all was going well until the Paraguayan/Bolivian war between 1932-1935 when the development of the road came to a halt.
The war ended up with neither side winning after other South American countries intervened and told everyone to play nice. But Bolivia kept their Paraguay prisoners of war, and after the war they put them to good use completing the North Yungis road. Unfortunately, 10000 of the Paraguayan POWs died in the process of building it. This is the real origin of the name “death road.” Once completed, the North Yungis road was the first road that connected the Bolivian highlands to the lowlands.
In 1944 Bolivia was ran by a dictator and they were holding “democratic elections.” He was up against 5 opposition leaders and it appeared he would lose the vote, so the night before the polls opened, all five opposition were kidnapped, blindfolded, brought to the death road, dropped to their knees and pushed over the sheer 3000-4000 foot cliffs. Needless to say he won, but was then lynched one year later.
In Feb 2007 an asphalt road opened on the other side of the valley that was to replace the death road. However, the new road is now the second most dangerous road in Bolivia as it was built in an area prone to landslides and is constantly closed, like it was today.
Which brings me to my next point, that it is actually not illegal to drive up the death road as some people may have heard, it is just inconvenient and slow as it is all one lane, there are many bikers to deal with along the way and not many guard rails.
The narrow death road itself is 32km of pure downhill excitement cut into the side of a mountain and descends 2000m (6500 ft) through mist, low clouds and dust. It is a gravel/rock road cut into the side of a mountains with 3000-4000ft sheer drop offs to the let and rock overhangs and waterfalls to the right, that sometimes run over the road itself.
But from the beginning asphalt section we biked a total of 54km today (33.5 miles) and ended in Yolosa at 3600 ft with… you guessed it Bolivian Beer.
I finished completely beat with dirt everywhere, including my teeth…. because I was smiling the entire day. It was absolutely exhilarating flying down the death road on full suspension bikes, I’ve never felt more alive and I wish I could do it again and again, it was that amazing.
Only 300000 people have ever mountain biked the death road, which is exponentially less than the number of people who have visited ANTARCTICA. Insane. #EliteAdventurer
So back to the death road…. I’m sure you’re wondering if it deserves its name. How deadly is the most dangerous road in the world today?
Since they started doing mountain bike tours in 1998, 30 people have died. In 2014, 4 people died, 3 on a bike and one on a motorbike. But there are countless injuries every week and since the different companies do not share stats, it’s actually an unknown number.
After our beers we then headed to a restaurant a bit further down the valley, La Senda Verde, which offered showers and a very late lunch for us before we made our way back to La Paz. La Senda Verde also works as an animal rescue center for pets that have been domesticated and whose owners later abandon them.
After our meal at La Senda, we then got to drive back up the death road in our van because the bypass road was closed due to the landslide.
On the way up, we saw a house along the death road where Klaus Barbie, also known as the Butcher of Leon had fled after post-Nazi germany until he was extradited back to France in 1983, convicted of war crimes and later died in prison.
But my greater entertainment was inside our van as there was one male passenger freaking out at how scared he was, hand gripped so tight to the seat it was white, in panic mode the entire way. After we were finished and back to La Paz, he said the drive up the death road was the most intense thing he ever has done in his life.
My thoughts? He needs to live a little more, life only begins at the end of your comfort zone.