The Road of Death Bolivia is so interesting to others who cannot begin to imagine why people would risk their lives just to travel to a tiny town due to harrowing stories like these
. But you have to understand that the Yungas region is both a dense jungle and a mountain chain. There aren’t many other alternatives. (Photo: the beginning of the road isn't so bad.)
Most of the towns in this region are too small to have an airport and even those that have grown a lot, like Coroico and Caranavi, may only have enough flat land nearby to accommodate a small landing strip. Driving down death road is the only way to reach some of these towns. Biking the Road of Death is a way for tourists to see Death Road for themselves. Tour operators have taken advantage of the fear factor to offer some heart-stopping biking tours.
The Road of Death Bolivia (also known as the Camino de la Muerte, Camino a los Yungas, and Camino a Coroico) was declared the world’s most dangerous road by the Inter-American Development bank in 1995. You can see a description of the Bolivian Road of Death, where 100-300 travelers die yearly, and read about my own experiences traveling on this road as a kid here.
Several companies have learned to turn tragedy into profit. Today tour groups offer Death Road Tours to give tourists the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of biking the road of death. Not only does the danger attract tourists, the death road of Bolivia is also one of the world’s highest roads! Crossing the Andes mountains and biking into Bolivia’s Yungas (jungles) offers some of the most spectacular views you will ever see and the unforgettable experience of biking from the bleak, arid, snowy and freezing cold summit of the Andes to the hot humid jungle in just 4-6 hours. There are times, in the early morning, when the clouds are actually below you!
Tours begin on Calle Sagarnaga in La Paz, Bolivia where you’ll find several Death Road Tour Operators that offer mountain biking tours (ciclismo de montaña). The price is between $30 and $100 dollars, and depending on who far you want to go, can last between 6 and 9 hours. The tour to Yolosa, for example, takes 6 hours. Some companies offer insurance and others do not. When you fill out the tour form, you have to tell them very honestly what “level” you are at when it comes to biking (how well you bike) and they’ll ask you other questions relating to your health, stamina, and the physical shape you are in. Don’t drink alcohol or use any drugs before biking the Bolivia road of death as there are some narcotics check points along the way. See more Death Road tourist info.
Your tour operator will take you in a van with the bikes on top to the Cumbre (the summit) where death road begins as a paved 2-lane road. There you get out and unload your bikes. The guide will give you a safety explanation and you should do a last check on your bikes here. Then you put on your safety gear. Tour operators provide the safety gear and clothing, and the bikes.
Before you take your bike ride, you’ll see a cross at the Cumbre (summit). It’s not unusual people seek out a “kallawaya” (sorcerer) to bless them and their vehicles before they travel, or leave a small gift of coca leaves or food at an altar on the Cumbre. Then they drink some beer (!!!) and pour some on the ground so the mountain gods and Pachamama (mother nature) will keep them safe. If you want to survive biking the road of death, pour the beer on the ground for the mountain gods and buy yourself a beer at the end of the tour. Beer dehydrates and at this altitude, you should drink a lot of water instead. You may stop to eat something at the restaurant in the little town of Unduavi.
The first stretch of the trip is 21 kilometers long. This part is a 2-lane paved highway and heads downward. You have to be careful because you can pick up a lot of speed without realizing it. Guides call it “la bajada mortal” (the mortal downhill). Always stay behind your guide and always stay off to the right. Hydrate well. At this altitude you could feel altitude sickness or vertigo. Watch for cars and trucks that are also using the road. And by the way, they believe they have the right of way, not you, so don’t assume they will be watching out for your safety. Before ending this first stretch, you’ll pass through a long cement tunnel.
The second stretch takes you to Cotapata and then on to Coroico. This is where the true “Bolivia road of death” begins. If cars or trucks pass you, you have to follow the guide’s lead in terms of what side of the road you must pull off to. If he yells “left!” you pull over to the left and if “right!” you stick to the right. You’ll have to make a full stop and you should always form a single line, never standing next to each other. This stretch is 42 kilometers long and the vehicles coming up from the Yungas to La Paz have the right of way. Therefore, since you are heading down to the Yungas, it’s your obligation to pull over to the left (that’s by the edge of the road not along the safe inside of the road). Some parts of the road are only 10-12 feet (3.5 meters) wide.
As you’re riding down the Bolivia road of death you will sometimes see a person along the road with red, yellow and green round flags. They are like human stop lights and are there to try to direct traffic and keep you safe. One guy has dedicated his life to keeping travelers safe on the Bolivian death road because he lost a family member in an accident there. He’s out there every day waving those flags. They survive on tips given to them by thankful drivers so tipping them is pretty much expected of you.
Along the way you’ll take short breaks and make stops to take pictures and rest. Bring water and snacks to keep yourself strong. Read this practical tourist information.
By the time you arrive in Yolosa, you will have ridden your bike about 4 hours or more and you will have descended about 1185 meters. At the end of the tour you will be really dirty and muddy. Some tours usually include a shower, lunch and a dip in the pool at a hotel in Coroico. At the end of the afternoon you return to La Paz in a minibus, or you can choose to spend the night at a hotel in Coroico and enjoy the town where I used to spend holidays each year. If you have a lot of time, take a van and continue along the Bolivian road of death to visit Chulumani or Caranavi where I spent many many days of my childhood.
If you choose not to take a death road biking trip, there are vans and buses that depart daily from La Paz heading to the towns of Coroico, Chulumani, Caranavi and even as far as Rurrenabaque. These buses leave from Villa Fátima which is located in the northern part of the city of La Paz. Take a micro straight up bus up Avenida Busch (behind the soccer stadium) and just past Plaza Villarroel to the buses that head to the Yungas.
Biking the Road of Death - Operators
Road of Death Bolivia tours begin in La Paz and extend over the Andes Mountains and down into the Bolivian Yungas (jungle) ending as far as Coroico, although you can choose a shorter tour. The following are tour operators that offer the Bolivia road of Death biking tour. Whichever you choose, be certain the death road biking company can guarantee all the safety (and rescue!) equipment, insurance and safety training you’ll need before you start, and by this I mean, be sure you’ve seen it with your own eyes. (Photo: this is the nice 2-lane paved portion).
(Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking)
Owner: Alistair Matthews
Av. 16 de Julio #1490
Edificio Avenida, PB, Of#10
La Paz, Bolivia
Tel. (591) 2 231-3849
After hours: (591) 772-19634
Office Open: Monday to Friday 9am-7pm, Saturday 10am-2pm
Office Closed: Sunday (contact the after hours number or book online)
Owner: Fernando Jordán
Avenida 16 de Julio (the Prado) No. 1490
Edificio Avenida, Ground Floor, Office No. 7
La Paz, Bolivia
Tel. (591-2) 231-2628
Calle Sagarnaga No. 339
La Paz, Bolivia
Tel. (591-2) 239-1810
Staff speaks Spanish and English.
The office is open Monday - Sunday from 7am - 8pm
Calle Sagarnaga Nº 288
Galeria las Brujas Office No. 10
Tel: (591-2) 231-5526
Cellphone: (591-7) 351-0270
Calle Sagarnaga between Linares and Murillo
La Paz, Bolivia
Toll free phone number in Bolivia only: 800-11-BIKE
ECO JUNGLE TOURS
Calle Sagarnaga No. 336
La Paz, Bolivia
Tel: (591-2) 233-5429