I Survived Bolivia’s Notorious Death Road
Shivering in the cold, I hopped onto the mountain bike, awaiting the go-ahead to start the 3700-metre descent. I gripped the handlebars, my white knuckles on display, flinching every time a truck rocketed past. As we started the plunge down the main road, I found myself easing up, though I knew it would be temporary. We weren’t even on the Death Road yet.
Originally named North Yungas Road, Death Road was built by prisoners in Bolivia in the 1930s during the Chaco War. The road – which is mostly the width of a single vehicle with few guardrails – gained its notorious nickname from the thousands of people who plummeted to their death each year. Until 2006, it was the only course from La Paz to Coroico, meaning anyone needing to travel between those destinations had to risk their lives to do so. Since the opening of a new route option, Death Road is mostly left to mountain biking tourists like myself, and the very occasional car.
I spent ages deliberating, trying to decide whether I should attempt to cross it or not. I hadn’t ridden a bike for a decade, but as the saying goes, it’s like riding a bicycle… right? My friends made the excellent decision to not go ahead. I, on the other hand, decided it couldn’t be that bad, and I may as well try it once.
The morning of the activity, I glanced at the waiver I was filling out on the bus on the way to the start of the descent. It requested my passport number, which I had left in the hotel room. Oops, I thought, and quickly wrote the details the best I could recall off the top of my head.
‘I agree to release Altitude Biking of all liability…’
Yes, I ticked.
‘I have insurance that covers mountain biking in the event of an injury or in worst case death,’ the paper demanded.
Again, I ticked yes, not being certain in the slightest whether that was the case.
Filled with both anticipation and apprehension, we asked our guide to spill any terrifying stories or recount any of the wild experiences he had encountered while working on the road.
“I’ll tell you all when we make it to the bottom of the mountain,” he remarked with a sly smile.
As we made our way onto the Death Road, the uneven and rocky ground jolted through my entire body and I really wished I had worn a better bra. Everything whizzed by so fast I couldn’t take in the beautiful views – but I did notice the many memorials that adorned the side of the track as I looked ahead.
“On your right,” I said as I quickened my pace and gained more confidence behind the handlebars. I remember the queasiness I developed in my stomach after being told we had to stick to the left side unless overtaking – which meant sticking to the side of the road with the 600-metre-odd drop into the Amazon rainforest.
At a roaring pace, I navigated large rocks in front of me. A girl was thrown over her handlebars as her bike hit a similar pile. Scratched and bruised but largely unscathed, she stammered her thanks as I helped her to her feet, mountain bikers continuing to whiz by. With an oomph of gusto, she hopped back on her bike only to fall off again further down the track. Her blood glistened on the gravel, but she still carried on, jostling down the track.
“Okay, I can do this,” I reassured myself. I started to look out into the mountainous ranges, engrossed by the beauty. The forestry rolled out into the distance, the ground nowhere to be seen.
I looked a little too long and my bike started to slip as I veered too close to the edge. Catching my vehicle, I tried to calm myself. Fuck, that was close, I thought as my heart raced in my chest.
“Be careful going over waterfalls,” I recalled my guide saying earlier in the day. As I rode over the running water, I took a deep breath and leaned my bike as far away from the flow I could manage. I came out the other end only slightly wet.
Troy was a confident rider. He zoomed through the track knowing the turns from the countless times he had ridden Death Road. He stood up on his bike ready to show off and leaned into a trick over a waterfall. The next thing he knew, he was slipping from the running water and then flying, flying into the air until he descended over the edge.
I was exhausted by the constant impact on my bike; my hands ached from being ready to brake at any moment, but I still felt euphoric. My locks trailed behind me in a whirl of pink, while the wind simultaneously cooled my sweat-ridden face.
“Take it slowly around corners,” I recollected my guide saying. I continued down the track heeding his advice and taking the corners slowly and only picked up the pace when I could see straight in front of me, trying to predict when I would have to brake again.
It was Jim’s first time in Bolivia, his first time riding the Death Road. It was a cloudy day, making for picturesque mountain views. He continued straight on the path until suddenly there was no path. The obstructed view courtesy of the clouds meant he didn’t even see the turn. One moment he was having the time of his life and the next moment he was falling.
We stopped three quarters down the mountain to remove our sweltering protective suits and knee and elbow pads. Feeling exposed, the nervousness bubbled inside me again.
As we neared the end of the road, the drop off decreased. Making her way around the final corner, a friend fell off her bike into a ditch. She luckily only fell a couple of metres down. We laughed collectively, both delirious and relieved.
Our faces were white as our guide turned around in the bus home to show videos of adrenaline junkies and bus drivers making incomprehensible decisions along the Death Road. He also told us the morbid stories of Troy and Jim and the many other riders who were filled with enthusiasm but hadn’t been as lucky as I was to make it back alive.
I returned from the day, covered in sweat and dust from the trail but exhilarated, gushing to my friends how it was such an amazing experience and how I survived the Death Road.
Nearly one year later, I don’t remember exactly why I signed up to cross Death Road. Perhaps it was the prospect of being able to say I did it, possibly it was due to me reading online that it’s an activity you should do before you are 30. I may have risked my life to mountain bike down Death Road, but at least I received a free t-shirt.