“The city that touches the sky” — While the official capital of Bolivia is Sucre, La Paz has more government departments, and at 11,975 ft. is the highest administrative capital, and highest large city in the world. Michael and I realized that we’ve been above 8,000 ft since San Pedro in the end of March. And we’ll continue that trend until Lima, Peru at the end of April.
Unfortunately, we only had enough time for one full day in La Paz, which led us to pick one tour. So, what is La Paz famous for (besides cocaine)? The Death Road!
Also known as the Yungas Road, The Death Road is a 43 mile road leading from La Paz to Coroico. It is legendary for its extreme danger, and in 1995 was christened as the “world’s most dangerous road”. Being the adrenaline junkies we are, Michael and I have been looking forward to this tour for a while now.
We booked through a company called Gravity Tours and were lucky to be placed in a small group of four. Typically, a tour group can be as large as 20-30 so we really got lucky.
It’s tradition to start the ride with a shot of 96% Bolivian alcohol, and give some to PachaMama to keep us safe on the trail. Ugh.
Our guide, Mike, was actually American and has been a Death Road tour guide for three years. After driving two hours outside the city, we finally jumped on our mountain bikes and began the fun. Normally, with a large group, you don’t have any options to be flexible. But because there were only four guests and four guides, and all of us had some mountain biking experience, they gave us the option to take a different route down to the beginning of the Death Road. The rest of the tour companies took their groups on the paved road, which actually looked more terrifying than the dirt one. Narrow road. Cars whipping around you. No thank you.
The trail before the Death Road is absolutely stunning with giant mountains, lush green trees, and dozens of waterfalls in every direction. Our guide informed us that he only has the opportunity to take groups down that section maybe twice a year – We felt pretty special that he was confident in our ability levels! It had been a while since I’d been mountain biking and off roading so the first bit was slow going for me. But not for Michael! He was head-to-head with the guides and really in his element.
After the single tracks, we drove to the beginning of the Death Road. 36 kilometers from start to finish, all downhill. The road is full of gravel, rocks, dirt, and is only three meters wide at some points with cliffs that drop down 2,000 feet. The landscape really is beautiful. Terrifying, but beautiful.
I was feeling more confident by the time we got to the top of the Death Road and riding pretty well. However, I was still last, and embarrassed by that. One of the guides stayed with me, bringing up the rear and I apologized for being slow. He laughed and said, “Deena, it’s rare that we have people in a group that have a lot of mountain biking experience” (1. Michael, 2. A Taiwanese man who is mountain biking through South America, and 3. A woman who grew up mountain biking). Mike continued, “In any other group, you would be the fastest.” I was surprised by this, and perhaps he was just being nice, but it did make me feel better 🙂 So, off I went! Trying to keep up, but also not pushing outside of my ability level because that’s when accidents happen. Such a rush!
A little background:
Sadly, it is estimated that 200 to 300 travelers were killed yearly along the road beginning in 2006. Crosses line the road where cars or cyclists have fallen. They built a new road a few years ago called the South Yungas Road (Chulumani Road) so the number of accidents has dropped significantly, but the new road is now the second most dangerous in the world. The guides informed us that the road is mostly dangerous because of the number of cars traveling on it. With such small roads (only three meters wide at times) and cars traveling in both directions, accidents appear to be unavoidable. Today, the majority of the accidents happen from cyclists hitting cars or just going too fast, above their ability, and over the edge. But when you look at the numbers, approximately 400,000 tourists have biked the Death Road since the tour companies began; 22 cycling deaths to date. Gravity has had zero deaths.
Start elevation: 4,700 meters (15,420 ft)
End elevation: 1,200 meters (3,900 ft)
Almost a 12,000 ft elevation change in three hours, we rode down 36k and then drove back up – So technically, we survived the Death Road twice!
Such a thrill and highly recommend for the adrenaline junkies! Just keeping up with my 2015 New Years Resolution: Do one thing every day that scares the sh*t out of you. CHECK!
Ended the day with a toast and a stunning rainbow over the road. All good things 🙂
2015 Bucket List Complete:
- Survived mountain biking down the Death Road!
- Take a ride in the gondola above the city to get a great view of La Paz
- Check out Route 36
- Good, cheap food
- Ordering food at restaurants takes forever.
- Pollution, smells, and traffic is out of control
- If you have the option, go with a small group and not the normal group size of 14-40. Not only will your guide be more flexible with the tour, but the ride itself will be more enjoyable since you won’t be waiting for people or sardined inbetween other riders.
- La Paz looks like one giant favela, but all with red brick. I’m bummed we didn’t have more time to explore the city. Allow 2-3 days here.
- Fly from Sucre to La Paz. Only $75USD on BOA and a 45 minute flight versus a 10 hour bus ride.