While I relish challenging my fears (especially my fear of heights and of the dark!), taking on the World’s Most Dangerous Road – aka biking “Death Road” – was a different story.
When last-minute planning my trip to Bolivia (I’d decided to go on a whim and visit my BFF Lavi with less than two weeks’ notice), she suggested biking Death Road and I’d initially agreed. I had heard of it, but I didn’t really know the nitty gritty details. I’d never before looked into visiting Bolivia, and I knew almost nothing about it.
I love challenges and adventures, but my research into the World’s Most Dangerous Road frightened the hell out of me. People die every year, and many more get injured every single day. One of my favorite bloggers, Brenna from This Battered Suitcase, had a pretty serious accident that permanently scarred her face and tore her MCL. While having all the facts and figures normally comforts me, it was the opposite in this situation. I scared myself silly.
the ubiquitous Death Road pic, on the edge of a typical cliff (courtesy of Altitude Adventures)
I careened off cliffs every night, multiple times throughout the night, in a recurring nightmare. I worried obsessively during the day, vividly picturing knocking out my teeth or disfiguring my face.
After arriving in Bolivia and meeting up with Lavi, I told her daily that I couldn’t do it and that I needed to back out – even the night before. She constantly reassured me and encouraged me to follow through with our plan, reminding me it was a once in a lifetime experience that I would regret missing.
While I trust Lavi with my life, I also know she’s a fair bit more adventurous than I, and I wasn’t fully convinced that we weren’t going to die in a dramatic double death by bicycle crash.
A visit to Altitude Adventures definitely helped. Other backpackers had recommended the company unequivocally as the best for biking Death Road. From the first moment I stepped into their office, I felt better. The space was professional looking and nicely decorated in a modern style with their black and red logo colors (a silly way to judge a company I’d be trusting my life with, but hey I was grasping for any reassuring sign). The staff members that helped us were organized and efficient, and everyone spoke English really well. After signing our
lives away waiver forms, we were measured for our gear, and that was that.
The night before the excursion, I could barely sleep. I worried about dying and never seeing my fiancé again (I’m dramatic), messing up my face for my wedding next year (but seriously), and sucking at biking and slowing down the group (valid concern – I am terrible at biking).
After that mostly sleepless night, I showered, downed a cup of coca tea, and basically lost my mind panicking while waiting for the pickup (and still debating backing out). The minivan picked us up on time, and I was vaguely relieved by the presence of a big group of Israeli guys on their post-military trip. Being surrounded by Hebrew felt comforting (my fiancé is Israeli), and I felt better assuming that at least a few of them were trained medics and could help me out in case of an injury.
before getting suited up, at the top of the mountain
The drive to the top of the mountain was shorter than I’d expected (and hoped), and we hopped out for a basic breakfast and to suit up in our gear. The gear was intense – knee pads and elbow pads, gloves, a full face helmet, long windbreaker pants, and a jacket. The pants were WAY too long (if you’re 5’2″ or shorter like me, they’re going to be way too big), and I was a bit concerned that they’d get caught in my bike but they ended up being fine. The gear is to keep you safe if you fall, but it does double duty by cutting some of the seriously chilling cold.
geared up and
shaking with fear ready to go! (courtesy of Altitude Adventures)
After a fairly in-depth safety briefing and explanation of how to ride the bike, we were on our way.
suited up and scared senseless (courtesy of Altitude Adventures)
The first section of the route was paved, and served as a sort of practice. Even though it was fairly simple and straightforward riding, I was wayyyyyy in the back, ever slow and cautious of breaking my face open. I kept a firm squeeze on the brakes, and didn’t even need to pedal (or want to), as the incline was so steep that it propelled the bike swiftly along without any help from me. The rest of the group raced ahead to the first “checkpoint” (every now and then, the guide in front would stop, and gather the group for a little rest and a debriefing).
easy peasy paved section
While I was worried people would get annoyed waiting for me, I arrived to the checkpoint only seconds after everyone else, even when I was really far behind.
Eventually, it was time for a bit rougher riding, what I’d really been afraid of.
The paved road gave way to a dirt and rock mess, just in time for the rain to begin. Of course.
I quickly learned that rocky road requires a different technique than paved, and that (unfortunately) crawling along at a snail’s pace was no longer an option. If I squeezed my brakes too hard while going through the slippery rocks and mud, my bike would slide, and I’d be that much closer to getting thrown off. Still, a firm and steady squeeze on the brakes was necessary to keep from careening off at a hundred miles an hour. The road is STEEP!
I was thankful I had opted for the more expensive “specialty” bike that was supposed to be better over bumps. I can’t imagine what the other bikes must have felt like, because even with the shock padding or whatever supposed magic that bike had going on, I felt like I was being shaken in a salt shaker. My butt was in constant pain from the bumping.
Aside from the painful behind and slowly cramping hands (from death gripping the brakes), biking Death Road really wasn’t as dangerous or life-threatening as I thought it was going to be. Intense, exciting, and an adrenaline rush? For sure.
At certain points, the route would narrow, providing barely enough space for a car to pass through – a cliff edge on one side, and a mountain on the other. Other spots, a waterfall would spill down the mountainside, soaking bike and rider at once, or a stream would cut through the path.
Eventually, the rain eased up and so did the cold. The day got hot, and I thankfully gave up my too-long trousers, my fears transitioning from teeth-breaking to focus on not tearing my favorite leggings (don’t judge, they’re really unique and comfy!).
sans protective pants. you wouldn’t want to tear these leggings either!
At one point, it got so hot that I took off my jacket as well, leaving just my pads, a tank top, leggings, and my helmet. Even then, I was sweating my butt off, trickles dripping down my face and neck.
taking a break, sweating like crazy (courtesy of Altitude Adventures)
The hardest part of the entire trip was the very end. By then I was so exhausted (physically and mentally), my butt felt like it’d been jackhammered, and my fingers were so overworked that they could barely move. The road got steeper, curvier, and very dusty as cars passed through. Add to that a steady stream of sweat tickling my back, and I was ready to get the F off that bike and never get back on.
While bouncing down one particularly steep section, and wondering how much more I could take, I noticed the rest of our group. Their gathered signaled the end, and Lavi and I unceremoniously finished our trip down the World’s Most Dangerous Road within seconds of each other.
After we ripped our helmets off and threw our pads to the ground, we promptly purchased some beer from the enterprising lady who had set up shop with a cooler.
Beer has never tasted so good, and I’ve never worked so hard for it.
Necessary Details for Biking Death Road
Despite my nightmares and scaredy-catness, I was pleasantly surprised by how safe I felt biking Death Road. Accidents definitely happen, but they can also happen anywhere. The majority of the accidents on the Death Road come from going too fast or not paying attention. If at any time you feel unsafe or want to quit, you can also ride in the support vehicle – no problem.
I would recommend the trip to anyone in a halfway decent state of fitness. The experience was thrilling and scary but totally fun, and a highlight of my time in Bolivia!
Do your research before booking a company. Especially in this case, cheaper is not always better! I can wholeheartedly recommend Altitude Adventures, who kept me safe and accident-free. The cost is $108 for a specialized bike with Front and Rear Suspension and Front and Rear Hydraulic Disc Brakes.
My top tips for preparing for Biking Death Road
The day before (or when you sign up) biking Death Road:
Check your helmet size
Make sure (and double check) that your helmet is correct size. I measured as a large, and thought it was weird but didn’t really question it. Unfortunately, the day came and my assigned helmet was WAY too big, but they only had additional smalls available and those were way too little. I should have had medium, but non were on-site. A too big helmet is unsafe, as it will slip around and you have to take your hands off the handlebars to adjust it. It’s also annoying and just not comfortable.
Make friends first
While biking Death Road would be an awesome experience for solo travelers as well, I think having a buddy on the excursion made it so much more enjoyable. Plan to do the trip at least a day or two after you arrive in La Paz if you’re solo, to give some time to make new friends and sign up together.
The day of biking Death Road:
The Death Road starts very early (around 7am), and it is quite cold at that time of day especially on the top of the mountain. You’ll definitely want to wear long pants or leggings (also to protect from possible road rash), and layer a quick dry tank top or t-shirt on top with a sweater and/or jacket over to start. It does get quite hot later in the day, so be sure you can take off your warmer layers and stay comfortable.
Choose your clothes wisely
Wear clothes that are quite sturdy or that you wouldn’t mind ruining. Not only will they definitely get dirty/dusty/muddy, you might fall and rip them. I was more worried about wrecking my favorite leggings than of getting hurt, and that’s a vain fail.
Protect your eyes
Towards the end of the trip, the route got very dusty (and I’d imagine it would have been pretty dusty throughout if it hadn’t been raining). I really wished I had a cheap pair of sunglasses to wear and protect my eyes. A sport pair that attaches firmly to your head or ears and won’t slip around would be the best.
Take care of your hair
Ladies (and gents with long hair), be sure to choose a hairstyle for the day that won’t interfere with your ability to see, and that won’t hurt your head in the helmet. A bun probably isn’t a good choice, as it should be pretty tight inside the helmet and it won’t be comfortable. I’d recommend braiding it, which is what I ended up doing at the end and it was a GREAT choice.
Wear close-toed shoes
You’ll likely stub your toe on the bike or the ground at least once. Nonslip shoes for those rainy and wet patches are also helpful. I wore my Vibrams and they were an awesome choice (want to try Vibrams? email me for a 40% off and free shipping code). They dry quickly, are worn without socks (no wet sock syndrome), and were nonslip even when pedaling through mud and small streams.
Pack a bag
The support van follows you throughout the journey, so you can put whatever you want in there for later. A backpack with a change of clothes, shower stuff (after the trip ends you go to a hotel and can shower there), camera, wet wipes, and bugspray (there are a lot of bugs at the end) would be perfect. A cooler with beers would be even better (the hotel charges four times the regular price)
Use your GoPro
While one of the guides will be taking photos for you, this is an awesome time to use your GoPro. They have special GoPro helmets, but you’ll also need to bring your attachment adaptor for helmets. You CANNOT hand-carry a camera or a phone while biking for safety reasons.
The food was all-around awful, you’ll have a better time if you bring your own. There was a light breakfast and light snack (of stale dry white bread and bland cheese, granola bar, and warm unrefrigerated yogurt), and a lunch buffet (awful, not properly heated or cooled, a handful of overcooked and tasteless choices).
After biking Death Road:
You’ll likely finish around 7:30pm at the hostel. You could book a bus or other activity for any time after 8:30pm and you’ll be fine (you can shower at the hotel they bring you to after the trip, so no worries about stinking up the bus). Lavi and I booked a bus to Uyuni for 8:30pm and we made it with plenty of time to spare. I think that’s the best I slept on any bus, just because I was so exhausted.
Pin It for Later
While I went on the Death Road excursion for free, I was not paid to write this post. I loved my experience, and would recommend Altitude to any of my family and friends (including you!), and my opinions and recommendations remain my own and unbiased.
What an amazing but scary (but scarily amazing) experience to say you’ve completed!!!
I loved it!! 🙂
Thanks for reading and commenting!
I thought it is not all that scary as the name may suggest, judging from your photos.
While it is the World’s Most Dangerous Road according to fatalities, a new, safer road is receiving more traffic – leaving Death Road mainly for bikers like me. It was still scary (and very adrenaline-inducing), and we chose to stop at the safest parts for photos.
Great advice! I just did the Death Road yesterday and had a fantastic time. I admit I was a lot more scared than necessary at first but then relaxed. That is, until two people on our tour were taken away on ambulances. Yikes! Wonderful tips and glad you survived!! I hope you don’t mind but I linked your blog on my own about the Death Road 🙂 Thanks again!
Congratulations on surviving! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who had more worry than the road actually warranted.. but OMG people being taken away on ambulances??? That is TERRIFYING! Glad you are okay!
Woah. I would like to go here! Thanks for sharing your adventure.
I totally recommend it! One of my favorite adventures, and the views were INCREDIBLE!