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For Sale: Survival on Bolivia’s Death Road

Bolivia’s Death Road doesn’t kill many people these days, but scores of tour companies still peddle its dangerous reputation. I threw in to see what the ride was actually like.
All images courtesy Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking

I thought I was going to die pretty much as soon as I started mountain biking down Bolivia's Yungas Road, a 35-mile, mostly single-lane dirt road that begins high in the Andes and drops 11,000 vertical feet from alpine moors to tropical jungle. The road offers cyclists two options: an inside track, wherein riders navigate enormous boulders and the broken rubble road, or an outside track free of most obstacles but harrowingly close to a free fall. It's considered the second deadliest road in the world behind a hairpin-filled highway in Turkey, according to, an open-source website detailing some of the world's most scenic and precarious roads.


Calling it the Yungas Road, however, doesn't really conjure visions of dangerous thrill-seeking. Hence its other name, Death Road, which is liberally splashed on the glossy signs of dozens of tour agencies in the nearby city of La Paz. The capital city is bursting with outfitters eager to guide visitors of all shapes and sizes down the mountain, regardless of cycling experience or physical fitness. If you have a pulse and a wallet, you're good to go—25,000 tourists pay to white-knuckle their way down the Death Road every year, and I leapt at the opportunity to be one of them.

The attraction—and profitability—of danger is old news, according to Robert Young Pelton, author of the pseudo-guidebook The World's Most Dangerous Places. Pelton has made a career of seeking out dangerous situations, mostly of the geopolitical variety. In 1999, he was kidnapped by Colombian rebels while crossing the Darien Gap. He's hung out with the Taliban in Afghanistan, survived a plane crash in Borneo, and spent a month on a tanker in the Gulf of Aden trying to get picked up by Somali pirates.

"We have a cultural belief that people who take dangerous holidays are cooler than people who take safe holidays," he said, and that's what the tour companies in La Paz cater to. "It's the cheap cologne of millennials to think that a dangerous holiday is somehow better than doing something boring."

Death Road's reputation supports a robust tourism industry. For 100 bucks and my signature on a surprisingly sparse waiver, I had a ticket, a bike, and a tour guide from Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, which guarantees trips down the Death Road every day of the year. Rain or shine, they'll put you on a bike and send you down the mountain.


My guide was Mauricio Murillo, or Moe, an amiable Bostonian with gauged earrings, a cocked beanie, and a Williamsburg-ready beard. He had lived in La Paz for two years, having landed there after dropping out of Boston University. My group for the ride was an international collection of cyclists eager for some adrenaline. Most of Moe's clients from the "developed world" come to test their mettle, if even only slightly. As our van chugged out of smog-choked La Paz, he delivered a well-rehearsed safety spiel, informing us that he was equipped with an oxygen tank, a handful of back braces, and a neck board—and added that he'd never had to use any of them.

"I've had a good run," he quipped, to nervous silence, "so please don't fuck it up."

But Death Road's reputation is about nine years out of date. In 2007, a parallel road opened on the other side of the valley, rerouting most of the automobile traffic and significantly reducing the risk to cyclists. Loosely kept records indicate that between 200 and 300 people used to die on the road annually. Today, the Death Road doesn't kill nearly as many people. Four people died on it last year, Moe told me, and only one was a cyclist.

The ride begins in a totally different ecosystem than where it ends

After an hour's drive up the mountain, we piled out of the van at the wind-whipped town of La Cumbre, elevation 15,260 feet. Beyoncé's "Survivor" thumped on van stereo as we donned bulky protective jackets and pants. Once everyone had dressed and tested their steeds, Moe passed around a bottle of "Bolivian-strength" booze, 96 percent alcohol. The ritual is to pour a splash on the ground as an offering to the Andean goddess Pachamama, then a splash on your bike, and finally a splash down your own throat. I took a swig and spent the next 45 seconds hacking miserably into my sleeve.


The beginning of the journey was deceptively easy and fully paved. At our first stop, just above the village of Pongo, Moe encouraged everyone to lean over the edge of the cliff to see a minibus that had plummeted down the mountain several years ago, killing everyone onboard. Sitting far below the road, the wreck looked like a crushed soda can.

The Death Road was carved from the Cordillera Oriental Mountain chain in the 1930s as a means of connecting La Paz to the jungles of the Yungas region. Labor to build the road came courtesy of Paraguayan prisoners detained during the Chaco War, a fight over the Gran Chaco region based on the erroneous assumption it contained vast oil reserves.

Today, the Yungas region is one of the primary areas of coca cultivation in Bolivia, which is the third largest producer of cocaine in Latin America. Although residents of the Andes have been chewing coca leaves for thousands of years, cocaine production has been on the rise since President Evo Morales took office in 2006. For narco traffickers in the area, the many holes in law enforcement make moving the drugs easy. Moe informed us that police never check bike busses.

Much of the road is angled away from the mountain to promote drainage

The Death Road's first 14 miles of pavement are the result of a partial modernization completed in 2006. From there, conditions rapidly deteriorate to a loose assemblage of dirt, rubble, and boulders the size of beach coolers. At its narrowest, the track is about 11 feet wide. In some places, rivers run directly over the road. In others, waterfalls cascade from above and flow under it. Everywhere—and especially during the December-through-March rainy season, when I was there—the track is muddy and slippery, constantly testing the integrity of your bike tires and your nerves.


Not helping my nerves that day was Moe's habit of pointing out every location where a cyclist had been killed or maimed. At one point, he showed us where a Japanese tourist had fallen to her death while taking a selfie. Farther along, we approached a tunnel that we had to bike-portage around. Cyclists used to ride through the tunnel, until a woman met an oncoming truck a few years ago and ended up in a coma for six months.

"That's just one example," Moe said brightly.

At one point, I came around the corner to see a few members of my party gathered around a Chinese guy from our group. He'd taken a spill and was bleeding heavily from his mouth.

"Your teeth!" a German woman yelled, her gloved hand floating to cover her own mouth in horror. Moe assessed the damage, concluding serenely that the man's teeth were fine but that his chin would need suturing.

My mission for most of the Death Road was simply to not die. My world was little more than the boulders ahead and the valley below, and as the miles flew past, the noise and clutter of the brain's day-to-day mechanics fell briefly, mercifully silent. I enjoyed pangs of euphoria as I descended the road with Moe and the group.

The temperature grew warmer, and the rain gave way to blue skies and sunlight. The mountains in the distance were a deep shade of blue-green, and for the first time, as the road widened and flattened out, I was able to take my mind off dying long enough to consider the beauty of my surroundings. Dogs lounged in the road as I pedaled past, and a large condor wheeled overhead.

We eventually landed in Coroico, where we were greeted with much-needed beer. My hands and tail bone were sore, but otherwise I'd escaped unscathed. I joined a group of guys from Colorado to debrief with a round of drinks. We were all coming off the high of surviving one of the most dangerous thoroughfares in the world, but for some even the thrills of Death Road weren't enough of a rush on their own.

"Did you know," one of them said, "that Dan here popped a tab of acid before we started the ride?"

"Actually," Dan corrected his friend, "two."