Is "Death Road" really that dangerous?

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Through our travels in South America we heard mix reviews on Death Road with some travellers telling us that it was insane to consider doing this as the road it not fit for cycling let alone driving to stories that said the trip was over rated and not that dangerous. I had to find out for myself.

Booking a cycle trip down Death Road was similar to booking a trip to the Salt Flats with countless agencies offering the tours. The criteria to look for in a tour operator was firstly the quality of the bicycles which ranged from basic (no suspension and standard breaks) to high-tech which included front and rear suspension as well as disc brakes. There were stories floating around that some of the "branded" bikes were in fact cheap imitations so that was another detail to look out.

The other big deciding points besides a English speaking guide was the ratio of rider to guides as some groups were so big they hardly ever saw the guide in the front. Apparently a ration of 6 -7 riders per guide was the maximum that should be accepted. Prices of course varied dramatically with some being as much as double their competitors for the same thing. And lastly which I though was the most trivial but found out later how important this was, was whether the ride ended with lunch, shower, swimming pool, free t-shirt, dvd etc.

So considering all these factors I started comparing tours and finally based on the information given to me and quality of their bikes book a tour through El Solario. I selected the best possible bike money could rent (B4,400) which came fitted with dual suspension and importantly disc brakes. For me this was the most important factor as I didn't want to be hurtling down a steep narrow road at 60 km/h and realise my brakes didn't work! I was also fitted out with rain gear, cycling shirt, gloves and crash helmet and told to bring a change of clothes and shoes.

The night before the trip I did a little research on the road for interest sake and found some interesting if not disturbing facts. The cycle ride takes place over a distance of almost 60km of dirt roads of which 95% of this is downhill and without any guardrails. The road which was built back in the 30's descends 3600m, is only 3m wide and in places has sheer drop-offs of more than 600m. 

Estimates have it that between 200 and 300 people die on the road each year (not sure how many are cyclist and how many died in automobiles accidents), proof of this can be seen by the wreckage's and countless crosses marking the spots along the way. Despite all this the road is still frequently used on a daily basis in both directions by trucks and cars! To make it even worse the visibility on the road is often appalling due to the high altitude and frequent rain showers. 

I will admit I started feeling a little nervous and hoped tomorrow would be a clear day with no added factors like rain and mist. The trip kicked off 7am at the El Solario offices in La Paz where the group met for the first time over breakfast. This also gave us the opportunity to check our riding gear and get changed before heading off to the starting point of the ride and of course meet the guides. Our group was made up of a thirteen riders (not a good number for the superstitious), from countries like Germany, Canada, Belgium and Australia. Our guide Gonzales or 'Speedy Gonzales' as he referred to himself would lead the group and the cameraman/guide who would take up the flank.
We arrived at the starting point an hour or so outside of La Paz in less than ideal weather conditions. An icy wind was blowing and it looked as if we were in for some rain soon. After a very basic briefing on how to use the bikes and the fist section of the ride we were off, I guessed that if you were crazy enough to do this ride you would at least be expected to know how to ride a bike. The first section of the ride was on a tarred public road and was intended to give us the opportunity to check-out and get used to the bikes.
Before I could even get my gloves on the rest of the group were speeding off down the hill and the front runners soon disappeared in the mist. Since it was all steep downhill roads you didn't need to do much pedaling and before long got up to quite a speed. I pushed to catch-up with the back riders but the more speed I picked the more the bike began to feel very unstable and eventually went into a nasty speed wobble. I must have looked like a real amateur and fortunately I was able to slow down enough not to lose complete control and after looking back realised were the problem was coming from.
My back wheel was badly buckled and clearly must have taken a serious knock or been in a big crash. When I caught up with the group at the first rest stop I got the wheel replaced but couldn't understand why the bike wasn't inspected if the first place as this could have caused a nasty wipe out! By this time the rain was bucketing down and visibility was not great by the time we arrived at the dirt road section. Even sunglasses didn't help very much but were better than squinting as the rain pelted your face.
Before we set off on the dirt road, the actual start of Death Road we were given a briefing of the road rules which were different to the regular road rules. Something about staying of the left while going downhill till you passed a certain point and then sticking to the right in this dangerous section and so one, and then we were off once again. With my new back wheel in place I felt a lot sturdier on the gravel road and soon began picking up speed, passing the riders at the back of the group. With the rain still belting down my speed was limited by my ability to see the road rather than slowing down due to the road conditions. The bicycles not having mud guards either didn't quite help as mud and little stones kept flying up into my face.
Only when we stopped and peered down the bottomless looking valley did we realise how high-up we were and how far the fall would be. Throughout the rest of the ride there were many sections of the road where if you fell at speed and slid over the edge there would be no way you'd live to tell the story. With the lose gravel and poor visibility and a little too much confidence this could easily have happened. The guide, 'Speedy Gonzales' did a good job of keeping us from going too fast and the regular stops allowed the riders at the back to catch up and not feel like they rush.
About halfway into the decent the weather started to improve and the rain finally stopped. When the clouds lifted we were treated with amazing views of the valley and its many memorising waterfalls. There were waterfalls all along the route and occasionally we would pass behind or through a waterfall which was great fun. If I wasn't having so much fun on the ride I probably would have stopped a lot more often to take photographs but the thrill and the speed were just too much fun!
By midway I was right up in the front only being slowed down by the guide as my confidence grew. This was obviously how accidents happened, cyclist unfamiliar with the road, push and push constantly speeding up as their confidence builds only to have to swerve for an oncoming car or accidentally slipping on the many lose rocks. I wasn't worried about all that I just wanted to go fast! We were also lucky that we encountered very little traffic coming up the road and when we did we were able to spot the car long before we got to it.
The ride was loads of fun and I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed the ride. A few of the girls in the group had a few low speed falls but fortunately nothing serious and other than that the biggest challenge was seeing through the rain and mud. The views were breathtaking and the whole time I thinking I have to come back and take photos next time. As we started reaching the bottom the road started flattening out which was the only time we were required to peddle. We were still at a quite a high altitude so the uphills required quite a bit of effort.
We were however rewarded when we arrived at the hostel where the ride ended with a swimming pool and hot showers. The showers were a real treat as we were soaked to the bone after riding through waterfalls, rivers and of course the rain. After a few hours to relax at the pool we sat down for a big lunch of chicken, chips, salads and a few beers, just what we needed after the exhilarating cycle.
We thought the guide was joking when he said to get back to La Paz the bus had to go back up the road we had just come down! No joke, slowly but surely the bus made its way back up the road, in many ways this was more frightening that the cycle down. Cycling you feel you have a certain amount of control but sitting in a bus you feel helpless as you peer over the side and realise one wrong more and it's all over. I was on the edge of my seat the whole way up and breathed a sigh of relief when we hit tarred road.
So to answer the question; is Death Road truly the most dangerous road in the world? Some would argue that Sheik Zayed road in Dubai is by far the most dangerous road in the world. But considering that this stretch of road is only 3m wide without any guard railings, has two-way traffic in often terrible visibility and sheer drop-off's in excess of 600m. I'd say yes, without a doubt, but man was it fun!!
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