It’s All Downhill from Here
In the thin mountain air 5km (3 miles) above sea level, dense fog and clouds are common—probably a good thing, because if you could actually see the precipitous cliffs plunging down the side of Bolivia’s Death Road, you might be tempted to huddle in the back of your support vehicle for a safe drive home. But as your newfound bike buddies suit up for the steep ride downhill, you just ignore the fact that the only things separating you from certain death are your thin rubber bicycle tires. Instead, you take part in a generations-old safety ritual—just pour a little beer onto the dirt as a sacrifice to the ancient Incan earth goddess Pachamama that she may hold onto you as you plunge downhill at breakneck speeds over a muddy road that has no guardrails. Feel safe now?
The 5-hour ride goes down one of the most thrilling—and most deadly—stretches of roadway on Earth. Covering the 64km (40 miles) from La Paz to Coroico, the route is a favorite of thrill-seekers worldwide. Since the 1990s, over 30,000 mountain bikers have completed the trip (though, ominously, a few have not). From La Paz, a handful of tour operators are available to pick up bikers, and after driving them to the top of La Cumbre mountain pass, there’s a safety demonstration, the ritual beer pour, and from that point on your life is literally in your hands: While the downhill jaunt from 4,800 to 1,500m (16,000–5,000 ft.) above sea level isn’t too taxing on the legs, hands get a ferocious workout by keeping a white-knuckle grip on brake levers for the entire trip.
Bolivia’s Death Road comes by its name honestly. Since opening in the 1930s, thousands of travelers have been killed on its tortuous, twisting route, and about a dozen of these have been daredevil bicyclists. The reputation of this stretch of highway is so notorious that in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank christened it the deadliest road in the world, ironically attracting the attention of extreme mountain bikers everywhere. Even calling this a “road” is really an exaggeration—in many areas the dirt pathway is just a few feet wide and strewn with large rocks, slathered with muck from rain and waterfalls, and dotted with crosses that mark the places where unlucky travelers have met their doom.
Travelers should choose their tour operator wisely; some are reportedly less rigorous about safety than others. It’s wise to pack goggles, sunscreen, insect repellant, layers of waterproof clothing that can be shed as the ride progresses, and a fresh change of clothes for the end of your day. And all bikers should prepare for dense clouds of dust from passing vehicles, thick fog, heavy rain, lack of oxygen, bitter cold, intense heat—and, just in case, make sure your last will and testament is completed. —ML
When to Go: Many travelers prefer the dry season, from Apr–Oct.