Bolivia South America Travel

Unicycling the Death Road in Bolivia

You might have heard of the World’s Most Dangerous Road(tm). Also known as the Yungas Road, or the Death Road in Bolivia, the road claims some 200–300 lives annually. You’d start off from about 4650m above sea level and end at 1200m. That’s almost 3.5km of altitude change over the 65km route. Well, around 65km — I’ll explain.

I didn’t go to Bolivia intending to cycle the Death Road. In fact, I didn’t even know it was one of the marketed things to do. I brought along a 24″ unicycle and that’s too small a wheel size to travel that kind of distance.

The advertisements around La Paz convinced me otherwise. Most widely promoted was an MTB Death Road tour with full equipment support. I inquired at 3 of the main tour agencies and was told the following –

  • If I had my own equipment, I might as well go on my own
  • It’s VERY touristy
  • It’s quite safe  since  the route is well-visited

In retrospect, I think they just didn’t know what to do with me and that if anything happened, no one wanted to be in charge.

The Start

While the tour agencies offered tours that cost roughly US$80–150, going on my own would cost something like US$6 for the return ride. Most tour agencies will offer a bike with front and/or back suspension from a reputable brand, a standard/full-face helmet, rain jackets, full body armor or knee/elbow guards, food/water and the promise of a support vehicle that can ferry all the crap you want to bring with you on the ride.

I had with me shin/knee guards, my unicycle and a backpack with an empanada (cute, yes I know), a rain jacket, a warm jacket, a change of clothes and about 2 liters of water.

Since I was estimating a 10h ride, my plan was to stay the night in Coroico which is really an interesting town with lots of diversions on its own, well worth the visit even if you’re not riding the route. You’d take a mini-van from Villa Fatima in La Paz to the tourist checkpoint near La Cumbre, make your way to the start of the Death Road (that’s about 7km?) and then ride towards Coroico.

I started my day late since the mini-van doesn’t leave until it is full. I had to wait over an hour before it would leave which brought me to well past noon when I began my ride.

Ok, Fine, the Real Start

It’s not all insanity on my part. I’ve been told by both the agencies as well as by drivers that the route is perfectly fine if I travel on foot so I know that if things get rough, walking is fine. Also, it’s way easier to bail from a unicycle than on a bike and you usually land quite close to where your uni lands.

I don’t have a helmet or elbow guards but I know that if I do get to the point where I risk falling on my head or tumbling all over, no amount of armor is going to save me. Again, I’m told that the route is very touristy so I can easily call for help.

Well, the good news is that half of those are true. Cup, half-full please.

The day I went, as luck would have it, has the worst weather in ALL my days in Bolivia. It poured through my ride and visibility was shit.

WTF Did I Commit To?

In the buses, both locals and drivers would ask what I’d be doing. In very halting Spanish, I’d chat about my plan to ride the route. I’d learn new Spanish vocabulary like ‘peligroso’ (danger) and ‘cuidarte’ (take care of yourself).

Start of my ride

After the initial clearance to pay a small fee (I think it was like US$5) to an office for a ticket to traverse the route, I had to ride a highway segment before reaching the very obvious start of the Death Road. About 10 minutes in, I decided to walk since the fog is so heavy, I couldn’t see cars. This was 1pm.

Maybe it Wasn’t Too Bad

Like anyone starting a ride, this was really exciting for me. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see 5m into the distance or where the drop on my left would have led. I had been told the roads were narrow but I didn’t feel the narrowness for sure. Perhaps the fog helped.

My intention was to ride half the route and then hitch a ride to the end point. 30km would be ideal for me. I can start panicking at 3pm.

Only 64km more!

The drizzle had turned into a bit of a downpour an hour into my ride. I had my rain jacket on but I couldn’t have my hood on since it was blocking my view. Whoever told me it was cold at the peak obviously wasn’t riding intensively enough.

My tourist map had indicated an overhead waterfall. The first one I saw was spectacular. If you’ve never ridden or walked or ran through a waterfall, I can assure you that it’s so magical, you’ll forget that you’re on the good side of a 3km drop.

You get to ride through a waterfall! How cool is that?

About 2 hours in, I began to notice a number of grave markers and crosses. I had seen a number of them marked in Hebrew and dated rather recently.

I’ve been asked why I haven’t more photos. Well the answer is that it’s all fog anyway and besides, my phone couldn’t detect my wet fingers to activate the camera. Besides, I recall reading news pieces about people riding off cliffs while distracted with photo-taking.

Photos or it didn’t happen

The terrain thus far had been manageable. Whatever ‘rough bumpy roads’ I had been warned of by hostel roomies was really nothing more than slightly-rockier gravel road and nothing even close to some of the single tracks you’ll see on intermediate MTB paths.

Halfway Done

When I finally saw the fog lifting, it was almost 3pm. It was about that time when it first occurred to me that i saw all of ONE mini-van passing me in the last 2 hours and that was the support vehicle for one of the tour groups.

The tour agencies obviously had a different definition of what’s touristy and the issued tourist map had something like 3 main points marked in the whole 65km of trail. There were houses in the lower parts of the mountain for sure but there were no one in sight.

I went so fast in the last hour that I felt like death at this point (the muerte part of ‘Ruta de la Muerte’) and it’s also the first break I took for the day. I stuffed what remained of my empanada in my face (I ate as I rode) and had to fight off the resident dog for it too.

Almost there. Maybe.

Easy Peasy… Except…

The next section was probably the easiest part of the trail. The rain had stopped; the gradient was gentle and the gravel gave way to a smoother soil surface. I walked most of the remaining 15km or so because my legs had died.

That was about when 2 cyclists went by me, asking if I ‘could ride downhill’. I didn’t have the energy to be sarcastic about why I was even 50km into the trail so I must have just smiled or something.

The death road really stops at Yoloso, a small town at the foot of the hill and also, YOLO, so. Whatever assumptions I had made about being able to grab a cab in a nearby town vanished fast when every vehicle I saw there had no extra space. This was almost 7pm.

That One Chance at Extortion

No more fog!

From Yoloso, it was about 6–10km to Coroico, specifically the hostel I wanted to head to. Sunset was at 7:30pm and the rest of the walk was uphill. No time for braeks.

I probably waved at no less than 20 cars and vans before stopping one about half the walk in. That US$4 ride was probably the best value for money ever.

Somehow, I managed to finish the 65km + whatever before and after distances in about 7 hours. My thighs cramped for the rest of the day and I couldn’t walk properly for the next 3 days.

Good Advice, People!

There are a lot of inexperienced cyclists who take on the route. Some of the people I spoke to can cycle but have never ridden offroad in their lives. Why would anyone want to start learning to mountain bike on a side of a cliff with a bike they got acquainted with 15 minutes prior???

It seemed too that most of these people don’t really know how to prepare. A couple had remarked they felt safer with full body armor and more than a few chose a tour because it offered ‘full suspension bikes’. Tip: You will die even if you’re padded with lead and fall off a 4000m cliff.

If you’re thinking of going for a ride bike, unicycle or foot, here’s REALLY what you need are these –

  • Familiarity with your shoes, bike or unicycle. Or puma, sleigh or whatever you’re using as transport.
  • Fitness. If you haven’t the endurance, you’ll feel like shit.

That’s it.

Oh and remember, cuidarte.