This post is all about my experiences biking Death Road in La Paz with Altitude. I have little mountain biking experience and had to face a lot of fears to do this!
Throughout my five month long South American adventure, I tried to challenge myself to try new experiences and do things that scared me as much as possible.
From paragliding in Colombia, to white water rafting and sandboarding in Peru, to jumping out a 17th-floor window dressed as Batman with Urban Rush in Bolivia… I’d been facing fears and having fantastic experiences all over the continent. So mountain biking down Bolivia’s so-called Death Road, near La Paz, seemed like the next logical step.
Afraid of heights, not confident on a bike, and badly affected by the insane altitude around La Paz, I knew I wasn’t the best candidate for cycling a road responsible for 200-300 deaths a year. But I had no idea it would prove as much of a challenge as it did.
Biking Death Road with Altitude
We did the day tour with Altitude, a fantastic company with lovely staff who really looked after me. They were slightly more expensive than some competitors, but the bikes and equipment were all new and in great condition.
I’ve heard some horror stories about wheels coming off and poorly built bikes, so I’d say Altitude were worth paying extra for. Safety and peace of mind over a saving are important for such a dangerous activity.
We had an early start at 7:15am, setting off from La Paz in a cramped minibus with about ten others, plus two guides. About an hour and half later, we stopped beside a lake to get kitted up.
The equipment for Death Road was a lot more intense than our other experiences mountain biking. We had knee and arm guards, thick, plasticky trousers and matching jacket, racing helmets and gloves. With everyone in matching gear, we looked like a formula one pit stop team. But the decent equipment definitely made me feel safer.
The first part of the day started on a relatively empty, tarmac road. The road wound through Bolivia’s stark mountain scenery, above a stunning valley tucked between sharp, rocky cliffsides.
We set off, and I was immediately overtaken by the entire group. I was going as fast as I could confidently go, zooming along at the edge of the road and frantically trying to ignore the drop to my right, but pretty quickly I was left so far behind I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me. The experience completely shook my confidence, leading to me buckling under my fear instead of fighting it.
Our second stop was a dirt track alongside the road. I lost control of my bike as I hit the gravel, and almost fell off, only just catching myself – right in front of the whole group.
Nerves shot, I cycled cautiously along the rest of the road, sinking into terror when I was told that the whole of Death Road would be the same surface. Our two previous mountain biking experiences had been entirely on tarmac roads, so I’d naively assumed Death Road would be the same. Now, I was panicking at the thought of riding downhill on a surface I was completely not confident on.
Facing Death Road in Bolivia
We stopped for breakfast, paid 25Bs to enter the national park, and suddenly there we were: at the top of Death Road, with only one way back down.
My ex – who I was travelling with – had realised how terrified I was by now. He offered to cycle at my pace, but I quickly noticed how bored he was crawling along with me and told him to cycle on ahead.
Death Road was terrifying. The “road” is actually a narrow track of loose gravel and rocks, in some places barely more than the width of a car. It winds its way down into the valley, between a stark grey cliff on one side, and a sheer drop on the other.
At the top, we were above cloud level, so all I could see to my left was a drop into a white abyss.
It would have been stunning scenery in other circumstances, but cycling over the difficult terrain with my hands gripping the handlebars and fighting to retain control over the bike, all I could see were the crosses, shrines and flowers that seemed to stand on every corner, marking those poor souls who had plunged over the edge.
The bubbling feeling of panic within me, coming out as teary eyes and raking, shaky breaths, was almost crippling. The most frustrating thing was that I wanted to be enjoying myself. I wanted to be going faster and not feeling the fear that was keeping my fingers firmly on the brakes. I wanted to be laughing, not on the brink of tears.
Instead, I was shuffling down Death Road hating every second of it – and hating myself for being so weak.
Back on the Bus
The last straw came when I hit a rock and lost control of the front wheel. If I’d been going an faster I would have fallen. Luckily I caught myself and, panic-struck, instantly burst into tears, crying even harder from the embarrassment as the guide came over to check on me.
Luckily, Christian was the nicest guide in the world, and really looked after me. He let me get back on the bus, telling me that after twenty minutes or so the road got a little smoother and flatter, and should be easier for me to cycle on.
He was right. I stayed on the bus for the rest of the steep, difficult section, with the driver cheering me up by stopping the bus under a couple of waterfalls for a wash. But then I got back on the bike.
By the time I had, the sun was out and the grey sky had cleared to blue. The air smelled of pine and was filled with colourful butterflies, and with the road so much wider the drop was easily forgotten. It was flatter, too, and there were even a couple of uphill sections. Although still gravel, the terrain didn’t feel as loose. I went at my own pace, and stopped berating myself for being so slow, focusing instead on enjoying the scenery and the sunshine, and determined to enjoy the rest of the trip.
A Change of Mindset
It was so much fun! Once I’d pulled myself together and gotten back on the bike, I had a change of mindset, and actually really enjoyed myself.
The last section was steep again, but headed downhill into the valley through a bright green woodland, so there was no sickening drop to spin my head, and while I still I felt afraid, I didn’t let it crush me.
By the time we reached the bottom, I felt I’d really earned the ‘Death Road Survivor’ t-shirts Altitude gave out!
My fear had nearly beaten me, but I’d managed to get back on the bike and keep going, which was a really good feeling. I just wish I could have enjoyed the whole trip as much as the last hour, because the experience really shouldn’t have been as frightening as I let it.
Fear is a frustrating thing, which can really ruin a trip if you let it. The hard part is to not let it beat you, to keep going and tell yourself “I can do this”.
For me, Death Road was one of my toughest challenges yet. But when all I wanted to do was stay on the bus and cry, I got out and kept cycling. In the end I was finally able to ignore the fear and enjoy myself – which was a very good feeling.
The whole experience was both very awesome and very terrible. I just wish I could have enjoyed the experience as much as everyone else did.
About Biking Death Road
We paid 450Bs (about £45) with Altitude. This included transport, two guides, decent equipment and bikes, breakfast, and lunch. We also got a free ‘Death Road survivor’ t-shirt and a CD of photos taken by the guide.
Tours start around 7am and return about 5pm, with collection and drop off at your hostel.
Don’t let my experience put you off! I don’t know anyone else that was afraid as I was. Most people I’ve met who have done Death Road absolutely loved it!
However, I would not recommend this tour to anyone who suffers from a strong fear of heights. And if you’re not confident on a bike you might want to skip this one.
What to wear
A sports bra, t-shirt, and trainers, plus a light jacket for the initial bus ride. Wear leggings, yoga pants, or light, loose trousers. Anything thick will be too hot and heavy under the plastic trousers they give you.
What to Take
A change of clothes for when you reach the bottom. It’s usually warmer at the bottom of the mountain so you’ll probably want shorts and t-shirt.
If your tour includes a trip to a pool, you’ll aslo want swimming stuff. Towels and soap were provided by Altitude but check this with your tour operator. Also: suncream, insect repellent, and plenty of water.
Have you tried mountain biking down Death Road in La Paz, Bolivia? I’d love to hear from you! Scroll down to leave a comment!