A ride down Bolivia’s notorious Yungas Road is a white knuckle ride. Here are my 10 tips for surviving Death Road and finishing in one piece…
10 tips for surviving Death Road
I’m guessing you’re here because heading to Bolivia and riding Death Road is on your ‘to do’ list. Or maybe you read my post highlighting my experience on Death Road and thought ‘hell yes’ (minus the incident with the dogs, of course). Read on for 10 tips for surviving Death Road and ensuring that your own adventure is a fun and safe one.
1. Pick the right tour company
There are a lot of different tour companies offering to take riders on that once in a lifetime journey down Death Road. Make sure you do your research and due diligence, particularly from a safety point of view, before booking. It’s important to choose a company who are reputable and noted for being safe.
I chose to go with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, who are the oldest and biggest players in town. Gravity dates back to the late 90s and have helped thousands of riders to conquer Death Road. At $125 per person, Gravity aren’t as cheap as some of the other companies, but they have an excellent safety record and a wealth of experience. The bikes we were provided with were good quality, as too was the safety equipment. Time was taken to make sure that the group were comfortable with the bikes before we set off. And, after a quick good luck ritual to Pachamama, we commenced our descent.
Our guide, Linda, was upbeat, funny and full of stories from descents down the Yungas Road over the years. She also made sure all the riders felt safe and comfortable. Regular stops were taken to explain any tricky or dangerous sections of the road that were up ahead. Shout out also to Juan Jose who took so many great photos of our adventure.
2. Layer up
On Death Road, be prepared to experience all the seasons in a single day. The ride begins in the Bolivian high plains, some 15,000 feet above sea level, exposed to the elements. As we commenced the ride, we were battered by strong winds, rain and hailstone. By the end of the ride, after a drop of some 11,800 feet, we were riding through the hot and sticky jungle.
Gravity provided the jump suits, which are a great shield against the elements, but you’re going to want to layer up. I began the day with a base layer, t-shirt, fleece and jumpsuit on my upper body and a pair of jeans below. The further down the trail we got, the more layers came off. I’d also recommend wearing a buff – in the cold upper parts of the trail, it provides some respite from the winds (and hail) and towards the end it offers protection from the sun. Gravity kitted all the riders out with a complimentary one, which has come in very handy in the years since (the back of my neck would not have survived Nepal without it). Don’t forget to pack a pair of sunglasses – they’ll provide much needed protection against the sun, wind and dust on the way down.
3. Get travel insurance
Make sure you’ve got suitable travel insurance – after all you’re riding Death Road. Accidents do happen, and I saw this first hand – whilst I was busy surviving Death Road, a fellow rider in the group wasn’t so lucky. He got overly confident, wasn’t giving the road the attention and respect it deserves and went headfirst over his handlebars. Cue a broken collarbone, a trip to a Bolivian hospital and no more fun that day.
The standard travel cover which I enjoy through my bank didn’t cover off-road mountain biking. As a result, I had to upgrade to the aptly named hazardous activities cover. What I’m saying is, make sure you have sufficient insurance… if the worst does happen, and you take a little tumble, you want to be covered!
4. Know the rules of the road
It might seem counterintuitive, what with the rather intimidating 1000 ft drop off so close, but you need to flirt with the drop rather than hugging the misleading safety of the cliff face. Riding on the left affords a better view of what’s coming up ahead – if there’s a blind corner, the last thing you want is to go face first into a truck. Oncoming traffic also has the right of way, so be careful! When overtaking, use the right side of the road, but give the person up ahead a shout.
5. Make sure you're comfortable with the equipment
Now you don’t need to be a pro mountain biker to tame Death Road. Hell, I hadn’t been on a bike in years. That said, before setting off, take some time to make sure that you are familiar and comfortable with your bike – gears, breaks, tyre pressure/alignment. Take a little test ride and, if you have any concerns, speak to your guide. It’s what they are there for.
When you get out onto the road itself, remember that it isn’t a race; stick to a speed that you’re comfortable with. In my group there was a pair of experienced bikers from Argentina and they were bloody fast. As much as I wanted to keep right up with them, it had been a while since I had ridden a bike, so I kept to my own pace to make sure I survived.
6. Brake properly
Oh, and don’t ever slam on your front anchors; use both brakes in conjunction, but always the back first. After all, you don’t want to be front flipping your face onto the rocks below.
7. Acclimatise to the altitude
Make sure you’re adjusted to the altitude before tackling Death Road. La Paz sits at an altitude of 3,640m and the effects of altitude will hit you. If your South American journey begins in La Paz, it wouldn’t be advisable to ride Death Road on day one. For those coming in from other South American countries, particularly Peru, I’d expect that you’re going to be more acclimatised. As always when visiting places at altitude, don’t over-exert yourself, keep hydrated and don’t forget the coca tea.
8. Take it easy the night before
After adjusting to La Paz’s lofty altitude, I would advise you to take it easy the night before. A fuzzy head and lack of sleep aren’t going to help with what is a long day – we were up at 6am and back after dark. With the oncoming traffic, uneven surfaces and 1,000 ft drop-offs, you’ll need your wits about you.
9. Take supplies
I mentioned earlier that it’s a long day – bring a bag with water, extra snacks, shows stuff and a change of clothes. You can leave it on the minibus that will be following the group (and throw some of your clothes in there when it gets hot later on).
10. Enjoy yourself
Last but by no means least – enjoy yourself. This is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, so embrace and enjoy it. Afterwards, when you’ve got the t-shirt (quite literally), you can sit back and tell everybody about how you survived Death Road.
Have you tackled Death Road? Let me know how you found it and whether you have any of your own nuggets of wisdom for surviving Death Road…