A Barracuda Biking group practices how to brake while cycling Bolivia’s Death Road // © 2013 Stuart Wasserman
Fifteen years ago, a man from New Zealand, Alistair Matthew, started a small bicycle business in the highlands of Bolivia that has given way to more than two dozen competitive outfits, offering a day in nature without adding too much to global warming. Matthew had a good marketing sense and dubbed his ride down the pass, the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” also known as the “Death Road.” He took the name from an Inter-American Development Bank study in 1995 which estimated that, some years, there were more than 100 deaths from vehicle and bus accidents on the narrow, twisty road. The dirt road links La Paz with a cloud-forest town called Coroico, located several thousand feet below the capital city.
Matthew opened Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking in 1998. He takes small groups of bicyclists for a four- to five-hour downhill mountain bike ride, giving them intense instructions before they start off on their bikes. There is no need for a lot of pedaling. It is more important to know how to brake. If a bicyclist pedals too fast or doesn’t brake enough, they can careen off a mountain top. It has happened before — Matthew reported 23 deaths since the opening day. That number is small given the fact that, last year, 25,000 riders ventured to La Paz, Bolivia, for a ride down the Death Road.
These days, the ride is not as dangerous as when Matthew first opened his business. In 2006, a new road was opened between the Yungas Valley and La Paz. So now, this gravelly downhill dirt road is used almost exclusively by bicyclists.
A van brings adventurers up to a high mountain pass outside of La Paz and then follows the pack in case any of the bicyclists get tired or injured. Riders descend through the Andes, dropping more than 12,000 feet in a green velvety forest, riding past, and in some cases through, long, tall waterfalls.
I rode with a company in the mid-level price range called Barracuda Biking, which uses the same brand of equipment as Matthew’s company.
About an hour-and-a-half into the downhill journey, I heard a woman declare that she was happy we were cycling in fog and mist because the sheer drop-offs were not so visible. At the most dangerous curves, our guides would have us stop for pictures, and these stops were frequent — partly to keep riders under control. If bicyclists ride under control, the Death Road bicycle trip can be a personal mark for bravery and adventure.
“Excitement, excitement, excitement,” is all Yukiko Sato, a 27-year-old woman from Oita, Japan, could say at the end of the journey.
At the end of the day, guides and cyclists gather for a cool plunge in a river and then have beer and food at a small lodge-like restaurant outside of Coroico. While most of the group returned to La Paz that evening, I had made a reservation in Coroico at a small eco-lodge in a garden setting located about a 20-minute walk from the main part of town.
The eco-resort, Sol y Luna, was a perfect retreat from the Death Road. Aside from a handful of casitas on the property and two small swimming pools, Sol y Luna also offers a dorm room for single travelers. The property has been lovingly built up by a German woman, who is a veteran backpacker and came to Coroico some 30 years ago. The restaurant at Sol y Luna is run by a German man, a baker by trade.
The nightly rate of $31 for a cabana was about double what I paid in hostels but worth it in order to end a budget trip with a bang.