My July 2016 second visit to La Paz, Bolivia, included mountain biking Death Road, zip-lining over valleys and partying in the high altitude city. My first stay in La Paz ended with me needing to escape to a lower elevation due to altitude sickness. Not this time.
This great view of La Paz from Pirwa Hostel’s patio did not beat Death Road’s scenery
North Yungas Road, also known as Death Road* (Ruta de la Muerte in Spanish) was named by Inter-American Development Bank in 1995 as the world’s most dangerous road. The road’s 64 kilometre length, steepness, amazing scenery and infamous reputation make mountain biking down it a must-do day trip for adventure-seeking visitors to La Paz.
*Death Road’s nick name comes not from those who have died traversing it but from the thousands of Paraguayan prisoners of war who perished constructing the road during the 1930s.
Upon arriving to La Paz on the bus from Santa Cruz I took a taxi to Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking’s office to pay for the following day’s adventure. One of the original Death Road mountain biking companies, I chose Gravity because of its emphasis on safety, despite cheaper tours existing.
Trip day I woke up early and taxied to a bar in central La Paz for the group’s first briefing. From there we caught the tour bus for the journey up to 4,647 metre high La Cumbre Pass to select and test our bikes, safety equipment and protective clothing.
Testing our bikes and equipment along with several other tour groups at La Cumbre Pass next to Lake Estrellani
High altitude, with an icy wind blowing, felt freezing. From the lake we rode along the asphalt road until a specific point. There we alighted the bus and drove to the exciting part – the old narrow dirt track.
A stunning view near the top of Death Road
Visible from Death Road, this mountain’s profile resembles a human head with, from left to right, a chin, mouth, nose, eyes and forehead
Death Road’s elevation changes almost 3,500 metres from the 4,647 metre-high high plain La Cumbre Pass down to tropical Yolosa at 1,233 metres. With the different elevations come varying climates, vegetation and landscapes. We also passed multiple waterfalls. The ride scheduled several stops for the group to reunite, enjoy views, eat, drink and remove clothing layers as the temperature increased.
Rob, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking’s wonderful tour leader
My tour group riding along Death Road beside a steep abyss. I’m the sixth rider passing the camera (footage courtesy of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking)
Although cycling along Death Road is risky, five keys to an incident-free trip are:
- Use high quality, properly maintained cycling and safety equipment
- Have thorough briefings before and during the ride
- Be aware of the surrounding environment including other cyclists and vehicles
- Adapt to the changing weather, geography and road conditions
- Know one’s limits and ride within them
My Death Road biking group sitting on the edge of a cliff (photo courtesy of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking)
Crossing one of several water bodies along the ride (photo courtesy of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking)
The thrilling ride finished at Yolosa where, because our group had no incidents, Rob bought us a promised beer.
Following the bike tour, several of us participated in the optional zip-lining. Zip-lining involves wearing a harness connected to a cable and using gravity to travel through the air. In the Yungas Valley Zzip the Flying Fox have three lines and offer the usual solo seated position or ‘superman’. In the latter, one ‘flies’ through the air like Superman with braking controlled by an employee travelling immediately behind.
I zip-lined twice in the superman position once seated. Launching off the deep valley side is intimidating and one of the Germans in the group was so fearful he refused to participate. I found the ride itself fun and not scary. Zip-lining the Yungas provided wonderful views of the valley, river, fields, houses and vegetation. Following is a video uploaded by Mark O’Donnell in 2014:
After zip-lining we rejoined the group at La Sende Verde Cabins and Animal Refuge for a buffet meal. La Sende has a serene setting and if I had time I would love to stay there relaxing amongst the rescued animals, eating chocolate brownies and drinking single origin Bolivian coffee.
Parrots at the La Sende Verde Cabins and Animal Refuge near Coroico where we stopped for a rest and a meal
The final tour segment involved the bus journey back up to La Paz. Again, we passed amazing landscapes including valleys and snow-capped mountains.
A snowy mountain on the bus ride from the Yungas region back to La Paz
Although the tour had ended my day had not. After showering at Pirwa Hostel, I ventured to Wild Rover, a La Paz party hostel where Kate, a friend I’d met in Rio de Janeiro, was staying. After partying at Wild Rover’s in-house bar, several of us shared taxis to Mongo’s night club for drinking and dancing. I eventually returned to Pirwa and waited almost an hour to be let in (Pirwa’s only fault).
La Paz at twilight as viewed from my Wild Rover Hostel room on my final night in town
For my final day in La Paz I moved to Wild Rover to catch up with Kate and take the Bolivia Hop bus to Lake Titicaca the following morning. Thanks La Paz for a great time!