The Death Road cycling tour is one of the most popular things to do in La Paz. As with many activities in Bolivia, it can be hard at first to navigate just how to book a Death Road tour from La Paz, and what to look for in an agency. Many hostels will offer advice on agencies that they are affiliated with, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best, and they’re almost never the cheapest way to book. Luckily, we’ve written this short guide on how to book a Death Road tour from La Paz, just for you!
Death Road (or North Yungas Road, officially) has earnt its name by being the most dangerous road in the world in terms of injuries and deaths. It was constructed by Paraguayan prisoners of war, and reaches 60km from La Paz to the Amazon. It’s barely more than a car’s width in places, but is technically a two-way road and there are no barriers to protect you from drops of hundreds of metres down a jungly cliff, so it’s very easy to see why so many drivers fell to their deaths. While agencies have been supplying tourists with their Death Road tour from La Paz for decades, it was only in 2006 that a second, much safer road was built to redirect the traffic from North Yungas. Even though cars can now take another route between La Paz and the Coroico, you will still come across some vehicles on your Death Road tour, mostly local residents (yep, there are houses along it!) and other tour companies.
We had some bad luck on the way back to La Paz from Death Road – our bus crashed into a massive rock in the road and skidded through the darkness (not a fun thing to wake up to on a Death Road tour) before completely breaking down. Instead of doing anything to save us from the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain, our two guides and the driver decided to GO TO SLEEP FOR 3 HOURS in a truck stop cabin and wait for help to magically appear. Luckily, we had a litre of rum, portable speakers and a bus-load of excitable millennials on board, and were actually sort of sad when a replacement bus arrived at 4am to break up the party.
What to expect from the tour
After about an hour of driving out of the city, the Death Road bike tour starts high up in the mountains, from which you’ll do several kilometres of cycling downhill on asphalt main roads. There are potholes here, so you still have to be careful. The van will drive after the last person in the group for the entire tour, so no one should get left behind, but if you crash near the front of the pack it may be a while until any of the guides realise. The group should stop and have a bike-check and safety briefing just before you enter the gravelly stretches of Death Road, then plough on down. There will be intermittent stops for the slower riders to catch up with the group, for photo opportunities and to tackle difficult parts of the path, such as the stretch made famous by Top Gear Bolivia Edition (to this day, we have no idea how they got 2 cars across that tiny bit of path).
There’s a stop at a small restaurant for your included lunch of sandwiches and crisps, with the chance to zipline across the valley if you have some spare change. There’s then another hour or so to cycle all the way down to the bottom of the valley, where you chill poolside in a hotel, have dinner and then get driven a few hours back to the city.
Where to book a Death Road tour from La Paz
As always, never book a death road tour online, book any South American tours in-office so that you can check you trust the agency, investigate their safety procedures and what’s included and negotiate on a price. Do, however, check online to see reviews of said agency. You can absolutely book a Death Road tour from La Paz the day before departure. There are plenty of tour agency offices in the city, especially around the main hostel areas of Santa Barbara and Calle Linares.
What to look for in a Death Road tour agency
Just like the Uyuni Salt Flats tour, pretty much every La Paz tourism agency offers the same itinerary for the Death Road tour. You’ll likely get picked up at the same time, dropped off at the same place, eat the same lunch at the same restaurant, end the tour at the same place and go to relax at the same hotel with a pool.
There is one major difference though: the gear. Most companies available to book a Death Road tour will offer you two bike options – essentially just normal and double suspension. For the vast majority of the cheaper companies, even the more expensive bike option will fall short of the mark for quality and safety. We quickly learned that the bikes pretty much fell apart on the road, and instead of just replacing it with a new one from the fleet, they repair it using parts from a transplant bike. Unfortunately for Andy, his was the 4th bike in the group of 11 to break, and he got landed with the transplant bike for the last 3rd of the way. For our new friend Devon, whose pedals didn’t work, there was no other option but a slow walk’n’cruise (thankfully most of Death Road in this direction is downhill).
On top of this, despite taking down all our measurements and preferred sizes for the protective gear, when we got there we were just given whatever was available, even if that meant a M suit for XS Lozzy and an odd pair of golf gloves with holes in them. Pretty much everyone we spoke to on different tours told us their equipment was the same, and despite customers complaining and demanding refunds after every tour, nothing changes. The only way to really avoid this when you book a Death Road tour is to be super vigilant with reading the reviews of cheaper guides (though it’s not fool-proof as the agencies often sell you on to other guide companies so you never know who you’ll end up with) or break the bank and go with one of the more expensive agencies that don’t sell you off; Gravity comes very highly recommended and has a wealth of safety approvals – but you will pay out of your nose for it.
When to go
If it’s possible for you to avoid this tour during the rainy season (Jan-Feb) and instead postpone it for another time, that is what’s generally recommended. We decided to book a Death Road bike tour mid-January and there were times when we couldn’t see a metre ahead of us through the fog or the sheets of rain – it was thanks to poor visibility that Lozzy drove through a giant pothole in the main road at speed, falling off and completely mangling the gear mechanism of her bike.
How difficult is the Death Road cycling tour?
Believe it or not, the Death Road tour form La Paz is not particularly hard. There’s really barely any pedalling involved at all as it’s so downhill. However, if you’re a scaredy cat like Lozzy you’ll probably be screeching on those brakes way more that usual – ironically the first part of the road which was smoothly-paved, main road was the scariest as you could go so very fast. Your speed is kind of limited once things get rocky on Death Road itself. Ironically, the best thing to do to not skid is actually to attack rocky areas with a bit of speed so the tyres just roll on over. Easier said than done for Lozzy, though. We’d say this tour is more mentally challenging that physically.
Our group ended up naturally being split into 3 groups of confidence and speed (guess which team Andy was in), so a lot of time for the faster people was spent waiting on the laggards (Lozzy). There was a guide at the front and one at the back, but those in the middle didn’t really have much interaction with them.
What to wear to the North Yungas Road cycle tour?
The key here is LAYERS. At the beginning of the bike tour, the van will drop you off right at the top of a mountain in the Andes. As with anywhere at high altitude, this place is COLD, rainy season or not. You’ll be given an overall and gloves for protection, but you’ll want at least a long-sleeved top and trousers underneath. It’s cold for the first half of the day, however, by the middle of the Death Road cycle you’ll be back into the heat of low altitude, so you’ll be starting to strip off those layers bit by bit. By the end, we wanted a light t-shirt and shorts or leggings.
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