Feed Pachamama what she needs!
After two hours in the bus, we finally reached our destination, a parking lot at the summit of the Death Road. The 15 of us filed out of the van as our driver spryly scampered up to the top of it and started loosening the bungie cords from the bikes.
After testing out our bikes around the parking lot, we assembled around our young, be-freckled guide. He gave us the first of a series of safety briefings and afterwards, ironically, pulled out a bottle of 100% alcohol for us to consume. We all took a shot and poured a little out for a homie. That homies name was Pachamama, the Inca God of Mother-Earth.
Our guide explained that it was a tradition to pour out a little liquor so that Pachamama would be appeased and wouldn't take out a blood offering instead. Maybe we should have poured out a little more - Pachamama would have her blood offering anyways.
After the safety briefing, I had a quick second to take stock of my surroundings. Perched at 19,000 feet, the snowy cap of Huayna Potosi peered down at us, a physical reminder of the scale of what we would be undertaking this morning. I also noticed that the air was incredible thin. It's important to acclimate a couple of days before doing the death road. You start the ride at 15,260 feet above sea level and you don't want altitude sickness to distract you while biking.
Choose the right company
Due to an increase in popularity of the death road, there has been a surge of new tour companies, many fly-by-night, vying for a piece of the pie. Our company, Gravity was the first to start taking tourists down the death road. Needless to say, our guide was not a fan of most of the competitors. He later confided in me "Baracuda is also very competent", but mostly, throughout the entire day, he shrugged and snapped about the other companies lack of safety precautions. “Just look at that.” He would say later, as he pointed to a group of 30 riders off to our left. “They’re riding wheel to wheel. One goes down, they’re all in trouble."
6 Things to consider when choosing a tour company if you are a "Nervous Beginner":
1) The number of participants should be below 20. The lower the number, the more personal attention you will get.
2) Companies with a native English speaking guide might be better at putting your worries at rest.
3) You can find operators for as cheap as 30 USD and as expensive as 100 USD. Quality bikes and companies are more expensive, but you can't put a price on safety. The difference in price is really not much, but the differences in quality can be huge.
4) If you have trouble finding reviews of a company online, it means that they are either new and haven't established a safety record yet, or worse, they changed their name because of a fatality.
5) Some companies include insurance and some don't. Gravity does not, so if you book with them (which I can give my recommendation to do) make sure you have travel insurance.
6) At a bare minimum, there should be two guides who accompany you - one in the back and one in the front - and a van that follows behind the group in case someone would like to sit out a section.
Follow your guide's instructions
Throughout the day, our guide used a number of stories to illustrate important safety guidelines. The stories also work well in scaring the proper crap out of you. I think he did it on purpose actually, using a "scare us straight" tactic. First, he told a story about a guide who was racing and took a blind corner only to find the headlights of a huge semi-truck staring him down on the other side of the turn. "Brains all over the pavement" I believe is how our guide put it. WTF!
Don't drink the night before
Our guide only allowed us to ride off after telling us one more cautionary tale. One more for the road if you will. "Don't ride two a side. Just don't. One guy was so scarred that his girlfriend was going to ride off the cliff that he rode right beside her. He was going slow and hit a rock and knocked in to his girlfriend. She lost control and rode off the side. He lived and she died.” As we rode off onto the 16 km paved section of the death road to practice our technique before the real mountain biking began, I was happy I laid off the booze the night before. My stomach was tied in a knot as it was.
8 Practical Preparation Tips
1) If the Death Road sounds too scary, start referring to it by its proper name - The North Yungas Road which was originally built by Paraguyan prisoners during the Chaco War. The safety of the road for bikers has greatly increased since the construction of a new paved road that diverts the majority of vehicles away from the older, dirt road that now carries the ominous name.
2) Many sections of the road measure not more than 3.2 meters (10 feet) across and drop offs are in the range of 600 meters (2,000 feet). Have confidence in yourself that you won't inexplicably ride off a cliff. You can ride in a straight line, can't you?
3) You can go at your own pace, even if it is only slightly faster than walking speed (just don't go so slow that controlling your bike becomes difficult). The last guide will be right behind you and won't be a dick about it either.
4) If you are a beginner, avoid the rainy season. The best time to bike is in the dry season, between May and September.
5) The road starts in the Andes at 5,000 meters and descends into a subtropical climate at 1500 meters. At the top you are likely to need a sweatshirt and jacket and at the bottom, t-shirt and shorts. Bring layers that you can easily strip off, suntan lotion and sunglasses.
7) Aclimate to the altitude in La Paz for a couple of days before attempting the death road.
8) Don't drink too much alcohol the night before. You don't want to ruin your trip because a hangover plus altitude sickness proves too much too handle.
Go at your own pace
Our 17 bikes flew down the upper paved section in a whirl of black and red, the colors of the jackets that our tour operator had given us. This was the test phase of the journey. People were getting used to their bikes and deciding on how fast they could safely go. Soon a sort of a rider pecking order was established. We would stop occasionally to appreciate the sheerness of the surroundings, peering down at wrecked buses 400 meters below, or simply to let others catch up, like at the drug check point near the end of the paved section.
After each stop, we would file out in an order commensurate with what we felt were our abilities. The faster and more adventurous first, followed by the more careful, with those that were most uncomfortable bringing up the rear. Our guide pointed out that it's not really worth bragging about staying up at the front with him, since he would only reach 50% of his top speed - max. And in the back, you have more time to enjoy the scenery. Looking at the peaks that stacked against each other like slips of paper and the mist that in places circled the road like a sombrero, I really did believe him.
Eventually, we all slotted in to our spots. I was four people back from the front when a rider with baggy pants started to lose control on a hairpin turn to the right in front of me. Right turns are especially dangerous because the cliffs are located off to your left side. If you mess up on a right turn, you could end up falling off a cliff. Which was what baggy pants was heading toward in front of me. Bikes turn better when they are accelerating, like a car does. If you apply the brake, your handling is shot. I could tell that baggy pants was taking the turn too fast. He hadn't applied enough brake before the turn and was trying to compensate by applying the brake during the turn. Bad idea. At least 20 people have made a mistake that cost them their lives on this road, the last one, only a couple of weeks before hand. Directly in front of the turn was a cropping of trees and beyond the trees, a 200 meter rambling drop filled with pines, rocks and assorted shrubs. The number 21 came rushing into my head without my conscious control of it.
I applied the rear brake gently, reminding myself what our guide told us in the safety briefing earlier in the day. "Never slam on your brakes unless you want to superman over the front of your handlebars".
In front of me, baggy pants lay sprawled out with his bike on top of him at an awkward angle. His right leg had slid underneath his bike and his momentum had carried him to rest a few feet before the well placed trees.
"Are you ok?" I asked him.
A patch of skin on his back was rubbed raw and his 20 boliviano sunglasses where shattered. To make matters worse, he dinged up his knee which gave him problems for the rest of the day.
"Yea I'm good. Lost my 2 dollar pair of sunglasses though."
At this point, I picked up a lens from his fake aviator sunglasses and chucked it over the trees in front of us. "For Patchamama". He laughed and grabbed the other lens.
"For Patchamama" he said and chucked it over the side into the abyss.
6 Safety Tips
1) Give space to those in front of you. If I was riding too close to Baggy pants, I could have gone down with him. Give at least 2 meters space.
2) Make sure to talk to your guide about the sensitivity of your bike's brakes. With many new bikes, slamming on your brakes can send you sailing over the top of your handlebars.
3) Keep to the left and don't cut blind corners. You may notice some companies on the right side, but that's the wrong side of the road on the Yungas.
4) Never ride two a side.
5) Going ultra slow (I mean slower than walking) makes the bike difficult to steer.
6) Over-confidence is one of the leading causes of accident. If you are doing well on the upper section, don't get too cocky, the lower section has some tougher turns that can surprise you.
7) Always let others know when you are overtaking them. Yell loudly what side of them you are passing on.
If you are uncomfortable, ride in the van
After baggy pant's fall, some people were shaken. Freckles, the guide, alerted us to the fact that the next section would be one of the most difficult. There were several turns that crown on the wrong side and also drop off quickly. This makes the turns more difficult to negotiate. Our riding colleague that was pregnant decided that it would be more fun to ride this section in the bus. If anyone would have a problem with someone sitting out a section because they were uncomfortable, they would be a total jackass in my book.
We made it down the rest of the Yungas without incident. We stopped in a town at the bottom to celebrate with a beer. I know of few things in life as great as a cold beer on a hot day after physical activity. The beer was refreshing and the sense of accomplishment, just as good.
My honest opinion on the safety of the Death Road
According to our guide, the Death Road is not technically difficult compared to a lot of mountain biking trails out there. More than 80% of the people in our group were beginners and they all did fine (including me), except for baggy pants who was riding too fast. Trucks are a concern since they are outside of your control, however since the opening of the new road, much of the traffic has been diverted. We didn't see one truck on the road the entire day, but our guide said usually there is at least one or two, so always be careful when taking blind corners!
Lastly, freak accidents do occur (outside of the death road as well), but if you have chosen a reliable company, ride within your abilities and listen to your guide, I believe that the death road is about as safe as whitewater rafting. My defense of the above is that there have been 15 deaths on the Poudre river related to water sports in Fort Collins, Co since 1997 (I lived in Fort Collins for sevens years, thus the reference) and a little over 20 biking the death road during a similar period. Furthermore, the sports are similar in that newbies can attempt the sport with little advanced training. I welcome comments for or against my line of argument in the comments below. A healthy discussion is always helpful!
If you found this post helpful, I am putting together even more How To guides on Bolivia during September and October. You can subscribe to get updates on these posts.