If booking a tour and cycling along Bolivia’s terrifyingly narrow Death Road isn’t up your eh, one way cliffside road, yet visiting the jungle is, now you can kill two birds with one stone.
A simple Google will show results of warnings, dramatic storytelling (some of which will have you sitting on the edge of your seat) and plenty of “don’t do this” tales. The only warning we recommend you pay attention to is the ones regarding the rainy season.
From December to March, we hear that the roads are disastrous, so much so that the already long 15-18 hour drive can turn into more than a day, sometimes even two. But that’s what we heard! Talk to locals before you read the reports from tourists. As silly as that might read, if the locals can hack it, we would! But that could be just us.
Worries or concerns aside, it was mid-October when we were dying to get on the infamous road. To peer over the side, reverse every 10 minutes and enjoy the slight scare. Well, Katie did. Luke sat on the opposite side ignoring Katie’s “Look, Luke. Look, Luke! Luuuke, look!” calls.
One half of us loved it, enough to say “feck it” to the “cheap” 15-seater plane and take the same deathly road back to La Paz.
So here we share the best, cheapest and least painful way to get that Bolivia buzz, and say that you survived Death Road. Without the T-shirt, unfortunately.
Table of Contents
From La Paz to Rurrenabaque:
Directly outside the San Francisco Plaza, along the busy main road, flag any collectivo with Villa Fatima displayed on front. Buses should be within the traffic slow heading right.
The fare costs 2B (€0.25) and takes around 30 minutes.
Tell the driver you want to get off at the Terminal Provisional Minass – Yungas, it’s a little past the centre of Villa Fatima.
The collectivo should drop you outside the gate. Walk into the open-air terminal and cross towards the buses all going to ‘La Selva’. Oh, and ignore any advice from the ordinary looking gentlemen from outside. One tried to tell us there was no public bus, and that we had to book a tour. Stay polite as you ignore them.
We secured two semi-cam seats on the 2.30pm bus with Trans Total for 60B (€7.50) each but there are a number of companies all heading to Rurrenabaque that depart throughout the day.
We learned that the closer to the bus’ departure time, the touts will drop the price rates dramatically. So find out times, haggle, debate, walk away. Just make sure that you do not pay over 80B (€10) which is the known flat fee, for gringos that is.
Behind the terminal you will find eateries that are reasonably priced, for a bus station. We recommend you eat before boarding, or at least stock up on supplies.
However, let it be known that the bus will stop at a roadside market, 30 minutes from the bus terminal. Here you can also buy some takeaway food (mostly chicken) and anything you need to keep you sane for the next 18 hours.
We bought some grub in the terminal, stocked up on water, fruit and snacks and, as always, brought a lunchbox lunch with us. One we prepared the night before. A little overly organised, we heard that delays along this route is possible, and we don’t really like to be hangry.
Stories of some journeys turning into 28-32 hours (mostly in the rainy season!) so we felt if we prepared enough, we wouldn’t need it and there would be no delays. Murphy’s Law and all that.
We were very happy with Trans Total who left the terminal at 2.30pm (on the dot, strangely enough). OK, so the bus is old and a little run-down with no bathroom. But it does have recliner seats and a lot of legroom, a major bonus! The bus stops three times in total for any toilet breaks, worst case you can ask the driver to stop and pee on the side of the road, something all Bolivians do. Even the women.
Sitting on two creaky seats, one with a broken spring which didn’t provide much comfort, we left Villa Fatima ready to spend the next 18 hours in the stuffy metal box on wheels.
One thing we should mention is that to see and somewhat experience Death Road, leave La Paz before nightfall. It takes about 2-3 hours before you can stare death, and the long drop down, from the windows. So although we much prefer to take such long journeys at night, this is one where daylight is needed, even if the bus does feel like a sauna.
Another tip is to ask for a seat on the left hand side of the bus, for the best scary views.
Gliding under the Coroico welcome sign, all hints of the city soon disappeared. This is a relatively new paved road, one with safety barriers around every bend. The valley shining below clashes with the disappearing mountains,all suffocating under the thick clouds.
We have heard Coroico is a worthy stop, with beautiful hikes, and hilltop views of the Yungas road, those who did visit here spoke highly and mentioned it’s a nice stopping point to break up the long bus journey from La Paz to the Amazon.
Another hour and half to two hours and the beautiful landscape will no longer catch your gaze. The mountainous landscapes, dripping with sunlight and wrapped with clouds became a sudden crick in the neck as we peered downwards onto what felt like an impending death.
The bus drives slowly, but this doesn’t distract you from the fact that its wheels glide mid-air as the ground beneath it disappears, thanks to the now eroded cliff. The drop is intense, that is no exaggeration. At times even as the locals smirked and giggled at our squeals of heart pounding excitement, they too gasped at sudden jerks and turns.
Any delays are mostly down to the reversing. Since Death Road can only fit one flow of traffic at a time (who am I kidding, it can barely fit a large car!) the drive feels more backwards than onwards. If we were lucky, the kind driver ahead would take one for the team and hit the ‘R’ but since we were the bus, our driver was expected to manoeuvre his way backwards and to the edge, just to let the oncoming traffic pass.
This nerve wracking excitement continued for at least an hour, however I could be wrong since my attention was firmly on the 2,500ft drop and the road, or more appropriately, the tiny patch of dirt that barely held our wheels. It could have been more, or less. All I know is that it tickled the Death Road itch I had, and I was most definitely satisfied with a bus journey rather than a cycle.
Eventually, saying goodbye to the Grim Reaper’s road less travelled, the bus will stop at what looks like a toll. Here army members will board and search the bus. Nothing to worry about, it’s a standard search. But as a gringo, you will be asked to flash your passport and your entry visa, the very important little piece of paper you received when crossing into Bolivia.
The official asked us and two other foreign passengers a few questions; ‘where did you cross from? (border wise)’, ‘where are you going next?’ and ‘what is your next stop after Rurrenabaque?’.
We think this was down to us having one week of our 30 day visa remaining. So we explained that we are returning to La Paz to apply for an extension, and then seeking a volunteer opportunity. We also mentioned that we had volunteered in the orphanage in Copacabana. That was when he smiled and handed back our passports.
To be honest, we’re not entirely sure why they felt the need to interrogate. Maybe it’s standard procedure, maybe they were searching for someone, have problems with smugglers or just want to make it look like they are doing their jobs. It isn’t a case of throwing you off the bus, and when the other two passengers explained that their piece of important paper (entry visa slip) was in their main bag under the bus, he lectured them explaining that from now on, they must keep it with their passport at all times!
After what felt like 15 minutes, the bus was back on its way through the dramatically winding cliffside road, through tiny pitch black tunnels which were narrow enough to fit only one flow of traffic, and around dangerous unguarded bends, nice and slow, thank God!
Caranavi town, the final stop before Rurrenabaque. At around 8pm, here we had 30-40 minutes to fuel up on food, sit on the toilet and stretch our legs. The Bus stops outside a small park which is full of food stalls and small stores.
From there it’s a straight run into Rurrenabaque, where you should arrive between 7am-8am (depends on delays!).
Exit the bus to receive a slap of heat to the face before entering the dead and empty bus terminal. There are places to grab a coffee or some breakfast but with soups and heavy plates of rice based meals, we couldn’t stomach it that early.
The tuk tuks are more than happy to bring you into town, for roughly 2B-4B. We were a little sick of sitting down so enjoyed the 20 minute walk straight into town.
To do the same, take a right as you leave the bus terminal and walk 5 minutes until you pass a large, but most likely closed, market on your right and a small shop sitting on a corner on your left. Take this left and walk until you see lavish, leafy green mountains and a long dusty main road. Take a right onto this main road and follow it until you hit the petrol station. From here it’s a right straight onto the main market street of Rurrenabaque.
Welcome to the jungle!
From Rurrenabaque to La Paz:
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, to return to La Paz, it’s the same journey but backwards (and we don’t just mean reversing) but there will be a lot of that too.
There are more than four companies that leave the main Terminal de Busses heading to La Paz. Bus departures range from early morning, around 11am to overnights starting at 5pm, 6pm, 6.30pm etc.
Don’t pay more than 60B (€7.50) per person. If you secure a cheaper price on the way to Rurrenabaque, keep your ticket handy to argue the rate on your return.
Again, we took Trans Total, the reclining seats (not exactly semi-cama as advertised) came fully fitted with decent leg room. Always a win for us.
We left at 6.30pm and arrived in La Paz the following morning at 8am.
For more views of Death Road, do take the latest bus leaving Rurrenabaque so that it will be bright by the time you hit it.
Any tales or woes to share of your experience riding Death Road? Do share with us, pop us an email or a comment below.
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