The first time I mountain biked down Bolivia's notorious 'Death Road', I almost soiled my shorts. The 65km mountain pass that connects La Paz to Coroico had the morbid distinction of being the "world's most dangerous road," causing an average of 150 deaths a year, largely from overcrowded buses and trucks tipping over the edge and plummeting 600m to the canyon below.
As I approached each blind corner on the narrow muddy pass, any number of factors could punch my ticket. An oncoming truck, an errant rock, a faulty brake. Fortunately I was in good hands. In 1998, a New Zealander founded Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking with the intention of safely guiding more adventurous tourists (i.e. backpackers) down the beautiful, if deadly pass. Within a few years, it had become a must-do activity on the gringo trail, and to date the company has had over 35,000 customers, with zero fatalities.
A flood of competitors, however, have not been as successful. Over a dozen tourists have been killed.
Returning a few years later, I discovered that a new paved highway had significantly reduced the danger. The majority of trucks and buses use this faster, less risky route, leaving the winding jungle road as a mostly empty track perfect for bikers of all levels.
In truth, the World's Most Dangerous title is no longer accurate, but rest assured, this is no ride in the park. Guides still scout ahead for rogue oncoming trucks, but the real danger lies with anyone who might bike beyond their talent level, flying around tight corners where even a small speed wobble can send you flying over the edge, and on a parachute-less freefall.
Another danger are the fly-by-night operators. There are now around 30 companies offering tourists the chance to bike the road, and in order to cut costs, some of them don't pay nearly as much attention as they should to bike maintenance, guide training, and rider instruction. It's a highly competitive market with zero regulation. It is surprising how many tourists choose to ride on battered bikes just to save a couple dollars. You get what you pay for, especially when it comes to biking Bolivian death roads.
The first 22kms of the journey is an easy introduction, a rapid downhill thrillride on smooth asphalt amidst spectacular snow-capped mountains. At this elevation, over 4,000m above sea level, the air is crisp and sharp. All I had to do was hang on and slow down at corners, although the icy air froze my hands beneath my gloves, making braking difficult.
We cross a drug checkpoint (this part of Bolivia is a well-known smuggling route), and soon enough enter the more treacherous muddy track. Crosses, flowers and memorials start lining the roads, marking where buses and trucks slipped off into the ravine. Biking downhill on the outside track, it's a chilly reminder that death lies just a few inches from my pedal.
A woman in the group takes a tumble, and retires to the support van. Minor injuries are common enough, but the severity usually depends on how fast you choose to push it. The road flattens out towards the end, a dusty conclusion met by cold beer and high fives. A T-shirt is included.
With between 120 and 140 riders a day, biking the infamous Death Road has become an industry, employing around 500 people and bringing much needed foreign dollars into the region. The only car I passed on my way down belonged to an American birdwatcher. "Watching all these bikers seems to be the most organized tourist activity I've seen in the whole country," he tells me. It's beyond him why anyone would want to bike a dangerous road in Bolivia. It's beyond me why anyone would want to drive it looking for birds.
If you go: Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking offer daily tours from La Paz. No biking experience is necessary. The all-inclusive package, including a dual-suspension KONA bike, clothes and goggles, and buffet lunch at a wildlife refuge is $75. Best time of year to bike is dry season between May and September. There is a maximum of 14 people per group, with two guides and a support vehicle. For more information, visit: www.gravityassisted.com. Another recommended company is Downhill Madness.
Vancouver-based travel writer Robin Esrock hosts Word Travels (CityTV/OLN) and is the author of the upcoming book, The Great Canadian Bucket List. You can find him at: www.robinesrock.com.