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May,06 2010

Return to the Death Road

Return to the Death Road

A fool might bike the world's most dangerous road once - a snake-coiling jungle track where an average of 150 lose their lives every year - but I'm the clown prince of travel, so I'm doing it twice. Clutching a bike, peddling inches away from 600m cliffs, over loose rocks and under cold waterfalls, it's 67kms of mostly downhill terrain from La Paz to Coroico, deep in crazy coca leaf country. I pass a roadblock searching for cocaine, but the heavily armed soldiers wave us gringos through. You have to be insane to smuggle cocaine, but you have to be completely off your bloody rocker to bike Bolivia's Death Road.

To be fair, the new highway was still under construction on my first visit, so things are arguably a lot safer these days.  No more trucks loaded with rooftop passengers ready to collide with overcrowded buses at every blind corner, taking both off the edge, never to be seen of again.  Fewer cars speeding over blind hills, fewer screams from the guide up front that the grim reaper is ready to swing at the next bend. A decade or so ago, a UN report named this the world?s most dangerous road, and soon enough extreme biking enthusiasts gathered to play, as speeding downhill through mountains and jungles for six hours is close to peddle nirvana.      

An enterprising New Zealander named Alistair, a man that takes his facial hair seriously, started the first company to introduce the experience to backpackers.  It was an immediate success, as word spread up and down the gringo trail that biking the death road was not to be missed.  Other less reputable companies sprung up to take advantage of this boom in flirting with doom, and before long, there were tourist casualties. Despite Alistair's best efforts, there remain no regulations amongst the operators, and it's surprising how many budget travellers choose to save ten bucks by selecting companies who haven?t checked their brakes since Che Guevara was gunned down in the nearby foothills.  Seven tourists had died by the time I visited in 2005, including an Israeli girl who complained about her breaks, rode off the edge, and was later deemed by Bolivian authorities to be a suicide.  So I chose Alistair's Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, obsessed with their maintenance of professional KONA bikes, and as a result they have guided over 30,000 to the bottom, without any fatalities.       

This is not to say that there are no injuries.  I recall a Swiss woman stumbled over a loose rock giving herself a nasty gash on her nose.  Broken collarbones are common, gashes and bruises.  The problem is similar to that of race car accidents, when drivers go BYT - beyond their talent level.  Alistair blames testosterone.  The latest casualty was a guy who, if local authorities are to be believed, pulled a wheelie under a muddy waterfall right on the edge of the cliff.  However, with the beautiful scenery and the wind swirling over your helmet, there's no faulting the hype.  It's one of the must-do's of any trip to Bolivia, which is one of the must-do's of any trip to South America. 

Two years later, I head back to the Death Road to find all the heavy trucks and smog-churning buses absent.  The new highway has diverted the traffic, making the road infinitely safer, and robbing it of its World Most Dangerous title.  Of course, this has meant more tourists and more shady operators, and the tourist death toll is now at 11, pretty good odds given that 120 people ride it every day.  You still descend a whopping 3.5km in altitude, the first 22km on asphalt, the rest on cracked mud and dirt.  There are two guides, a support vehicle, regular bike checks and dry cheese sandwiches.  At the end, you reach a wonderful wildlife refuge where you can drink cold beer, play with baby monkeys and get chewed apart by jungle mosquitoes.  Today the death road is more fun than ever and ultimately you only go as fast as your nerves can handle.  Given that the return trip to La Paz involved sitting on a bus as it navigated the same terrifying road I'd just recently descended, my nerves can handle more than ever.      


Robin Esrock in a travel writer and presenter on a travel television show. You can read ore of Robin?s adventures at his website: Robin is a good friend of where you can reserve your bike trip to the 'Most Dangerous Road in the World'.



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