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To be fair, it’s technically not considered the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” anymore. Due to the construction of a new highway close by, which directs most traffic away from its path, they’ve recently upgraded the trails nickname to a much more simple, passive and inviting moniker… “The Death Road”
Okay, so the name and mortality figures didn’t sit well at first, but how could I pass up the opportunity to test out its narelyness first hand? Besides, most of the people who’ve died have done so because of truck, bus and motorcycle accidents… right?
Kiersten, my partner in crime for this adventure, was a lot more skeptical about the whole thing. It took some convincing to get her to stop looking at mishap reports and death road death stories, but she eventually, although reluctantly, agreed.
The day started at the crack of dawn at the Madness office in La Paz, where we met the rest of thrill-seeking lunatics who’d be biking with us. We suited up in rain pants, jackets, helmets, gloves and killer bright orange construction vests as we tested the brakes on some pretty solid mountain bikes.
After a nerve-testing drive outside La Paz and into the mountains we arrive at our launch point in La Cumbre along the banks of a quiet and eerie lake. We unloaded our gear, tested the brakes again and got a pep talk from the three guides who’d be corralling us for the day.
From there it was up to us not to die. And so commenced our cycle down the Death Road, which we were able so survive in stages.
STAGE 1: A relaxing warm-up (just watch out for trucks)
The first leg of the cycle was entirely downhill and on reasonably well kept, widely paved roads. The only real way you could die here is if a passing bus or truck sideswiped when the incredible views distracted you. Otherwise, the survival rate was pretty high and passed this stage with relative ease.
STAGE 2: Off-roading with a nice mix of rocks, rain and danger
We turned off the main highway and onto what was obviously the beginning of the true Death Road. While the roads were still manageably wide, we swapped early morning fog for consistent rain, and smooth roads for sketchy dirt and gravel paths. We also lost the majority of guide rails as the cliffs moved closer and our cycling quickly turned serious.
At this stage you won’t die as long as you created your own space away from other bikers. We had one Asian kid who was clearly out of control and was breaking comfort zones all day. At one point he actually did crash and took out a nice Australian guy in the process. Luckily for both of them it wasn’t during a tight spot and they both survived stage 2, as did we.
STAGE 3: The most beautiful place to pee your pants
Gut check time! The rain continued, the roads got narrower and brakes became the life support. Tight, blind turns along ridiculously narrow cliffs made you focus on your bike, the road and nothing else. Memorial crosses become a common sight as the journey elevated in danger and beauty.
For you not to die here, you had to pay attention, absolute attention. If you wanted to admire the incredible surroundings it was best to stop during a wide section where you could see bikers and vehicles coming from a good distance. This was the stage where you understand how the road got its nickname.
STAGE 4: Flying down the home stretch
The clouds scattered and rain subsided as we left cliffs and blind turns behind us. The roads opened up and we gave our squealing brakes a rest for final stage to our meeting point. We managed to pick up some good speed on the home stretch trying to catch one of the guides, but this still wasn’t to be taken lightly.
The way you die on this part is getting ahead of yourself about what just happened and loose focus on finishing strong. The steep cliffs here are still very much a factor.
Thankfully Kiersten and I stayed within our means, avoided trucks, cliffs and Asians, and managed to survive the Death Road without incident. As we reflected on the tour from poolside at the post-ride hot springs, we both agreed that we’d much rather bike the Death Road than do it by a Bolivian bus.
Moral of the story is you should exercise more… it could save your life!