XIV: What’s in a Name? Death Road

The scariest part is the name: Death Road. Inviting, isn’t it? For some reason, this ominous sounding destination has attracted adrenaline-seeking tourists for decades, daring them to weave their way down a stony path, wedged tightly between a mountain and a canyon with drops of at least 600 metres. Some of the less adventurous have been deterred by the stories they’ve heard. They’ve been spooked by the thoughts of ghosts hidden in the mist or by the many crosses that mark the road and serve as a memorial to those who have died falling off the edge. These fears are not entirely unjustified. The road is quite narrow, about 3.2 metres (10 feet) wide in most places. Descending vehicles never have the right of way; they must move to the outer side of the road where there are rarely any guard rails. It was once estimated that about 26 vehicles went over the edge each year, leading to approximately 200-300 fatalities annually. But despite all of this I’m here to tell you something shocking: biking down Death Road is really not that bad.

DSCF9041I’m an amateur cyclist to say the least. I’ve never raced, never attempted any long treks and every summer I’m always disappointed that my bike tires are still deflated from the last time I got the urge to ride and lost interest before I did. When cycling in Niagara, a friend of mine was convinced I would crash at any moment. I still have scars on my knees from falling off a bike in Slovenia two years ago. While mountain biking on the way to Machu Picchu, I got cocky, started daydreaming and wound up in a tumble that left a bruise on my thigh the size of my forearm. So, really, if I was wise, I probably shouldn’t have tried to conquer Death Road.

But where’s the fun in that?

There are a number of mountain biking companies in La Paz that offer tours of Death Road. Gravity is the most well known and the most expensive. I went with Altitude, which is a little more affordable. There are some that are even cheaper, but be wary: you want to be sure that the equipment you’re getting is good enough to keep you safe.

No matter which company you choose, the day begins with a drive up a mountain. You exit the van and are immediately cocooned in fog (you start in the clouds after all). A quick snack and some coffee at the top is all the nutrition you get to start, so if you’re the type who needs a big breakfast, pack some food or wake up a little earlier to eat beforehand. Next, suit up. Depending on the company you’ll have different gear. Altitude provided knee and elbow pads, thick pants and jackets, gloves and a helmet. Your guides select a bike for you and after a couple minutes of practice you’re ready to go!

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Sexy Llama Team, ready for action!

The first part of the road is easy. It’s wide, paved and completely downhill. The only annoying bit is that constant mist or intermittent rain. Within minutes, my hands were frozen from the wind blowing rain against my knuckles. The rest of the gear protected me from the worst of it and, although they almost continually fogged up, my sunglasses kept the droplets out of my eyes. However, if you’re an actual biker and have your own gloves or some fancy glasses for rain (those exist, right?) I’d strongly recommend bringing them along.

After about fifteen minutes, the real road begins. Say goodbye to nice clean pavement, you’re now biking down a dirt path littered with rocks of varying sizes. Fortunately, the further you ride, the more you come out of the clouds. My group was lucky: it stopped raining once we got to the trickier part of the path. Death Road dips around mountains loaded with blind corners. To your left, the canyon drops off so steeply that you can’t see the ground. To your right, a massive rock face, the occasional waterfall, some vegetation. As you clear the clouds completely, you’re treated to a lush valley encircled by tree-topped mountains. Although Altitude didn’t allow us to stop in the road, there are numerous breaks to keep the group together and for photo-ops.

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Holding up my bike in front of a misty waterfall

**Side note: it’s worth mentioning that most companies will not allow you to take your own camera on the actual bikes (GoPros are the only exception). The highest number of biking injuries has been due to people taking selfies and stepping off the edge of the cliff. To lessen this threat, your guides will take photos for you and give you a CD or email you the JPEGs at the end. The frequent stops are also helpful if you’re a slower rider. During my trip we had three guides with us: one at the front, one in the rear, and one taking pictures. No matter how slow you are, there will always be a guide close by. Plus, the van follows you down the hill in case you get too scared or tired.

Here’s the thing: Although there have been a lot of deaths on Death Road, the majority of them were automotive accidents. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be cautious – the last cycling death was in December 2015 when a man decided to jump puddles on his bike, missed the edge and plunged eighty metres off the side of the cliff. However, the path, though narrow, is certainly wide enough for a cyclist. Even as an amateur, I was near the front of my group the entire way down and never felt like I had lost control of my bike. A brief uphill section reins everyone in toward the end of the trail and the final portion passes through a pretty wooded area. When you reach the bottom there’s a woman selling beer and water, you get a t-shirt saying you survived the course and you pile back into the car after high-fiving your fellow adrenaline junkies over your Death Road success.

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I think there’s an important distinction to make between caution and fear. Caution is useful. It means you’re aware of yourself and your own limitations, your comfort level, your gut instinct. Fear is often irrational. It can seize you suddenly, cripple you and prevent you from doing things you’d otherwise enjoy. Not everyone has to challenge Death Road by any means, but if you want to, go for it! Just take your time, be safe and have fun flying down the side of a mountain.

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