I mulled that phrase over and over in my mind before committing to the activity, or death wish, rather, as many call it. I researched photos, conditions and skills needed, letting it all sink in a few days before my trip to La Paz. I was headed to the Bolivian Salt Flats, and a common route takes many visitors through La Paz in order to arrive in Uyuni. If I was going to be in the area, the world’s highest capital city, I might as well bike down the world’s most dangerous road. So many superlatives! The higher you go, the better the view…right? Eh. More like the higher you go, the longer the fall.
I researched this ridiculous activity for a few hours, knowing it wasn’t something to take lightly. A company called Gravity seemed to pull at my heart strings with its excellent reviews, safety precautions and biking gear. For a whopping $110 in exchange for a 14 hour day, I had either just sold my soul to the biking gods or biking devils…the jury was still out. Around 300 people die each year while on death road, and I wasn’t going to make it 301.
Our group of 14 met at a pub before embarking on the one hour drive to La Cumbre (4,760 m) where we’d start downhill on our bikes equipped with double suspension and hydraulic disk brakes. Upon arriving, we were given outer shells to protect us from wind and rain (but sadly not sand fly bites…stay turned for that story) and obviously, our bikes. Super impressed with its incredible suspension and ability to handle my inability of off road biking, I wanted to straight up steal this bike. I was told the bike was “over qualified” for the terrain we were about to experience, but what if the one steering it was under qualified? Riddle me that.
Throughout the course of the day, I experience the coldest of cold and the hottest of hot weather. I rode a total of 40 miles from snow-covered high-altitude plains and mountain ranges down to the steaming Amazonian Jungle. At the top of the mountain, Mother Nature was a bitch. Freezing rain pelted me like a thousand needles each second. Imagine biking downhill in the pouring rain, road beneath your wheels soaked with water, rain drops filling your eyes, making it almost impossible to see the drop off to your immediate right. Safety first? Not exactly. This was my first inclination as to why it’s named what it’s named, and why we all took a shot of pure grain alcohol before disembarking. They don’t call it the World’s Most Dangerous Road for nothin’.
After a grueling first portion of the ride, the weather started to ease up. The temperature rose a few degrees, and I was a happy camper again. We made it to the second portion of the road, where we were told that large rocks were nothing short of everywhere and were instructed to either go around them, or if time didn’t allow, run straight over them. Our bikes were “over qualified” and could handle it. Uh huh. It wasn’t the bike I was worried about. It was the large rocks with an alternate name of “baby heads” (I’m sorry, what?) simply because that’s what they apparently mirrored. Okay. Baby heads. Let’s go squash some baby heads.
Our guide was right. I came across baby heads as frequently as trips came up on my itinerary. If I went overboard, it was clear that my helmet really wasn’t going to do much for me at that point. Around this time, baby heads and a sharp turn plagued me all at the same moment. I panicked a wee bit, clenched my front brakes and went right over my handle bars. It wasn’t until I stood up, dazed, confused, battered and bruised, that I realized I was three feet from the edge. This little bike ride was no joke. With my confidence shattered and the left side of my body in pain, I made my way slowly down the path again. I went under waterfalls and through small ponds, all the while letting out barely audible whimpers and curse words while laughing to myself after each small victory.
I was getting heated at this point, a sure combination of my unbreakable concentration and the boiling weather towards the bottom. And then, it was over. I’d biked Death Road and lived to tell the tale unlike many before me. What do you do after surviving the World’s Most Dangerous Road? You drink beer and visit monkeys at an animal refuge. It allows for a great calming affect, I assure you…
…until you realize you’ve been eaten alive by sand flies. Prevalent in many parts of the world, these incredibly irritating insects are a third of the size of a mosquito, and you cannot feel them bite you. So not only can you not see them, you can’t feel anything either. It’s not until a few hours later that panic will ensue, along with the itching and trip to the pharmacy. Word to the wise: wear a LOT of insect repellent while biking Death Road. It’ll save you a lot of sleepless nights.