Returning to Bolivia's Death Road
In 2005, I mountain biked down Bolivia’s notorious “Death Road”, and 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. Blind corners combined with narrow muddy passes and speeding trucks were a fatal combination, but also proved to be an inspirational if somewhat risky activity for amateur and professional mountain bikers. Conceived by a New Zealander named Alistair Matthews in 1998, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking was the first company to offer adventurous tourists the opportunity to bike the Death Road – a downhill thrill ride encompassing stunning mountain and jungle scenery. Using highly maintained bikes and expert guides, it proved to be a major hit, and to date the company has safely guided well over 30,000 people down to Coroico. Today, a flood of competitors offer the service, some more reputable than others. It was only a matter of time before the Death Road claimed its first tourist, a 23 year-old Israeli girl. By 2005, seven tourists had died mountain biking the road, a low figure given how many have biked so close to the edge. Today, that figure is closer to 20.
Between 2 trucks and a hard place
Returning to Bolivia a few years later, I revisited the Death Road to find it as popular as ever, and thanks to a new highway from La Paz to Coroico, safer too. By far the most dangerous aspect of biking the road were local trucks and buses, screaming around the corners ready to send an overzealous biker over the edge for a parachute-less freefall. Just about all these vehicles now use the faster, far less risky new highway, leaving the winding jungle road as an empty track perfect for bikers of all levels. While guides in front still scout for any rogue buses, the real danger lies with riders who bike beyond their talent level, flying around tight corners where even a small speed wobble can send you flying off a cliff. Unfortunately, another danger has been the proliferation of fly-by-night operators quick to capitalize on the success of the activity. There are now some 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 to bike maintenance, guide training, and rider instruction. It’s a highly competitive market with zero regulation, and is further surprising how many tourists choose to ride with a less-experienced company on battered bikes just to save a couple dollars.
One of the fatalities was an Israeli traveller who went off the edge in a dangerous wet section of the jungle road. Bikers take tea breaks at her memorial. “The company said he was doing wheelies and lost control,” Matthews tells me, pointing out the spot. It is wet, muddy, and pockmarked with loose stones. “I ask you, can you imagine anyone being that stupid to try that in this particular section? The only witness was the company driver, and his job is at stake.” Matthews refused to name the company. Indeed, when local police investigated the tragic death of an Israeli girl, they ruled it a suicide, even though she was vocally complaining about her brakes failing to her fellow riders. Despite Matthews’ efforts for the government to get involved, safety regulations would dramatically raise the operating costs for all operators, and the idea is being met with resistance. “People assume there are standards. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any,” he explains.
With between 120 and 140 riders a day, biking the Death Road has become an industry, employing around 500 people and bringing in much needed foreign dollars into the region. The only car I pass on my way down belongs 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, and beyond me why anyone would want to drive it looking for birds. I ask a backpacker from California why she decided to bike the 3.5km descent. “Everyone I spoke to about Bolivia said it was the highlight of their trip,” she says. From the first 22km of asphalt, sprinting between breathtaking mountains, to the dramatic scenery along the jungle road, it’s easy to understand why the Death Road has become a legend on the Gringo Trail. But even with the new highway, there’s still a substantial risk. Anyone planning the adventure would do well to investigate their operators, and their bikes, before hitting the road.
Versions previously published in The Gulf News, South China Morning Post
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After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.