I blazed down the steep, curvy road at top speed. Inside the cloud, I could barely see a few feet in front of me. The red shirt of the biker ahead of me murked in and out of vision. Water assaulted my face and covered my eyes, to the point where, even with eyes wide opened, I could not see my hand in front of my face. Taking one hand off the speeding bike, I hastily wiped the water from my eyes…just in time to see an approaching turn backed by a 15,000+ ft (4500+ m) drop. Without braking, I turned my bike down the curve as a car a rolled down inches by me. This marked the start of my 11,500 ft (3500 m) descent down Death Road.
Death Road. The name says it all. Located near La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, Death Road is infamous for the death toll of the bus occupants, car passengers, and mountain bikers that dare take on the road. This predominantly unpaved road has just enough space for one vehicle at a time despite serving as the only two-way street for the small towns along its 50 mile (80 km) length. Sandwiched between mountainsides and sheer cliffs, the windy road run for long stretches at a time without railings to keep vehicles or bikers from dropping into the 15,000 ft (4500 m) high abyss. Death Road’s notoriety has attracted daredevils and adrenaline junkies from all over the world to bike 11,500 ft (3500 m) in elevation down the narrow road.
I had originally intended to skip Death Road, too fond of life to risk plummeting to my death. However, upon talking to other travelers who had completed the ride and insisted that the road was perfectly safe for bikers, I decided to give it a shot. After all, as long as bikers do not do anything stupid, like go too fast down a turn or take selfies while biking, it was perfectly safe.
Cue my descent down the world’s most dangerous road. No, I left my selfie stick at the store where I never bought it. My offense was the speed factor. Having biked since the tender age of five down the hilly streets of Queens, New York, I had always been very comfortable on bikes. So when I started the Death Road tour with my group of 16, I made sure to position myself at the very front of the group, behind another speedster and the guide.
We took off under ominous clouds that soon enveloped us. The guide, having raced down the trail hundreds if not thousands of times, blazed ahead, not bothering to brake along the curves and turns that populated the asphalt road. While the biker in front of me and I were right on his tail initially, a few curved accompanied with pouring rain brought us further and further behind him. At some point, due to the low visibility within the clouds, I found myself completely alone on the road. Nervous about being alone on this vehicle-heavy road, I focused on catching up with the two roadrunners ahead of me. The brakes were ornaments to me at this point. As I made turns in the downpour without slowing down, I thought to myself, This is really dangerous.
When I finally caught up with the red blob biking ahead of me, a wave of relief washed over me (or maybe that was just more rain). While nothing about the situation had changed, except now there were two fools riding way too fast on a surprisingly well-trafficked, slippery road, I felt comforted in knowing that at least I was not the only fool in danger. We continued down at breakneck speed until, suddenly, out of the fog that paved the way, appeared our guide, waving his hands emphatically in the air. It was our cue to stop. Unfortunately, we were both going too fast and careened past the guide before screeching to a halt. After we dismounted, we bonded over our invigorating though terrifying experiences for a full two minutes before the next biker from our group appeared through the fog.
After our entire group arrived, we continued onto the unpaved portion of the trip – the part that got the road its name. Railing-less narrow roads, steep turns, a 11,500 ft (3500 m) drop, and the occasional car made this the most dangerous part of the ride. Luckily, by this point, the rain had subsided a bit, so lack of visibility was no longer an issue. Unfortunately, the increased visibility did nothing to help me navigate some turns.
My first crash resulted from me, once again, forgetting about the brakes. I was speeding down a steep section at top speed. As the bottom of the hill approached me, it suddenly weaved left, more than I had anticipated. With my hands hovering above the brakes, I had just enough time to think, I’m not going to make this turn without braking, before crashing hard into a ditch on the mountain side of the road. Shaken, but hard of learning, I jumped back on the bike and sped past all the bikers who overtook me during the collision.
Forty-five minutes later, I approached the site of my second crash. Once again, I raced down a steep section at top speed. After nearly an hour of practice, I was prepared for the curvy turn that greeted me at the bottom and rolled down the hill without touching the brakes. What I was not prepared for was the car that appeared last minute at the start of the blind turn. Panicked, I slammed on the brakes and veered my steering wheel towards the bushes to avoid the approaching car. My crash this time met me more gently than the first and I was once again able to hop back on the bike to complete the ride.
The end of the ride felt like a completely different day. We started the day at a cold 4650 m, soaked through within heavy storm clouds and ended at a hot 1750 m, completely dry under the beating sun and beautiful blue skies.
I rode away (in a bus this time) from Death Road feeling proud to have survived unscathed. I had heard stories about other travelers who walked away with battle scars and was happy to escape intact despite my two crashes. It wasn’t until that night, as I was climbing up to the top bunk of my bed in the hostel that I noticed my bruised and swollen ankle…just in time for the start of a 20,000 ft (6,088 m) mountain ascent the next morning.