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Surviving the Death Road in Bolivia

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My eyes linger over the majestic mountains towering over me for maybe a second, before my focus is brought back to the narrow dirt road that is speeding before me, and to the depths that are waiting on my left side should I miss a turn. My hands squeeze the breaks of my bike as I approach a turn, the fear battling against my courage, how fast can I go and still stay in the road.

Mind you, the stakes on that battle are quite high, going over the side would in most cases mean certain death. With probably at least ten seconds of airtime, enough to think about what went wrong.

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So yes, this is the Yungas road, or as it is more commonly know, the Death Road of Bolivia. Originally build by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930s, the road was infamously named the most dangerous road in the world because of the estimated 200-300 deaths per year on a 60 km strip of road. And like I mentioned before, certain death looms on the left side should you go over the side. However it should also be mentioned for fairness sake, that it is not nowhere near as dangerous as it used to be.

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Originally, it earned the name from the high number of fatalities, which came from mostly buses and cars going over the side into certain doom. Later as people started riding down the road with bikes, the big risk was indeed the other traffic on the road, which is in many places barely the width of a van.

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Now however there is a new road between La Paz and Coroico since 2006, which is used by cars and buses, the old road being left just for bikes and the support vans. This doesn’t make it safe in the sense that, say, the UK nanny state would require it to be for example. There are no safety barriers, if you go over the cliff, you will die. There has been some 18 casualties from bikers since 1998, and of course lots of others injuries from falling down (but then again, that is a risk in any mountain biking). When you sign the consent form, it clearly states that death is a possibility.

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But the ride itself is awesome. It starts from 4700 meters above sea level, finishing at 1300 meters. It’s a 63 km downhill ride like no other. The first 10 km is down the new asphalt road, speeding down and taking over trucks which seem ridicilously slow. After which you get back into the van for maybe another 10 km, before you reach the actual old road. And here is where the fun begins.

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It is mostly a single lane dirt road, sometimes the road just being rocks. Yes you do want a good bike with dual suspension and disc breaks. Don’t skimp on that, well, unless you are a professional mountain biker like Jamie in our group. Thew views are just great, but usually your focus is on the road, trying to figure out the best route through the rocks, while trying to judge your speed before the impeding corner.

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Prices vary quite a lot depending on the company, if you go with Gravity (which is the original company that started the whole graze), you will pay a lot more than using some of the other companies. I went with a new company called Mayhem, and they knew what they were doing. And we had fun on way back to La Paz in the van, when we got absolutely wasted on Cuba Libre with the tour guides.

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Awesome views, awesome ride.

P.S: Thanks for Mayhem for the photos of us riding, and the videos. Check out the video above for some views

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