If you're looking for a good time, try a ride down Bolivia's 'road of death'

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Marco Werman: The South American nation of Bolivia is home to many beautiful tourist sites. there’s the gorgeous Lake Titicaca and the amazing salt flats on the Altiplano. But for thrill-seeking tourists, a main attraction is biking down what’s known as El Camino de la Muerte, “The Death Road.” It’s a winding 11,000 foot descent from snowcapped peaks to the rainforest. John Otis recently did the ride and he joins me now. Is Death Road just hype? How dangerous is this road really?


John Otis: The road was built in the 1930s, and they just had picks and shovels so they carved this rustic ribbon of a road into the side of the Andes Mountains. It drops down 11,000 feet in about 40 miles, so there’s some pretty dramatic scenery and some pretty steep cliffs. As far as the road itself, there’s so much fog and rain and mudslides that buses and cars were constantly going over the side, and there were 200 to 300 deaths per yet. So, by 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank actually christened this as the world’s most dangerous road.


Werman: It’s kind of weird--Bolivia’s got the world’s most dangerous road and what do they do? They turn it into a tourist attraction. Not just that, you get people to ride bicycles down it. Is this really the best idea for this road?


Otis: Well, what happened is that they built a new road in 2007, a paved highway, and that took away most of the car and bus traffic. So, this old gravel road became a de facto bike path, and now you’ve got 25 to 30 tour companies in La Paz, the capital, with funky names like Vertigo and Madness, and they bring thousands of bikers down the road every year. Now and again, a biker goes over the edge--there’s been 21 cyclists killed along this road over the past 16 or 17 years. When we went down, my tour guide was an Australian named Mark Symon, and he said that rather than driving away business, the occasional death of a cyclist actually adds to the road’s mystique and brings in more business.


Mark Symon: We rely heavily on the hype. They’ve all hyped it up for the sensationalism and we feed on that, absolutely.


Werman: You did this ride. What was it like?


Otis: In some ways, it was rather easy because it’s all downhill so you don’t have to do much pedaling. But you are squeezing your brakes all the way down; it’s about a six-hour ride, so it’s about six hours of hammering on your brakes. But you have to do that to maneuver through the hairpin turns and to avoid skidding off the ledges. But even though it’s a pretty dangerous road, you still get a lot of hot dogs who go too fast, you get a lot of tourists showing up who had been out partying the night before and they come in and they’re either hungover and sometimes they’re still drunk. Then you also get people who just sort of seem to have a deathwish. In 2013, there was this BASE jumper who showed up from New Zealand, he came out on a mountain bike with a parachute strapped to his back, and he decided he was going to sort of pull an Evil Knievel on a bicycle, and so he went flying off this ramp and the idea was to open the parachute and come floating down. But one of our guides, Gustavo Bascope, who was part of the rescue team that day was there and he told me it was really ugly.


Gustavo Bascope: The bicycle got stuck with one of the wires of the parachute and he crashed. He broke his wrist and the bike hit his forehead. He was bleeding, he was alive; we rescued that guy because we had the team for it.


Werman: It’s just crazy what people will do. You said you were grabbing the brakes all the way down. Were your hands cramped by the end of the ride?


Otis: Yeah. You didn’t get much leg action but your upper body gets a good workout and you kind of get what they call “claw hands” because you’re just squeezing your brakes all the way down.


Werman: How did the other riders on your tour feel about the whole experience?


Otis: Because it’s all downhill, you get a lot of tourists showing up who don’t really know much about bicycling, and they think “Well, it’s all downhill, so anyone can do it. Even I can do it.” In my group, we had some decent athletes but we also had some people who hadn’t ridden bikes very much. One of them was a diplomat from La Paz.


Diplomat: Yeah, I’m scared. So I’m just going to take it slow and steady and keep my eyes on the road, just like you said. But I’m excited. How about you?”


Werman: So John, how about you?


Otis: Well, we all made it to the end of the road in pretty good shape and luckily we didn’t add to the death toll of Death Road.


Werman: John, thanks for speaking with us. I’m so glad you survived this trip to tell us about it.


Otis: Thanks very much Marco.