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The world’s most dangerous road, by bike and bus

The world's most dangerous road © Gravity AssistedThe most dangerous road in the world. Been there. Done that. Literally got the t-shirt.

A ride down the world’s most dangerous road (also known as Death Road, Grove's Road, Coroico Road, Camino de las Yungas and El Camino de la Muerte) is one of La Paz’s top attractions and tourists spend days agonising over whether or not to risk it. Morbid tales of cyclists plunging to their deaths after losing control of their bikes are told with wicked relish by travellers in Bolivia. A friend back home e-mailed to say she had a “bad feeling” and begged me not to do it.

They needn’t worry so much. The notoriety of the road actually dates from 1995 when the Inter-American Development Bank christened it the world’s most dangerous road; at that time, some estimates stated that 200 to 300 people died on the road annually. In 1983, a bus veered off the road into a canyon, killing more than 100 people in what is frequently referred to as Bolivia’s worst road accident.

Nowadays, the moniker is mostly hype. The traffic on the most dangerous section of the road has greatly decreased thanks to a modernization project, completed in 2006, that completely bypassed it. The rest of the road was widened to two lanes, tarmaced, and guardrails and effective drainage were added.

The world's most dangerous road © Gravity AssistedWhat the road now lacks in motorised traffic is more than made up for by the number of downhill mountain bikers. Tour operators peddling the ride of a lifetime on the legendary Death Road line the streets of La Paz. This is where the tourists’ important decision now lies – some tour operators are reputedly less than scrupulous about safety and equipment quality.

I chose to ride with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. I paid more than I would have done with other operators, but got more for my money: most notably, peace of mind. Their bikes, worth US$3,000 each, are in top condition and the guides are talented and experienced downhill mountain bikers. The tour group of no more than 14 cyclists, rides together, with a guide at the front and back, plus a photographer. We stopped frequently to regroup, take in the view and listen to advice on how to handle the next section of road, nervously watching riders with other operators rattle past shakily on dubious bikes that, our guide told us, belonged to Gravity Assisted until they were deemed too old for service.

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Overland Traveller copyright © Emma Field 2010