Bolivia's infamous Death Road is an unlikely must-do for bike-riding gringos, writes Grant Dyson.
There's plenty of time to get nervous about the prospect of hurtling down the "world's most dangerous road" during the 45-minute drive high into the mountains above La Paz in Bolivia. And perhaps we shouldn't have asked about the cyclist death toll.
Our van pulls up in the thin, biting air of La Cumbre, a 4700m mountain pass (Everest Base Camp is only 600-odd metres higher). We check our bikes - chunky 20kg, full-suspension downhill monsters - and pile on heavy layers of wet-weather gear, ominous for such a fine day.
Excitement ripples through our cycle group of seven, mostly over-50s, who don't fit the common, thrill-seeking backpacker mould. One rider says she's feeling great, but "puffing like an old billy goat" in the rarefied air. Another tersely admits to being "effing nervous".
Swooping like a two-wheel pirate down Death Road (El Camino de la Muerte) has become a must-do on the Gringo Trail in South America. Cycling of this sort qualifies as an extreme sport like bungee-jumping or skydiving.
Lots of bragging rights come with the T-shirt "I Survived the World's Most Dangerous Road".
And demand is such that there are now nearly 20 tour operators running trips.
Unofficially, it's thought the 65km road has claimed the lives of 18 cyclists in the past 12 years. Sombre roadside crosses signal personal tragedies. And some deaths weren't accidents: back in the 1940s, five opposition politicians were taken, hands bound, to one of the corners and hurled into space (as another political aside, a house almost hidden from the road is said to have belonged to notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, who fled to Argentina in the 50s, then emigrated to Bolivia).
The twisting route, linking the administrative capital of La Paz to the resort town of Coroico, received its "world's most dangerous road" title in a 1995 report by the Inter-American Development Bank.
Back then an estimated 200 to 300 people died annually on the road, built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners of war, though the toll has fallen since 2006 when an alternative road was built to link the two centres. But trucks carrying produce and agricultural workers, cars and minivans still trundle the old route, mixing dangerously with downhilling "ciclistas".
Nerves are settled a little by the fact that we're riding with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, a pioneering company run by New Zealander Alistair Mathew, which has a fine reputation for safe descents on well-maintained bikes. But, taking no chances, we keep the gods on our side with the traditional toast to Pachamama, Mother Earth, dribbling alcohol on our front wheels, then taking a fiery sip.
Our gringo guide, Cody Evenhus, gives a brutally honest safety talk. "It's a very do-able ride, but if you screw up the consequences are huge ..."
One of his sternest warnings - not surprisingly - centres on braking. "Your front brake is your best friend and worst enemy," he says, going on to say, smiling, "If you come sliding towards me and there's a 600m cliff behind me, you'll see my angry face."
The start offers safe but exhilarating riding past black-grey cliffs into a huge valley on a well-formed, sealed road. Stopping on a bluff known as Hospital Corner (don't ask), gazing soberly hundreds of metres down at the wreck of a minivan, we learn we are still some distance from the real Death Road.
Not long after, we come across a drugs checkpoint - ironic in a country famed for its coca crops. No one appears to challenge us.
After a short uphill, we descend through misty cloud into the deadly 40km section of road, chiselled into the mountainside, that plunges 3600m through the humid cloud forest of the Yungas.
No wider than 3.2m, the unfenced road throws up a variety of challenges, including blind corners and "babyhead" or "murder muffin" rocks (in downhiller's jargon) that seem, uncannily, to booby-trap the worst corners. But most alarming are the dizzying drop-offs of up to 1000m.
I try to keep left, but my eyes are drawn irresistibly down into yawning, misty chasms filled with tangled vegetation. Morbid curiosity makes it impossible not to sneak repeated glances that leave my flesh literally crawling. The prospect of flying over a hairpin bend from a blow-out is so awful that - against advice - I swerve repeatedly back to the rock face.
Disturbingly, we have been warned to stay left, beside the evil drop, because normal Bolivian road rules don't apply here. The driver heading downhill is supposed to move to the outer edge of the road so he can see how close his tyres are to the edge.
Our descent takes more than five hours, partly because there are frequent stops for briefings on the route ahead, water, food and photos. Innocent-sounding Postcard Corner is one of the most dramatic and deadly; a sharp right-hander with a sheer 650m drop off the no-guardrails edge.
The most recent victim was an Israeli backpacker who died in April this year after going over the edge in mysterious circumstances. Other tales told to cheer us up involve a young Briton who died in the arms of rescuers who had managed to abseil down to him; two brothers, one of whom bumped the other, sending him over; a guide who died taking pictures when he "took one step too far back".
At around 1500m, we've lived on the edge in every sense: skated close to the vertiginous brink many times, survived near-misses with large rocks on bad corners, ploughed through mud and scooted through water cascading from nearby waterfalls, but we've managed to stay upright and out of trouble.
Down lower, it's getting hot, and we strip off clothing layers, rolling towards Coroico on a red dirt surface through vegetation that's becoming increasingly tropical. Now, as coca and other crops come into view on a distant hillside, new hazards appear: dogs, chickens and children on the road.
Our ride has been an offbeat adventure, white-knuckle at times, taking us as promised from an area of snow-capped peaks all the way down into the Amazon basin, with its waterfalls, birds and butterflies, to the jungle town of Yolosa.
Over lunch we view the video of our death-defying descent, which somehow fails to capture the heart-in-mouth nature of some of the riding. But, damn it, we descended Death Road and we've got the bragging rights.
Getting there: LAN Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Santiago de Chile with onward connections to La Paz.
Death Road: Our party rode Death Road as part of a Bike the Andes tour with Wanaka-based South American specialists Latin Link Adventure.
Gravity Assisted packages start from about $145 a person and cover transport from La Paz, lunch and all equipment including a full-suspension mountain bike, gloves, helmet and free T-shirt.
Grant Dyson paid his own way through Bolivia.By Grant Dyson