Three miles above sea level in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia feels like the top of the world. But it's hard to savor the surroundings when your lungs are gasping for air and the morning cold is rattling your bones.
"Some of you may not have seen one of these for a while. This is called a bicycle," says New Zealander Alistair Matthew in his deeply accented, deeply-ironic voice. "We're gonna run through some basic techniques."
Fourteen intrepid adventurers listen intently as Matthew offers safety tips and riding instructions. The group has been up since before sunrise for the bus ride from Bolivia's capital, La Paz, to La Cumbre, a mountain pass almost 16,000 feet above sea level. Most are in their 20s and 30s, and from the United States. Canada, Europe, Australia and are all pumped for what they hope will be the ride of a lifetime down the World's Most Dangerous Road. (CLICK HERE to watch Jeffrey Kofman's report).
Matthew has been guiding adrenaline addicts -- more than 30,000 of them -- on mountain bikes down this road for the last 10 years. Last year his company, the ironically named Gravity-Assisted Mountain Biking, had 6,000 customers. That road is almost certainly Bolivia's fastest-growing tourist attraction. We wanted to find out why, so we tagged along for a day's ride.
We wanted to know why the road has become so popular.
"It's called bragging rights," says Matthew with a sly smile as he explains the road's popularity. "It's all about being able to go back to work, putting our map on the water cooler and going 'There I was, mountain biking down the World's Most Dangerous Road,' as opposed to your normal travel story which is, 'I went to this museum,' and then everyone's eyes roll to the back of their heads and you hear snoring sounds coming from the rest of the office."
Jeff Klassen, 24, from Regina, Canada, knows exactly what Matthew is talking about. Klassen arrived in Bolivia from Nepal, where he climbed to the base of Mount Everest. He's doing this for an encore.
"When I first knew we were coming to South America," he says, "the first things we had to check off were the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, and when we knew we were coming to Bolivia, it had to be death road."
That's a literal translation of the Spanish: "El Camino de la Muerte." A seriously menacing name for what we would soon discover is a seriously scary road.
It is little more than a narrow ledge carved into the mountainside. A two-way road often no wider than a single car, a rocky ribbon of blind corners and hairpin turns. It has been the only route from the farmlands of the Yungas Valley up to the capital, La Paz. And there has been a staggering death toll: in one year 300 people died in cars, buses and trucks that plunged to over the sheer cliff side.
Which explains why in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank labeled this route "the World's Most Dangerous Road." The label stuck. And for thrill seekers it has become a big part of the attraction.
"These brakes are really, really good, so you want to apply them calmly and gently while singing a happy tune, ok?" Matthew tells me as he introduces me to the mountain bike I will be riding for the day. "On every single corner you're changing which foot is where," he tells me as he lifts his left foot and leans to the left. "It helps you get round the corners. If you don't go around the corner you go off the cliff."
The irony cuts the tension.