Sorry Mum, I said no stupid stuff whilst away, but this looked like far too much fun.
The World’s Most Dangerous Road is a 64km road from La Paz to Coroico. It’s a small road cut into the side of the Cordilleras, dropping from 4800m to 1500m. A constantly winding road, at best it’s width is 5m, at its worst 3m, with up to 1000m sheer drop on one side and towering cliffs on the other. There is barely room for one vehicle, and it’s a two way road. There are no barriers, the only safety additions are a few signs making you aware of sharp corners, loose rocks or waterfalls falling onto the road.
A few years ago an investigation was carried out to find the road with the most fatalities each year. Only as far back as 2007 there were 150-200 deaths a year on this road and it won the title of The World’s Most Dangerous Road. These days most traffic now travels via a new road cut into an adjacent mountain, but the road is still open and locals say the old road is easier on the engine and slightly quicker and so it remains open. If you’re a fan of Top Gear you might remember the episode on this road
One of the most popular backpacker attractions in Bolivia is to ride down this road on a mountain bike. How could we say no?
There are about 10-15 different operators who are licensed to take groups of cyclists down the road, ranging from back-room operators with appalling safety records to expensive outfits with loads of extras. Since arriving in La Paz, we have learnt a backpacker died on the road recently; a fellow salt flat traveller was in hospital with 2 broken ribs thanks to the road; and a chap sitting next to us in the pub broke his arm the day before. About 20 cyclists have died attempting this ride so we decide as we have NEVER ridden a mountain bike off road we will lengthen the odds of injury and go with Gravity Assisted tours. They are very well recommended but more expensive. They also exclusively stop at a local animal refuge at the end of the road. We can’t say no to more monkeys.
At 7:30am a group of about 12 fellow backpackers meet at a small café in downtown La Paz, a few sign up for insurance and we sign our release forms. It all adds to the anticipation. It takes about an hour in a small minibus to reach the start of the ride – at 4800m it’s freezing and the air is thin but we were warned, and most of us are wearing 4-5 layers of clothing, apart from an Australian guy who is wearing shorts and flip-flops – and didn’t he love telling everybody – muppet.
We are given a short safety briefing on how to handle the bikes on the road – it’s bedrock with loose gravel and regular boulders (murder muffins we are told). The guides tell us a few stories of serious injury and deaths so we can avoid a similar fate but it’s getting obvious that those who are going to get into trouble are the very nervous or the very stupid (my money’s on the Aussie going off the edge – not looking as cool in his flip flops as when he started). John, our guide, has 150m of rope, so if we are going over the edge, pick a nice spot – there are no rescue helicopters in Bolivia.
And off we go. The first half hour is actually asphalt, and obviously meant to break us into our bikes, which I’m told are very expensive and have special bits on. Lost on me, the seat, like any other, is like a pane of glass up my backside. If a bike costs £2000 it should have one of those NASA memory mattress seats, why suffer?
Within about five minutes our first rider falls, a nasty bit of gravel I think, but she’s fine so we continue on to the start of the Death Road where we pay 25 bolivianos for the upkeep of the road. It’s as I expected: narrow, gravelly, with stunning panoramas of jungle on all sides. Myself and Leah are not the slowest on the road but we’re at the back – it’s a new experience riding on gravel and occasionally skips and bumps, raising the heart rate.
So, is it dangerous? Yes, of course it is. At times we are riding with only two metres between us and a 1000m sheer drop. But it’s also a whole lot of fun, and whilst other riders scream past us in a hurry to get down the mountain, we take our time and take in the views, it’s stunning. We stop every 15-30 minutes to take photos, get briefed on the upcoming section, told how to handle specific terrain types and also to point out taxis and minibuses that have gone over the edge.
Our favourite section was the narrowest, at 3 meteres wide, with water cascading onto the road from above. The drop was vertical, with no vegetation, and this is the spot Mr Clarkson chose for the Top Gear scene. Here is a little video of us instead…
Slowly, we descend from freezing altitude into sub-tropical heat. Luckily the weather is clear and there are not many cars or lorries on the road, which can be tricky as they make you pass on the outside (which at times would mean standing on the cliff edge).This is the only road in Bolivia where you drive on the left, as drivers need to see where their left front type is, when passing another vehicle, usually right up to the edge. Small villages start to pepper the road, and locals ‘Hola!’ us. At around 2pm we arrive at the animal refuge for a shower and lunch and some more monkeys.
An incredible day, and a must for anybody coming through La Paz. It’s not a difficult ride if you take it easy and enjoy the scenery rather then being terrified of it. We are staying at the destination Coroico for four days, it’s a weekend getaway for those from La Paz seeking warmth and lower altitudes.