Biking the world’s most dangerous road

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.

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?

The start of the death road, 5000m and very very cold

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.

Start of the descent

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.

Luckily the fog cleared quickly

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.

The road gets narrower just around the corner

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.

A corner with a nice view

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.

Overtaking fun

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.

 

 

La Paz – attack of the Brazil nuts

After Isla del Sol, it’s back to La Paz for a few days. We had originally planned on a quick trip to Sorata, but we feel we’ve been running around for a while now and decide to enjoy La Paz for a bit longer instead. This time, we’re at the Hostal Provenzal, in a prime location just above Oliver’s Travels. Perfect.

Although we’ve got nothing planned for the next couple of days, we’ve got plenty to keep us occupied – blogs to write, emails to send, a bike ride to book, pharmaceuticals to buy, bank visits to be made, accommodation to be reserved…it almost feels like we’re back in the real world for a moment!

The four corners - La Paz

That evening, we decide to treat ourselves to a nice meal at the steak restaurant round the corner. We opt for the set menu for two – nachos, a meat platter of chicken, llama, chorizo, steak, ribs, blood sausage and hamburger, chips, salad, dessert, coffee, a bottle of wine and a shot of tequila each, all for £25. Which is expensive by Bolivian standards but still great value for all that food!! Well the meal was absolutely delicious.  The ribs in particular were great. Of course, the steak was nothing compared to what we have tasted in Argentina but there was certainly nothing to complain about.

Then dessert came. Chocolate ice cream. Yum.

I had eaten little more than half a teaspoon before Rich pointed out that it looked like it had nuts in and we had better check whether they were Brazils (I’m allergic). By the time the waiter came back from the kitchen, I already knew his answer. My throat had that familiar itch to it and my lips were tingling. Oh dear.

When you’re only allergic to Brazil nuts, it’s a pretty easy allergy to deal with in the UK. Peanuts, hazlenuts, almonds – these nuts are common in British food. Brazil nuts are not. In South America, the story is very different. You see women on street corners selling nothing but Brazil nuts and they seem to sneak it into all kinds of food when you are not looking. This was actually my second Brazil nut incident since being in South America, although the first time I narrowly avoided actually eating the nut.

For the next hour, I was in agony as the Brazil nut worked its way through my system. I can only describe it as like the worst indigestion you can possibly imagine, accompanied by being very hot and then feeling sick. I’ve not had an attack for years, but it’s the worst that I remember. We spent the next day scouring pharmacies for one of those epipen things, but all we were offered was vials of pure adrenalin. Hmmm, not sure about that one, I think I’ll just check my food more carefully.

Random street scene

Anyway, after all the drama, the rest of our stay passed without incident, and that Saturday, Judgement Day according to some nut in America, we set off to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road.

Dog of the week

La Paz – part I

As we’re doing a loop round Bolivia, rather than continuing on to Peru or Chile, we’ll be passing through La Paz more than once. As well as being the starting point for the World’s Most Dangerous Road bike ride (more on that later), it’s also the main transport hub between the surrounding tourist spots, as well as the best route back to Santa Cruz (paved roads all the way I’m assured!) for our flight to Buenos Aires.

Our first stop in the city is fresh off our Salt Flats trip. After an overnight train from Uyuni to Oruro (from what I hear, much preferable to the incredibly bumpy bus ride) followed by a three hour bus to La Paz, we’re exhausted to say the least. We’re staying at Arthie’s Guesthouse, a nice enough place and quiet, which at this point in time is exactly what we’re after. Needless to say, it’s a lazy day all round, catching up on some much needed sleep somewhere slightly warmer than the Arctic Circle for a change.

The view over La Paz

We’re a 10 minute walk from the main tourist centre. If you trust what the books tell you, then La Paz is a dangerous place, with people trying to scam and rob you left, right and centre. I wouldn’t believe the hype. This might be true of some of the suburbs, but if you stick to the central areas then you shouldn’t have any trouble and we felt safe as houses. Sure, this is no time for complacency and it always pays to be vigilant but I certainly never felt uneasy.

Of course, there’s your fair share of traveller-oriented gaffs – the usual gringo joints, including a rather brilliant English pub called Oliver’s Travels if you’re craving some home comforts, like PG tips (available in pints!) or fish and chips. But that’s not to say you can’t also find authentic Bolivian cooking and cheap eats – there are plenty of set menu joints where you can get a three course meal for 30 bolivianos (£3) or less. And if you’re looking for some souvenirs then this is the place for you – there are literally streets full of shops and stalls selling all kinds of alpaca goodies – hats, jumpers, gloves, ponchos, slippers… the witches market is also worth checking out, although I’m not so sure you’ll want to be going home with a dead llama foetus!!

An interesting interpretation of our man Che

There are a few half decent museums in La Paz (including the cute, if slightly kitsch, Coca Museum), but more than that, there’s just a great atmosphere and it’s a lovely city to explore. Just be mindful that it’s a pretty hilly place, and at nearly 4000m it can be pretty tough on the old lungs. This makes the 10 minute walk feel more like 20, so we decide that next time round we’ll be staying bang slap in the middle of the action. But for now, it’s off to Copacabana for a bit of sun and sea. Well, lake, at least.