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Published: December 7th 2012
After a day recovering from the night before and some time spent exploring the city, wandering through the countless markets, steep windy streets and taking in the sights and sounds it was time for some adrenalin. It was time to saddle up and ride death road.
The road from La Cumbre to Coroico in Bolivia is known as ‘The World’s Most dangerous Road’, the 64km narrow (just over 3.2meters wide) gravel road runs downhill along precipitous cliffs with up to 600m drops and few safety barriers. In March 2007 a new replacement road opened, this means the old road (the one we would be riding) is now used almost exclusively for cyclists, support vehicles and the odd tourist bus. Prior to this, the roads nickname was well deserved: an average of 26 vehicles per year disappeared over the edge.
Leaving La Paz early Friday morning we drove for an hour to La Cumbre, where we were given our equipment – thick jacket and trousers, headband, helmet, gloves and of course the bike! We’d chosen to cycle the route with Gravity Bolivia
and I was really glad we had, they’re not the cheapest, but this is one activity where you don’t
want to be skimping on the equipment! Once suited up our guide – Ryland – took us through the bikes, breaks, gears and what we could expect from the route.
La Cumbre sits at 4,700m up, the end point – Coroico – 1,700m. The next 64km would take us from the mountains to the jungle, pretty much all downhill, and all fast! At 8.30 in the morning it was pretty chilly at the top, as Ryland was taking us through the initial briefing the fog rolled in making it even colder – and if possible even more scary as you could no longer see the road we would be travelling down! Wearing all the layers we had it was still a case of numb fingers and toes, with his final rule ringing in our ears – 'don’t be fcukin’ stupid’- we were off, with the hope that as we travelled lower out of the cloud it would get warmer – we’d been told that sunscreen and shorts were a must after all!
The first section of the road is a paved, relatively new road, 22kms of downhill on tarmac with safety barriers, giving us a chance to get
used to the bikes, practice how to corner safely and even more importantly how to break safely! Ryland split the ride into sections, so every so often we’d meet at the side of the road and he’d brief us on the upcoming section, what to expect, a particularly sharp corner to look out for…. It made a lot of difference to my confidence to know that we were riding with someone that not only knew the road, but that took the time to share the detail with us.
Unfortunately the weather was not on our side, the fog turned into rain that quickly turned into freezing sleet. Whizzing down the road, being unable to see the bike in front of you, unable to feel your fingers on the breaks wasn’t the best way to start the day! Being on the new road meant we were sharing it with trucks and cars, most of which made no allowances for you or the weather, overtaking at speed, horns honking, often on blind corners…. It was quite a relief to reach the check point that signalled the start of the old ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, could it really be any
worse than what we’d just experienced?
As before we were to take the ride in sections, at the start of each one Ryland would talk us through what is to come, with a rocky gravel road ahead, no safety barriers and the sheer drops it was time to pay attention and in the words of guide ‘don’t be fcukin’ stupid!’.
The fog had lifted but the weather hadn’t improved, so whilst we could now see the sheer drops and sharp corners, it was still wet and bitterly cold. Having been on a mountain bike maybe twice in the last 10 years (thanks MoJo for the tuition before I came away!) I decided it would be bets to let the boys race ahead and follow up at the rear at a more sedate pace, and I’m very glad I did. The views were spectacular and at a comfortable speed I traversed all that the road had to throw at me without once feeling like I might be meeting my maker that day! Once you’re used to the bumps and the jolts of riding on the road, the fingers loosen on the breaks, you pick up
speed and really start to enjoy yourself. Its an amazing ride and one well worth doing!
Unfortunately the weather that had been bugging us all the way down had also been causing issues elsewhere. Gradually reports were coming in of landslides ahead, so whilst we could hopefully carry on, carrying our bikes if needed over the rocks that would be in our way, the support vehicles could not follow, "would we be happy to continue?" asks Ryland, knowing that if we do fall / come off our bikes / go over the edge, help would not be minutes away? Yes we decided we would be ok, we’d come this far, the promised tshirt at the end did not say ‘I’ve survived half of death road’ after all…..
The road continues downwards, the weather continued to be shocking, where we were expecting to be riding in shorts and tshirts grateful of the tiny waterfalls that cross the path as a welcome relief to the sun, we were riding in full kit, under torrential waterfalls that soaked you through.
Just after half way word came in that there was another massive landslide, but this time
on the new road. This news - if true - would cause us slightly more problems, with the new road and the old road blocked to traffic, if we continue to the valley floor we’d have no way of making it back to La Paz that evening, we were scheduled to leave La Paz early the following morning, once again it looked like our trip would be cut short.
Thankfully after half an hour standing around at the side of the road in the pouring rain, Ryland got the confirmation that we needed, the new road wasn’t totally blocked, traffic was getting through, we could continue.
The last half of the road was – despite the rain, landslides, flooded parts and waterfalls – the most fun. Where it was safe to we whizzed along at speeds that made my teeth judder, where we had to we pushed the bikes up and over the mud and rock of the landslides, whilst it was still raining the lower we headed the warner the air became and the more comfortable we became.
Once we reached Coroico and high fived to conquering ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’
in worse conditions than Ryland had seen before, we met up with the support vehicles, that had made it around via the new road – the reports of the seriousness of the landslide being thankfully over exaggerated – and headed to La Senda Verde Animal Refuge
. Here we had a cold beer, a hot shower and a pasta lunch, provided as part of the package from Gravity.
Because of the rain the monkeys were hiding but we still had a wander and a chat with some parrots and other rescued animals.
Later it was all back into the support buses for the 3 hour drive back to La Paz, as we navigated back up from the valley floor towards our start point earlier that day we were amazed to see that whilst we had set of in sleet, it had turned to snow whilst we had been away, the landscape completely changed to a blanket of white, there was a feeling of gladness that whilst we’d thought we’d experienced some pretty harsh weather today, at least we’d not been riding in snow!
Completing ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ (and I’ve got the tshirt to prove it!) was quite
possibly the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike and I urge anyone that visits La Paz to give Gravity Bolivia a call, you won’t be disappointed.
Also a word of caution, we met a few other outfits on the road that day and everything I saw made me glad we went with gravity, from substandard bikes, old looking kit to a complete lack of briefing, Gravity and Ryland were great and I don’t hesitate to recommend them, just don’t let the thought of saving a few quid send you elsewhere, your safety is too important!!
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