July 14, 2006
Going down "The World's Most Dangerous Road" on a bicycle is a popular tourist attraction in La Paz, but most people go with an expensive tour company that provide guides and lots of safety. However, Craig, Louise, and I decided that we could do the trip on our own for less money and not have to worry about being told to slow down by an annoying guide. It was a scary proposition at first: I had rented bikes four times in South America and there were major problems each time. However, I felt a lot better when we picked up our bikes from Coroico this morning and gave them a test run. They were the best mountain bikes I had ever seen with wide tires, strong suspensions, and disc brakes. They were each easily worth several thousand dollars.
After riding around town a little bit to get a feel for them, we loaded the bikes onto a local bus bound for La Paz. We had trekked down to Coroico, so this was my first experience on "The Road." I could immediately see why it was so dangerous. At only one lane wide and with a descent of nearly 4000 meters down the side of a mountain, the gravel road was an absolute nightmare. The only consolation was that the laws on this road had been modified such that traffic going uphill had the right-of-way and could hug the wall on the left.
At one point, we stopped behind a long line of traffic. Speculation was that we had to wait for a large truck to pass us on the way down the narrow road. When I got out and walked to the front of the long line of vehicles, I saw the horrible truth. Splattered on the side of the cliff were hundreds of mandarins and at the bottom were the remnants of a truck that went over the side last night. The real reason we were waiting was for the authorities to pull up the parts of the truck that could be salvaged. The bodies of the ten who died had already been removed on a rudimentary stretcher that was still sitting on top of the cliff. The sight was a dose of reality of just how dangerous the road really was. I thought about not continuing, but I convinced myself that it wouldn't be nearly as dangerous going down the road on a bicycle. After all, a truck could barely fit on the track, but a bicycle had a lot more breathing room. So the logic goes...
About three-quarters of the way to the top, we reached a much safer paved area. We had to go downhill for awhile, so I learned that there would be a bit of actual exercise involved in the ride. We had to stop for two drug checkpoints on this section of road. About three hours after leaving Coroico, we reached La Cumbre, where we had begun the Choro Trail trek three days ago. It was freezing cold at the 4700 meter pass, so we quickly unloaded the bikes, strapped on our helmets, and took off.
The trip down the paved road was an absolute blast. All of us bombed down the hill without ever using our brakes. I managed to pass two buses and several of the tourists who were riding with one of the tour companies in their neat uniforms and single-file lines. Before I knew it, I was being waved through the first checkpoint.
Next was the uphill section. It was a lot of work on a mountain bike, but I managed to get to the top without too much trouble. Unfortunately, I lost track of Craig, who flew ahead of me, and Louise, who was somewhere behind me. I started flying down the paved road again thinking I'd catch up with Craig later.
When I got to the end of the paved road, there appeared to be some chaos in the street. There was a gate covering the paved road, which continued up a small hill to the left, and the gravel road branched off to the right. A policeman with a bloody nose was manning the gate and lots of people were running around outside their cars and shouting. I saw a few other bicyclers go to the right with a guide, so I figured I should follow them.
I passed the tour group right away and started flying down the road. I tried to stay to the right as much as possible, but had to move to the cliff side on the left when ever a car came uphill. Every now and then, there was a small space on the left where I could safely wait for a semi moving uphill to pass me on my right. I used these spaces to my advantage and overtook the trucks going downhill when they were stopped.
The rest of the ride down was fun, but very dusty. Every time a car passed me going in either direction, a huge cloud of dust was thrown in the air and I was temporarily blinded. While waiting for a dust cloud to clear, Louise caught up with me. She was better prepared than I with sunglasses over her eyes and a bandanna over her mouth. She did have a little drama of her own, though: While waiting for a truck going uphill to pass her, the locals decided it would be funny to throw rotten oranges at her. Her shirt took on a citrusy smell for the rest of the trip.
I went ahead of Louise again and raced the rest of the way to the bottom. The whole trip took one and a half hours, but it felt like less than half that. It was freezing cold at the top, but nice and hot at the bottom. I rode around the little village, but couldn't find any sign of Craig. I didn't think there was any way I could've passed him, so I decided to wait for Louise. Nearly half an hour went by and she didn't show up, either. The best theory I could come up with was that Craig decided to ride the 600 meters uphill to Coroico and Louise got a flat tire.
Suddenly, Craig and Louise both showed up together! Craig had an interesting story to tell. He got to the beginning of the dirt road a few minutes ahead of me, and there was a riot going on. The gate leading to the paved road was up, and some guy punched the policeman who was manning it in the nose. This caused him to lose control of the gate and it started coming down. Craig wanted to get out of there, so he went under the gate and almost got hit by it. A car wasn't so lucky as it got smashed. In the mass confusion, Craig went the wrong way and didn't find out until 7 KM later when he was told he had to turn back. So he had to ride an extra 14 KM, which explains why he fell behind me. He eventually caught up with Louise and they rode the rest of the way down together.
We all shared our stories, loaded our bikes onto a truck, and rode the rest of the way to Coroico. All of us looked pretty pathetic, but it was a great time. We got lunch and bragged about how fast we were going. This was Louise's last day before heading back home to the real world, so after turning our bikes back in, we got in another bus and made the four-hour journey back to La Paz together. It was a great way to end one's stay in the wild country of Bolivia.
The photo album for this entry is here.