THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS ROAD
TEXT BY MARTIN LI
Martin Li is a freelance travel writer based in London. He writes mainly for Travel Watch, a California-based publisher, and Travel Intelligence, a UK-based publisher. His main writing expertise is travel destinations off the beaten track, in particular wilderness retreats and remote hideaways. He has a passion for the world's great mountain ranges (admiring them, not climbing them), in particular the Andes and Himalayas.
Reproduced with thanks from SOUTH AMERICAN EXPLORER Vol 69 fall/winter 2002
CUT TO THE CHASE: Show me the photo slideshow of the World's Most Dangerous Road!!!
It was an early morning in July. Alberto Olivera maneuvered his minibus down the treacherous mountain road from La Paz to Coroico. Rounding the notorious San Juan section, where the rough surface was wet from a nearby waterfall, fresh tire tracks veered towards the edge.
Moments later, Alberto's worst fear was confirmed. A lorry with a load of passengers had careened over the side. Far below in the steep wooded valley, amidst the mangled wreckage, 22 bodies lay scattered about. It was a miracle that seven survived.
ROAD OF DEATH
Starting high in the rarefied air of the Bolivian Andes, the steep and bumpy La Paz-to-Coroico road plunges down almost 3,600 meters on its spectacular 64-km path to the lush, sub-tropical Yungas and the sleepy town of Coroico. The narrow -- occasionally very narrow -- track hugs the walls of the sheer valley as it snakes its way beneath waterfalls and rocky overhangs. A fatal accident every fortnight is not uncommon on the Coroico road. The July disaster brought the death toll during the previous eight months to 55. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed the La Paz-to-Coroico route "the world's most dangerous road."
Five weeks after helping to pull bodies from the wrecked lorry, Alberto is once again on his way to Coroico. This time he is driving the support vehicle for a dozen mountain bikers drawn to the spectacular scenery and thrill that comes from biking Bolivia's "Road of Death."
On this crisp early dawn our group gathers in central La Paz to meet our guides, Pancho and Tony, who will take us up to La Cumbre. At a chilly 4,700 meters, La Cumbre, surrounded by unclimbed, glaciated peaks, is desolate and windswept. Along the way we encounter straggly herds of llamas and the occasional wild dog. The journey takes just over an hour. As we climb steadily towards the barren summit, the landscape turns harsh and rugged, our mouths turn dry, and our chatter becomes increasingly nervous.
At La Cumbre, near a stark statue of Christ, Pancho distributes the sturdy mountain bikes, gloves and helmets. He then checks the saddles, tire pressure and repeats the basic instructions one last time. We ride in circles for a while to get used to the bikes, then... we're off.
Though our bikes have 24 gears, Pancho has told us to ignore them. "Get into high gear and leave it there," he says and, almost immediately, we can appreciate the wisdom of this advice. Pulled by gravity, we are flying downhill over the beautifully smooth tarmac. Even riders like myself, who haven't ridden in years, are reaching tear-streaming speeds of almost 80km/hr with virtually no effort at all.
TEAR-STREAMING SPEEDS OF 80 KM/HR
Pancho is in front, Tony behind, and Alberto follows in the minibus. At first, we encounter almost no traffic and, for several glorious kilometers, we race along at what we are sure is top speed. We swoop down on a lorry and after that a bus, overtaking both as if they were not moving at all. After 15km of effortless downhill gliding, slowing only occasionally to admire and photograph the serene magnificence of the Andean peaks, we shoot through a tunnel and emerge at our breakfast stop, the ramshackle Unduavi checkpoint.
We have just dropped nearly 1,600 meters in altitude. Windblown and exhilarated, we crowd around one of the many small food kiosks. Soon we are tucking into a meal of fired chicken and chorizo sandwiches with mugs of tea and coffee. As the sun peaks over the high mountains, we shed some of our many layers of clothing. Then it's back on the road. Thoughts about how to go even faster downhill are disrupted by two uphill stretches. Pancho admits that although fully acclimatized and despite 70 trips, he still struggles on the climbs. "At over 3,000 meters, there just isn't enough oxygen," he explains.
The two uphill sections behind us, we hurtle downhill once more. The Andes soar majestically all around us and turkey vultures circle high overhead.
At just over 20km, the pavement ends. Even knowing this, some of us still can't slow down in time and skid on the gravel track. The road here is flat. Without the wind whistling through our helmets, we are suddenly conscious of the isolation and tranquility. Enveloped in this strange calm, we arrive at a ridge. Ahead lies a yawning valley. This is the start of "the world's most dangerous road."
Dismounting, we gawk at the magnificent vista. The landscape has mellowed from bleak high Andes to dense lush cloud forest. The road ahead is stony, unsurfaced, double-track hewn out of the side of the rocky mountain, hundreds of meters above the valley floor. From our vantage point we can follow the thin, brown strip of road for tens of kilometers as it meanders off into the haze. In the distance we can make out massive landslides.
MANY VISIBLE REMINDERS OF DEATH
As we marvel at the scenery, Pancho imparts some final words of advice on how to survive. We must remember that on this section of the road normal Bolivian rules of passing don't apply. Normally, vehicles pass on the left. Not here. On this section, the vehicle with the driver's seat closest to the edge passes on the left. The reason: the driver on the left can best see how close he is to the afterlife, that is, how close his tires are to the edge. Pancho tells us to ride our bikes on the left-hand tire track. This, he claims, will put us a good meter from the edge. "Don't go closer to the edge unless something comes the other way," he counsels in all seriousness.
"No way," I think to myself. "I'm riding on the right and if anything comes the other way, I'll squeeze up against the rock face." My reasoning seems sane enough: I can scrape myself off the rock wall, but if anything goes wrong on the left side... it's curtains.
PanchoÂ´s final advice echoes in our ears as we point our bikes downhill: "Give way to anything larger than you, which basically means everything."
It's a steep downhill run again. Even squeezing the brakes most of the time, I go too fast for comfort, skidding frequently on the loose gravel. For the first few kilometers through this hazardous section, I focus completely on the road, avoiding the scenic distractions of the dense forest on either side.
Yet, it is impossible to ignore the many visible reminders of death as we speed by the many crosses, shrines, memorials and bouquets of flowers that pop up at chillingly frequent intervals. A man who lost his family in a crash years ago maintains a vigil, directing traffic with stop and go signals where the accident occurred. He lives off donations from travelers. For some karmic insurance, we drop coins in his palm as we pass.
One of the eeriest features of this road is that you can only hear vehicle horns when they are far off. The dense foliage and blind corners smother the sound of nearby vehicles. But turn a corner and, suddenly, you're nose-to-nose with the massive grill of a lorry or bus that has materialized out of nowhere. Even the traffic you hear -- the shrill horns and groaning engines -- assume almost supernatural qualities. Where are they coming from? How far away? It's difficult to tell.
MIGHT NUDGE ME OVER THE SIDE
When it's narrow, the road is barely wide enough for one vehicle to pass, let alone two. Fortunately, there is not much traffic in either direction, but when there is, it's terrifying. Following PanchoÂ´s advice, I go to the outer edge, aware that the slightest misjudgment by the driver might nudge me over the side.
We pull over for lunch under the welcome shade of some trees. We have now descended over 2,500 vertical meters and the afternoon sun is fierce. When we started down the mountain, we were wearing jackets and fleeces. Now we're in shorts and t-shirts -- and we're still warm. After lunch we pass joyously under a series of high waterfalls. The water is cool and refreshing. Of course, it's these same waterfalls that wash away parts of the road and make it slippery, especially for the heavier vehicles.
THE WRECKAGE OF THE LORRY LIES SCATTERED ABOUT.
We stop at the site of the recent accident. With morbid fascination, we peer cautiously over the edge. Below, the wreckage of the lorry lies scattered about. Though there are higher drops on this route, it is still amazing that anybody could survive.
Pancho claims fatal cycling accidents on the Coroico road are rare. Out-of-control cyclists have escaped with their lives by leaping off their bikes before going over the side. And one cyclist, who actually rode over the edge, miraculously survived with just broken rims. And, of course, there were those who took one look at the road and decided not to bike at all. They returned to La Paz in the minibus with Alberto. So overall the odds are in our favor. We feel somewhat comforted. Since our trip, however, a guide working with another biking company crashed into an oncoming vehicle and a woman died from falling over the edge (again with another company -Ed).
WE HAVE SURVIVED!
The road in this part if bone dry now. Every time a vehicle goes by, the dust billows up. Across the valley, paralleling our route, we can see the unfinished new road to Coroico. When completed, this road promises to be safer than the one we're on. But that's in the future. An expensive tunnel section has yet to be built and, for some time, farmers will continue to risk their liver, to bring their produce to the markets in La Paz.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen, the distant hillside town of Coroico comes into view. At the last waterfall on the route, we wash off the dust caked onto our faces. Back on our bikes, we head down the final stretch. We tear through a stream, delighting in a final bust of speed. We skid through some switchbacks and freewheel into the shantytown of Yolosa. From here, the road continues its extraordinary journey to the steamy rainforests of the Amazon. But it's the end for us. Alberto drives us the short distance up to Coroico. We have survived!
In a single day, we crossed high wind-swept passes and snow-covered plains and plunged down through dense cloud forest. Scarcely peddling at all, we dropped 3,600 thrilling meters, defying death all the way to reach this bar in the tropics where we sit, sipping margaritas.
Such an adrenaline-rush comes at a price. We ache. It's not saddles sores, nor our arms and legs. It's our hands that hurt from so much braking during the descent. Yet, bravely, despite the pain, we manage to clutch our margarita glasses and raise them in a toast to success.
Tour operators: Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking is frequently recommended by members for its downhill mountain bike rides in Bolivia. The Coroico ride costs US$50, including return transportation, guides, bike hire, t-shirt and snacks. They can be contacted at 1490 Ave 16 de Julio, Edificio Avenida, La Paz, Tel 591-2-2-313849, fax 591-2-2-310023 and by email at email@example.com
The Hotel Esmeralda in Coroico is a great place to stop off at the end. Get a free postcard of the ride when you sign up in the office. Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking works with America Tours (Office #9), but has its own office right across the hall (office #10). The phone for America Tours is 591-2-2-374204