A 28-kilometre track that clings to the cliffs of the Bolivian Andes holds an irresistible allure for thrill-seeking cyclists
-- Sometimes you have to let the numbers speak for themselves, and when it comes to one of the planet's most harrowing mountain-bike rides, to spin insightful anecdotes would only obscure its majesty.
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The specs: a descent from 4,700 to 1,100 metres and a 31/2-kilometre vertical loss in just over four hours through ecosystems ranging from glaciers to cloud forests to the high Amazon.
As far as adventure-travel superlatives go, few exude the intrigue of Bolivia's "world's most dangerous road." You can hike along the Great Wall of China or climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. But for truly unnecessary risk that could only be legal in a country that is both the third poorest and one of the most isolated in the hemisphere, you must climb onto a mountain bike and descend 3,600 metres from above the tree line into the Amazon.
The world's most dangerous road is not some national tourism campaign concept targeting suicidal masochists. This thread of dirt road that clings to the cliffs of the Andean mountain range as it weaves downhill from the summits northeast of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, into the verdant, choking tropical jungles of the northern Yungas region can trace its notorious nickname to the Inter-American Development Bank. The bank's yardstick? Deaths per mile.
Known officially as the Unduavi-Yolosa Highway, its 28 kilometres have claimed thousands of lives over the past 60 years. In the nineties, at least one vehicle was going over the edge every week or two (depending on whom you asked). Since most Bolivian drivers stuff their vehicles to three times their capacity for optimal fares, between 10 and 40 might die in each plunge. Thousand-metre drops don't give back many survivors.
Bolivians take the route because it is the only way for farmers of the fertile Yungas valley to transport their fruit, vegetables, coffee and cocoa leaves to the buyers in La Paz. In a country where 70 per cent of the eight million inhabitants live in poverty -- earning less than $3 a day -- the threat of a landslide cannot get in the way of trying to make a buck.
Despite -- or, let's face it, because of -- the body count, the road is being packaged by entrepreneurial Bolivians and expats as an adrenaline must for backpackers plodding along the southern leg of South America's Gringo Trail. At the road's nascence, where the paved highway stops and the sphincter-puckering begins, Bolivian drivers pausing to chew coca and pray to Andean deities for safe passage are increasingly being joined by tourists with rented Trek and Kona hardtail mountain bikes.
Getting to this point is the easy part. After meeting in one of a dozen offices belonging to various outfitters in downtown La Paz and dropping between $55 and $70 to tempt death (free T-shirt included!), groups pile into a Toyota HiAce van and leave the capital behind. Ascending through the shantytowns of crumbling adobe homes that explode in the hills surrounding La Paz, the van and the mountain bikes on its roof rack get stares from the normally indifferent indigenous residents. Soon the city has disappeared, and eager adventurers are saddling up at La Cumbre. At 4,700 metres above sea level, this is the ride's highest point.
This wide, paved highway with stunning snowcaps and few vehicles is a delicious prelude to the muddy narrows of the death-road entrÃ©e. If you resist the brakes (and all logic), you can hit 70 klicks easily. But if the skies open with high-altitude rain, going even half that speed will have your face feeling like a windshield with nerve endings.
Gravity seems to peter out about 30 kilometres later, at a military checkpoint where fresh-faced military grunts scan Russian trucks, shiny SUVs and transport buses for cocaine or the raw paste from which it's made.
A little past the checkpoint, the pavement ends. North American, Aussie or Kiwi guides take stock of their groups and, for the umpteenth time, outline the road's precariousness, while throwing in a bit of history and speculation about its future.
Built by prisoners of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay from 1932 to 1935, the road and its days of carnage may be numbered. The Bolivian government began constructing a safer, paved, two-lane alternative in 1995 but the lack of financing for an unforeseen tunnel has postponed the project indefinitely. Once the new highway is eventually completed, however, the world's most dangerous road will be little more than a bike trail, and the dreaded trip from La Paz to Coroico will take just a couple of hours. With nervous whoops, the ride begins, sometimes in front of lunching Bolivian bus passengers unable to fathom how someone could drop the equivalent of a month's wage to risk their life on the road they have no choice but to travel.
Suddenly, the road turns nasty. Wide tracks narrow into three-metre-wide hairpin turns. But, as far as local traffic is concerned, this is still considered a two-way road.
In parts the sun rarely shines, blocked by overhanging cliffs and the waterfalls that run off them. The omnipresent drizzle turns puddles into rivers. The only "guardrails" are crosses placed by grieving relatives. And you never know quite the amount of hang time you'll have if you go over the edge, because the fog hovers just above the canopy below, obscuring the valley floor.
Slowly, the temperature begins to rise and ears pop with the loss of altitude. The half-way point is marked by a large cross donated by the Israeli government to commemorate the site where an Israeli girl, fooled by one of the road's 200-plus turns, plunged to her death in August, 2001. Remarkably, she's the only mountain-bike casualty to date. It's an awful place for lunch, but two or three groups a day stop here anyway.
From here, the pine forests give way to jungle vegetation and pained wrists and shoulders give way to a manageable numbness that remains for hours after the ride. The road flattens out, but that means the oncoming traffic speeds up, so the danger of going over is replaced by the threat of getting run over.
The ride ends in the humid hamlet of Yolosa, where local kids ask the filthy visitors for a spin on their bikes. Most comply, elated and gracious and just now realizing that they're trembling.
Tom Gierasimczuk is a Toronto-based journalist who has guided trips in South America for the past six years
If you go
LanChile Airlines flies to La Paz (generally via Miami) from a number of Canadian cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg. Other airlines with service to Bolivia include Aerolinea Argentinas and American Airlines. For more information, visit http://www.lanchile.com, http://www.aerolineas.com.ar or http://www.aa.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Bolivia is one of the most budget-friendly countries in Latin America. Basic, clean and comfortable La Paz hostels can be had for around $20 a night. A number of Web sites offer information and online booking, including Worldwide Hostels Guide (http://www.hostelz.com) and Bolivia Hostels & Hotels: Web: (bolivishostels.8m.com).
There are various agencies around La Paz hawking rides down the World's Most Dangerous Road, but beware: many used dodgy, Chinese-made bikes. Spend the full $60 and go with a reputable company. You might start with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (http://www.gravitybolivia.com)