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Gravity assisted ride on the Bolivian wild side

Written by Alistair Johnston Thursday, 12 January 2006

Bolivia is a curious place. Land of the worlds’ highest capital city and a place where women are resplendent in their customary bowler hats; a desperately poor place where civil unrest bubbles ever closer to the surface.

Yet it is a place where magic still resides in the people. Rising early, we gather and board the bus that will carry us out of the still-slumbering La Paz high into the Bolivian altoplano at La Cumbre (15,800 ft). Billed as the World’s Most Dangerous Road, we are off on a helter-skelter ride dropping 12,000 vertical feet in the next six hours.

It’s cold and windy at La Cumbre, and the urge to warm up the muscles is tempered by the effects of altitude on even the slightest exertion. Gravity-assisted mountain biking seems a perfect foil for the challenges of thin air.

The pre-ride briefing contains the ominous caution; “your front brake is your best friend and worst enemy.” Wise counsel, we learn, as misuse causes the largest source of accidents.

Before giving ourselves to gravity, the ceremony of Puncha Mama must be performed. 95Âş alcohol is sipped and sprinkled on the ground in reverence of Mother Earth and to keep the travellers safe. To this day, truckers anoint the ground in this way before setting off with their cargo down El Camino del Muerte.

The road has a chequered history and serves as conduit for goods and people between La Paz and the jungles of Brazil far below. It continues to prey upon trucks, cars and buses with up to 25 a year falling over the precipice into the jungle. Inconceivable catastrophes by Canadian standards, but the price paid to get goods and produce moved quickly between market and consumer here.

Given the hazards, all downward traffic stays to the left to afford these drivers the best view of their closeness to the chasm.
In the cool, anaemic morning air we set off on the first 24-km section, a tarmac hustle to the trail head 2,000 ft. below. This exhilarating scoot has you topping 60 km/h as you crouch low across your bike and follow the ribbon of black amid the beautiful, stark landscape. In places, you find yourself passing cars and trucks unsure whether it is your speed or the antiquity of the vehicles that has changed this paradigm. Regardless, the intermittent rises on the run to the military post at Unduavi serve only to remind you that, at 14,000 ft., even the slightest exertion induces an incendiary feeling in the lungs.

The checkpoint guards move lazily, accustomed to these crazy groups of cyclists headed to the start of World's Most Dangerous Road a few kilometres beyond.

Where the tarmac ends, rugged majesty begins. Still early and the mist, rising from deep in the valley below has yet to burn off and swirls eerily about us.

The view of our road clinging to the distant mountainside confuses physics and thus our minds. From afar it seems inconceivable that it can carry traffic of any sort. The fork to the new road is little travelled except for construction personnel. Years overdue, speculation abounds as to whether this new road will ever be finished.

As we rest and catch what little breath exists, bikes are checked and last-minute instructions shared by the guides; a reminder about our brakes and a caution to never get between your bike and the edge when trucks pass you by.

We were to learn why later in the ride.

We are off. Trepidation rules the early stages as we pick our way down the rutted track, our attention swinging wildly between the view, the precipitous drop and the need to get accustomed to the bike.

In time, only the view and the track hold the attention as the drop fades from being a preoccupation to being a point of mere awareness. Down and down we go, at a steady pace, and periodically we stop to take in the spectacle of trucks negotiating position on the trail far below us. The skill and nerve demonstrated by the drivers is legendary, all be it cocoa leaf-assisted. Inching by each other as two prize fighters weighing the other up and without further ado, they move on.

Tragedy has visited past cycling spectators to this automotive ballet. The death of a young biker a short time ago sharpens awareness. She got between her bike and the edge and found no escape as one of them silently and unwittingly pushed her over the precipice in its search for a few inches of leeway.

Despite the distraction of the spectacular beauty, the sight and scent of tragedy permeates this track. At the most dangerous corners, watchmen act as human traffic lights, shepherding traffic around the bends with red and green flags.

One such sentinel, having lost his entire family to the road several years before, has since that day been devoted to this task. Travellers stop and share food and drinks with him. Paltry thanks for his heavy burden.

Added to the legacy of tragic mishaps is the topography’s role as a point of execution. At a spot marked for the Martyrs of the Democracy, leaders of a movement in opposition to the military junta years ago had their hands bound and were spirited off the cliff. Voices for reason which the military wished not to have heard. Echoes of the old but still recent South America.

Solemn thoughts to ponder as we take an enforced rest and a brake check.

As we plunge from the alto plan (High Plains) toward the jungle, we ride through the San Juan waterfalls that cascade across the road. This serves to punctuate the cold of the highlands as the temperature starts to rise noticeably and our track starts to morph into an avenue of choking dust. Face masks are a prerequisite as the once wet ground gives way to a surface akin to dry soup mix. It is easy to become complacent as our preoccupation with The Drop lessens as we struggle to find our path in the choking dust storm each passing truck creates.

The bikes and our abilities are tested as we bump and grind over rocks and ruts, struggling to stay upright and avoid falling prey to the reality that most accidents occur toward the end of the rides when bodies are worn and tired.

While the following day produced some broken bones and various cuts and bruises, no rider is separated from his bike on this day. The riding is easier now and, having forded one final river, we pass the road to Rurrenabaque and the Bolivian jungle, as our destination is within sight.

Yolosa is a rag tag collection of huts on a dusty main street. Children sun themselves on boulders in the river and emaciated chickens roam the streets. It has an indefinable charm to it which the western experience can hardly describe.

After a meal and a shower in the hashish-scented town of Coroico, we are back on the bus for the long trip back to La Paz – which is as intriguing as the ride down.

A day on El Camino del Muerte is a day well-spent. With due care and attention, it is safe enough with the greatest danger being blown away by the views or smothered by the hospitality of the wonderful Bolivian people.

Alistair Johnston is a world traveller who lives in British Columbia. Read more of his travels at travel-wise.com and travelwise-magazine.com

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 17 January 2006 )

The original of this article can be found here.

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