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Risky Business in Bolivia

It seems my reckless streak can’t be quelled easily.  Although I am not seriously racing downhill bikes anymore, I found another way to risk life and limb – riding down the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ in Bolivia.  

I was on an Intrepid tour which conveniently finished at La Paz, a hotbed of mountain biking goodness.  New Zealand owned company ‘Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking’ is based there so I signed up for two days of riding with my friends Jen and Brett.

The World’s Most Dangerous Road

Day one was the legendary ‘Death Road.’  We piled out of the Gravity bus into the cold, thin air of La Cumbre, squinting in the bright light.  We were at half the height of Mt Everest, 4,700m above sea level and had 65km of downhill ahead of us.  Our guides Derren and Rodrigo kitted us out with gear and sweetly tuned bikes.  Derren made doubly sure everyone would ride safely and smartly.  In between instructions, he told jokes to relax nervous riders, and added a scattering of scary stories to remind the cocky ones of the very real danger.  Hands in the air, we solemnly repeated after Derren that we would “NOT ride like @#k!n idiots!”

After a 24km blast down sealed road we regrouped at the start of the most dangerous part.   The road is a tiny ledge carved into a nearly vertical cliff.  At some points, it is just over three metres wide, with an 800m drop to the valley below... high enough to skydive off!  

There were 13 of us in the group but luckily I am not superstitious.  On average, 26 vehicles plummet over the side each year, claiming more than 100 lives.  Even this horrendous statistic sounds rosy compared with the dire situation in 1995.  At that time 200-300 people were dying on the road each year and the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed it the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ based on the ratio of deaths per mile.  Luckily in 2007 a new highway was built around the worst parts and now the vast majority of traffic takes the safe option.  

I tried not to look over the edge while riding...but I could sense the yawning chasm and it kept me sharply focused.  Down, down, down, around rocky corners, through misty cloud forest, under waterfalls, and across fords.  I was thankful we were visiting in May and avoiding Bolivia’s wet season with the added perils of tropical downpours, treacherous slips, and heavy fog.

We passed lots of white crosses and memorials including the spot of the worst road accident in Bolivian history.  In 1983 an overloaded bus careened over this edge killing more than 100 people.  The twisted wreckage of other hapless vehicles could be faintly seen in the canyon below.

In Bolivia there are no minimum safety standards and no consequences for companies involved in a tragic accident.  The result is a number of sub-standard operators attracting tourists with cheaper prices – but their bikes are just as flimsy as their safety standards.  An estimated 18 cyclists have died on this road, the latest only a month before our ride.  We are in good hands though.  Alistair’s company has guided thousands of people down the road without tragedy. 

On some wide, safe parts I tucked in behind Derren who knew the fun lines, roosting on the gravel and popping off rocky lips.  After four hours we had descended the height of Mt Cook and arrived alive, unscathed and jubilant at Yolosa.  We made it!  What a rush! 

We breathed easier in the lush warmth of the low altitude.  A cool beer, buffet lunch and mischievous monkeys were waiting for us at La Senda Verde Animal Refuge nestled in the vibrant, sub tropical jungle.  The monkeys tumbled around playfully, a tangled heap of tails and long limbs.  They draped themselves all over Brett and were hilarious with their antics.

The bus ride back up Death Road to La Paz was the scariest part for me!  I was now able to look over the edge but I was no longer in control.  I was a nervous passenger as the wheels rolled cringingly close to the edge.  I took some solace in the fact that Santiago has been driving this road for 35 years but was glad when we had negotiated the last blind corner and were finally rolling on the highway.

Secret Single Track

The next day, still amped and eager, we met at Gravity’s headquarters.  New Zealander, Alistair Matthew founded Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking in 1998 and it is the biggest and safest company with a fleet of 150 bikes, well qualified guides and mechanics and a smorgasbord of spectacular rides in the Andes.  We were signed up for ‘Secret Single Track’ and had all the key ingredients for a ripper of a day.  Cody was our own personal guide, we had a jeep with Santiago at the wheel, gleaming Kona Stinkys on top, a chilly-bin full of treats and a bluebird day.

First up was the Collana trail, a moonscape of channels, and mounds high above La Paz. Spectacular rocks towered over us baring their jagged teeth as we scooted along at their feet.  Rock gardens and steps wound down through small villages, donkeys plodded up the track and a local farmer smiled and cheered us on.  The terrain and scenery were incredible here and this was just a small slice of the riding.  A beaming Santiago was waiting for us at the bottom.  Cool water felt heavenly on my face as I rinsed off the morning’s dust, sweat and sunscreen.  We took refuge from the sun’s heat under a tree, stretched out our dusty limbs and recharged our bodies with what Jen and I agreed was the best picnic ever.

There was more to come and it sounded exciting...downhill runs from the ‘Devil’s Tooth!’  Santiago drove us to the top of Muela Del Diablo, the local downhill race track.  It was super fun, and had the works - steep bits, rocks, jumps and a high speed blast down the cobbled road to finish.  We met three locals who were practicing for a race that weekend and they gratefully clambered into the jeep for a ride to the top. Cody was enthusiastic and keen to make sure we got our fill of riding – even after he repaired my third puncture of the day!  After three runs, whooping and hollering, we were beginning to push our limits into the dodgy zone so we quit while we were ahead. 

Tired but exhilarated we celebrated with a beer at the bottom.  I was absolutely buzzing over the last two days, the primo riding and how well we had been looked after by the crew.  Back at the office we picked up our free ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ t-shirts, and a CD of footage from the rides.  Solid proof of our accomplishments...just in case there were any doubters back home!   

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