When dealing with South American tour Agencies, it is near impossible to separate misleading myth from verifiable fact. With most setting out to entice tourists and their Guinness book of record checklists, with more often then not, bogus and euphemistic claims. Needless to say in each country I visited I was to receive contradictory claims to possessing the world’s highest, longest, deepest, tallest, shortest, coldest, hottest, oldest, most spectacular- natural wonder.
Over my travels I had even encountered toilets whose signage set out to proclaim them the worst in the world-no doubt a desperate and not entirely unsuccessful bid to dupe the more adventurous paying gringos to use them.
And so after allegedly having crossed the highest motor able pass (Ladakha in India) in the world, stood at the base of the worlds highest mountain (Everest in Nepal) and crossed the worlds driest desert (San Pedro de Attacama in Chile) I decided, It would be foolish to turn down the opportunity to brave (and hopefully survive) a bike ride along the worlds most dangerous road.
At just under 65 kilometers of the road of death, which begins half an hour outside the Bolivian Capital of La Paz ,offers the Adrenaline bent and potentially suicidal tourist a hair raising day’s excursion of all terrain mountain biking terror. During my shopping around La Paz for a reputable agency, I happened to over hear a few despondent Auzzies moaning that their tour didn’t include the trips complimentary and culminating ‘I survived the Worlds most Dangerous Road’ T-shirt- this is of course before they had even considered enquiring about the efficiency of their rented bicycle breaks, a crucial factor, not be overlooked if one wishes to live long enough to ever sport the t-shirt.
There are a multitude of biking agencies situated around La Pazmfrom which one can book their tour through, each claiming to have a higher safety record (and lower death rate) then the last. The various guide books I had paged through prior to my excursion all warned against booking through any fly by night agencies, whose discounted prices would more then likely include- discounted break pads. Being a lowly backpacker on a boot string budget, my amigo George (a fellow South African I has met along the way) and I were rather worryingly forced into accepting a thirty eight dollar agency over the more reassuring (and all inclusive) 68 dollar option.
Its with a certain degree of hesitation that I found myself offering up ‘in case of emergency’ phone numbers and signing away my life in what seemed half the Amazon in paper work.
Seven o’clock the following morning and we are escorted by our guide and accompanying driver to the crest of our deadly ascent, praying that on arrival we will not be met with a rusty pair of tricycles -we are relieved to find two reasonably sturdy looking bikes, whose breaks from a cursory five minute test ride (despite a two second delay) seem reliable enough. At an altitude of 4,750m Cumbre, our starting pointing is a stark and impressive range of snow covered Andes. At such a height one peers down into a distant cloud line churning in its cauldron confines of the valley basin.
Once kitted out in helmet and the compulsory biking amour, George and I, lemming like, pursue our guide down the first of the days many serpentine passes. The icy air cutting through my anorak, whistling past with the steady flow of swerving tankers and oncoming traffic. Here I learn my first crucial lesson of the day, in order to live long enough to tell the tale, one has to not let themselves get carried away with the majestic fleeting vistas and remember to focus their wayward eyes on the rather unpredictable road ahead.
After our first hour’s exhilarating free wheel descent, it’s a hefty 8km uphill climb, made all the more unpleasant by the thick mists which render speeding trucks and their effete headlights indiscernible up until the last moment. Torrents of rain begins to pelt down causing the bike treads to slip and skate along the road, all this only to discover that the roads much hyped hazards are yet to commence.
We crawl off the stretch of tar road saturated and muddied while our guide begins to take us thorough a concise safety procedure. Through my limited comprehension of Spanish I catch his drift-GO SLOW! With the initial 8km climb out the way, the rest of the days ride will involve, steep down hill free wheeling. A physically undemanding yet relentlessly bumpy ascent to the more temperate foothills of Corioco. Here a slim gravel road (barely 3,2m wide) snakes its way through high altitude cloud forests. It is within the first half hour that I make the vertigo inducing mistake of glancing to my left-barely a meter away from the front tire of my bike, the road’s slight width gives way to precipitous cliffs, a 600m free fall into dense and deceptively comfortable looking cauli flower crested forests. A sight while terrifying is at the same time utterly awe inspiring.
At these heights the plunge allows one to sweep, condor like through dense blankets of cloud, emerging on the other side though a series of intercepting waterfalls. The blood stream buzzing, temples ticking, heart thumping with the simultaneous rush of terror and adrenaline that comes with knowing that the slightest slip of concentration (or more fatally- tyre tread) might reduce one to ‘the road of deaths’ infamous list of statistics. Suffering as I do from attention deficit disorder and mesmerized by the unfolding scenery, a fleck of mud to my eye causes me to more then once, teeter perilously close to becoming yet another nameless numeral flaunted on the back of memorabilia T-shirts.
Furthermore the journeys risks become glaringly apparent during discouraging glimpses of burnt our bus carcasses and vehicles wedged in the unfathomable depths of the crevices and canopies below. While the countless crucifixes lining the route demarcate the points where fellow happy go lucky travelers unexpectedly slipped, skated, soared off the road’s edges (ala E.T) never to be recovered from their remote forest graves. Upon spotting one such road side memorial, I refocus my faculties of self preservation once noticing fresh flowers laid at its base, the all too recent date of 2007 carved into its wood.
Despite such ominous reminders, cycling ‘The road of Death’ is not necessarily a sport reserved for to the mentally ill and suicidally bent. On the day of our ride, at least two groups of pensioners (Part of their bucket list, I imagine) over take us on the way down. The roads eponymous string of incidents, as with most, can be attributed to the speed demon cyclists who set out disregarding their Tour Company’s pre ride safety instructions. To further rectify the roads rather inglorious rep, a new free way was constructed in 2002 enabling intrepid cyclists to navigate the trips hazards without the additional concern of having to share their single treacherous lane with oncoming traffic. It’s an improvement that has subsequently seen the roads over one hundred fatalities a year decrease drastically.
It’s whilst wheeling through the villageof Sacremento one literally finds themselves entering into a new hemisphere. The frigid Andean heights merging with the more temperate foothills of Yolosa at 1185m. With such a descent comes the dramatic and somewhat schizophrenic shift in temperature from the mornings below freezing thermometer readings to torpid equatorial humidity. At this stage rain forests gently submit to butterfly infested banana, coffee and coca(enough to give the American Government a century long headache) plantations.
Rattled, sweaty and shaken one arrives more then a little humbled at the finish line of Corioco. I proceed to dismount my trusty wheeled stead, kissing the ground and thanking whichever deity accountable (apache mama most likely) for having spared me. A perspiring Cerveza (beer) the well earned trophy for having risked ones life to survive ,what I can now officially confirm (been there done that, got the t-shirt) to be the world’s most dangerous ,if not spectacular, road.