Biking down the World's Most Dangerous Road

Trip Start Sep 28, 2006
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Trip End May 04, 2007


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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Today I survived the "World's Most Dangerous Road," otherwise known as the "Death Road." It was awesome! I woke up around 6 am and headed to Cafe Terraza (near Gravity's office) for breakfast. I was still a bit of a stress-case and somehow managed to get lost but arrived by 7 am with enough time to eat breakfast and be ready for our 7:45 am departure. Gary had arrived shortly before, so I joined him for some eggs, juice and coffee. The English guys from wrestling were also there, as were Louise and Claudia, so I already knew over half of the people riding in my group.
We had two guides: James, a young Aussie, was our main English-speaking guide and Rodruigo was our local guide. We rode about 40 minutes in a van up to La Cumbre (4760 meters), where we got our bikes and all of our gear. It had snowed and rained on Sunday, so we were extremely lucky that the weather was cooperating. It was quite chilly (I had long underwear under my pants), but the sun was out in full force. We definitely had enough layers on to protect ourselves from the elements!
Our ride was 64 km in total distance, 3650 m vertical descent (we ended at Yolosa, 1100 m), and lasted about 5 hours. Before embarking on our journey, we made an offering to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) just as the local drivers do (scary), which involved taking a shot of the NASTIEST alcohol I have ever had in my life (tasted like rubbing alcohol), and then pouring a bit on our front tire and on the ground. Being as superstitious as I am, I had every intention of taking a full swig but as soon as I put the bottle to my mouth I chickened out. Smelling it and tasting a drop on my lips was enough for me, and hey, I ended up surviving and that is what counts right? Gracias a Pacha Mama!
The first hour or so of our ride (24 km) was paved and extremely fun, except for the 7 km of uphill of course. Other than that, we were racing down the road as fast as we could on our awesome bikes. The scenery was incredible, and I was sad that I had to keep my eyes on the road so that I would not "become part of the scenery" as James very strongly emphasized. Here is a shot of me on this first section, and another with Gary at one of our many resting and brake-check points. Unfortunately, our perfect weather didn't last too long and soon enough it started to rain, which made wearing goggles very annoying. I was afraid to take them off, as I was wearing contacts and thought that I would get dirt in my eye or the rain would make one of them pop out. All of my things were in the bus (which was riding behind us), so it would have been a huge pain to try to find my glasses. And of course, glasses would not have been much better than goggles.
I felt pretty comfortable on my bike during this whole section, with the exception of an off-road section towards the end where a huge van tried to run me off the road. No joke--this guy had plenty of room as he approached me and intentionally drove on the wrong side of the road and laughed as I swerved and nearly fell off my bike. But I held strong, and made sure to scream as many obscenities as I could at him as he drove past. Not like he understood any of them of course. It was not until we were officially on the Death Road and received our second safety briefing that I became severely nervous, to the point that I almost considered hopping in the bus. That of course was not an option, however, as I had a paid a ton of money to do this ride and had not even gone 1 of the 40 remaining kilometers yet! But seriously, 1 km was more than enough--one lane (if even), extremely dusty and rocky, and sheer 400 meter drops to the left (and downhill traffic has to ride on the left). Huge trucks and buses were driving past us both ways, it was so nerve-wracking!
I had trouble controlling the bike at first and almost slipped several times, so I made sure to go very slowly and for awhile was the last rider in our group. After about 20 minutes, I got more comfortable with the bike and the road (at least relatively so) and it was not so scary. I had LOADS of fun speeding down around the corners, and thankfully unlike many other people I have met did not become overconfident and end up falling off my bike (although I did come close at several points). I was still towards the back with the other girls, but gradually moved forward as I gained more courage.  
Here is a group shot that one of the guides took from above during one of our many resting points.
We stopped every fifteen minutes or so for brake checks, snacks, to let cars pass, or simply to rest. James was a great guide--he gave thorough instructions and always explained what we should expect before we attacked each section of the road. Thankfully, I had a pretty easy ride. My bike performed very well, up until the last twenty minutes when we were supposed to tear through a huge puddle one by one for a video. I attempted to splash through it and my chains got messed up, forcing me back to my former position at the back of the pack. Oh well! At least James saved all of the FUN stories about where, when and how countless people have died until after we had completed the Death Road. Then again, he shared this lovely information as we were driving up it on our way back to La Paz, which perhaps was not much better!
The weather sadly remained very cloudy and misty until we were about a half hour away from Yolosa, the very small town or perhaps just the name of the hotel below Coroico where we showered and ate lunch. It was nice in that the road was slightly less dusty and the waterfalls were slightly more impressive, but of course we didn't have much of a view. Although I don't know if I would have WANTED to see the 400 meter drops! Here is a picture of me riding around one of the famous curves on the Death Road--James called it the "postcard shot" for obvious reasons.   I am also including a photo that I took from the Gravity CD's "best of" photo album so you can get a better sense of what this part of the road looks like on a clear day.   It was great that the guides took videos and pictures of us while we were riding, as we obviously could not be bothered with such a task but wanted to document our journey. The CD came out great, and I loved looking through all of the crazy photos from other people's trips.  
We got to Yolosa around 2 pm. The last part of our ride had been hot and dusty as hell .We were all very sweaty and dirty, and were happily greeted with cold beers and insanely tiny t-shirts in exchange for our rental gear. We hung out in a hotel/animal reserve for a couple hours, where we were able to take nice, long hot showers (although I took a cold one), swim, and eat a tasty buffet lunch while checking out the pictures that our guides took of us. While heading to the showers, I encountered many monkeys, including this one that was sprawled out fast asleep in the sun right in my path. She definitely had the right idea! There were several species of monkeys running about terrorizing the other animals (cats, dogs, birds, and bunnies, among others). The rabbits were huge, with big floppy ears, and one small monkey made it his business to get into their cage and wrestle with one rabbit in particular. I felt so bad for the poor thing! The monkey kept molesting it, batting its head, pushing it around, and the rabbit wasn't fighting back. James managed to get the monkey out of the cage, but it was smart and got right back in immediately thereafter. It also wrestled with one of the dogs. . We boarded the minibus and started to head back to La Paz around 4 pm, only stopping a couple times to get "supplies" for James (ie more coca leaves, the reacting substance, and many beers). It was a very scary but exhilarating 3-hour ride, especially since I was sitting on the right side of the bus near the window and could see the massive drop only inches away from the bus' tires. Half the time I could not even see the edge of the road! I think riding in the bus was almost more frightening than biking it, although it was fun and I was so engaged in all of James stories (when he was not chewing his massive bag of coca leaves) that I did not notice any feelings of fear. Perhaps I took for granted to some degree that we would arrive back in one piece. Falling off the road was not exactly a possibiity in my mind, especially since our driver has been driving the WMDR for 30 years without an accident.   The following picture, however, as well as the countless tragedies that have occurred on the Death Road obviously indicate otherwise!  I took that picture from Gravity's "best of" folder, don't worry! However, here is a video that I took early on in our journey.
I arrived at my hotel around 7 pm, thankful to be back in La Paz (who would have thought!), and immediately crashed after doing some sink laundry. Gary is heading down to Uyuni tomorrow and then back to the US, so we are having one last early morning breakfast together.
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