Biking the World's Most Dangerous Road to Coroico

Trip Start Jul 19, 2006
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Trip End Sep 19, 2006


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Friday, September 1, 2006

After saying goodbye to Laura in Copacabana, I boarded the (mostly) empty bus that would be taking me to La Paz. There were two interesting things about the 3.5 hour bus ride from Copacabana to La Paz. The first interesting thing was a stop where we had to get off the bus, get on a small (and shaky) boat, and ferry across part of Lake Titicaca (as we watched our bus get ferried across on a much larger boat). The other interesting thing was German.

A Brief Detour: Flexiplanning
Perhaps now would be a good time to briefly define my traveling philosophy. Not that you have much of a choice about what I say right now. I guess you could skip this paragraph, but then you would be wondering what the next couple of sentences say (and you've already invested this much into reading the paragraph, you feel like you might as well finish it). A number of people have asked me: How do you plan for one of these trips? Do you do a lot of research beforehand? How do you find cool things to do?

When I have the luxury of traveling for an extended period of time (greater than one week, and preferably more than three), I like to do what I call "Flexiplanning" (TM). It's not quite planning. But it's not quite a random walk either. The extent of my planning generally involves the purchase of a travel book (usually Lonely Planet). While I'm on the bus ride into a new country, I'll read up on some of its history and some practical notes for traveling there (how much hotels/cabs/food should roughly cost, what some of the points of interest are, etc.) This is more about education than planning, just so I can make semi-informed decisions later (it's important to have a rough idea of what things should cost so you don't get ripped off). Then, upon arrival, I see what happens. I combine the rough information I already have with what I learn from talking with people upon arrival and usually end up finding good deals on hotels and activities.

No reservations needed. In fact, on my entire South American journey, there has only been one instance where traveling without reservations ended up being costly. Back in Esmeraldas, Ecuador Brett and I had big problems finding a hotel with any room at all. Of course, we arrived late on the busiest evening of the week, during the busiest time of year, to the busiest part of town (right on the beach). We just ended up having to take a motorcycle-powered ride ~10 minutes away from the beach to find a place that was reasonably priced and available. The ride was totally worth it, though.

My most common human sources for activity information have generally been 1) People I meet on the bus (always talk to the person next to you!) 2) Waiters/owners of food places (you paid them for a service, now take advantage of their hospitality and ask for the real deal on the city) 3) Hotel/hostel workers (that person behind the counter knows a lot about what's going on in the city - and what to avoid).

While it is much easier to not have to stress about planning and reservations, Flexiplanning (TM) is not laziness. It's "strategic availability" (incidentally, that's how I described my position when I was briefly unemployed). With Flexiplanning (TM) and a little luck, you end up being ready for whatever adventure comes your way. My next adventure came from a German Spanish teacher.

Germans are funny people
If I had my way, I'd always travel with a German. I don't know about you, but most every German I've ever met has been really funny in a very genuine, self-aware kind of way. Maybe I've just been lucky.

Deder was a bit older than me (I would guess he was in his 30's), and he had a very jolly persona. He also loved bicycling. I didn't know this when he sat down behind me on the bus. I remember there being a few minutes while he was sitting behind me when I wondered to myself: "should I turn around and introduce myself?" One remarkable thing about traveling alone is that the answer to that question usually ends up being yes. It was a good thing, too, as he would be the source of my next adventure.

Deder was a Spanish teacher in Germany who was briefly traveling through part of Bolivia. He was just a fun-loving guy learning more about the language and culture that he had devoted his life to. For some reason I found it really amusing to picture a German teaching spanish.

At some point I mentioned my hijacking story to Deder (it ends up being a great conversation starter) and he was amazed. He said he had an interesting story as well, though not quite as crazy. He was traveling on another bus (I think it was in Peru) and the person sitting behind him asked if he had any scissors. That's a kind of odd question. It turned out there was a woman on the bus going into labor. And the bus kept going. She delivered a baby while the bus was in motion! Then the passengers all decided to put some money together as a gift to the new child. As a sort of game, the mother decided the person giving the highest donation could name the child. What? Yes, name the child. A Swiss guy ended up winning. Personally, I wondered whether this was just some ingenious money-making scheme. Bring a small baby on board with you and fake a birth every day. I wouldn't even be surprised if it was in fact a real birth, specifically planned to occur on a tourist-filled bus for donation purposes (I've seen lots of creative ways to separate you from your money while on buses). Anyway, if you run into a Deitleheim (or something similar) while traveling through Bolivia, you'll know where that came from.

Back to Deder and his plans. I found out he would be biking down the world's most dangerous road the next day. Apparently the "death road" was located very close to La Paz. I was intrigued. After he told me a bit more about it, I decided I would go with him. Good thing I was flexiplanning (TM).

Getting High in La Paz
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world...as far as altitude goes. It was an amazing world to enter. As you come across the ridges of an icy mountain range, the city materializes in a deep valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Upon arrival, Deder and I wandered around looking for a hotel. Deder had heard of a nice one from someone, and I confirmed in Lonely Planet that Hostal Milenio would be a decent choice to stay at (although at 25bolivianos/$3 it was a bit pricey for me).

la paz

The service at the hostel was great, and we were able to book a bike trip for the next day right from the hotel counter. We then ventured out into the city for an evening meal. The streets were full of activity. Lots of people wandering around, plus many booths selling anything from leather cell phone cases to fried chicken.

Towards the center of town we saw a large gathering of people circling some spectacle. With our herd mentality, we got closer to see what everyone else was looking at. There was a street magician/comedian performing (for some reason he reminded me of the annoying comedian from The Nutty Professor...I think because of his bounciness and his strategy to target people in the audience). I scanned the rest of the audience and soon realized we were the only gringos (non-bolivians) there. Like Peruvians and Ecuadorians, Bolivians have a very dark, indigenous look to them. We stood out, and the magician quickly noticed.

Almost as soon as we arrived, the magician directed everyone's attention to my new German friend. I wish I had a transcript of what was said (or just a better memory). He made some jokes about us, perhaps not realizing we spoke Spanish. Deder retorted with a thick European accent. The magician asked if he was from Spain and was shocked to hear he was actually from Germany. The two went back and forth with the magician issuing jokes about the German and receiving quick, witty responses from Deder. Deder ended up becoming the main attraction of the show, and even pointed out that the magician should be paying him. It was all very amusing for me.

Biking Down the Death Road
road view
We woke up early the next day to begin our adventure on the World's Most Dangerous Road. The "Death Road" takes you from the mountains circling La Paz at a chilling 4,700 meters (15,420 feet) down deep into the jungle of Coroico at 1,200 meters (3,940 feet). That's an 11,480 foot elevation loss (in what ended up being about a 6 hour timespan). On top of that, the "road" is extremely narrow (generally only wide enough for one car) with a huge, steep drop on one side. According to the BBC, "every year it is estimated 200 to 300 people die on a stretch of road less than 50 miles long". It is also the only access road leading down to the village of Coroico.

But the bike ride down isn't the most dangerous part. I mean sure, you can mess up and fly off the cliff on your bike (which a number of people have done - our guides even pointed out a part of the trail where one of their fellow guides had gone over not too long before). However, I figured I was pretty good on a bike and could control it enough to keep away from the edges. No, the really dangerous part of the bike ride was that the same winding, steep, dangerous road you fly down on a bike is also the only way to get back up (only this time in a van). For some reason I didn't think about that part until after I was on my bike flying down the road.

bike mountain view

The way down was spectacular. I really can't emphasize enough how amazing it was. If you've ever been bike riding and had the opportunity to enjoy a long section of downhill, you have a glimpse of what I'm talking about. It's so invigorating to be gliding carelessly down through one of the most scenic landscapes you'll ever see. death The transition from icy mountaintop to a humid rainforest really is breathtaking. And aside from one (fairly tough) uphill section, the majority of the ride is a quick roll with gravity as your best friend.

My only complaint was an occasional traffic problem I had because of a French guy who really didn't know how to ride a bike. He seemed to crave getting in front of people, but then once he was in front he would go very slowly. I'm sure you've encountered this before when driving. The car that just has to be in front of you, but as soon as it gets there it hits the breaks. Let's just say this guy didn't do anything to give me a good impression of French people.

At the bottom we stopped by the luxurious Hotel Esmeraldas to clean up before our return. The place was run by a German ex-pat, and you could tell. Everything was meticulously designed to perfection. Every room had a balcony with a great view of the surrounding jungle. There was a pool and a hot tub and a restaurant. Five of the eight people in my group decided to stay there for the night, including Deder. road ahead I know I would've enjoyed the relaxation of a night there, but the price still felt expensive to me (I think it was somewhere around $6 or $12 for the night), plus I had more adventures to get to the next day.

I said my goodbyes to Deder and then began the dangerous drive back up to La Paz. Apparently 25 vehicles become victims of gravity every year (that's one every two weeks!) On top of the normal hazards associated with the road, it was also raining during our ascent. As the van was weaving around tight corners, I just tried not to think too much about the huge drop several feet to my right. I was quite relieved when we finally made it to back to the main road in one piece.

hotel esmeraldas

So Long and Thanks for the Ashtrays
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. This poverty can be felt in a number of ways. You can find hotels for $1.25/night. There are shoeshine boys all over the streets (who hide their faces with ski masks and baseball caps, presumably so they won't be recognized). Crime is (supposedly) very common. You aren't supposed to wander around by yourself at night. But where's the fun in that?

Upon my return from the Death Road that evening, I decided to hit the streets of La Paz for some celebration. Leaving everything of value locked up in my hostel, I headed out into the streets, searching for a bar, which ended up being more difficult than I thought. I had to wander a good 10 blocks or more from my hostel before finding something (and even then I had to ask around just to find out it was a bar inside).

I walked into a dim, smoky bar that was thumping with energy radiating from the live band performing opposite the entrance. I looked around and noticed I was the only gringo in the entire place. The older man behind the bar reminded me of a British butler, and seemed out of place in this noisy, booming underground (but not quite as much as I was). I ordered a Pacena (the drink of La Paz) and sat down at a table on the outskirts of the action.

Before I even got a few sips of beer, I heard a startling shout from across the room. "Hey! Gringo!" Uh-oh. Ever since the hijacking I've been particularly sensitive to loud shouting, and since "gringo" is often used in a derogatory tone in South America, I was more than a little concerned about my well-being. I immediately noticed a hefty, drunken man who had been dancing on top of a table across the room. He was staring right at me, much like I imagine a rhino would stare at a helpless ostrich with its head in the sand right before charging it just for fun. I half expected him to do just that. But he didn't.

Fernando Refijo lifted his bottle to his lips, indicating I should do the same. I followed. With numerous onlookers, we began a chugging contest. I still remember how cool and heavy the bottle was. We don't have bottles like that in the US. These bottles could knock out a person who would normally be fine after being smashed in the head a couple of times by American bottles. We both slammed our bottles on the table, nearly at the same time (but I'll say I slammed mine down first since I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a travel blog). He let out a jovial laugh and waved me over to his table. In retrospect, it's amazing how the concept of a beer chugging race is so universal. Maybe they just need more keg parties in the middle east.

I got up and joined the table of Fernando and four of his friends (including two other guys, and one couple). I had a blast just talking with them and drinking all night. But you can't drink alone in Bolivia. They explained the rule that you could only drink if everyone else drank at the same time. Otherwise it was considered rude. So we'd have a toast "Salud!" ("Health!"). And then another. And another. We quickly filled the table up with beers. I think this is a good way to drink.

Fernando is not the most graceful person, but he insisted on dancing as much as possible. He had no idea what he looked like. I guess that's the only way to dance.

At several points Fernando tried to give me an ashtray. Right off the table. I still don't really know why. He insisted it was a gift "from Bolivia." He said it was something I could take back with me to the US, to help remember how great the people in Bolivia are (and specifically, to remember my awesome Paceno friends). I've encountered this sort of intense national pride in every latin american country I've visited. It's quite endearing.

As the beers started to pile up on the table, I became a little concerned that this could be a set-up (as I said, I've been slightly paranoid ever since the hijacking). Were they trying to get me drunk so they could rob me? As it started to get late, I looked around at all five of them, and then calmly commented on how I really had to get going because my 6 friends were all waiting for me back at the hostel. Yes, they all knew I was here at this bar, and would probably get worried if I didn't head back soon. I was hoping that would keep me safe, just in case.

I said goodbye to everyone, but as I was getting up to leave, Fernando jumped to my side, saying he would walk me out. In my gut I didn't feel like Fernando was a threat, but part of my brain was telling me that this was not an advisable situation. He walked me out of the bar, and as we stood on the empty street he told me how happy he was to meet me. He said I really had to come back to La Paz on September 17th for his wedding. He told me to bring my friends, and he'd have a big party for the Americans. He even wrote it down in my little notebook "No te olvides!" ("Don't forget!"), followed by an attempt at saying please: "Pliss!" I told him that unfortunately I wouldn't be able to make it. He gave me a rough hug, the kind only a drunken, jolly, proud Paceno could give. And with that I stumbled at least 10 blocks uphill back to my hostel. For all the warnings about how dangerous it is, I had no problems in La Paz.

The next morning I would be catching a 9am train south to explore some surreal Bolivian landscapes before hopping into Chile. This is supposedly the closest you can get to being on an alien planet without leaving Earth. Bolivia is just full of surprises.

Quantifiable Summary
Bus to La Paz (3.5 hours, 15bs/$2, 1 ferry crossing for 1.5bs)
Night at Hostal Milenio (25bs/$3)
Biking down World's Most Dangerous Road (~6hours actual biking, $35, including meals, CD, and shirt)
Still Alive.
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