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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Day 57 - The World's Most Dangerous Road

bolivia Despite a huge amount of hype, and Sam's constant whinging that she doesn't "want to go home on a plane alone", I decided to brave the worst, and took a mountain bike ride down the "world's most dangerous road".



Apparently 80 people die on the road every year, and whilst I wasn't sure what to expect, I was pretty sure that it was relatively safe due to the huge number of people I know who had survived and were wearing the complimentary t-shirt all around La Paz. Old mate Joubin apparenty saw someone come off the edge, and they are now in a coma in La Paz General, but aside from this, I've only heard good things. 30 quid later, I was on a bus heading up to the shoulder of a local mountain, where the bike ride descends.

It all starts pretty tame. About 30km on asphalt, sighting some bux wreckages at the valley floor and gliding down the gentle angle with increased speed. I established myself towards the front of the group of twenty within the first half hour, and after 2 hours of casual riding we were approaching the proper death road.


Here's where it got interesting. The road itself is just over one bus-width wide. Its gravel (coarse gravel at that), and is carved into the steep hillside, so that one on side of the road you have a sheer cliff heading upwards, and on the other you have a sheer drop, at points, over 500m high. The reason its so dangerous is because if two vehicles meet along the road, the one going downhill has to reverse BACKWARDS up the winding road until a point where the road is wide enough for the two vehicles to pass. And because of the alignment of the road, the vehicle reversing has to be on the OUTSIDE of the road, i.e. on the cliff edge. Simple error in judgement and a busload of 80 bolivians goes off the edge to their deaths.


So we started down the gravel track. Bit nervous. Bit excited. generally ready, but cautious. Some guy comes off his bike onto the gravel within minutes. Others start skidding around. It was looking bad. And its not til you are cycling at 20 mph, watching the road for every odd rock or pothole, KNOWING that just 1 metre to your left is a half kilometre drop, that you start to really care for your life.


But it was fine. Kinda like any mountain biking, just with a little bit more fear. No one died. No one nearly died. We just cycled down in the dust, sweating from the rising temperatures (we descended over 2000m in 5 hours) and getting pissed off at the amount of traffic to pass in the opposite direction.


Probably the most poignant moment was the human traffic light guy. Apparently, 25 year ago, his wife and 2 kids died when their bus plumetted off the edge. Every day since then he's stood at the point where they died, holding up red and green flags to warn vehicles if someone else is coming from the opposite direction. Totally voluntary, he gets paid by the passing traffic with food parcels and small change. And he was a happy man.

At the bottom of the road, we were met with a beer and a buffet, and after a much needed shower and dip in the pool (Coroico has a tropical climate, unlike the rest of Bolivia which is stupidly cold), I left Dan and Dave to stay the night and jumped on a 3 hour bus back to La Paz. I survived. And I have the t-shirt to prove it. Was it as dangerous as they all made out - not in the slightest. In fact, I would rather cycle down it than get the reversing bus. But it was pretty spectacular scenery, and I got to flex my already tired muscles one more time before heading south to the Salt Flats.


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