Biking the "World's Most Dangerous Road", Bolivia
This is the post that I couldn’t tell my mom about until it was over. If you see her, tell her that I’m okay. Maybe a little crazy, but okay. The reason I couldn’t say anything is because I signed up and paid for a bike tour down “The Most Dangerous Road in the World.” Seriously, more people are killed every year on this road than any other road in the world.
We have been in South America for several months now. I have done my share of city sightseeing and church tours. I was ready for a little adventure. This sounded fun, and exciting!
This is not a standard tour. There are warnings and releases to be signed. It is recommended that people signing up for the tour have some mountain biking experience. There is also a form to notify next of kin. After doing the paperwork I was ready to ride. Although I am not an experienced mountain biker, I was not deterred.
The “Road of Death” is one of the main tourist attractions in La Paz, Bolivia. The road is fifty-six kilometers and is one of the few roads connecting La Paz to the northern regions of Bolivia. After a study of the deaths occurring on the road, in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank named it “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.”
Most of the road can be experienced as a downhill ride. The road first ascends to around 15,260 ft at La Cumbre Pass, before descending to 3,900 ft at the town of Coroico. The road transitions from cool altiplano terrain to rainforest as it winds through very steep hillsides. At the bottom of the road is a wildlife refuge for jungle animals that have been rescued from markets and poachers.
Thrill seekers and mountain bikers began flocking to the road in order to experience the long, steep, and dangerous downhill ride. One estimate states that 200-300 people die on the road every year. At least eighteen cyclists have died on the road since 1998. Crosses dot the road where vehicles have gone over the steep cliffs.
The road is mostly one single-lane and has few guard rails. Cliffs of up to 2,000 feet run along the length of the road. Most of the road is the width of a single vehicle, about 10 ft. During the rainy season from November to March, rain and fog can severely hamper visibility, and water runoff can turn the road into a muddy, slippery track. In the summer, rockfalls are common.
Our guide told us that the local rules of the road provides that the downhill driver never has the right of way and must pull over to the edge of the cliff to allow the uphill driver to pass. The local rules make this the only road in North or South America where vehicles are required to drive on the left hand side of the road. This gives the driver a better view of the vehicle's outside wheel and makes passing safer. It also confuses bikers and drivers who are accustomed to riding on the right hand side of the road.
Biking the road is a full day excursion. I joined ten other bikers who had also signed up for the ride. We boarded a bus and made the one hour drive to the high point of the road at La Cumbre Pass. From there, we would begin the four hour downhill ride.
At that altitude, the beginning of the ride can be quite cold. It is common to have snow on this part of the road. We were lucky and had a clear day to begin our ride.
We quickly descended the first few kilometers down the paved portion of the road. The weather quickly changed as we got lower on the mountain. Fog and rain moved in and began to obscure our vision. The dry cool road soon became slippery and dangerous, with limited visibility. I could see why this is called the “Road of Death.”
Soon, the paved road ended and the road turned to gravel. Rocks and boulders dotted the lane of travel. Our guide told us to be on the lookout for the most dangerous large rocks referred to as “Baby heads”, because the rocks that cause most cycling accidents are about the same size as a baby’s head.
We continued downward going from the alpine environment at the higher elevations and descending into the subtropical rainforest. We passed through waterfalls that plunged from cliffs high overhead and drove through rivers and creeks that washed over the road.
There were no guard rails along most of the road and the cliffs were steep and harrowing. The bottom of the drop-off was so far below that it was not visible. This was not a ride for someone with a fear of heights or vertigo. After a thrilling four hour trip we finally reached the bottom.
We pulled into the animal refuge and were provided with showers, beer, and a hot meal. The refuge has decided that it places the most dangerous animal in the world in a cage, the rest of the animals roam free. The humans are enclosed in a pen in the jungle, the rest of the animals come and go as they please. There are no fences or nets to keep the animals in the refuge, they stay near the refuge because they are provided with food and safety. So, I survived biking the "Most Dangerous Road in the World" only to end up in a cage. Maybe Jen is right to skip this adventure.