Cycling down “The most dangerous road in the world…”

Don’t look down…

Jose has decided that driving around a narrow hairpin bend, above a sheer drop of half a kilometre on the ‘most dangerous road in the world’ is an appropriate time to tap out a text on his mobile phone.

Perhaps his mum insists he regularly updates her on his progress on the 65km journey down the dirt and rubble track:

“5 KM IN. AM OK. CU LTR.”

A mildly concerned Sophie witnesses this mobile madness.

I, on the other hand, am in my own little world having decided to take on the descent from 4,700 metres to 1,100 metres on a push bike.

To reach the start of the’death road’ we had driven three hours from the Bolivian capital, La Paz.

Along the way we’d stopped at several military checkpoints where machine gun-toting soldiers had scrutinised our passports.

“Many banditos on this road,” Jose had reassuringly informed us.

On finally arriving at the nondescript, but imaginatively-titled, settlement of Cumbre (translation “hill”) I’d stepped out of the van to breathe in the chilly air.

Wheely stupid…

Jose’s buddy Luis kitted me out in a pair of heavy duty trousers, a snazzy waistcoat-style jacket, a pair of gloves and a helmet, elbow pads and knee pads (I’d not worn such funky protective gear since my Friday night roller disco days at Torquay town hall).

“Yes, yes, all this protective stuff is very good, but THE GEARS DON’T WORK!”

On being presented with my bike I am a little worried to discover that the gears don’t work.

“No worry. All downhill. Only need one gear,” says Luis, before letting out a disconcerting roar of laughter.

“Check out suspension, real wonderful,” he adds in his not-quite-perfect English.

It is indeed good to know that should my one gear fail me, at least as I fly off the edge to certain death my arse will be comfortable.

“Let’s go,” adds a smiling Luis.

For the opening 30 minutes it’s a gentle warm up on a tarmac road.

Living on the edge…

As the wind whips past my ears I even feel comfortable enough to check out the surrounding scenery.

Equal helpings of the scary and the spectacular.

Snow dribbles off the peaks of giant mountains until menacing black rocks continue the drop to the valley floor hundreds of metres below.

Finally we turn off the asphalt and onto the real start of the death road, where I am hit by a wall of mist. It is impossible to see over the edge.

“Eerie, huh?” says Luis.

Smile!

I begin to see why this route got its reputation.

The combination of an uneven rocky surface, a narrow single track, a sheer drop on one side and thick fog, cloud the hapless navigator’s vision.

Built by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930s, the road from the world’s highest capital actually rises as it skirts out of La Paz to a region known as the Yungas.

Many of those who built the highway died during its construction. Then, once it was opened, it literally marked the end of the road for thousands of Bolivians.

Going round the bend…

In 1995, the Inter American Development Bank christened it the most dangerous road in the world.

It used to average one death every five days, but the multi-million pound creation of an alternative two-laned tarmac route that took more than two decades to build and was completed five years ago has dramatically reduced traffic levels and consequently cut the death toll.

Nevertheless this is still a risky journey. Just a couple of weeks earlier a Japanese tourist died when she lost control of her cycle and sailed over the precipice.

The giant and the pin-sized biker

I go against my natural instinct to race and take it steady, hanging behind Luis throughout.

As we continue down, the temperature rises and instead of white and black, the mountains take on a lush green hue.

Luis tells me the water flowing from along the thin ribbon of a river several hundred metres beneath will eventually wind its way to the Amazon and end up in the Atlantic Ocean, a journey of several thousand miles.

Riding around sharp bends that hug the mountainside I see huge birds of prey hovering above, perhaps patiently waiting for the next victim to disappear over the side so they can swoop down and devour the carcass.

“Time for natural shower,” says Luis and I cycle through a waterfall, being careful not to lose control on the slippery wet rocks under my wheels.

Throughout the journey small crosses, often accompanied with flowers, line the roadside. Reminders of the thousands that have lost their lives here.

One of the many crosses that are a reminder of the perils of this road

On one particularly sharp corner a glut of wooden memorials are wedged into the ground. Luis tells me that they mark the site of the road’s worst recorded accident in 2002.

A bus driver who had been behind the wheel for 18 hours without a break fell asleep and went over the edge, killing all 42 people on board.

After that unnerving bit of information I am careful to take the last few kilometres pretty cautiously until, three hours after we set off, we finally make it to the end and Luis offers me a celebratory beer.

Sophie pulls up in the minibus moments later and we share a relieved embrace.

I look over to the driver’s seat where I spot Jose saying a prayer to the mountain god, Pachamama before reaching for his phone to write another text message.

Presumably something on the lines of:

“HI MUM. MDE IT. SRVVD ‘NOTHER DAY ON MST DNGRS RD IN WRLD. WOT’S 4 T?”

Going down nicely: Sharing a celebratory beer with Luis

About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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3 Responses to Cycling down “The most dangerous road in the world…”

  1. You could seriously get some road rash on this road cycling – YIKES!

  2. Joules says:

    Mucho respecto Phil! The phrase “no room for error” has never been more appropriate. As you probably know, the protective gear wouldn’t have saved you from the drop, so good job the brakes were not considered by the mechanics to be as superfluous as the gears!!

    • Heya Joules, we’d thought that experience would be right up your street! Yes I think the protective gear was a bit of a ‘looks good, probably doesn’t do much’ effort! Thankfully the brakes worked pretty well! Phil.

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