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Travel Story

Cycling The World’s Most Dangerous Road

No, it doesn’t connect Whistler with West Vancouver

There is a tour based out of La Paz, Bolivia that every traveller in South America will tell you about. It is a 63 km bike ride down what is dubbed by locals, The World’s Most Dangerous Road. This distinction is based on the fact that on average 100 people die each year as they travel to the next town.

I have been on some pretty scary roads around the world, but in all cases as I peered out the window to the steep edges I had to completely trust the driver. This was different. I was on a mountain bike. No windows to look out, just a shoulder to look over.

We left La Paz in the sun, but by the time we got out of the van it was cooler, cloudy and the thought of rain was not far from our minds. This was punctuated by the bike gloves that were given to us as part of the equipment; they were soaked from the last day’s tour.

Over some breakfast of fried pancakes and blueberry, cinnamon, and clove tea the guides explained a little about the road and what we should be expecting in the coming 63 km. They broke the tour into three different stages. The first was paved. The second, and the first part of The World’s Most Dangerous Road, was wet and muddy. The final section was dry and dusty, with a marked increase in temperature.

Warmer and dryer sounded good as we stood in the cold windy morning close to 5,000 metres above sea level. But that was at least four hours away and lots could happen between then and now.

At that elevation the wet gloves only made my hands freeze and I had to strain to grasp the brakes around the hairpin turns, so I opted to go barehanded and take my chances. As we settled into a rhythm we hit a little gravel patch in the road that flattened our guide’s front tire and sent him cartwheeling along the pavement. His cracked helmet saved his head and his clothes saved his limbs. But unfortunately he too had thought the gloves too wet to be of use; his bare hands suffered serious lacerations and the nail on his right index finger was ripped off. However, he maintained that the only thing injured was his pride.

I decided to re-evaluate the trade off of wet gloves/cold hands vs. a highway manicure and bruised pride. When we got rolling again I was wearing gloves.

It took about 10 minutes to regain our confidence and settle into a comfortable speed, breaking the group of eight into one group of three at the front and five a little further behind.

After a short stretch of downhill we came to the dreaded 8 km of climbing. At the top we shed a few layers of clothes and had a good stretch and a bottle of water. By this time we were at about 3,200 metres and the air was still a little thin but not bad enough to keep the smokers from climbing the whole time.

This was the last section before we started on The World’s Most Dangerous Road, so called because of its single lane, tight corners and steep drops into the dense jungle below. It is the only road from La Paz to the tiny town of Courico. Most of the deaths on the road occur when busses plunge to the valley below, but this past year it was rumoured that an Italian tourist who chose to ride his bike without the aid of a tour company, didn’t see a bend in the road and launched himself off the edge.

Our guide instructed us that we must bike on the right hand side of the road, in many cases facing the oncoming uphill drivers. This, he said, would lessen our chances of falling. The way around this, and what made our tour company – Eco Adventure Tours – special was that they had a guide about a kilometre ahead of the rest of the group who would radio to the descending guides about what cars or trucks to expect. This allowed our guide to move us from the right side to the left, where we would be able to stop and let the automobiles pass in a plume of dust, or mud, and diesel exhaust.

During the wet and muddy section rivers would cross the road, waterfalls would plummet onto us, yet the rain stayed away. Then there were the trucks and busses kicking up muddy water, making this section filthy dirty.

By the time we stopped for lunch at a little pull off, the air had gotten remarkably warmer and drier. Our guides handed us dust masks in anticipation of the dry and dusty section.

More trucks, this time passing us in thick plums of dust. The mud we collected only a short time ago was now caked onto our clothes, bikes, and even our eyes. But after persevering for a few more kilometres we were at the end of the road.

As we awaited the final group high fives, smiles and adrenaline fuelled our conversation. We were given clean T-shirts proclaiming we survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road before packing the van that would take us the final kilometres to the last stop, the famous hotel in Corico. There we enjoyed, hot showers, a sauna, a pool and a huge buffet.

Cleaned and fed, we piled back into the van for the four-hour ride back to La Paz. We all talked about how sore our hands and forearms would be the next day and how scarey the ride down was.

But nothing prepared us for the ride back in the thick fog and increasing darkness. We joked that we should have gotten another T-shirt for the final leg back to La Paz!