Look Out Below!

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2003

In the course of dropping nearly 12,000 feet in less than 40 miles, Bolivia's "Road of Death" poses a number of challenging questions to mountain bikers. Here's a sample:

A Nissan pickup unexpectedly rounds a blind curve 20 feet ahead of you. You should:

a) Steer sharply left, toward the 3,000-foot cliff.

b) Hug the mountainside, hoping the hood is softer than it looks.

c) Find God, quickly.

Looking for "None of the above"? So was I on a day in May, in the middle of a wild ride down what is also frequently referred to as the "world's most dangerous road."

I had been hearing about this ride for weeks, usually from other budget travelers who'd passed through La Paz, Bolivia's capital and the jumping-off point for the adventure. Without fail, they described never-ending downhills, flips over handle bars and enormous trucks driving inches away from a half-mile of empty air.

They also said it was the sort of thing that I absolutely had to do, and I believed them.

At 12,000 feet, La Paz is the world's highest capital city. It sits in an immense brown bowl flanked by the glaciated peaks of the Cordillera Real range, and it often feels like a different planet. In addition to its noticeable lack of oxygen, the city features attractions like a coca museum and an open-air witches' market, complete with a wide selection of dried llama fetuses.

Political instability, strikes and unrest are also a way of life; indeed, recent anti-government protests led to the ouster of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Such situations, however, usually represent more of an inconvenience than a threat to tourists, and many travelers have found that the rewards more than make up for the hassles. For mountain bikers, this is doubly true.

In the past five years or so, La Paz has sprouted hordes of travel agencies -- many less than reputable -- offering guided bike rides down the Road of Death, the route linking the high, cold region called the Altiplano with the town of Coroico, in the steamy, low-lying valleys of the Yungas region.

In its most dangerous section, the road is one unpaved lane hacked out of the mountainside, bordered by 3,000-foot cliffs. A staggering percentage of its curves are blind, and a cautionary "look-out" honk is usually all the warning you'll get from the many trucks carrying bananas and other tropical products uphill. In several sections, waterfalls crash directly onto the road, and it can be muddy throughout.

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