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Look Out Below!
Biking Bolivia's 'Road of Death'

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.

Passing is also a problem. When two vehicles meet, descending drivers normally have to back up until there is enough space for ascending drivers to pass. With horrifying frequency, they back entirely off the cliff. As of my May visit, the local Transit Police had logged 42 accidents, 34 deaths and 112 injuries along the route in the first five months of 2003 alone.

Surprisingly, mountain biking may be the safest way down. Since the La Cumbre-to-Coroico route became popular, there have been only five biking deaths, according to Alistair Matthew, a New Zealander who founded Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, a leading La Paz outfitter. Three, however, have occurred this year.

On the upside, a new, somewhat safer vehicular route opened in July, and it should divert some traffic from the Road of Death. But the new road is still only partially open, and there are no plans to close the old route.

I, of course, had only a vague notion of any of this in May, when I stepped into Gravity's main competition, the Downhill Madness travel agency, a smallish storefront in La Paz's tourist district. Bolivia requires that mountain bikers hire guides for the ride, and several books recommended Downhill Madness.

Inside, I flipped through photo albums of the route while the woman at the desk confirmed two key facts: The company provided American-made Trek bikes, and no technical mountain-biking skills were required.

Both were important points. Matthew would later tell me that most agencies rent flimsy, Asian-made bikes that sell for less than $100 on the street -- not exactly Road of Death material. As to technical skills, most of my mountain-biking experience had come eight years before, when I occasionally rode my rock hopper to a college volleyball class.

Reasonably reassured, I signed a form stating that there would be no refunds in the event of landslides or "strikes caused by social conflicts," then handed over my credit card.

It's amazing the sort of trouble you can get yourself into with that little piece of plastic.

At 9:30 the next morning I was standing atop a frigid, 15,400-foot hilltop, putting on a bike helmet and looking at a 25-foot-tall statue of Jesus. His outstretched arms faced the valley below, and a plaque at the statue's base read "God bless the travelers."

This was the pass of La Cumbre, the starting point of our trip.

About an hour earlier I had met the seven other members of my group -- four Europeans, an Australian couple and a young Brazilian -- at the agency's office. From there, our Bolivian guides herded us onto a microbus and drove us out of La Paz, taking us past an enormous reservoir and several semi-frozen ponds.

When the bus rattled to a stop, we stepped onto a scree-covered hillock topped with power transformers and, of course, Jesus. Our guides handed out heavy wind pants, orange vests and bicycles. And then, after telling us to ignore the stray dogs lining the road, they pointed us down the mountain.

Efrain, our 24-year-old English-speaking guide, rode in front, and the company's safety rules prohibited us from passing him. Behind the pack was Franz, another guide, who would not pass us. At the end came our microbus, now transformed into a support vehicle for mechanical and medical difficulties.

For almost 20 miles at its start, the world's most dangerous road is paved and not too terribly dangerous. What it is, however, is fast. In seconds, the wind was flapping my clothes and numbing my face as I flew into the upper reaches of the Unduavi River canyon. My nose ran, my eyes watered and my ears hurt, but I couldn't stop grinning. I was moving faster than I ever had in anything without an engine, catching -- then passing -- several buses and heavy trucks. If you've never ridden a bike past a truck topped with blanket-covered Bolivians, I can only say that it is an odd, exhilarating sensation.

As we descended, the air turned warmer, the vegetation became greener and the clouds were no longer so far below us. Several times, Efrain stopped so we could take pictures.

After about 2½ hours, the pavement suddenly ended as we came upon a T-shaped intersection. Dead ahead, the ground dropped sharply, leaving only whirling clouds riding the warm updrafts from the tropical valley below. To the right lay our path, a bumpy thread of rocks and mud leading into the jungle.

Efrain stepped off his bike. This, he said, was the dangerous section.

"Dangerous?" asked a young Dutch woman in our group.

"But for us it is okay," Efrain said.

There was one essential rule for this section of the road, he told us gravely: Downhill traffic, ourselves included, stayed to the left, next to the cliff. Ascending trucks would be on the inside, and these were best avoided.

This arrangement is designed to give descending vehicles a better view of the cliff's edge -- and, hence, improved odds of not going over it -- when they back up to allow another vehicle to pass.

After his brief safety talk and a moment's rest, Efrain started downhill again, and the group strung out behind him, our bikes rattling across the rocks and uneven ground. The road's steep grade and my fear of flying over the cliff kept my right hand locked in a death grip on the back brake, and I tried hard to find the perfect balance of speed and control, adrenaline and caution.

An undulating blanket of green spread out below me, and small waterfalls occasionally splattered my legs as they fell onto the road. At times, however, my attention was necessarily diverted from the view by Efrain, who waved us to the side whenever he saw a truck or bus approaching.

On one such stop, he pointed to a bus rounding a particularly sharp curve. A truck had gone over that edge about three weeks earlier, he told me. I asked if there were muertos, the Spanish word for deaths.

"Si," he said. "Muchos muertos."

A few minutes later, I almost joined their ranks.

I had just spotted Efrain waving me to the shoulder again when a black Nissan rounded a corner. Afraid of coming too near the cliff, I had been riding on the wrong side of the road, directly in the pickup's path.

For a moment, I froze. Then I frantically squeezed my back brake, dragged my foot across the ground and skidded madly toward the cliff. I passed within about three feet of the truck's bumper, careened toward the cliff and then stopped, about five feet from the edge.

The truck's driver and his friend were laughing. I was not.

"Stay on the left side of the road," Efrain warily reminded me.

Farther down the "highway" to Coroico, the road changed from mud to dust, and grime coated my face. My hands ached from squeezing the brakes, my forearms hurt from absorbing shock and my backside felt as if I'd been strapped atop a jackhammer.

At about 3 p.m., we came to Yolosa, a tropical pit stop a few miles before Coroico. We veered off the road and onto a short stretch of single-track that led to La Senda Verde, an ecologically friendly campground and restaurant. And there, beneath a mango tree, the trip ended. At least for me.

But somewhere along the road above, a black Nissan truck was winding toward the frigid height of La Cumbre, where it would pass the huge statue of Jesus, his arms stetched back toward the Road of Death.

Ben Brazil last wrote for Travel on Colorado's Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Details: Bolivia's Road of Death

According to the U.S. State Department, the political and social situation in Bolivia remains uncertain since the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and the violence that accompanied it. It advises travelers to exercise caution, avoiding protests and respecting roadblocks. For the latest travel warnings, check travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.html.

GETTING THERE: American Airlines offers service from Washington to La Paz, Bolivia, via Miami/Santa Cruz, Bolivia, as do a combination of carriers such as Lloyd Aero Boliviano, United and US Airways. Round-trip air from D.C. begins at around $800. La Paz's altitude of about 12,000 feet may also cause mild to severe altitude sickness, so take it easy a few days after arriving.

BIKING: Calle Sagarnaga, La Paz's main tourist drag, is lined with agencies offering rides down the "Road of Death," but beware that many use poor-quality bikes and unqualified guides.

One reputable agency is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (Avenida 16 de Julio 1490, 011-591-2-231-3849, www.gravitybolivia.com), whose tours begin at $49. They fill up fast, so book at least a week in advance. Gravity was closed the day I visited, so I went with Downhill Madness (Sagarnaga 339, 011-591-2-239-1810, www.andesamazon.com), which charges $45 and up for the ride, depending on the caliber of the bike.

Tour prices generally include transport up the mountain, a ride back to La Paz, guides, food and bike/equipment. As of my visit, both agencies had English-speaking guides (other La Paz agencies may not). Rides last about five or six hours (all day, if you count time on the bus), and sunscreen, sunglasses, warm clothing and courage are obligatory.

Both agencies offer excellent mountain bike routes in addition to the Road of Death, but these are less popular, so trips leave less frequently; inquire in advance.

WHEN TO GO: The April to October dry season is the best time to go. In the height of rainy season (late December to mid-February), the road may be so muddy that some agencies will refuse to ride it.

WHERE TO STAY: La Paz's accommodations range from budget hostels charging a few dollars a night to five-star hotels with saunas. I stayed at the Hostal Austria (Yanacocha 531, 011-591-2-240-8540), a somewhat dank -- but friendly -- budget spot with singles with shared bath beginning at $4.50 per night.

A better budget value is the Hostal Copacabana (Calle Illampu 734, 011-591-2-245-1138), which has similar prices, nicer rooms and a better location. The best value in town may be the Hotel Rosario (Avenida Illampu 704, 011-591-2-245-1658, www.hotelrosario.com), which has a small museum, a warm atmosphere and free Internet access. Doubles begin at $41 in the July-August high season and start at $37 the rest of the year.

If you prefer something more luxurious, consider the Hotel Plaza (Paseo El Prado, 011-591-2-237-8311, www.plazabolivia.com.bo). Well-located on La Paz's principal avenue, the hotel has a sauna, heated pool, two restaurants and 165 recently refurbished rooms. Rates from $99 single, $130 double.

INFORMATION: The Web sites for Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking and Downhill Madness (above) are both good sources of info on mountain biking. For general information on Bolivia, contact the Bolivian Consulate at 202-232-4827. Other good Web sites include www.explorebolivia.com and www.boliviaweb.com.

-- Ben Brazil

© 2003 The Washington Post Company