The World’s Most Dangerous Road – By Bike (6/4/2010)

Alana and I at Postcard Corner

Before I went to Bolivia, the one country that had some claim over my heart was France, specifically the city of Paris, but something about La Paz is mesmerizing. I’m not sure if it was the experience itself, the beautiful atmosphere of South America, or the culture, but I’m enamored. I think about it often.

Before I left, Alana asked me what my favorite part of the trip was. It’s not too surprising that biking the death road came in first. I’d never really ridden a mountain bike before (my glittery maroon Huffy that I ride to the beach every summer doesn’t count) and I was scared to death, so when we got to the Cumbre I was fairly certain I was going to die on the trip. (This was why I failed to tell my parents about my plans until the next day.)

Prior to the bus ride up to the Cumbre, Alana and I sat in Alexander’s (a cafe chain prominent in La Paz) munching on wheat-chocolate chip muffins. That’s where we met this guy:

Joe was super friendly and ate the remains of our breakfast

Anyway, atop the Cumbre I was assigned a bike with a cherry sticker on it. Despite my resignation, I wobbled off along the gravelly lakeside to test the brakes (sharp as hell) and get used to the bike (Kona, fantastic tires, lots of spring and cushion. Can you tell by my jargon that I know nothing of bikes?).

The trip began with a group pep talk (by our guide from Gravity, best company to use), which detailed the rules and regulations of the trip replete with snarky commentary and a sip of rubbing alcohol. Before riding the road, it’s beneficial to make a sacrifice to Pachamama, the Incan earth goddess.  We each took a swig of the alcohol (enough to wet your lips), splashed a drop on the front bike tire, and another drop on the earth, and then we were off. The start of the ride is deceptively simple; sure, there are cavernous drops off to your right, but you’ve got a wide, paved road ahead of you. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and a few fat clouds drifted lazily between mountain peaks. It was a bit chilly, but they really layer you up at Gravity. Eventually, the road gets more narrow. It’s a sneaky process; one second you’re hugging a guardrail (a comforting sight) and the next you’re on a steep, rocky descent with nothing between you and the dropoff but a roadside grave.

Once you really get going, you start to descend through the clouds. They look harmless from the ground, but up close they’re much more conspicuous than a puffy cottonball. They’re wet, cold, and nearly impossible to see through. And since you’re riding on dirt and beneath the occasional waterfall, you get muddy. In all, it’s quite the unattractive day, especially if your nose is running like a faucet and your Gravity necker is frozen cold with snot. Luckily, Joe was infatuated with taking pictures and snapped quite a few of Alana and I covered in mud. This was a tad awkward after awhile.

a helpful marker along the way

The good part of the descent is that it takes over four hours. Sure, your bum gets sore, but you really get the feel of going down the steep hills. At first, I lagged cautiously behind, but soon I was eager to tear ahead. My fingers, previously stiff from gripping the brakes, were loosening up because I wasn’t using the brakes anymore. Next to skydiving, flying down a mountainside and whipping around corners alongside 200 meter dropoffs is the best adrenaline rush. Ever.

For history buffs and the culture-savvy biker, your Gravity tourguide will stop every so often and tell you about roadside landmarks, such as the Martyrs of Democracy or the place where an entire bus fell off the road and plunged down the cliffside. Luckily, he saves the really depressing stories for the bus ride back home, such as cycling deaths. (Thank God.)

As you reach the bottom, the temperature becomes warmer and you start stripping off layers of clothes to leave in the bus. The air is rich with oxygen again and you remember how to breathe. You’re out of the clouds and the sky is sunny again, and perfect squares of coca fields patch up the mountainsides. There are water crossings, waterfalls, and finally the animal refuge, La Senda Verde, where beers, a buffet, and hot showers (complete with sentinel tarantulas) await the survivors.

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