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Downhill bike ride in Bolivia


Downhill bike ride in mountains of Bolivia proves uplifting experience

By John Maxwell


NORTH JOURNALS – Wednesday, November 9, 2005 .

What would impel a middle aged man to embark upon a 4,000 mile weekend bike expedition to the Bolivian Andes? Nothing less than the “Ride of Death” on the World’s Most Dangerous Road !

Since 1998, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking has operated from a small office in the center of La Paz , Bolivia . Fabled among the international mountain biking set, this company specializes in a 40-mile, all-day trip down one of the mountains in the Cordillera Real ( Royal Range ) to the tropical village of Coroico , Bolivia .

The airport at La Paz , sits at an altitude of 12,050 feet . The relatively low atmospheric pressure requires higher landing speeds upon arrival and additional runway upon departure. La Paz itself is situated in a 3,000-foot deep canyon beneath “El Alto Plano” the high plain that stretches to the shores of Lake Titicaca , which lies astride the borders of Peru and Bolivia .

The visitor to Bolivia must become acclimated to the restively low oxygen levels at this altitude. After a 6:00 a.m. arrival and two-hour nap at the Copacabana Hotel in central La Paz , I spent Friday touring quaint villages surrounding Lake Titicaca, an hour’s drive west of La Paz . Of particular interest were the pre-Incan ruins found in Tiahuanacu, site of a 2,000 year-old civilization that mysteriously disappeared around 1100 AD.

On the morning of the ride, the 17 members assembled at 7 a .m. at a coffee shop in La Paz for instructions. Somewhat disconcertingly, we were given the opportunity of purchasing one day’s insurance to cover any mishaps that might occur over the next 12 hours. The only American in the group, this 50-something adventurer was old enough to have fathered most of his fellow bikers, an electric of university students from Ireland and the Netherlands, tourists from Australia and New Zealand, a financier from London undergoing a premature midlife crisis climb in a minibus to the top of La Cumbre , a 15,400-foot mountain peak in the Cordillera Real, we were assigned our mountain bikes and optional protective gear. I opted for the entire package – goggles, pants, jacket and gloves – and got instructions on proper braking techniques when rounding the 90-degree turns that would be forthcoming.

The first 10 miles or so of the 40-mile ride were on a paved highway, enabling us to get a feel for our bikes and their braking capability. We were cautioned that we easily would attain speeds of 80 to 90 km per hour on this paved highway without realizing it, and this prediction soon proved to be true.

After passing a drug checkpoint maintained by the Bolivian Army, we came to the beginning of the World’s Most Dangerous Road , a gravel path blasted out of the side of the mountain in the 1930’s. The road was only 10 feet wide, too narrow to permit two vehicles to pass in both directions. The path is the only route from La Paz to the Yungas Valley – at least until the Bolivian government finds the money to complete a tunnel route through the mountain, abandoned two years ago for lack of funds.

Our American guide, a professional mountain biker from Detroit , explained carefully the rules of the road on the downward descent. Vehicles traveling downhill had the right of way and were required to travel on the left-hand side of the road to enable the driver to gauge his proximity to the edge of the roadway, which in places had sheer vertical drops in excess of 1,000 meters . Every 100 yards or so, there were cutaways on the outer edge of the road. We were to keep to the left side, even though inches separated our tires from the precipice.

Front brakes were not to be used or applied very softly when rounding these right-hand to ensure complete control of our bikes. We were told to maintain a distance of at least 30 feet from the bike in front to prevent injuries in the event of sudden stops.

Every so often, we pulled over to these protective islands to permit trucks and buses to amble by. On several of these cutaways, helpfully situated at 90-degree turns on the road, residents manned shacks with green and red placards to signal oncoming vehicles approaching the blind spots.

One of these Bolivians lost his entire family when their car veered off the side of the mountain in the early 1990s and now devotes his life to saving the lives of others by signaling travelers in both directions. The largest fatal accident in Bolivian history occurred here in 1983, when a bus veered over the edge, resulting in 100 fatalities. Crosses dot the route at the site of other tragedies.

Since the dangerous portion of road was mostly downhill, there was little physical challenge in this ride, even at higher altitudes, except for the tingling in the hands and wrists after five hours of constant braking. The most taxing component of the trip was mental – remaining alert for oncoming vehicle traffic, large rocks or holes in the road, fellow bikers passing without warning, and the occasional muddy spots caused by waterfalls draining off the mountain to our right.

My only close call came when a camion (large tour bus) rounded the corner on the uphill trip toward La Paz . I was faced to traveling to the left into a muddy pool of silt bordering the edge of a precipitous drop, or to the right to within inches of the front of the bus. I chose the latter and drew a starling burst of sound from the driver’s air horn.

The last 10 miles of the trip were dusty and hot as we approached the jungle town of Yolosa , where the steamy jungle spreads into the Amazon Basin . We were bused uphill to the cloud-covered village of Coroico , built on the edge of the mountain, where we were trated to a buffet and showers before the four-hour return trip to La Paz .

The cost of the ride was a surprisingly reasonable $50. I upgraded to a double-suspension Kona mountain bike for an additional $14. The price included a high-energy lunch, all the water you could drink and the buffet at Coroico. Gravity suspends operations during the rainy season, November through January, and also sponsors independent bike expeditions in the La Paz area. Further information may be obtained on the company’s Internet site, www.gravitybolivia.com.

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