A wild mountain
bike ride down the "World’s Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia’s
Cordillera Real leaves a rather grubby
Chris Ord gasping for more gravity-assisted
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A man stands solemnly on the edge of
the narrow dirt road, flashing his green sign giving us the okay to
continue. He stands on the outside corner of a precipice jutting out
against a distant jungle background more than three kilometres
below. Behind him is a vertigo-inducing 400-metre drop. It’s the
same drop over which his entire family went careering to their
deaths as they sat on a bus driven by an over zealous, and possibly
over the limit, driver.
Similar drops along this
goat-track-that-passes-for-a-road, an hour north of La Paz in
Bolivia, claim the lives of more than 100 people a year. Thousands have
died since its construction by prisoners of the Chaco War between
1932 and ’35. At its worst this vital mountain trade route killed
over 350 people in twelve months, claiming at least one vehicle
every two weeks.
Only eight or nine vehicles have gone over
the edge this year making it – so far – the safest period yet,
although there is no official toll and locals claim the jungle below
hides hundreds of unreported victims.
Those killer drops are
the same ones you’re now trying desperately to avoid as you hurtle
down the road, feathering your bike around puddles and rocks,
massaging the brakes, careful not to slam them on in panic, an
action that would see you over the handlebars and sliding towards
one of those drops. Yet it’s those very drops which, admit it or
not, are the reason you’ve become, for a day, a two wheel warrior, a
gravel jockey… a mountain biker.
“It’s all about bragging
rights,” says 30-year-old New Zealander Alistair Matthew, a 14-year
veteran of the sport and owner of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking,
the route’s original and most famous mountain bike tour operator.
That explains the free t-shirt you receive for surviving the 64-
kilometre stretch of road labelled by the Inter-American Development
Bank as "the world’s most dangerous." It’s a sanity-questioning yet
obvious choice for a mountain biking adventure, one that attracts
thousands of adrenaline-seekers every year.
From the 4,700-m
high starting point at Lu Cumbre, riders descend in a not always
graceful fashion over 3,600 m, traversing high Andean passes before
pedalling through cloud forest, under waterfalls and on to steamy
Amazonian jungle, finishing at the picturesque town of Coroico, a
colonial holiday haven for La Paz weekenders.
“This is a
bicycle, we all start with one, it’d be good if we all finished with
one,” Alistair begins his pre-ride briefing.
“You have to
employ the Jedi mind trick: look where you want to go. Easy to do,
but easier to get wrong. You don’t want to look at the scary cliff
in front of you, okay?”
With a warning that most accidents
occur when testosterone exceeds riding ability and a threat of ‘bus
banishment’ for those who want to test the theory, we’re ready to
ride. Alistair makes a traditional offering of Bolivian-proof
alcohol to Pachamama, the Andean spirit of Mother Earth, and we’re
The first section of the
ride goes against the expected grain; plenty of high-speed thrills,
yes, but little real danger with kilometres of smoothly paved road
winding down snow-capped mountains, past fields of curious llamas,
the only obstacle being the occasional team of road workers and
dogs. Lots of dogs. They sit with drooped heads, watching forlornly
as our bikes whiz by, not enticed into a frenzied chase by the
speeding wheels nor by our flashy orange vests. Legend has it that
each dog is the spirit of someone who has died on the road, left to
aimlessly wander along their own earthly instrument of death.
Drivers regularly feed them in an offering for their own safe
passage, hoping these lost spirits will guard over their journey
down the treacherous mountain pass.
While the ride is all
about dog-dodging fun, the danger of the road is reiterated
constantly. “A guide was killed only last week,” says Alistair. “Hit
by a police car,” he adds. Talk about heavy hand of the law.
Apparently there have also been four tourist deaths on the ride,
none with Gravity Alistair assures us.
It gets worse: we
stop at a non-descript concrete monument inscribed ‘Martyrs of
Democracy.’ It was here on 19th November 1944 that, with an election
looming, Bolivia’s ruling party rounded up five members of the
opposition, bound hands and legs and then unceremoniously shoved
them to their death.
More recently, fourteen people died
when their mini-bus went off at exactly the same spot. Crosses,
shrines and rock memorials dot the road continually as you descend,
each telling a similar tragic story.
Arriving at a
Hebrew-inscribed monument perched at a particularly precarious
corner, Alistair recounts how an Israeli girl, travelling with
another company, plunged to her death after complaining that her
brakes weren’t working properly. “Apparently her tour group was
waiting for her on this corner; she rode straight through them and
over the edge.” Despite the fact that our guides had already checked
brakes at regular intervals, we all get them checked
With blind corners every hundred metres, landslides,
rock falls and no barriers, it’s easy to imagine that any slight
lapse in concentration, for rider or driver, would end in a freefall
catastrophe. At some points, the road is only ten feet (3.2m)
wide. Some trucks navigating the mountain-hugging route are wider.
Most accidents involve these trucks as they hurtle down the road
rushing to win another commission hauling produce from the jungle
back up to the markets of La Paz. “For them, ironically, the risk is
about survival. Most of the drivers are poor campesinos struggling
to feed families,” Alistair explains.
A second, safer, road has
been built down the mountains with the help of international aid,
however most trucks and buses continue to use the older, deadlier
route. For the moment authorities only open the new road
periodically and most heavy trucks and buses are banned from using
it. And so commerce and livelihood demands they continue up and down
the ‘world’s most dangerous road.’
Their journey, and ours,
isn’t made easier by the dust. It billows up in blinding
proportions, the view, the road and the next corner obliterated.
Roadside foliage is blanketed in a layer of powder. As we pedal
further down, the dirt and grime replaces layers of clothing shed as
temperature and humidity increases.
As we near our finishing
point in the truck-stop town of Yolosa, we’re shown that no one is
immune from the road’s constant jack-hammering or Pachamama’s sense
of humour: Alistair gets the only puncture of the day.
Once up in Coroico, cold beers are cracked and the buzz of the ride
continues to flow. Stories of near misses with buses, trucks, rocks
and cliffs echo around the bar, stories that over the years are sure
to grow. "My front wheel skidded to a stop only half a foot from the
edge" kind of stuff. And that famous t-shirt will be brought out to
prove they really did survive the world’s most dangerous
As Alistair said, it’s all about bragging rights.
This article is dedicated to the memory of 34 Bolivian
passengers who died when their bus went over the edge only a few
days after the author rode down ‘the world’s most dangerous