35 Miles Straight Down

Coroico Travel Blog

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Today was simply AWESOME.

We woke up at 6am (ok that wasn't so awesome), ate a quick but tasty breakfast at the hotel (thanks to La Posada de la Abuela for accommodating the extra-early prep), and took a taxi to meet our mountain bike group, organized by the outstanding www.gravitybolivia.com.  From there, we piled into two buses and climbed to over 15,000 feet above sea level.  The highest I've ever been.  (Amazingly, by the way, my head - and even my gurgle - feel fine!!)

Our objective today:  mountain bike down 35 miles of Bolivian highway, from 15,000 feet above sea level down into the cloud forest (about 3,000 feet above sea level).  To be be clear, in U.S. terms, "highway" means single lane dirt fire road with 2000 foot drop off on one side, rock wall on other side, and full of mud and pot holes because it was pouring rain.

When the bus dropped us off at the top, we picked out and put on our gear and equipment.  Helmets, gloves, waterproof pants and jackets, neck warmers, goggles, etc.  We got our bikes fitted and checked.

Then we sat down for a group meeting to cover safety, riding logistics, and stats.

The safetry briefing was good and 100% necessary.  Focused mostly on braking technique and sight-seeing technique (i.e., if you want to check out the view, slowly stop your bike and pull off to the "shoulder" which barely existed).

As for riding logistics, most of us were surprised to learn that we would be riding down on the LEFT side of the road.  This seemed crazy for two reasons.  First, Bolivia is like America - people drive on the right.  Therefore, riding down on the LEFT meant we would be riding INTO oncoming traffic.  Second, because of the way the valley and road was positioned, this means we would be riding on the CLIFF/DROPOFF side of the road. 

As for stats, we learned that historically 300-400 people die on this road every year....but apparently we weren't to worry...only about 10 of these were bikers.  Of the bike deaths, the most common type of death was NOT riding off the side of the 2000-3000 foot cliff...but rather it was going head-on into an oncoming truck.  Um....maybe cuz we are riding on the LEFT!!!!???  Shit, is all we thought.

Soon, we took a final photo and last piss - not simultaneously - and then a final "team san francisco" kumbaya high five. 

We then got on the bikes and pointed them downhill...embarking on what was about to be a 4 hour, 35 mile ride of our lives.

The first stretch was paved road - we took it slow and got used to our bikes' handling.  It was also brutally cold, combination of altitude and inclement weather.  And then, before long, it started raining....Bolivia style. 

Chris was the only one of us who had chosen not to use the waterproof pants.  Instead he was wearing his cargo pants.  They got soaked.  But actually, the "waterproof" pants, we decided, were misnamed anyway because in reality all of us got soaked. 

We passed through a drug checkpoint - the funny part of which is they had a billboard listing all the chemicals you weren't allowed to carry through.  Essentially, it was an ingredient list for how to make cocaine.  I have a photo if anyone is interested.

We then turned off onto the "world's most dangerous road" - this Bolivian highway that consisted of a one-lane dirt road.  My front wheel appeared to be untrue (crooked and wobbly), so I asked our crew to exchange the rim and tire, which they did speedily. 

At this point, too, the weather seemed to be getting better, so we took off our waterproof pants.

Mistake.

The next part of the trip got even worse.  It started pouring again, but this time we were on dirt, not paved road.  So it was muddy, rocky, full of potholes.  By the time we stopped for a snack, we were soaked to the bone.  But we had descended a few thousand feet so the climate was getting warmer.  Wasn't entirely unbearable.

Our two guides periodically stopped us as a group to explain the next section of road....what the terrain was like, who had been killed (and how), what we might see along the way (e.g., house of old nazi Klaus Barbie), etc.  We actually found these stops very helpful from a control and safety standpoint.

At one point, my rear brake failed.  Not just failed, but I mean the cable broke completely.  This was pretty scary.  I had to slowly and carefully try to stop using my front brake only (which is a biking no-no...especially on a muddy, curvy road with a cliff on your left.)  But I managed.  I signaled for the support bus, and again they outfitted me with a new rear brake system with amazing speed.  Gracias a Jube y Santi!

The ride ended in the cloud forest at an animal refuge.  There was beer, hot showers, and lunch buffet waiting for us.  What a treat. 

But the biggest treat was surviving the world's most dangerous road.

Ironically one of our two guides crashed and had to be taxi'd to the hospital in La Paz...a mere 4 hours away.  Hopefully Lynn is ok.  She was pretty beat up.

At the end of the day, the bus dropped us off in Coroico, and we hoofed it up the hill to our Hotel Esmerelda.  A exquisite hotel (by Bolivia standards) with a spectacular view.

(P.S.  The above is all true, but I should also say that just this year, they have completed the "new highway" - so actual auto or truck traffic along the road we took was much less than it has been in prior years - translating into a much safer trip for us. We did encounter one big truck coming uphill, but we were able to stop in time and hug the side of the road, not his front grill, and let him pass.  There were a few other smaller cars, but in general  it was pretty safe.... now.  It is easy to see how in past years the ride would have been much more dangerous. )
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Coroico
photo by: Belluomo