Unloading Bikes At La Cumbre
The weather wasnâ€™t looking too good for a long bike ride down down down the Worldâ€™s Most Dangerous Road. The billing intrigued me, ever since I was in Peru and heard talk about it. Has anyone ever known me to resist a challenge like that? If I could paddle for three days down the Amazon on a homemade balsa raft lashed together with bark I could surely tackle seventy kilometers of what has been determined to be the deadliest stretch of road in the world. Several days of clouds and light rain and a chill in the air made me consider waiting to do the bike ride but I thought it would be a good idea to get out of the house for the weekend and take Anita with me. I thought she could use a change of scenery and get her mind off things.
Not Encouraging Advertisement
So I did some legwork and eventually booked a trip with an agency on the highly trafficked Sagarnaga street. The agency looked reputable and was mentioned in my guide book. It was also only $47 as opposed to the touted Gravity agency which wanted $69 for what seemed to me the same trip with the same support and extras.
After I had bought the tickets Anita was a bit shocked. She thought I was just going to investigate the trip. Well, they were non-refundable so we were stuck. We had dinner that night at Javier & Carolaâ€™s beautiful house in Zona Sur that Javier had designed. We bought shellfish and I made a pasta with red sauce. The sauce was tasting very good but when I was cooking the pasta my heart sank.
It was all gummy and wouldnâ€™t cook properly. Carola told me that I bought a bad brand of pasta and that there was only one good brand. Now I know. The gummy pasta spoiled the meal for me although everyone else ate with gusto and took seconds and even thirds in Javierâ€™s case. They teased Anita about the upcoming trip as apparently Anita is not the sporting type. Sheâ€™s never done anything remotely like this and even walking is not on her list of favorites. She declared that she would be taking the support van for most of the way!
I had to wash my trekking pants and I hoped they would be dry by morning. I did some ironing on them the night before but in the morning at 6 AM they were still damp. I tried to iron but the cord kept shorting out and I was making little progress.
The First Valley
Finally I got them to the point that they were wearable, even if a little uncomfortable. The joke would be on me later when we were all soaked within five minutes of starting out on the ride! It was overcast and chilly and we had some breakfast at the hostel where we met the others in the group. A pair of Australian guys, an English and German couple, a couple from Argentina, and a trio of Japanese. We had been joking because Anita said she was going to meet a German, but when we were at the table looking around I silently mouthed to her, â€śHowâ€™s your Japanese?â€ť We were laughing and the others couldnâ€™t understand why. After suiting up in the biking pants and jackets and trying out our helmets and gear we got in the bus and spent an hour getting out of La Paz
and higher up to the pass at La Cumbre where the bikes were unloaded and we were given instructions.
The craggy terrain was blanketed with snow and it was hard to believe that within hours we would be in a lush valley filled with coffee, tropical flowers and plantains.
Our guide set out and we followed, testing out our brakes and traction as the wet road quickly descended. We sped past a herd of llamas and rounded the snowy peaks until we stopped at the head of a long beautiful valley with waterfalls on each side and a river snaking along the valley floor. After some instruction from the guide and some pictures, including a photo of the rusting shells of some busses far below that contributed to give the road itâ€™s name, we headed further down. The views were breathtakingly spectacular and I found myself wishing we could go back up and do the first part all over again.
The next stop was at a drug checkpoint and from there we road and stopped every so often until we arrived at the second checkpoint and toll booth. There was intermittent mist and rain and by then we were all wet so it didnâ€™t matter. I kept my cap on and my rain jacket tightly zipped up so I was still dry under it.
After that point we had to make a slow ascent and the rain fell harder. I was cursing my gears that didnâ€™t seem to work properly and the group started to spread out as we singly pedaled up the slope. Finally, out of breath, soaked, tired and hungry, we made it to the top. We were told that from here it would be all downhill, and that also from this point the old unpaved road began. The new paved road of a few years ago took a different route to Coroico
and weâ€™d have the old road to ourselves which would significantly improve our safety.
Weâ€™d already experienced how the traffic seems to regard bikers or pedestrians as an annoyance on â€śtheirâ€ť road. We were advised to go slowly on the narrow unpaved track. Anyone that goes over the edge has no chance of survival. The sheer drops hundreds and hundreds of feet down donâ€™t allow for recovery. So we set out and after some time began to see a change in the landscape. Even though rainy the upper cloud forest was so lush and if anything, the rain and clouds made it more dramatic as we wended our way down by tight switchbacks over the perilous narrow road. What made it even more difficult were the ruts and stones that were so easy to slip on and crash. Some eight bicyclists have gone over the edge since biking commenced on the road.
Curves Ahead...No, Really??
It was now easy to understand why. We saw many crosses and markers for the many who lost their lives in the past. A little further down, after a break to catch our breaths and gather together for more instructions, one of the Japanese tried to brake and turn and fell headfirst over his handlebars thus becoming the first casualty of the day. He skinned his right leg and was bleeding, though not profusely. Really, he was going way too fast for the track and I was right behind him when he fell. I could have easily run into him and fallen myself but I had a good control of my bike. I wasnâ€™t trying to be the heroâ€¦there was too much at stake and I wanted to trip to be pleasant, not my last.
The rain let up and some sun emerged giving us hope that we might dry out before we reached Coroico.
We ran under some waterfalls that undid the work of drying out in seconds, but they were fun diversions. More spills occurred with the same Japanese falling again to cut up his other leg, and then near the end, a pileup of three rounding a curve. The German girl tried to brake to avoid a large rock in the road and when she swerved she caused two others behind her to crash who were following way too closely. This was the danger of biking down this road, too much confidence and steadily increasing speeds with too little distance between bikers. An accident was bound to happen and it did. Luckily it wasnâ€™t fatal but one could see how easily any of the bikes could have gone into the precipice. This route was not for the faint of heart.
Anita fell too but it was because of a rocky stretch and she didnâ€™t hurt herself. Soon we were near the bottom. After a run through a stream across the road we were at the end of the trail. They loaded up the bikes while we had a celebratory beer and then we rode a little way to a delightful hotel near the valley river that featured a swimming pool and lovely flower gardens. The family-style lunch was abundant and delicious but it was too chilly to swim even though that didnâ€™t deter a family of blacks from the nearby town from splashing and frolicking in the pool. More about the interesting town of former black slaves later. We debated where to stay the night. Anita had struck up a friendship with the Argentinean couple, especially with the girl, Paola, who cursed her boyfriend during the whole ride as she always brought up the tail (with Anita not far behind).
But kudos to Anita for not taking the van. She road the whole way. Damian and Paola decided to accompany us up to Coroico to look for a place there. My Lonely Planet suggested some nice hostels just outside of town that were supposed to be very nice for the price. I had a bit of panic when I realized I had left my jacket with my camera in the pocket, but I got a taxi back to the hotel and it was still there.
We walked around town until finally getting a taxi to take us up the muddy road to the Sol Y Luna Hostel that was highly recommended. It was absolutely charming. The property consisted of a number of scattered private cabanas linked by trails filled with flowers and vegetation. There were two swimming pools and a restaurant and a childrenâ€™s play area as well.
Anita and I got a two bed apartment in a block of three and Damian and Paola shared a cabana a little further up the slope. Our neighbor introduced himself and without further ado, on learning that Anita was Bolivian, asked her to go to the main plaza in town and buy some hash for him. He explained that he and his companions had been tripping on San Pedro cactus all day and they needed a downer to come off the hallucinations. Anita was surprised and didnâ€™t agree to the deal. She said heâ€™d have to fend for himself. This guy explained how they had bought the cactus and spent all night preparing the nasty viscuous brew which they imbibed in the morning. There was an American, the English guy, another English girl and a Croat.
A very motley crew to say the least. But the English bloke was vastly entertaining in his addled state and he had Anita and I rolling with laughter. We werenâ€™t sure if he would be offended if we laughed but it was just too funny to hold it in. At one point, after a discussion of religion (his view was that the indigenous should have been left to their pagan rites and that the introduction of Catholicism by the Spanish ruined everything), we noticed some spiders and I bent down to prod at them. One began scurrying towards him and he jumped back and shouted â€śMan of God, donâ€™t push that nasty beast towards me!â€ť I explained that St. Francis loved animals and there was no contradiction between my religion and spiders but he just didnâ€™t get it.
He just muttered under his breath and shied further away. Clearly it was no use reasoning with a guy tripping on the effects of the cactus. Damian and Paola joined us for some sandwiches and beer from the restaurant and then, exhausted, we made our way to bed. After my shower I had a fall on the slippery tiles which could have been worse and in the morning, I woke up to find myself eaten up by bedbugs. Anita was spared and laughed at me for choosing the wrong bed. Such is life I guess!