Emory Report
January 24, 2005
Volume 59, Number 16


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January 24, 2005
The Road of Death

BY ben brazil

StoryIn the course of dropping nearly 12,000 feet in less than 40 miles, Bolivia’s “Road of Death” poses a number of challenging questions to mountain bikers.

Here’s a sample:
A Nissan pickup unexpectedly rounds a blind curve 20 feet ahead of you. You should:
a) Steer sharply left, toward the 3,000-foot cliff.
b) Hug the mountainside, hoping the hood is softer than it looks.
c) Find God, quickly.

Looking for “d) none of the above?” So was I on a day in May 2003, in the middle of a wild ride down what is also frequently referred to as the “world’s most dangerous road.”

I had been hearing about this ride for weeks, usually from other budget travelers who’d passed through La Paz, Bolivia’s capital and the jumping-off point for the trip. Without fail, they described never-ending downhills, flips over handlebars and enormous trucks driving inches away from a half-mile of empty air.
They also said it was the sort of thing that I absolutely had to do, and I believed them.

In the past five years or so, La Paz has sprouted hordes of travel agencies—many less-than-reputable—offering guided bike rides down the “Road of Death,” the route linking the high, cold region called the Altiplano with the town of Coroico in the steamy, low-lying valleys of the Yungas region.
In its most dangerous section, the road is one unpaved lane hacked out of the mountainside, bordered by 3,000-foot cliffs. A staggering percentage of its curves are blind, and a truck’s cautionary “look-out” honk is usually all the warning you’ll get. Several waterfalls crash directly onto the road, and it can be muddy throughout.

Passing is also a problem. When two vehicles meet, descending drivers normally have to back up until there is enough space for ascending drivers to pass. With horrifying frequency, they back entirely off the cliff. As of my visit in May, the local police had logged 42 accidents, 34 deaths and 112 injuries along the route in the first five months of 2003 alone.

I, of course, had only a vague notion of any of this when I registered for a guided tour. At 9:30 the next morning, I was standing atop a frigid, 15,400-foot hilltop, putting on a bike helmet and looking at a 25-foot-tall statue of Jesus. His outstretched arms faced the valley below, and a plaque at the statue’s base read God bless the travelers.

This was the pass of La Cumbre, the starting point for our trip.

About an hour earlier, I had met the seven other members of my group—four Europeans, an Australian couple and a young Brazilian. Our guides herded us onto a microbus and drove us out of La Paz. When the bus rattled to a stop, we stepped onto a scree-covered hillock topped with power transformers and, of course, Jesus. Our Bolivian guides handed out heavy wind pants, orange vests and bicycles. And then, after telling us to ignore the stray dogs lining the road, they pointed us down the mountain.

Efraín, our 24-year-old, English-speaking guide, rode in front, and the company’s safety rules prohibited us from passing him. Behind the pack rode Franz, another guide who would not pass us. At the end came our microbus, now transformed into a support vehicle for mechanical and medical difficulties.

For almost 20 miles at its start, the “world’s most dangerous road” is paved and not too terribly dangerous. What it is, however, is fast. In seconds, the wind was flapping my clothes and numbing my face as I flew into the upper reaches of the Unduavi River canyon. My nose ran, my eyes watered and my ears hurt, but I couldn’t stop grinning.

I was moving faster than I ever had in anything without an engine, catching—then passing—several buses and heavy trucks. If you’ve never ridden a bike past a truck topped with blanket-covered Bolivians, I can only say that it is an odd, exhilarating sensation.

As we descended, the air turned warmer, the vegetation became greener and the clouds were no longer so far below. Several times, Efraín stopped so we could take pictures.

Then, after 2.5 hours that included an anti-drug checkpoint and a short, uphill slog, the pavement suddenly ended. Dead ahead, the ground dropped sharply, leaving only whirling clouds riding the warm updrafts from the tropical valley below. To the right lay our path, a bumpy thread of rocks and mud leading into the jungle.
Efraín stepped off his bike. This, he said, was the dangerous section.

“Dangerous?” asked a young Dutch woman in our group.

“But for us it is OK,” Efraín said, not totally convincingly.

There was one essential rule for this section of the road, he told us gravely: Downhill traffic, ourselves included, stayed to the left, next to the cliff. Ascending trucks would be on the inside, and they were best avoided.

This arrangement is designed to give descending drivers a better view of the cliff’s edge (and, hence, improved odds of not going over it) when they back up to allow another vehicle to pass.

After his brief safety talk and a moment’s rest, Efraín started downhill again, and the group strung out behind him, our bikes rattling across the rocks and uneven ground. The road’s steep grade and my fear of flying over the cliff kept my right hand locked in a death grip on the back brake, and I tried hard to find the perfect balance of speed, control, adrenaline and caution.

An undulating blanket of green spread out below me, and small waterfalls occasionally splattered my legs as they fell onto the road. At times, however, my attention was necessarily diverted from the view by Efraín, who waved us to the side whenever he saw a truck or bus approaching.

On one such stop, he pointed to a bus rounding a particularly sharp curve. A truck had gone over that edge about three weeks earlier, he told me. I asked if there were muertos, the Spanish word for deaths.

“Sí,” he said. “Muchos muertos.”

A few minutes later, I almost joined their ranks.

I had just spotted Efraín waving me to the shoulder again when the black Nissan rounded a corner. Afraid of coming too near the cliff, I had been riding on the wrong side of the road, directly in the pickup’s path.

For a moment, I froze. Then I frantically squeezed my back brake, dragged my foot across the ground and skidded madly toward the cliff. I passed within about three feet of the truck’s bumper, careened toward the cliff and then stopped, about five feet from the edge.

The truck’s driver and his passenger were laughing. I was not.

“Stay on the left side of the road,” Efraín warily reminded me.

Farther down the “highway” to Coroico, the road changed from mud to dust, and grime coated my face. My hands ached from squeezing the brakes, my forearms hurt from absorbing shock, and my backside felt as if I’d been strapped atop a jackhammer.

At about 3 p.m., we came to Yolosa, a tropical pit stop a few miles before Coroico. We veered off the road and onto a short stretch of single-track that led to La Senda Verde, an ecologically friendly campground and restaurant. And there, beneath a mango tree, the trip ended.

At least for me.

But somewhere along the road above, a black Nissan truck was still traveling, winding toward the frigid height of La Cumbre, where it would pass the huge statue of Jesus, his arms stretched back toward the Road of Death.

This essay has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and Washington Post, and is reprinted with permission.