Bolivian Bravery - My Cycle Challenge Down the World's Most Dangerous Road!
By Jane McLellan
Last updated: 26th August 2011
Cycling down the world’s most dangerous road (reassuringly called “The Death Road”) in Bolivia was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done. It was thrilling and, at times, almost heart-stopping, but so much fun.
My crazy bike ride experience started at 6:30am when I met my tour group in a local café in La Paz. After breakfast we jumped into a minibus with our bikes tied to the roof and climbed for an hour, high up into the mountains. At La Cumbre (4,700 metres above sea level) we got out and were introduced to our guides. We listened to a safety briefing and quicklyhad a nervous practice on the bikes.
Before we started the 64km descent, our guide asked us to join in on a little ritual to Mother Earth. We all had to raise our right hand and repeat what our guide said. It was mainly about keeping safe, helping others stay safe and not acting like an idiot while riding. We then had to take it in turns to sprinkle some alcohol over the front wheel of our bike and onto the ground before lifting the bottle to our lips to wet them with the liquid. It was all a bit strange, but if it was going to help me get down the hill in one piece, then I was all for it!
On a clear day you can see snow-capped mountains and other incredible views stretching out into the distance. Unfortunately for us, the weather was miserable – raining and misty. On the plus side, this meant we couldn’t see the massive vertical drop so there were some upsides!
The route we took was peppered with small villages and grazing llamas, and so far, it was looking quite tame. However, after about 20km we left the new road and joined the official World’s Most Dangerous Road. At this point, it was still cloudy and raining, so visibility was pretty poor, but now and then, squinting through the fog, I managed to pick out of glimpses of how high up we were, and how far down the drop was. There were no fences or guardrails to stop plummeting over the side, and to make things even scarier, vehicles drive on the left, as opposed to the right, like the rest of Bolivia. The reason for this is because vehicles in Bolivia have their steering wheel on the left-hand side, but some sections of the road are so narrow that the driver has to be able to stick his head out of the window to make sure the wheels are on still the road! Usually this would make me happy because it is what I am used to in the UK, but on this road it means you are cycling right along the cliff edge!
The infamous World’s Most Dangerous Road is basically a narrow dirt track. This road is cut precariously into the side of the mountain and descends 2000 metres with 1000 metre sheer drop just inches from where you cycle. Scary stuff! It’s covered in rocks and potholes. Since 2007, the majority of public traffic has stopped driving down this road and now use the new, much safer bypass. You may find the occasional vehicle risking it on the old section of the road, so you need to be prepared to manoeuvre by them along the way.
Later on in the route, the mist cleared, unveiling the most beautiful, dramatic scenery. We cycled along the narrow road that clung to the mountainside as it wound through the breathtaking landscape, twisting between jungle, waterfalls, towering cliffs and rocky overhangs. The road had a lot of blind corners and hairpin turns, and I was zooming down it pretty fast. It was an incredible feeling and my adrenaline was pumping, but at the same time I repeatedly kept asking myself, “Why am I doing this?!”
Our guide was brilliant and he split the journey down into sections so that we frequently stopped and gathered together for a safety chat, helping us stay focused and not get too complacent. During these stops, our guide would brief us on the road ahead and let us know of any particularly dangerous corners or steep bits. Halfway down the mountain we stopped for a well-appreciated chocolate break. Looking around at my fellow riders, I saw that we were all soaked head-to-toe and caked in mud and dust, and yet were all grinning madly – it was such a brilliant day.
The temperature warmed up as we made our way down the hill, making the track even dustier. We had to keep stripping off layers and wiping our sunglasses. The whole ride was an exhilarating experience and I couldn’t stop smiling. I managed to keep up with all the lads and by the end of it I wasn’t scared; in fact, I didn’t want it to end and was desperate to do it all over again!
We finished the ride at 1525 metres before walking to a local wildlife refuge for lunch. Cheeky spider monkeys were scampering and bouncing all around us as we enjoyed a beer and even received a free t-shirt! We were muddy, aching, exhausted, but all buzzing. All too soon it was time to climb into the minibus and drive back up the same road that we had just cycled down. If you thought that now was the time you could finally relax, you were wrong – it was another terrifying experience. I had to stop looking out the window because we were so close to the edge.
I won’t lie, cycling down the world’s most dangerous road is quite risky and possibly a stupid idea, but at the same time that’s what makes it so popular. If you listen to the safety briefing, practice the riding style they suggest and don’t be an idiot and race down the hill you should be fine. Don’t take any risks, stay focused and just enjoy it! According to our guide most accidents happen when people go too fast or when cyclists don’t pay attention to where they are going. If you take all these precautions, there is no reason why you won’t get down safely and have the most awesome experience of your life – I know I did!