May 15 – The World’s Most Dangerous Road
I woke up several times in the middle of the night – sometimes to pee, sometimes to catch my breath, sometimes to wince at the excruciating pain in my ribs. Every travel book and every traveler we passed warned us of altitude sickness but at this point I can’t figure out where my imagination stops and reality begins.
By 6am we were up and fed french toast and coca tea. At this altitude water boils at 88oF so it takes extra long to cook things. While we waited for our second batch of tea to boil we picked out real mountain biking wardrobes before the bus came at 7 to take us atop the World’s Most Dangerous Road. Karin helps maintain Gravity Mountain Biking, a company that runs mountain bike tours through the greater Bolivian landscape. Her theory is that by arriving to La Paz last night, The Collins and I will trick our bodies into acclimating to the altitude by taking us up to 16,000 feet this morning and down to 4,000 feet by this afternoon, via bicycle, before the sickness hits (usually after 24 hours).
Our two guides, Mike and Travis, met us at Karin’s and we all headed toward the Gravity bike yard. Our driver, Pablo, was a local whose gold smile was suspiciously chipper for the early hour. I could not make out a word of his local Spanish dialect, it was super relaxed and seemed to have no inflections or consonants. When the gringos talked to him their Spanish would fluctuate between textbook rigidity and Pablo’s lethargic tongue. It was very hard to follow.
Every few minutes I found myself taking slow, deep breaths which prompted anxiety over when the altitude sickness was gonna kick in. We’re told, if there’s one thing that brings the sickness on quicker and harder it’s physical exertion.
We picked up about 15 other riders waiting at a pre-determined coffee shop then headed towards La Cumbre, our departure point. Once there we were given brief instructions, fitted for our bikes, and told to either haul ass and stay up front, or lag and stay with the heels. There were other instructions but I had such bloating gas I couldn’t pee and therefore couldn’t pay attention. I tried to pee once at the bike yard and twice by the side of a lake in La Cumbre an hour later. No luck either time. Of course, the longer one holds it in the harder it is for one to let it go.
The first twenty minutes of the ride was intense. I was on a new bike dialed to go Fast. We were zooming down a windy road with oncoming traffic, and I had pee backing up in the form of tears.
Our first stop was a clearing that gave us our first hint of the upcoming topography. We could see for miles around and down into the canyon we were about to bomb. With no clouds the air had a cold bite to it. The spectacular view rang bright and endless. It was all so beautiful I hardly noticed I had been peeing for a couple minutes until Robert made some comment.
Speaking of Robert, he was wearing not only
shorts, but also a red sports parka, finger-less biking gloves, aerodynamic
helmet and wrap-around sunglasses.
The next 20 miles went smoothly and quickly. Very quickly. I was getting very accustomed to my bike and finding the most efficient techniques for increasing speed and diminishing resistance. We rolled at a steady 70kph, rounding turns and passing busses, slowing only at inclines and a few photogenic vistas. The quick descent brought us to more temperate weather and the clothes started coming off in layers. Eventually our pack of riders convened just outside a small town with no noticeable name or purpose. We were told "the World’s Most Dangerous Road officially begins here."
We had entered a menacing cloudbank and the visibility fell sharply, unlike the temperature. The paved road gave way to loose ruble (and mud when we were lucky). The route also slimmed down to one lane and rarely went more than 100 meters before making a sharp turn around the mountainside.
The next couple miles were summed up by a standard diamond-shaped
yellow curves ahead road sign that was hardly discernable behind
all the mud splattered on it. It is easy to keep mud from flying off the
front tire and into your face if you are going straight. The frame usually
blocks it. But the endlessly twisting road kept a steady jet of wet dirt
and muck flowing from my tire to my mouth and nose. And what started as
a Rorschach pattern on my back quickly morphed into a mud shell as more
and more dirt caked into it.
Where I live – in a region with no bike awareness whatsoever – every time I make it home from biking across town I feel I’ve cheated death. I am accustomed to weaving through traffic and avoiding negligent drivers (and their doors). What I am not accustomed to is dodging traffic while also on a rocky incline with eminent death to my left. At our speed it helps to have the path of least resistance – in our case, the very outside 24 inches of the road where the rubble and broken rock become a loose, powdery dust. This may seem scary – and it is – but it is so much faster and smoother. The real danger is when you approach a part of the road that has crumbled away and you can’t see the gap until you’re bunny-hopping over it, and you can look down past your peddles and see hundreds of feet between you and where the mountain starts to level out.
WHN? in Sudamerica - May 2002
0 – Please wake me for meals.
At times there were no smooth lines in the road and, in fact, brakes were absolutely necessary. The few of us in the front pack had avoided using our brakes for most of the ride, allowing us to merely hover our hands over the grips so the constant shock of the road could be absorbed by the legs instead of the entire upper body. Of course this meant we couldn’t really steer but when you’re going that fast a mere lean will usually do the trick (and only rarely topple you over). And the less pressure I put on my upper body (and my ribs in general), the better.
But the real trick to riding this road is being able to juggle the speedy/extreme/totally rad aspect with the unbelievable view you constantly want to stop and take pictures of. Every so often I’d hit a straightaway and take a second to scan the panorama but with only one eye, lest I dabble in flight or wind up as a hood ornament.
We neared the valley floor near our destination city of Coroico around mid-afternoon. The road started to widen and the traffic got thicker, as did the dust. It was also very hot at this point so the dirt had an easy time mixing with our sweat to make mud. A few turns yielded waterfalls or riverbeds in which we used to clean/cool off. It was at one of these riverbeds that I set local-tourist relations back a few years:
The road ahead made a horseshoe. At the head of the curve was a foot-deep, 15-foot-wide stream cutting straight across the road. Parked at the turn and thus, in the river, was a large truck housing some locals sent here to do some job involving digging. I came around the corner rapidly and had every intention of charging through the water with enough speed to thoroughly drench myself as well as sustain enough momentum so as not to collapse in the water. I was about ten feet away when a child came around from the far side of the truck. He saw me and waved his hands like he was excited to see me and excited to get splashed. I was about to oblige him when his father appeared from behind him. They began to walk hand-in-hand to my side of the river. I had two reasonable choices (hitting the hyperspace button and/or bunny-hopping over them were out of the question): either I skid to a stop and fall into the river or worse - off the side of the cliff - or I keep going as planned.
I kept going.
The boy got splashed, that much I’m sure of. But I don’t know about the father. They both disappeared behind the truck.
Part of my group was waiting on the other side of the river. I stopped there and took a breather. A few minutes passed and I rode back towards the river to splash myself. The father appeared again and he said to me: Gringo. I replied Si with a guilty smile, hoping he would recognize my honesty. But he repeated himself, this time with venom. I was so used to hearing Gringo associated with someone who will ask a lot of questions or who could easily be swindled out of money or who was just a harmless ignoramus, but I forgot it was a derogatory term applied to selfish honkeys like me who abused privileges and tread inconsiderately wherever and however they wanted. Gringo malo…
At the end of the ride we cleaned off in the dusty town of Yolosa.
Our bike party eventually piled back into our bus which
had been following us the whole way down. As scary as our ride was on
a bicycle I’d much prefer it to a ride down the mountain in a motorized
vehicle – more than once I was sure I was about to witness a vehicle go
over the side of the mountain. We crossed a pink bridge that was being
painted yellow in honor of one of the political parties. That’s the style
of graffiti here – not underground dissident voices channeled through
spraypaint cans, but big party color splotches painted on anything paint-able,
from bridges to open-faced rocks. Occasionally you’d pass a stencil of
someone’s head but usually it was a paint roller block of pink or yellow.
The small town of Coroico rested on top of a mini mountain, and our accommodations, the Hotel Esmarelda, perched on top of it all. From our room we could see the entire town as well as the whole valley below us. It was spectacular and, with three to a room, ridiculously cheap.
Thankfully, The Collins' were done humping when I returned to the room.
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