La Cumbre – Coroico, Bolivia
Living life on the edge… After another frustrating but hilarious trip to the post office which took 1.5 hours and involved queuing to enter a locked, curtained room where your package was searched for drugs and then hand sewn into a sheet, Jason persuaded me to do another weird thing: cycle down the World’s most Dangerous Road (WMDR). The 60 km stretch of road, most of which has been blasted into the side of sheer cliff face, was named WMDR in 1995 after a whopping 26 vehicles whizzed off the edge into oblivion within one year. As you may imagine, I wasn’t actually that keen on doing this bike ride… but as this road is the only way to arrive in a lovely town in the sub tropical jungle we all wanted to visit I let Hannah and Jason persuade me into it. The day before leaving we were asking the tour company for info about what to wear etc and I thought I would cut to the chase, “How many tourists have died on this trip?” I asked, I nearly fainted when he coolly said “just 8 … but none with our company ” . We started at 4700m where the air was icy and thin. The first 8 miles were tarmacked road which would have been a dream to whiz down had my fingers and feet not gone numb with cold and started to throb. The scenery here was cloud filled valleys and snowy mountains and it was hard to believe what the guide was telling us: that in the space of 4 or 5 hours we would descend over 3500m into the humid rainforest. It was when the tarmac ran out that you could see why it was also called “death road”. We did a similar cycle in Huaraz, Peru where the road was bad enough but it was the sheer drops here that did it. A look over the edge revealed drops of over 300m into the forest below. Large parts of the road aren’t even wide enough for 2 vehicles to pass, and as it gets steeper and bumpier, it gets narrower and the blind bends come faster. There isn’t enough money to erect barriers and the only thing that stands between you and the edge is regular clusters of makeshift crosses reminding you that one skid on the slippery, stony track and one of them could be yours. Red plastic flags mark the spots where recent accidents have happened and if you look from the other side of the valley you can see where vehicles have slid down through the greenery. For the most part I was too pre-occupied at steering my juddering bike around the potholes and stones to notice the drop too much which was probably a good thing. The rule is that downward traffic must stick to “the outside left edge” whilst those going up can hug the middle. Despite being told this I couldn’t help but veer over to the middle at every opportunity! I was clenching my fingers so tightly around the brakes that after the first 2 hours I could hardly brake any more. Hannah and Jason whizzed passed me apparently oblivious to the drop, but this was one time I didn’t care about being last and I ended up at the back with a guide all to myself. The road may be extremely dangerous, but cycling with a tour group makes it fairly safe as long as you are careful. We had 2 guides for 6 people, both in radio contact to let the back know when to stop for oncoming crazy bus drivers. After 2 hours we stopped for a snack and noticed a gravestone by the road written in Hebrew. Apparently this was the spot that an Israeli girl (Bolivia is packed out with young Israeli backpackers as its so cheap) had lost the power in her hands to keep braking and skidded off the edge to her death. The guide then informed us that the next half an hour of very narrow steep road was where almost all the bike accidents happened. Even Hannah and Jason slowed slightly at this news. As we got lower down the drops didn’t seem to get any less. Every time a bus careered past us at a ridiculous speed it left behind a cloud of dust so thick you could barely see. The guides gave us goggles and surgical masks but we already looked a comical sight, faces and clothes splattered with dirt and dust. As the scenery got greener and lusher the sun got hotter and the excitement built when we spotted the town of Coroico perched high in the hills – the Promised Land. Finally after 5 hours of fist clenching I reached the bottom and was cheered by the others already at the bar with their beers. We crawled onto the bus for the last few miles up to Coroico. I have decided that hurtling down bumpy dirt tracks with blind bends and sheer drops next to me is not really my forté, but Jason loved every minute of it. A warm interlude We spent a lovely, warm, relaxing day in Coroico which looks out over misty forested mountains and tropical plantations, before gingerly getting onto the dreaded bus back. If we had thought cycling down was bad, going up in a minibus was worse! Now we were free to gaze out at the increasing oblivion next to us and to wonder if we would meet another bus head on round each hair-pin bend… some of these bends employ women who stand in sentry boxes waving traffic around certain strategic bends with red / green cards, but although this job is what you might call “highly necessary”, it was Sunday and obviously their day off. Not to worry, the driver simply honked before each bend, which had precisely zero effect on the speed of the driver coming towards us. Twice our bus came nose to nose with a bigger bus on the edge of a bend. Hannah and I decided that putting our heads down was the only option for staying sane…. As always we made it back to La Paz in one piece, if a little shaken. “Been there, done that and got the T Shirt”, said Jason. Next was more adventure in Bolivia’s share of the Amazon jungle.