A ‘must do’ activity out of La Paz in Bolivia during our trip in 2008 was mountain biking down the World’s Most Dangerous Road (so called by the IMF due to the number of fatalities on the road over the years – mainly caused by cars and minivans driving off the steep cliffs).
We went with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, owned by a Kiwi guy and supposedly the best company to run these trips along the World’s Most Dangerous Road. 13 cyclists have died doing this road, most of them traveling with the numbers of dodgy companies that buy a few bikes, set up an office and send people out. We had heard plenty of horror stories about wheels falling off and brakes running out, that we weren’t going to take any chances with it.
We drove about an hour out of La Paz up to La Cumbre (4,660m) and got our bikes, along with a safety briefing. On the way up our guide told us that the previous 2 days he had to take people to hospital – one with a badly dislocated shoulder that had to be operated on, the other with a gashed chin requiring stitches from a girl coming over the handlebars. A quick traditional ‘sacrifice’ to Pachamama (mother earth), which consisted of foul pure alcohol poured over the bike’s wheel and a quick swig by us, and we were good to go.
The first 20km or so was down a tar-sealed road, where we got to practice our ‘downhill biking technique’ and playing chicken with the traffic.
This is where we got the bad news. In true Bolivian style, there was a blockade on the road, so we weren’t going to be able to cycle down it. The village halfway down the road had set up the blockade because the village at the top were creaming the 24 Bolivianos ($5 NZD) and not sharing it with their next door neighbours. So they decided that no-one was going down the road.
We were pretty gutted as we had psyched ourselves up to do the road and now it wasn’t going to happen. Instead the guides said we could do the ‘ghost ride’ – a very similar ride to the World’s Most Dangerous Road, except faster and more of a technical ride. Great.
So we set off on the first gravel section of the road. The guides said we had to ride with approx 4 second gap between riders. This is because earlier this year a British guy was riding with another company who let the cyclists ride 2 and 3 abreast, when a Landcruiser coming the other way blew a tyre and careered into him. He went off the cliff, and took the 2 people he was riding next to with him. Along with the people in the Landcruiser, 14 people died. So Mike was about 5th in the group with Kylie behind him.
We were coming to a stop just over a bridge to get a briefing on the next stage of the road, when the guy in front of Mike went to stop and get off his bike, but instead slipped and went off the bridge. He fell about 8 metres straight down onto rocks below.
It was a pretty awful couple of minutes while the guides assessed his condition and we all waited to see if the guy was ok. He eventually walked out but was very shaken and suffering from concussion, so they took him to hospital (we found out later they kept him in overnight and were doing an MRI scan). He was extremely lucky not to be hurt more.
So feeling very shaken by this, we took off down the rest of the road verrrrrryyyy carefully! Some of the drops off the side of the road were 200ft straight down, and there were a number of crazy drivers still coming up the road head on to us. The scenery was quite stunning – we began at high altitude mountains and tussock, and by the time we reached the bottom of the road it was tropical rainforest (around 1800m).
This is pretty much what the view was like the whole way down, whizzing by shear cliff faces. Up there with the most stupid things we have ever done…
Very relieved to reach the end of the ride, we had lunch and a relax at a lovely old castle – just sitting randomly in the middle of the Bolivian jungle. Then it was scary time again, as we had to drive back up the road we had come down, to return to La Paz. In some ways it was less frightening going down on the bike than in a minibus, looking over the edge at sheer drops only metres away from you. Quite often we would come around a blind corner, to find a big bus or truck head on, then we would have to reverse back round a couple of corners until one or the other could pass. To make matters worse, it began pouring with rain and became really foggy so we could hardly see where we were going.
Finally we made it back to La Paz after an eventful day. It was a pretty amazing ride, but the dangerous bit is certainly not marketing hype. The experience of going from high altitude where it was cold and difficult to breathe, to warmer tropical rainforest in a couple of hours was pretty amazing.
This was on my bucket list to do before I turned 40 and had kids. I’m so glad I did because there is NO WAY I would go back for a return crack at it these days!