The Long and Winding Road - The PanPipe Remix

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, September 20, 2004

Back in 1995 one of those international development banks described the road from La Paz to Coroico as the 'most dangerous in the world' - not including those in Iraq, presumably. This was based on the high number of cars and buses that would fall off the narrow, unmade road plumetting up to 1,000m. Then six years ago a New Zealand guy thought it would be fun to ride bikes down it. How right he was!

Gravity Assisted Mountain Bikes drove the 13 of us up to Le Coimbre north of La Paz, a height of 16,000ft (4,900m). It was a beautifully bright and clear day but obviously a bit nippy at this altitude. Even climbing off the bus left me puffing, but after a quick safety lesson we were off down the road. The first 16 miles or so was all on paved road but after about five minutes noses, fingers and toes were all numb from the chill wind. Buses and trucks lumbering up in the opposite direction would give a big toot of their horns as you raced through the cloud of exhaust they left behind. The quicker I went the louder my fat, off-road tires would whine and the colder my nose got.

The real fun began when the paved bit ended. This was the beginning of the so-called 'death road.' About one hundred people a year die driving this road, but only six bikers have perished in six years - and three of those were guides. After another safety talk ("Now is not the time to forget how to brake or steer!") we were off down the dirt one-lane road. Normally Bolivians drive on the righthand side of the road but on this stretch they drive on the left. Whilst going down the left was the side closest to the edge. I started a bit nervous at first, trying not to think about the sheer drop over the edge - at times being over 1,000m to the bottom. I soon got more courage and picked up a bit of speed, before scaring myself and slowing down again.

Descendeding into cloud forest it warmed up considerably, and we were soon in shorts and t-shirts. Every now and then we'd come across a human traffic light - a bloke holding up either a red or green flag depending on what was behind the blind corner. The first stop'n'go man started doing it when his family was run off the road by a truck coming around the corner. For ten years he's been making a living out of the drivers' tips, sitting there day after day, in the mud or dust, waving his flag.

It soon became very dry and dusty, and being stuck behind a truck for about five minutes was not pleasant. There then seemed to be an opening for five of us to squeeze through before the next bend, but it was a bit tighter than we thought. Peddling like mad we managed to make it, but not without lungs full of dust and exhaust.

Forty miles after leaving Le Coimbre we arrived at the bottom, a full 10,000ft closer to sea level. After a celebratory beer we went to a hotel for food and drinks, and even a sauna. I had been advised to stay at the hotel, and so spent a relaxing weekend in the warm sun with a few other riders that also decided to stay rather than head straight back to La Paz.

The bus ride back today was hell, partly because the bus was overcrowded and partly because we broke down barely 15 minutes into the journey. Brake shoes on one of the rear wheels had gone, but somehow the driver managed to fix it, although nobody seemed to be convinced. I was the only gringo on the bus, and couldn't quite understand what was going on, but somehow we made it up through the clouds without further incident. It was definitely more scary than going down by bike!

After one night in La Paz I'm off to the salt flats in the south west. For three days I'll be in a jeep crossing the Salar de Uyuni before crossing the border into Chile on Friday, I hope. Until then!
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