The Road to Coroico

Trip Start Feb 21, 2006
Trip End Sep 11, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, May 1, 2006

Perhaps the most exciting day I´ve had since Xmas as a 5 year old, although awaited for with a much greater degree of trepidation and anxiety, began with a Sunday morning 6.30am rendezvous at Chakultaya tours, La Paz, Bolivia. At this unusually early hour, I wasn´t able to deal with the usual "traveller small talk" (where are you from? how long have you been travelling? where have you been? where are you going next? blah frickin blah) so instead listened in to the chatty Canadians and long haired Swede. Their conversation naturally evolved to our "extreme" day that lay ahead of us...

"I heard that 100 people die every year on the ´Death Road´"
"Is that all? I heard it was more like 200!"
"Yeah and 7 tourists have met their maker doing it"

Meanwhile I was seriously considering the merits of a couple of shots of "extreme" whiskey before embarking on this path to hell.

The road to Coroico. This leisurely walk in the park earned its reputation as "the world´s most dangerous road" because it sees the most fatalities annually, over 100 on average. From snow covered mountain tops to steaming Amazonian jungle, over 3500m as the penny drops or 80km of treacherous, uneven, narrow, rocky, third world country road, it suddenly dawned on me the absurdity that I was voluntarily paying to launch myself down this death road on a mountain bike. It was less of a consolation to think that we were riding with the cheapest tour group available, than a panicked mental calculation of where exactly those corners had been cut. Having recently survived the Bolivian cursory regard to safety regulations in the mines of Potosi, my mind turned to the replacement cost of a worn out bicycle brake versus the few bolivianos we managed to save not going with one of the reputable outfits who apparently do regular safety and maintenance checks on your bike.

Stepping out on to our starting point at La Cumbre, 4700m above sea level, a rusty razor blade combed itself across the tar ridden interior of my lungs as I struggled to draw upon the oxygen deprived air. The death road slithered down into the milkshake froth of clouds below me like some kind of novelty straw. I surveyed the landscape ahead of me and shivered as I contemplated the number of lives this road had written the final chapter for. The recently awoken sun´s efforts went unrewarded as the mountain top was engulfed by a chill that infused every living thing without regard for human fortune. I slowly raised a cigarette to my lips and it .

We set off at a cracking pace, the well marked and paved double lanes at the top of the trip giving a false sense of security. It wasn´t long before we came across a narcotics checkpoint. The tour brochure had helpfully warned "Don´t worry. They´re looking for the ingredients to produce drugs. Not your personal stash." Pretty soon the fantastic views of snow-covered peaks and alpacas, tiny villages, gave way to a 15 metre, limited visibility created by the clouds we had just descended into. Whizzing past one of our guides, he yelled out in Spanish to keep to the left now. Apparently the road rules change once you´re on the "death road". Right becomes left, give way to up hill traffic (unless they´re bigger and faster), and leave your sensible side at the entrance please.

Not knowing whether the lack of visibility was a blessing or a curse, I was slightly more confident not being able to see the 1000m+ sheer drops to my left. However that confidence was broken every now and then as a truck laden with 30 or so locals hanging off the top would scream around a blind corner and my brakes would be given hell. Entering the jungle, the road came into its own, cut precariously into the side of the mountain. Still riding through the mist, low cloud and dust, I marvelled at the towering cliff faces, rock overhangs and cascading waterfalls pouring directly onto the road itself as I navigated around the puddles and small rivers created.

With confidence gaining (or perhaps altitude sickness clouding my judgement), I found myself racing the lead guide and a couple of other cyclists as we dropped below the cloud level and it got progressively hotter and dustier. With the guide´s bike set up low rider style as if he were cruising around some London housing estates looking for trouble, he had a notable disadvantage which soon saw him taking blind corners at full pace in order to take the lead again. Not the safest practice in my uneducated opinion but I figured some of the money we were saving on this tour had meant sacrificing training the guides.

The treacherous road soon gave way to unimaginably dramatic and beautiful landscapes of Bolivia´s hidden Eden, Coroico. Tired, hot, caked in dust and exhilarated, we made our way to a hotel pool to cool off and celebrate with a buffet lunch. We spent three luxurious days in Coroico lying in hammocks, taking hot tubs, reading in jungle flowered gardens and generally lapping up the experience. This was what travelling was all about and we were loving it!
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