World's Most Dangerous Road and Potosi

Trip Start Jul 31, 2005
Trip End Feb 18, 2007

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Sunday, November 5, 2006

Cycling down the World's most Dangerous Road

A climb of around a kilometre from La Paz, and almost 5km above sea level, is the start of the world's most dangerous road. It's a road which plunges some 3500 metres as it snakes it's way down from the Andes to the edge of the Amazon basin. It's known as the world's most dangerous road because it has the highest fatalities per usage anywhere. One look at the road and it's no wonder why this is the case. Most of the road is just a dirt track, two to three metres wide, with a 500 metre vertical drop to your left hand side and no crash barriers. Buses and lorries hardly fit on the road, so several go over the side every year, contributing to an annual death toll of between 200-300 people, which normally includes a few foreign tourists on Mountain Bikes.

So, of course, the best way to travel down this road is to put your life in your own hands, and not somebody else's, and get on bicycle. So after visiting several agencies, and this time picking a more expensive excursion (this is not a tour where you want to cut corners) Marc sets off on his way. At Marc's first suggestion of doing this ride, Patty immediately excluded herself from the trip, sensible girl, and this wasn't an excursion I was even going to try and persuade Patty to do.

Early that morning, we met our group and our guides, and loaded our equipment on to the minibus. After an hour's climb up to 4700 metres, we unloaded the van at the point where the road starts to descend. After getting a safety briefing from the guides and getting our brakes checked, we set off on our way. The first hour or so of the trip is great, although at this altitude it's a little cold. You whisk past the tops of the snow capped Andes at exhilaratingly fast speeds, helped by a gradual descent and a proper paved road. I was clocking up speeds so fast, that I was actually easily overtaking buses and trucks as I descended. However, after around an hour of cycling the nice road stops, and you transfer to a road which is little more than a dirt track, and the start of the world's most dangerous road.

Just as we reached the start of the most dangerous section, a tropical storm started. The world's most dangerous road had now turned into the world's most dangerous river. The road had become so muddy and slippery that I was sure that the ride was going to be stopped. But this is Bolivia, and safety standards here are a tad lower than in Europe, so the guide waved us through and we braved the way ahead. In between the clouds of thick mist and bursts of rain, I could catch glimpses of the huge vertical drop which would accompany us for at least the next couple of hours. The now, extremely slippery and muddy road was little more than a couple of metres wide, and us cyclists were told that we had to get way over to the left if any vehicles were coming the other way, thus immediately next to the huge vertical drop. Sometimes, the poor visibility gave you very little time to get out of the way, an accident just waiting to happen! There were no crash barriers, only intermittent crosses marking the spots where lives have been lost in the past. My glasses kept getting covered with the mud which was being churned up from the road, thus obscuring my view. This is not a good thing to happen on a road where having a perfect view of what is ahead is essential.

The only benefit of the thick driving rain was that it partially obscured the reality of the drop from us, but one thing is for certain, one mistake on this road and you're a goner. We passed many a hairpin bend, where head on collisions have caused the lighter vehicle to be catapulted off the road and off the cliff. At some of the worst bends stand volunteers who act as human traffic lights to try and prevent accidents. The volunteers are people who have lost family members by an accident at that spot, and give up their free time to try and ensure that the same trauma doesn't happen to another family.

To our relief, everybody in the group survived the most dangerous section of the road, and as we left it behind, the rain stopped and the sun came out, perfect timing not. We had already come down far enough to have reached semi-tropical jungle, and the temperature had consequently risen substantially. As we continued down for the last hour of our trip, the road had turned extremely dusty, and any passing vehicle left a huge cloud of dust, obscuring our view for a couple of minutes. This poor visibility caused one girl on our trip to hit a rock in the road, come off her bike and break an arm. As we reached the bottom, we were greeted by the lead guide and sat down for a well earned beer. The guide then told us that the storm today caused the worst conditions he's seen for 5 years. It also meant that the trip photographer was unable to take photos for a lot of the time, so I had to borrow some of the Travelpod shots from friends who did the same tour a couple of days later. The conditions and the couple of close shaves which I had myself meant that although I thought the ride was exhilarating, once is enough.

If this has interested you, I've found a BBC article on the road which goes into even more detail:- The world's most dangerous road

The Flying Potato Market

Patty had walked down to the travel agency to pick up an extremely muddy Marc. As we walked back to our hotel, we passed a quaint market selling dozens of varieties of potatoes. What we didn't know is that the market has a special tourist attraction. As you take your camera out to take a photo, the indigenous ladies start to throw potatoes at you. One hit Patty, and the other one just missed the camera, so we stormed over to them in a temper.

Us: "What the fuck do you think you're doing throwing potatoes at us?"
Indigenous Lady: "You're taking a photo of me and I don't like it!"
Patty: "I'm taking a photo of the street not of you, the street's not your personal property is it?"
Indigenous Lady: "Well, we don't like people even taking photos of the street"
Us: "Well that's not a reason to throw potatoes at people and if you ever throw a potato at us again, we'll pick up the whole sack and dump it over your head!"

I know this response sounds a bit harsh, but she threw the potatoes at us with such force she was obviously intending to hurt us, so it really wound us up.

Traveling Around Bolivia

Taking coaches in the day in Bolivia are bad enough, so there's absolutely no way you'd want to spend the night on one. Bumpy roads, sod all leg room, noisy engines and disgusting smells all combine to ensure you wouldn't get one wink of sleep. So imagine our delight when we were told by every travel agency we entered in La Paz that the only way to our next destination Potosi, is on a night bus. If this had been Europe, we probably would have believed the answers we were getting, but with us now being well experienced Latin American travellers, we know very well that customer service related people here tend to talk through their ass. So out comes the map, and we decide to risk a three hour bus trip to the town of Osorno, which is on the way to Potosi and try our luck from there.

Potosi, the Highest City in the World

Just as well we're stubborn travellers, as from Osorno there were almost hourly buses to Potosi, mmmm thought there was no way to get there in the day. Anyway, 6 hours after we left Osorno, we arrive in Potosi. It's an old silver mining city in a fine location, with the stunning pink Cerro Rico mountain towering above it. At an incredible 4070 metres above sea level, Potosi also happens to be the highest city in the world and it's altitude certainly does leave you gasping for breath as you walk up and down the city's streets.

The main thing to do in Potosi is a mine tour. Unfortunately, both Patty and I have fallen ill with almost unstoppable Diarrhea, so rather than checking out the tourist sights in and around Potosi, we've checked in to the best hotel in town and are spending the time resting, trying to shake off the bug. We eventually shifted the bug with the help of some antibiotics. Before leaving Potosi, we storm into the restaurant which gave us the food poisoning and ask to speak to the manager. It was quite amusing, as the manager came out to the centre of the restaurant to speak to us, and as we were explaining our case, the customers could hear everything that was being said. As we turned around to leave the restaurant, we realised that everybody had stopped eating, mmmmm we wonder why:-)

Onward to Uyuni

From Potosi we took a 5 hour day bus to Uyuni. The base town for visiting the huge salt plains of Salar de Uyuni.

On the way there, we saw another reason for avoiding night buses in Bolivia. The previous night's bus to Uyuni had crashed with a car on a blind corner and both vehicles were still sprawled over the road. The bus, being the bigger of the two had not come off too badly, and hopefully the passengers would have escaped with just cuts and bruises, but there's no way that anybody could have survived from the car. If the bus had hit another bus or a lorry then we could have been looking at a large loss of life. It was really sad to see, but some passengers from our bus were lifting up bits of the car wreckage, looking for anything they could find worth taking.

We arrive in Uyuni, and as soon as we step off the bus, Patricia recognised a Dutch guy from our tour in Tasmania, Australia. We're used to bumping into people we've met before on the typical Gringo trail down from Ecuador, but a chance meeting like this with somebody that we last saw so far away seemed extra weird.

Finally, I think this entry will really test if my mum actually reads my Travelpod.
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