Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bolivia – Cycling on the world's most dangerous road

The title says it all: we are going to be dare devils and race down the world's most dangerous road (WMDR) on a simple bicycle! Good news is that we survived it (hence a Blog post about it)! We are not yet using "ghost writers" for our Webpage.

No joking, this is for real! The road from La Cumbre to Coroico has been declared by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995 as the most dangerous road on earth. On average 200-300 people lost their lives on this narrow unpaved road which was the only roadway connecting La Paz to Yungas, northern Bolivian Amazon rainforest region.

The road was carved into the side of a step valley by Paraguayan prisoners in the 1930's when Bolivia and Paraguay exchanged friendliness in the form of bullets and artillery shells.
The WMDR is most of the way
very narrow ( ~3 meters)
The road is only a bit more than 3 meters (10 feet) wide most of the way. With busy two way traffic of the heavy truck and bus type, it's not surprising that crossing was nearly impossible. And although all vehicles drove on the left side (to give the driver a better view of the edge), it was a sad fact that occasionally a bus or truck would drive a bit too close to the edge and tumble down the steep cliffs. A vehicle falling for two to three hundred meters would obviously not give anybody a chance at survival. At one point, traffic was restricted to one way only, alternating direction a few times a day. But deaths apparently still occurred even after that.

This bus did not make it!
The reason why we are using past tense is because (since 2006) the road has been retired. A new (paved with two lanes) road on the other side of the valley opened. Since then, the WMDR gets mostly traffic from adrenaline junkies on mountain bikes. But it is still a public road, thus there are occasionally cars and the rare truck driving on it. However, for the past few years, it is mostly mountain bikers that race down the WMDR.

Time to gear up for our
We chose "FreeBikes" as our agency, not because the ride is free though. They got very good reviews on TripAdvisor and rightfully so. Isabel, the manager is extremely friendly and was also very helpful helping us to get seats on the TAM flight to Rurrenabaque a week back (TAM is often fully booked weeks in advance but she managed to get us tickets just two days before).

FreeBikes is 100% Bolivian owned and operated, their prices are also less than the foreign owned outfits (that are recommended by Lonely Planet). Their equipment and safety standard was top notch... but we are getting ahead of ourselves now.

We are ready. Let's go!
We booked the tour with the mid range bikes that have hydraulic disk brakes and front wheel suspension at 380 Bolivianos ($55) each. The cheapest bikes would have been 300B, but without hydraulic brakes – and we don’t want to save money on brakes on this trip!
As a nice touch, we were offered to have breakfast at the FreeBike office – wish we had this kind of breakie at any of the hotels that we stayed at in Bolivia.

Our Group is all excited.
We are in group of seven, including a Kiwi/British man, two Swiss girls, an Italian and his Ecuadorian girlfriend. The bike ride starts in La Cumbre a good hour van ride away from La Paz. Once we reach the man-made reservoir at 4690 meters (15390 ft) altitude, we get our bikes off the roof and gear up. The gear is pretty amazing: GoreTex pants and jacket, knee and elbow guards, a bright orange reflective vest, safety helmet (full face on request), and gloves.
As we gear up, we wonder if this trip is a good idea: we never wore this much safety gear before... ever!

We take some pictures as we gear up and get ready, then tuck our cameras away as one of our two guides would be taking pictures for the rest of the trip and hand us a CD afterwards – wow, this is what we call great customer service.
By the way, we have a crew of three for the trip. Two guides on bikes – one in front, and one in the back of the group. Plus the driver of the support van that will follow us all the way down on the WMDR.

We both love go fast...
55km/h is our top speed

Ahead of us lies a 64km (40 mile), 3480 vertical meters (11417 ft) downhill ride! We are freezing cold but very excited in anticipation.
The first 20km (12.5 miles) are on a paved road, we stop a number of times for photos and to check if everyone is ok riding a bike – a bit late to find out if you are not comfortable on a bicycle though.
We both love going fast and are in front of the pack with Nigel (the Kiwi/Brit) and clock in a top speed of 55km/h (34mph)...not a new speed record, but considering we had to brake often (because our guide was going too slow) not to shabby either.

Our first view of the WMDR.

We stop in a little village where we have to pay a park fee (25B - $3.60) and to our surprise, load our bikes back onto the van. "Why?" we ask. The next 15km would have some uphill sections and we don't want to waste our energy pedaling uphill, do we? Especially not when we have the most challenging part of the WMDR ahead of us... although we do feel a bit like lazy tourists at this point.

Here is where the real fun starts,
no more paved roads
15 minutes into the van ride, we turn off the paved road and off-load our bikes again. Now it's for real: we are on the dirty WMDR and the only way is down. We get a safety briefing instructing us to go slow and at our own pace. When we want to stop, we have to stop on the left side of the road (where the steep cliffs are) and we have to pull aside when a vehicle is behind us to let it pass.

Narrow, wet, and rough!
this is one of the most dangerous
sections of the WMDR

Off we go!
The road is fairly rough, unpaved, and has a gradual decent. Although we both enjoy speed, we do use the brakes quite often. We are far from alone on this road, there are at least a hundred other bikers on the road. Many other agencies arrange this trip and we noticed that some groups were extremely large, perhaps 15-20 people. This must be frustrating to have to wait for the slow pokes at each photo spot. But we don't interfere with the other agency's bikers too much and luckily only the South American woman in our group tails behind us at each stop by about 3-5 minutes.

Julane's got a flat!
Half an hour into the bumpy ride, Patrick hears Julane yelling his name... Oh no! Hopefully she didn't fall! He stops and sees her coming down slowly with a flat rear tire. Thankfully, she didn’t fall. We have a great support team; the van pulls up behind us, takes out a tire with a partially inflated inner tube already inserted... in less than 5 minutes she's all ready to go again. Julane would be the only person in our group with a flat on that day – Julane always loves to rough it.

Tragic reminder of a past accident
Shortly after that, we stop at a bend that has many crosses on the roadside: 30 people died here on August 3, 2003. Most passengers were students in their early 20's. This is a very real reminder that the WMDR is not just a tourist attraction but a retired silent killer. And this is not even the worst accident: In 1983, more than 100 people died when a bus veered off the WMDR.

We ask our guide if there have been any mountain biker fatalities. He won't give us an answer until we are down at the bottom... From this point on, we go a bit slower... at least for the first few minutes.

This is the place where
the "Kodak shot" is taken
We pass a few bikers that go very slow and are obviously paranoid... Again, it's not a good time to find out that you are afraid of heights and don't really know how to ride a mountain bike. Don’t sign up for this tour if you have no prior mountain biking experience.

We stop frequently to take pictures and rest our sore wrists - despite the bike's suspension, we are rattled pretty badly. We also get a few snacks and water along the way. So our energy level is maintained at a good level. As we go lower the temperature is getting appreciably warmer and soon we even break a sweat. The last 30 minutes are mostly flat and we need to pedal for quite some distance. Strange, the road suddenly seems a lot rougher when gravity no longer helps the forward propulsion.
Patrick poses for our own
Kodak moment

We pose for a final group picture before we reach the bottom of the WMDR. We all made it safely, although one of the girls in our group had a close encounter with a ditch. Fortunately she wasn't on the cliff side of the road when she lost control. We have to add that she didn't seem comfortable on a mountain bike from the very beginning, even on paved roads.

At the bottom, we get a full dose of tourism commerce: the place is full with bars and restaurants – all with English signs catering to adrenaline junkies who generally needs beer and junk food after the ride down.

Julane is in the swing of things
nearing the bottom
We discover later that there are also creatures loading up on fluids: ours. We are attacked by sand flies: the strange part is that we don't even notice or feel them biting. The resulting itchy spots shall be a reminder of this trip for a couple weeks to come. We wish we had put on that insect repellent that we carried here on Isabel's recommendation.

At this point, we asked again about how dangerous this road really is for bikers: Although there are no official recorded statistics, it seems that there have been 9 tourist biking deaths over the past 15 years. The last accident happened 6 weeks ago when a Japanese girl lost control of her bike and fell to her death. This road certainly is still living up to its reputation as one of the most dangerous in the world.
Please! Don't go on this trip if you have no prior experience with off-road biking.

Final group picture.
We all made it down safely!
We are then bused to the town of Coroico for lunch at a nice resort hotel called Esmeralda where we also can take a hot shower and change into clean clothes. We are even provided shampoo and a towel. This is most unusual for Bolivia even in your hotel to get these items! The buffet lunch is great and just what we need now. The hotel even gives a discount to bikers if they want to stay overnight. It has a beautiful pool with great views over the valley. It sure would be nice to stay here instead of returning late to La Paz. Nigel is the only one who opted for this option as he carried his backpack with him.

The bus ride back to La Paz seems endless... We finally arrive at 8pm after a tiring but excellent day!

Check out our video from this trip

How do we rate this adventure?
The WMDR is, despite it's tragic past, an absolute Must-Do, highly recommended tour.
We did not find it very difficult or dangerous. The downhill is an easy to moderate off-road ride for experienced bikers. Many of the downhill rides that we've done in Switzerland were more difficult. But on the WMDR you will have to pay the ultimate price if you do make a mistake.

This is not the place to learn mountain biking, so stay away if you've never been on a mountain bike on an off-road ride.

We felt that all the protective gear is a bit of overkill, especially since it won't protect you if you drive of the cliff! But it may serve the purpose to remind everyone that this is not a ride in the park.

And here's the map of our WMDR adventure
View The worlds most dangerous road (WMDR) in a larger map