Hurtling down the hairpin turns of Bolivia's El Camino del Muerte (Road of Death) is a frightening experience in any vehicle. How about on two wheels, with no crash protection?
Flickr photo by Galia & Yoav
"How many people have died on the road this month?" I asked the woman at the tourist agency in La Paz. I was investigating my options for traveling to Coroico, a town nestled in the Yungas jungle that supposedly had picturesque views and great opportunities for hiking.
"Oh, none this month," she replied. "Last month, though, there was that unfortunate bus of thirty people…" She paused. "But don't worry. The smaller the vehicle, the better. Bikes are even safer than the minibuses."
And so it was that nearing the end of my two–week stay in Bolivia, I found myself poised at the 4700–meter summit known as La Cumbre, about to try my hand at mountain biking on no less than what the International Development Bank had named "the world's most dangerous road." My first clue that this trip was not going to be a normal ride in the park came from my young Bolivian guide, who took one look at my bare fingertips and said incredulously, "What, you don't have gloves?!" I looked around at the snow–patched ground and began to feel the bitter wind already whipping my exposed skin.
The woman at the tourist agency had told me that the only thing I would need to bring on the ride was an extra pair of clothing, as the road might be a little dusty. "No," I told the guide, my face creased with surprise and alarm. "I thought we were riding into the jungle!" The guide shook his head, told me and the five other members of the group to grab bikes, helmets, and orange reflective vests, and stay on the right side of the road. Before I could even ask how the gears on my bike worked, we were charging down the mountain.
Through the Fog, Past the Snowbanks
The first section of the road was smoothly paved but quite a shock. The other riders in the group, three twenty–something guys from Holland, one twenty–year–old from Germany, and a fit, fifty–something cyclist from France, were all over six feet tall, with athletic builds. My clearly smaller frame was no match for them as we sped along, and in the dense fog I soon lost sight of them. Whizzing past trucks and buses, whipped furiously by a bitterly cold wind, and careening around sharp, snow–banked turns flanked by unguarded sheer drops of up to one kilometer, the ride was like diving into Arctic waters in your underwear—a fast, painful, chilling rush. Every once in a while, I would see the Frenchman just ahead of me, looking back and giving me an inquisitive, "Are–you–ok?" thumbs–up gesture, to which I replied with a stiff thumbs–up.
"The next section of the ride," explained our guide "is going to have some short uphills." Catching my breath and painfully wiggling my freezing fingers, I was glad just to stand still for a little while and avoid the rushing wind. I could already feel a significant temperature increase as a result of our lower altitude. The snow patches on the side of the road were gone, but a chilly drizzle had started, soaking through my jacket and creating especially slick riding conditions.
As we started off again on our bikes, I recalled the guidebook warnings I'd read to avoid this road during the rainy season, when it is especially dangerous and impassable. While this was definitely not the rainy season, it was definitely raining. I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.
Not being familiar with how to work my bike's gears had been all right during the first downhill section, as the steep grade had created little need for pedaling. But as we started the uphills, I ran into some serious difficulty. Huffing and puffing and frantically trying out all of the gears, searching for that magic one that was going to make pulling myself uphill bearable, I decided I could use some help. The Frenchman was just ahead and looking back at me with concern. "Parlez–vous Français?" I asked him desperately, and then feeling silly, for what Frenchman does not speak his native language? My own French was very rusty, but my state of exhaustion trounced my usual self–consciousness about grammatical accuracy and enabled me to communicate. The Frenchman was glad to help, and started into a long, detailed explanation of the various gears that I could barely follow. I got the gist, however, thanked him, and we continued on our way.
Flickr photo by Nyall & MaryAnne
I soon realized, though, that even in the "right" gear, the ascent was too steep and difficult for my aerobically out–of–shape and altitude–affected body. My progress became painfully slow and eventually, I had to stop pedaling and walk my bike up the hill. Looking back at me, however, the Frenchman would have none of that. He told me to get back onto my bike, checked the status of my gears, and asked me to keep pedaling, slowly but surely. Seeing that I was still having trouble, he held out his right arm and placed it supportively on the middle of my back as he pedaled next to me, half pushing me up the hill.