January 14, 2004
DAY 85: It has been called the "World's Most Dangerous Road." This route through the Yungas mountain range between La Paz and the little village of Yolosi starts at the peak of one of the mountains at 15,322 ft ASL and dramatically descends down to 4,460 ft ASL over the course of 63 km. The single lane dirt road hugs the mountains for vehicles to travel on -- that is, if they're careful enough not to fall off the edge and down deep into the valley.
It's one thing to ride in a bus along this route, but its another to ride down it on a mountain bike. The trip, offered by about a dozen adventure tour companies in La Paz, had been highly recommended to me from travelers I had met on the road, from Heidi to Sergei the Hamburger (from the Galapagos trip) who called it "the best thing he's done in South America."
Tim and I were up by 6:30 to get ready for our ride along the dangerous road. We walked over to the tour agency we booked at, appropriately named X-TREME BOLIVIA. The company sprung for a continental breakfast at a nearby hostel whee we met Cooper, an 18-year-old from the UK and our guide Juan, who wasn't much for words. We hopped in a minivan with our dual suspension mountain bikes already mounted on the roof.
Our driver drove us out of the canyon of La Paz and up to our starting point, just under the snow line. Outside it was raining and foggy as if we were inside a rain cloud -- visibility was poor. "I think the 'World's Most Dangerous Road' just got a little more dangerous," I said.
Juan, who was still a man of few words, led the way down the hill. We followed him down the first, asphalt-paved section single file, on the side of the road, through the mist and under the rain, passing through landslide zones and little hamlets. Some portions of the first leg actually went uphill -- something all the tour companies neglect to mention to prospective clients.
"I think...this...is...harder...than...the Inca...Trail..." Cooper said, huffing and puffing.
The rain didn't stop like Juan thought it might have, so most of the time we pedaled under the downpour, mud spraying up onto our clothes from the tires. As we descended down the road, it was evident why the road got its name; a majority of the time it was just a one-lane dirt road with short wide sections to wait for oncoming traffic to pass through. Off the ledge of the muddy road was a dramatic drop -- a drop that has claimed lives each year -- but with the incredible fog and cloud coverage, the drop was hidden from us (perhaps for the better.)
We rode the rainy trail along the ledge, passed some waterfalls and under others, through mountain streams. We stopped for trucks coming up and whizzed passed slower bikers from other tour companies. Near the end, we encountered a thick patch of mud that made it impossible to shift gears -- all it did was splatter mud all over my face.
Our descent was only about three hours and we eventually made it to Yolosi, soaked and full of mud.
Back in La Paz, Tim and I bid Cooper goodbye and walked back to the hostel, trousers looking like we had been mud wrestling all day -- passers-by couldn't stop staring at us. Our laundry wasn't done at the hostel when we got back as we had hoped, so we just went out in our dirty, muddy state for bacon, egg and cheeseburgers. Luckily after dinner we had clean clothes to change in.
We met up with Lara, who had taken Spanish lessons in the day, and went out for dessert and coffee and a walk around nighttime La Paz. Lara and Tim argued over which salty spread was better, Vegemite or Marmite, as I had my coffee and ice cream.
On our way back to the hostel, Lara and I paid some little musician on the street for a picture, but when we tried to take it, he just ran away. Where he was off trying to get to I don't know, but if he was off to play in the mud, I could have shown him the way.
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