Our time in Bolivia was wrapping up much too quickly for my liking. Eric and I flew back into La Paz for a final few days in the country. We decided that we couldn’t make it to the rainforest due to time and financial constraints. Nevertheless, I desperately wanted a break from the highlands before we spent the next two weeks in Cusco and Machu Picchu. Just a few hours outside of La Paz are the Yungas, the middle altitude entrance to the rainforest and the vacation destination of choice for middle class Paceñas. We wanted a few days of tropical vacation and decided to travel there the most touristy way possible: mountain bike.
Riding the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” is the number one tourist attraction in La Paz. Every hostel offers the tour and travel agencies advertise it aggressively. The World’s Most Dangerous Road tour involves a guide taking a group of tourists wearing BMX helmets and riding mountain bikes on a six hour downhill ride. Not six hours of ups, flats and downs. No, six full hours of downhill riding. I had read enough travel propaganda that the ride began to sound like a “can’t miss experience”. I did my research, picked out a company that seemed to strike the right balance between expense and safety* and we went to bed early in anticipation of a 4:50 AM pickup.
At least we tried to go to bed early. I woke up to Eric tossing and turning in the middle of the night. He was sweating profusely and running a fever. As I am a terrible human I asked him once if he was dying and then promptly went back to sleep. I woke up at 4:30 the next morning to find Eric sitting up and looking incredibly pale. I tried to tell Eric that sick, feverish and sleep deprived isn’t the best way to go into a challenging bike ride but he disagreed with me and we loaded into the bus to make some poor life choices.
The bike ride departs from a lake about an hour outside of La Paz at 15,400 feet, where it was actively snowing as we ate our breakfast with shaking hands. We layered up with protective gear and started to ride. The first part of the ride was on the side of a paved mountain road. I was afraid of the traffic on this road but it seems that locals are used to hundreds of dumb tourists powering down the morning early in the morning. The ride wasn’t an easy one; the snow changed to sleet and rain as we descended and my bike kicked icy mud up into my eyes. When we took a break Eric confessed that he could barely see through his glasses. I had no idea how he was sitting upright much less riding down a mountain with steep deadly drops on either side.
After the first hour of riding the bikes we veered off of the paved road and onto a smaller gravel road which could best be described as one and a half lanes wide. This was the “infamous” death road, named so when the road was the only route between the highlands and the Amazon. The road averaged 300 fatalities a year before the replacement was built in 2006. The old road is busier with tourists on bikes than buses and trucks unless you are unlucky like Eric and I who happened to book our tour on the Saturday morning of a three day government weekend, where hoards of families take a trip to the Yungas for some R&R. This meant that we shared the road not only with more cars than usual, but also plenty of families walking down, taking in the spectacular views. All of which can be a real pain when the road is only eight feet wide.
This was when the ride started to get nerve-wracking for me. I tried to go slowly to retain control of the bike, but not so slowly that I would spin out and fall to my death on the loose gravel. Did I tell you that on this road only, the direction of traffic is reversed so downhill traffic is on the left—the cliff side—of the road? The guides would stop us from time to time to give us information and stop for photos. During one of these photo ops the guide told us all to hold hands and he would jump in the air while holding the person on the end’s (me) hand for support. I thought he was joking and had a panic attack as he leap into the air**. Thankfully he had a stronger upper body than me and managed to hold on to my useless arm.
As the hours of downhill biking continued, we would stop at roadside memorials. I thought that these would be dedicated to the drivers and passengers who lost their lives while this road was a major commercial road. I was wrong. While there were many memorials to those who had died in a vehicle, including a bus with 65 passengers, the majority of memorials we stopped at were for other bikers. Every year idiots like my self sign up for this tour and a few lose their lives. Young people from all over the world lose control and tumble over the sides. The travel guides seemed to gloss over the accidents and used the very recent deaths of fellow backpackers to add extremeness and authenticity. I was starting to wish I had never signed up.
At the end of the ride I was sweating profusely and nursing my bruised hands. Somehow my ill, sleep deprived boyfriend and I survived the six hour ride down from 4,670m (15,321 feet) to our ending elevation of 1,109m (3,638 feet). That is a 11,683 foot descent and my butt could feel it.
While the rest of our exhausted tour group traveled back to La Paz, we made our way*** up the mountains to the village of Coroico. Nestled cliffside with stunning views of the valley below, the small town of Coroico was full to the brim with local tourists enjoying the long weekend. I wanted a respite from high altitude scenery and Coroico certainly fit the bill. There isn’t much in terms of “attractions”; most of our time was spent hiking to vistas and waterfalls. During one of our hikes a wild capybara ran out of the forest onto the path in front of us. It happened much too fast for a picture but I was happy to see at least a little of the worlds largest rodent.
The evenings in Coroico were spent either people watching in the town square or drinking Bolivia’s fanciest wine**** and reading while watching the sun set. As much as I enjoyed our three nights in Coroico, I couldn’t help but mourning our choice not to go to the Amazon. The 20+ hour bus ride to Rurrenabaque leaves from Coroico and we met other travelers returning from their journey. I am a slow-paced traveler, hence only three countries in four months; I like to see as much as I can of every country I visit. Coroico was the last city we visited in Bolivia. I knew that we need three more weeks in Peru to see Cusco, the sacred valley and Lima, yet I still regret not having more time in Bolivia. It was my favorite country of my South American travels and the only one I hope to return to.
*We went with Ride On Bolivia Biking and had a very positive experience with the quality of the gear and the guides.
** Classic case of doing it for the Vine.
***In this case “making our way” means taking a ride in the back of a truck of a friendly Bolivian family as Dad drives up a winding road at breakneck speeds.
****Like a bottom of the line sangria.