and Cycling the world's most dangerous road
08.03.2008 - 15.03.2008 23 °C
We left Sucre under a cloud of rain but this was soon forgotten with some on board entertainment in the bus as some young local lads sang us some tunes and played a few instruments. It was all really rather amusing as they were pretty poor but the effort was there so it was worth a few Boliviano's, to shut thewm up if nothing else ....
We arrived in La Paz at 7am and immediately jumped in a taxi. Turned out the hostel was all of 500 yards away and yet the taxi driver still managed to go the wrong way!! On arrival we met a couple called Sam and Abi who were also checking in. A bit early so we all headed off to watch Manchester United in the FA Cup. Typically they lost 0-1 and I was watching it with a Gooner. Like being at home really.
The hostel we chose was the Adventure Brew Hostel. It housed it's own micro-brewery which turned out to be excellent with a good range of ale's and beer's in the top floor bar area. This hostel was definately one of the best we have stayed in to date with plenty entertainment such as live music and video games to keep us occupied as well as a nice food selection.
First up we had to head to the electronics market to replace the camera previously destroyed. This was like mission impossible as nobody would actually let us see the camera features. I imagine it is incase they run off with it as it really is just a market area where most of the equipement is "off the back of the preverbial lorry". Anyway, after a few hours we eventually got what we needed albeit at a cost.
On the Sunday after a short walk around town we found ourselves in a mini-bus heading to the Cholito's wrestling on the outskirts of the city. Hillarious does not do this justice. It was a mere 5 pounds for transport, snacks and front row seats to the 4 hour event itself. There was plenty action outside the ring at our feet and before long Ali had jumped 3 rows back as the chairs came out to hit one another with. As the event went on it got more and more ridiculous and completely Politically Incorrect with the woman's wrestling and the midgets being thrown around (for those interested I have video's). Back to the hostel and we entered the pub quiz. We teamed up with our new found friends and despite being late comers we finished a credible 3rd and netted a drink or two for showing up the quiz master and his incorrect answers.
Unfortunately Ali was still feeling a touch under the weather with a mix of altitude and possibly food so we were taking quite easy to start with here. On the plus side we began to find some absolutely great restaurants not least the Indian, Star of India, the Swiss fondue place and a small Dutch cafe. So a craving was catered for there with the curry.
La Paz itself is quite a bustling city. Many are overwhelmed by it especially with the altitude thrown in. The streets are crawling with vendors for everything imaginable and there are masked men everywhere wanting to polish your shoe's. The markets are a great place just to walk through even if you are not particularly interested in buying anything although we did find oursleves picking up a few things to send home.
One of the main attractions in LP is cycling the death road. It is so named because of the many accidents there, mostly involving lorries and buses although I think 11 people have gone off the edge on a bike to date. These stories are well known and recited over and over within the hostels. So, here I was in LP and I had thought I probably wouldn't do it as I had heard so many people saying they did it but they constantly had the brakes on as they were so cautious. Well, now I was here there was no way I could not do it was there. I teamed up with a guy I met on the Salt Flats called Jose and then Sam and Abi decided to join us too. This was not Ali's cup of tea and she would spend the day at some local museum's.
We set off quite early in the morning after a briefing at a local cafe. After an hour or so we had reached the starting point. It was called La Cumbre and stood at 4,850m. It was snowing. Do people normally cycle in the snow I asked myself? Still, the roads looked clear mostly. We were each issued with a bike measured to pre taken specifications. The bikes were US made Kone's and would probably set you back 2.5 grand apiece so at least the equipement was top quality. After another safety speech and a swig of 96% alcohol we were off. Later I was to see on the video that I was the only one who actually drank the stuff out of the 14 on the trip. This is the alcohol the miners in Potosi drink to numb everything.
The death road totals 64km's which is made up of 34 on tar followed by 30 on gravel. When we started downhill the snow had turned to rain and the road was very slippy but you could still clock a credible 60 kmph. The day would be split up into many smaller sections so the group would not disperse too much either although we did have guides (Dave and Jube) at the front and back to monitor everything. By stage 2 we had our first casualty. A girl, who in my opinion should have never been on a bike, came off and slid across the road. We waited while some help arrived and she was taken off to hospital with her poor husband in tow. Later he told me it was 15 stitches and 400 dollars added to the day. So now there were a round dozen.
Soon we hit a drug control area where we passed through with ease. Apparently it is the drug making equipement they are after as opposed to the stuff itself. The route around here was definately fast and furious and at times it was quite difficult to see despite having ski type googles on. No real issue though as coming off here would merely be a bad injury, not death.
When we got to the gravel section there was another briefing on the obvious dangers and pitfalls. One of the main problems was the change in the side of the road we had to cycle on from the first half. On roads here it is the right hand side, but on area's with severe drops it is the left hand side. The gravel section had severe drops so the left hand side it was and obviously the drops were on the left too. Large sections of road now had 400m sheer drops to the side. You go off you die, it's pretty much that simple. The rain had stopped now but that was as much to do with the fact we had dropped 1500 - 2000m as anything. To be fair I think the rain was a good thing. It helped to compress a lot of the gravel thus making it less slippy. The next few sections were great fun and although we had to exercise a lot of caution at times we really got some super fast sections in too. It turned out Jube was the Bolivian downhill cycling champion several times over. I cycled up front with him for quite a while and on one section I got a little too close to him and hadn't realised he was teeing himself up for some jumps so despite not particularly wanting to I flew over them too. Perhaps not a choice I would make if I did this again!!
It had been quite some time since any real incident but before long Sam came off his bike badly. "Quite close" said his girlfriend. A gashed arm, sore knee and no doubt a knock to the confidence was the worst off it though and at least he managed the majority of the ride.
The end of the cycle was soon after and we arrived at a refuge for injurred animals. We had a small meal here with a beer and collected our t-shirts to mark our achievements of the day. Stories were of course shared on close shaves and the likes.
If anyone ever choses to do this activity I can not recommend Gravity enough. In fact you would have to be insane to use any other company. They have an immaculate record and are the only company who could provide evidence of emergency care and equipement. The chats were informative, well structured and importantly they got everything to do with safety across. The equipement was the best on show too. Well, that's my plug and it was free.
I returned to the hostel to find that there was a poker competition that night. What a day!! I had managed to get a curry the night before and this was probably my only other craving of late. By the end of the night we had started a cash game and early into the small hours I had my pockets full, enough to pay my bar tab for the week easily. Result.
By now our friends Andreas and Christina had arrived in LP. With them we planned the next part of our adventure, a trip to the pampas. The pampas/jungle area is in Rurrenabaque north of LP. There were two options, bus it for the best part of 24 hours on a notoriously bad road or take a flight for 40 minutes. So, despite our reluctance to take a flight within SA we decided that this really was a no brainer and the flight won us over and the trip was booked.