Ultimate Ride


I was on my own. Manna, quite reasonably, decided that she didn’t want to ride a mountain bike for 65km down the world’s most dangerous road. But I, quite unreasonably, was well up for it.

The road had earned its moniker. In its ‘heyday’ 300 people died on it each year. This is because it is more like a dirty, potholed, gravel path than a road; it is mostly the same width as the average vehicle but no wider; and it winds down its entire length with an ominously high cliff drop (up to 100m in places) on one side and a concrete cliff face on the other.

Yet one of the ‘must-do’ activities when staying in La Paz is to go on a mountain-bike tour down this treacherous track. This is dubbed the ultimate bike ride, and it proves to be quite literal for some (1-2 a year) who never make it back.

Geared up for the ride

But I was confident that as long as I didn’t do anything stupid the ride would be mostly safe and all fun. I was also buoyed by the fact that three years ago a new road was built which would take traffic to the same place as the old one but on a safer route, thus making our road less dangerous for the many amateur cyclists hurtling down it.

However, as is the norm with this trip, recent bad weather had led to landslides on this new road forcing traffic to once again take the old road on the same day that I would be speeding along it. And obviously I did not find out about this until the morning of the ride itself.

At 630am a mini bus took seven intrepid riders to the freezing heights of the La Cumbre mountain range at an altitude of 5,000m for a descent to the sweltering depths of Coroico on the edge of the Amazonian Jungle.

When we got out of the bus it was snowing. In quivering cold we were shown how to use the most extreme of mountain bikes with double suspension on both wheels and power brakes as punchy as Mike Tyson at his best.

But I was glad to have chosen the best equipped (and most expensive) company to take on this challenge. Our guide was excellent and the bikes were second to none. This was especially the case compared to some of the other groups we encountered on our way down who were not only frequently on the wrong side of the ‘road’ but were led by amateurs who hardly knew the route. At one point one of these ‘leaders’ asked our guide which way to go and I was very glad not to be part of his cheaper tour.

Living on the edge

The cycle path/mud trail is in fact the only road in South America where cars drive on the left. This is so the driver can look out of his window and check that his wheels are not about to stray off the edge. But for the most part this didn’t really matter as the path was no wider than one vehicle anyway. You just had to listen for car/bus horns and the guide’s whistles to know when to get out of the way.

We started on our descent and after the first stage of what would be a 12-leg adventure I was soaked to the bone and shivering relentlessly. My arms ached and I was suffering from mild whiplash from the vicious brakes. We hadn’t reached the dirt road yet.

When we did I found that my whole body would shake with each bump and there were many of all shapes and sizes. But I soon got the hang of it and I found myself adapting my riding position to account for each pothole, rock and puddle of mud that was in my craggy path.

In fact, I adapted just in time as we were soon to be hurtling down the road with the huge cliff serving as a constant reminder of the dangers of a minor mistake. The views were spectacular but I dared not take my eyes off the road in front of me. At one point a beautiful large purple butterfly flapped across my path. I wanted to look at it but as I was doing so I remembered the words of our guide: “don’t stare at the butterflies or you’ll follow them off the cliff!” I could see how that was easily done.

With each leg of the descent the weather got warmer and I became more used to riding my extreme machine. By the end of the ride I was straight-lining the slopes in shorts and t-shirts and shouting exclamations of excitement at the top of my voice.

Me and my machine

It was truly one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had and I would have gladly gone to the top and done it again had I been afforded the time (and the money).

It was also amazing that in the space of four hours we went from freezing snow to tropical sunshine. The ride ended in an animal sanctuary where we had beers, lunch and got to play with the many birds and monkeys that roam freely throughout.

Spider monkey chilling by the pool

Not everyone enjoyed the ride as much as me. A Russian guy, who had started the day racing at the front of our pack and ended it dragging at the rear, failed to tell anyone until we reached the bottom that he had fallen off his bike half-way through and in fact needed to put his arm in a sling for the return journey. And a Belgian, who had clearly been mountain biking before judging by his speed at the start, was outwitted by the knock-out brakes and managed to somersault himself over his handlebars. Luckily he avoided the cliff edge but was told that he would need stitches in the oozing gash in his leg. Both had a night waiting in line at La Paz hospital ahead of them.

But on the plus side everyone made it to the bottom alive and even the Russian managed a smile when he saw the playful monkeys and macaws at the refuge.

After lunch we had the decidedly more daunting task of driving back up the road. This was at times more scary than the ride itself, especially as we had to drive through low-lying cloud offering limited visibility. But it at least gave us a chance to appreciate the stunning views.

I returned ‘home’ to Manna exhausted but elated at the experience. It is certainly not for everyone and I’m sure Manna would have hated the sub-zero start and persistent bangs and bumps along the way. But I thoroughly enjoyed my day of dangerous descents.



2 Responses to “Ultimate Ride”

  1. cynthia cutler Says:

    Wow Marc. Glad I didn’t know about this before you started your hectic adventure. Good decision Manna to stay away ! Just taker care both of you. Love “M”

  2. lyn Says:

    you continue to amaze x x 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: