Posted by: Ashley Smith | November 12, 2008

Surviving the World’s Most Dangerous Road

Bolivia, November 2007

I’m drenched in rain and sweat, gasping for breath at high altitude, and six inches away from plummeting to my death over the side of a cliff. Can someone please tell me again why I signed up for this?!

The route from La Cumbre to Coroico, in the heart of the Bolivian Andes, is widely known as the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” and for good reason. The infamous stretch has claimed hundreds of lives over the years, as its blind curves and crumbling gravel send trucks and buses tumbling down into foggy ravines. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its reputation, this road has become a hotspot for thrill-seeking travelers from around the world, who defy all reason by attempting to bike it. And I was about to become one of them.

Just a few weeks earlier, I was in a dorm room in Buenos Aires, Argentina dreaming of the perfect way to end my semester-long study abroad experience. I had read about biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road in my Lonely Planet guide and thought it might be a fun thing to try, since my travel plans were already taking me to Bolivia. So I signed up for the trip, along with two of my friends and travel companions, Ben and Rocío. None of us quite knew what an adventure we were in for.

Cut to this chilly day in November, and the three of us are on a bus making our way to the start of the road in La Cumbre, a windswept and desolate site that appears to be the last outpost of civilization in this part of the Andes. We will begin our journey here, at over 15,400 feet. At this elevation, the air is cold and unbelievably thin; every breath feels labored. Before setting out, we make a ritual offering to Pachamama, the Aymara earth goddess, asking for her protection on our journey. As part of the ritual we pass around a bottle of what could only be pure grain alcohol, splashing a bit over the front tires of our bikes, and each taking a tiny sip. It does little to calm our nerves or fight the cold. As it begins to snow, our guides fill us in on the last-minute details and offer their wisdom for how to stay alive. I hope I don’t let them down.

The journey down the road takes us on a 3,500 meter vertical drop over the course of 64 kilometers. Because of the extreme drop in elevation, the changes in scenery along the way are dramatic. Not long after we set out, the dense fog has lifted, revealing a breathtaking landscape of rugged mountain peaks. During the course of our ride, the scenery changes gradually until we find ourselves in a sub-tropical rainforest. It rains intermittently throughout the ride, and we occasionally come across portions of the gravel road washed out by waterfalls. Along the way, the road is filled with reminders of the very-real danger its travelers face. There are dozens of makeshift memorials to the people who have lost their lives on it over the years. We come across one elderly man who keeps vigil over the spot where he lost his family many years ago, directing vehicles around the blind curve in the road. I have a pang of guilt in this moment as I realize how lucky I am to be taking this amazing journey, not out of necessity, but purely for the sake of adventure.

After nearly six hours on our bikes, we come within sight of Coroico, a sleepy town nestled into the forests of the sub-tropical lowlands. Judging from the monkeys and coatis roaming around, it’s obvious that we’re in a completely different world than the frozen, barren mountaintop where we began just a few hours ago. Little children who are lined up along the side of the road try to grab high-fives from us as we ride by. I can only imagine what they think of the daily influx of tourists who are crazy—and probably foolish—enough to willingly make this journey. At several heart-stopping moments on the trip, like when an oncoming truck would force me uncomfortably close to the edge of the cliff, I questioned my own sanity for doing this. But in the end, the sense of accomplishment was totally worth it; I’m sure if I could survive the World’s Most Dangerous Road, I could make it through anything.

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