World’s Most Dangerous Road

Written by Stuart Revnell No Gravatar

Another day, another road trip.  Only today’s happened to be a 64 km mountain biking excursion down ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ (WMDR).

The road, which begins at La Cumbre (4,700 metres) and finishes at Corioco, 3,600 metres lower, was built with hand tools and dynamite at the beginning of the century as part of the main trade route from Bolivia to Brazil.  For the best part of a century, its moniker was well deserved – at its narrowest, the road is just 3.2 metres wide, and and on average, claimed 26 vehicles and 200 lives per year, before being finally closed to most traffic in March 2007, following a ten year project to build a replacement road.

In the ten years or so since cycling trips began on the road, 15 cyclists have been killed, so the guide books are at pains to impress upon you the need to go with a reputable tour company with good bikes and guides.  We didn’t need to be told twice, and chose La Paz based tour company Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, who were the first company to start doing this ride.

We got great bikes with hydraulic disc brakes, full suspension, good clothes, and a comprehensive safety briefing.  OK, so it’s ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’, but let’s face it, 3.2 metres wide, on a bike, gives you a pretty good safety margin, despite the 600 metre sheer drop to your left, so it was reassuringly frank to hear from our guide that the number one rule was “Do not ride like a f***ing idiot”.  Most accidents, as you can imagine, are caused by over-confident riders racing each other and going too fast.

The first part of the ride was on asphalt, and just before we got to the old road, we went through a narcotics checkpoint.  Apparently we were riding through one of the biggest coca producing areas in the country, and, whilst production and consumption  of the leaves is not illegal (coca leaves are for sale everywhere), the narcotics officers are on alert for trafficking of the paraphernalia required to produce cocaine from them.

After about 12 km or so, we turned off onto the old road, and there we got our first glimpse of what we’d come to see.  It really was a spectacular sight – a tiny sliver of sandy road, cut into the side of a mountain and snaking its way down to the valley below.

I didn’t find the ride particularly scary or challenging – strange, since I’m normally scared of heights (the skydiving must have cured me).  It was pretty much downhill, and despite the precipitous drops, as long as you ride at a safe speed and keep your eyes open, then it’s no different to any other dirt road.  One interesting thing about the WMDR is that, unlike elsewhere in Bolivia, you drive on the left hand side going up and down it.  The reason for this is that the drop is on your left, and the steering wheel is on the left too, so it makes sense for them to be able to see how close their wheels are to the edge (no matter how terrifying that might seem).

The landscape was way more beautiful than I had imagined – as we got lower, the temperature rose and the landscape went from rocky shrubland to semi-tropical forest. Not surprising, given the total elevation drop is 3,600 metres from start to finish. After four hours or so, during which I got a flat tyre and my pedal fell off (apart from that, safety was great) we finished up in an animal sanctuary, where volunteers look after some monkeys, tortoises, a cayman, a few parrots and some coatis.  A pleasant place for an hour or so, and I got a good picture of the cayman to send to my best friend’s kids (they wanted a crocodile, as I recall, but hopefully they won’t know the difference – I certainly don’t).

Finally, we finished the day with a trip to the Flying Fox Zipline, which was set up once the road closed as a way of bringing money to the region.  There are actually three ziplines, 200 metres above the ground, and spanning over a mile in total.  My only experience of a zipline, as I can recall, was on a school trip to France about 25 years ago, and I don’t think it was as high as this one.  Surprisingly though, I wasn’t too scared again, and off I went, high above the valley floor.  Jane was a little more nervous, but the guy behind her helpfully told her she had to go first – she told me that after ten seconds or so of having her eyes closed, she opened them and realised that it wasn’t too bad at all.  Great fun, and a nice end to the end before our three hour drive back to La Paz.  It didn’t occur to either of us we would drive back up the road again – good job we were sitting on the left of the bus.

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