Bolivia. We’re standing on a mountain pass called La Cumbre, 45 minutes from La Paz. It’s 8:30 AM, the air is crisp and thin at 15,680 feet. The passengers on the bus exit into the cold and stand waiting in anticipation. They are here today to ride a full-suspension $2500 bicycle down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (WMDR). I am here to make sure they don’t die.
This is the trip I guide the most when I am working. While there is amazing single-track surrounding La Paz, with the exception of a few professional riders who come to do film shoots, Bolivia is not known as a mountain biking destination. However, it is the destination for many to gain bragging rights as having ridden down the WMDR. Few who come are advanced mountain bikers; many haven’t been on a bike since they were kids. It’s ok though, the riding is easy, the views impressively beautiful, and the thrill lasting. But there is danger; and that is why I’m here.
Gear is distributed; helmets, gloves, and orange safety vest required; goggles, buff, jacket, and pants recommended. Each bike is introduced individually to every rider and they take a spin around the parking lot, getting used to shifting gears and operating a set of one of the most powerful hydraulic disc brakes in the world. Afterward we group up, and instruction on riding technique, safety, and etiquette are dispensed. Finally, a small sacrament of alcohol is offered to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Then we’re off.
The ride begins at La Cumbre and ends nearly 64 kilometers and 12,000 vertical feet down near a small settlement known as Yolosa. The first 20 odd kilometers are spent on asphalt getting used to riding a bike before hitting the actual WMDR. Once on the WMDR it quickly narrows to a 3-meter wide dirt road with two-way traffic. Luckily for the riders, a new paved road opened 3 years ago between La Cumbre and Coroico, the small town that sits above Yolosa. This has drastically decreased the amount of traffic on the road; once on the dirt we might encounter between 5 and 10 vehicles. But the real danger is the vertical exposure off the left side of the road. If a rider isn’t careful, up to a 600+ meter freefall is possible. While those are the highest drops, nearly the entire 40 kilometers is potentially deadly if you veer off the side. In the end there isn’t much difference between falling 60 or 600 meters.
Most likely someone will wreck today. Usually it’s a minor accident in which a small cut, bruise, or scrape ensues. Sometimes it’s much worse. Eleven years ago Gravity Bolivia, the company I guide with, was the first to start offering tourists the opportunity to ride the road. Since then many imitators have sprung up, and casualty numbers have increased. This generally correlates to poor instruction and even worse functioning bicycles; sometimes it’s merely a matter of testosterone exceeding ability. Whatever the cause, the road is to be respected. And hopefully Pachamama doesn’t require a blood offering in addition to the alcohol.
We make it to the turn-off where the official WMDR starts. A short break and snack follow, and then more instruction specifically relating to riding on dirt, gravel, and loose rocks. Then we continue our journey with the support bus dutifully following at the rear of the group, ready to pick up anyone too scared to continue or provide tools and support to fix a flat tire.
After passing the most famous and photographed spot on the road, “Postcard Corner”, we arrive at our lunch stop and get out to replenish energy levels. The scenery has drastically changed from La Cumbre. Gone are the bleak, arid, and snow-covered peaks. They have been replaced by green jungle, layers of mist, and waterfalls. Sometimes iridescent butterflies flit about, beautiful to look at while stopped, deadly while riding. Someone actually did stare at one too long a few years ago; he ended up going for a short flight with it as well. Luckily he survived with not too serious injuries. Yet, it reveals one of the many distractions and ways someone could end up with more than fond memories and a CD full of pictures and videos.
We continue on and drop below 2,500 meters. The air is full of oxygen, the temperature markedly warmer, and layers of clothes start to be peeled off in anticipation of the two shallow river crossings. Some blast through the water, others take it a bit more slowly. After the river we glide into Yolosa, hot and sweaty, even though we barely had to pedal the entire trip. We ride past the few houses and end at La Senda Verde, an animal refuge that is tucked back in the jungle, just a short walk over a footbridge spanning the water below.
Hot showers, beer, food, a swim, and if you’re lucky, some play time with a monkey or two follows. Then everyone piles back on the bus to return to La Paz, a three-hour trip back up the WMDR. Hopefully it’s not too late and we arrive before 7:30; of course it partially depends on how many times we stop to take photographs of the breathtaking scenery we were so consciously ignoring as we coasted down the road.
For me it’s another “day at the office”. For those who have just experienced the World’s Most Dangerous Road for the first time, it’s a day they won’t soon forget.
Jason Topa is a professional guide and photographer with Gravity Bolivia based out of La Paz, Bolivia.