Sunday, 27 July 2014

Death Road / Worlds Most Dangerous Road!

We have been looking forward to cycling death road all trip....ok, this is CP writing most of this blog, so I should clarify that I had been looking forward to death road and Rich had got on board ages ago and was as excited as me. A special mention to Hannah here - thank you! Enough said.

Death road - so named because so many people died while building it, but the name stuck as so many cars, buses, trucks, and people have gone over the edge since and it has become known also as the "worlds most dangerous road". Well of course, we have to cycle it! It is now known as the "old road", because it used to be the only road to Coroico, and so was ridiculously busy, but in the last 7 years, a new road has been built that has taken most of the traffic off the road, making it a perfect breeding ground for adrenaline seeking (perhaps screw loose) tourists and mountain bikers.

Death road recently featured in a Top Gear episode that had the boys driving death road and almost falling to their death a number of times. Our guide debunked this episode quite comprehensively, by pointing out that whilst they did drive death road, they were driving on the wrong side of the road (people going up hill had the right of way, and everyone drives on the left - in contrast to the rest of South America), and all the "different" trucks shown in the episode have the same licence plates...set up!

Anyways, just to whet out appetites and get us in the mood, we're told that the last cycle death on death road occurred just last week - on the paved section (the new road), when 2 guys were apparently racing each other and one found themselves on the wrong side of the road on a blind corner with a car coming the other way... Mental racing...

Our guide also told us that the worst accident on death road (and there have been a lot of them), involved a bus containing over 100 people (not that uncommon!) which had had to reverse back through a narrow section of the road and when one wheel went over the edge, the rest of the bus followed. Apparently it's actually normal for people to get out of buses to walk that section, but obviously on that day it did not happen for whatever reason. As we are to later ride past, this was the result...

For the ride itself, we signed up with a company called Gravity, highly recommended in LP and hundreds of positive reviews on trip advisor, and whilst we paid a bit of a premium for the ride in comparison to some of the other options available, we are cycling death road, aka the "worlds most dangerous road", so we are happy for pay a bit extra for the knowledge that we will be riding with a reputable and safe company (plus, it keeps Dad Parrott happy that we are being safe...).

After meeting in an Irish pub in La Paz, and after (unsuccessfully) scouring the streets (uphill..which at 6.30am and at over 3500m is not an insignificant effort), for some fresh fruit and bread sellers, which are always around, except this morning when we want them to buy breakfast, we are off for our one hour bus ride to the start of the death road. During this time, the groups plays a game to get everyone acquainted, which involves us saying, amongst other things, what sort of fruit we would be and why. Rich hates this stuff, saying he feels like it's back at school and you have to come up with something interesting about yourself. He claims to be a "grapefruit...because I have a big head and am a bit sour in the morning!" (I thought he was much more like grapes, really tasty, sweet and moreish, but perhaps I am biased). I went for "lychee...little bit prickly on the outside but a bit of a surprise once you get inside", although by this point, I was last to have a go and no one was listening!

The ride starts at El Cumbre, at 4,700m, and will finish at 1,200m - a vertical descent of 3.5km, or almost 12,000ft, the sort of height people skydive from. We get all kitted out in special jackets, pants and gloves and look the part. There's an oath, which can be summarised by "I will not ride like a dickhead", and finally there's a quick offering to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) to keep us safe - 96% alcohol is dashed on to the earth, the bike, and then the lips:

And we're ready to go!

We were very lucky to have an outstanding tour guide, Mike, an enthusiastic and knowledgable American (yes, we know, but he was one of the cool ones), who loves his job, clearly loves Bolivia, and was an avid mountain biker himself. In fact, we found out at the end of the ride, via one of his awesome stories, that he was currently riding a full-suspension bike like the rest of us amateurs as he crashed his regular hard tail bike 3 weeks ago while leading a tour group, broke a rib, and still got up and finished the ride before anyone even knew what happened! (CP left gushing praise for Mike on TripAdvisor, and it was totally deserved!)

Unfortunately (in my view, although some are grateful!), it is a cloudy day, which not only makes it colder, but more relevantly, it obscures the cliff on the left hand side of the road.  What you can't see can't hurt you, right?! I would have preferred to see what we were riding along, act as a reminder to stick as far right as you can...away from the edge. This was not a universally shared view amidst our group, although those of us up front all seemed to be of a similar mindset.

Essentially, the ride involved around 67km of downhill riding, the first 25k on tarmac (the new road), then the "old" road, which is the one known as WMDR, and includes some over rocks and rivers. It was epic. The ride is split into 15 sections, so we stop regularly which allows everyone to catch up, the group is given bananas, chocolate and other goodies to keep our energy up, and Mike then gives a detailed outline of the next section, as well some great stories about the road and Bolivia in general.

It was surprisingly hard work riding down because you inevitably gather a lot of speed, and so you have to negotiate the cloud, the rain, the rocks and the bends in the road, and was both mentally and physically exhausting. Both of us were always in the "top group" (of course), but we both made sure we always rode within our comfort zones and kept at least a bus length between the person in front of us...this is real, so we were not mucking around. Yes it's a tourist activity but there are numerous memorials and tributes to the many people that die on this road every year - cars (and very occasionally bikes) continue to go over the edge, and there's not much to stop you if you do.

The pics probably say more than words can...

When we hit the old road, the weather took a turn for the worse... wet track!

Breathe in!

Mike, our guide, told us plenty of interesting facts along the way and at each stop. Some of those little tidbits of facts included:

- there is a Yellow house just off death road, which was apparently owned by nazi top dog, Klaus Barbie, who moved there to escape punishment for war crimes, in an agreement with the CIA whereby he would rat out communists in Bolivia, the most famous being a certain Ernesto Che Guevara. This was also the scene of Mikes accident a couple of weeks earlier!

- there's a particular bit called "devils corner", where in 1944 a leading politician, having recognised that he was about to lose badly in a vote, rounded up the leaders of the rival political groups, and pushed them over the edge... the monument is headed up "the martyrs of democracy":

- of the 14 alkaloids in coca leaves, only one is used to make cocaine, and the indigenous population use coca for many purposes, including medicinal and more prominently chewing (as a means to appetite suppression and saliva production to reduce the need to drink water), but despite this coco production was made illegal. There are only two towns in Bolivia where coca has been made legal to grow, for specific purposes, although we understand that around 30% of each crop goes "missing"...

- 1.2million kilos of coca leaves are "consumed" every month in Bolivia. That's a lot of coca tea... although it takes 100kg of coca leaves to make 1 hit of cocaine... that's a lot of leaves! That last bit sounds so crazy that we have been meaning to google it, although it's probably the sort of google search that will have the Feds knocking down my door...

- Evo Morales has already served 2 terms as president of Bolivia, and there are mixed views on whether he continues to be good or bad for the country (we have formed no view because depending on your social status will depend on whether he is liked or not). The high court ruled that, despite him already having served a term as president, he is allowed 2 terms under the new constitution, which will make 3 terms if re-elected after the up coming election.

- still on the president, he really pissed off people by outlawing condoms in Bolivia and taxing women over 18 who did not yet have children. This bizarre law lasted all of 2 days before it was revoked due to unsurprising protests. I wonder why...?

- if you happen to collide with a chicken on the road (it's a genuine risk!) you are likely to have to cough up some bolivianos to the owner, and listen to a severe ticking off in Spanish at the same time. On the plus side, you will own a chicken...

There were many, many, other interesting tales from Mike along the way, and this was genuinely one of those occasions where the activity was made even better by the quality of the guide. There was only one crash (not us!), and luckily it was caught on camera - chins!

Anyways, we survive death road without incident...conquered the worlds most dangerous road and loved it! Slightly sore hands and arms, but totally worth it, every minute of it!

Once we get to get bottom of death road, it is sunny and clear and we ride into a local village and high five ourselves. We enjoy a well earned beer (ok, two), get our awesome free t-shirts (which Rich has managed to lose before even getting to wear it and which I have cut off the sleeves and neck) and swap stories, before heading to an animal sanctuary for a buffet pasta lunch, a hot shower, and a monkey tour.

The monkeys are all rescued from abusive homes and there are now hundreds of monkeys in the sanctuary.  They are all vaccinated and de-sexed when they come in so there can be no reproduction, and the intention is not to release them into the wild (which would be illegal in any event apparently), but rather to give them a better way of life than the captivity they had been rescued from. So cute...

We had elected to stay in Coroico for the evening rather than returning to La Paz with the rest of the group as we wanted to explore the local area the next day. Gravity paid for our taxi to Corioco (unexpected, but very cool), and after attempting to check into a hotel with amazing views (that we're defunct because it was raining, murky and a total mud bath), we convinced the taxi driver to navigate down the mud slide of a road and drop us in the square to find another hostel. We eventually settle on one for the night and explore the town. This is the view from our hostel...and we decide not to stay long the next morning as a result...

Rich gets a hair cut, probably the most attentive and thorough one he has had since leaving home, however, a slight miscommunication of "number two" on the head and "number one" on the beard, led to two millimetres being left on the head and one millimetre in the face! From this fluffball:

To this... (taken while enjoying our soon to be controversial beers back in La Paz!):

Meanwhile, in between having a minor heart attack at the increasingly bald fiancĂ© looking back at me in the mirror (once the first swipe with the clippers had been made, there's not a lot that you can do) I am having a wonderful conversation in Spanish (ish) and sign language with an old guy waiting to to get his hair cut. We agreed that he had to get his eye brows and ears trimmed and he found this hilarious! Overall, a rather entertaining experience..and all for less than £2!

After a lazy morning, and yet another incident of a Bolivian unable to stand in a line and not push in, we buy our micro-bus tickets and get chauffeured in a six person taxi back to La Paz (I made Rich sit next to the rude lady who blatantly pushed in front of me to buy her ticket first, I figured one needs to pick ones fights, especially when ones Spanish is so limited, and the fact we still got tickets and got on the bus meant it was a fight I'd ignore).

Normal (flippant) service is resumed from here as RD takes back blog writing duties... a few hours later and we get dropped off at the bus terminal in La Paz. After being directed up the steepest of hills by one helpful local, we stop (mostly heaving for breath) and ask someone else... who directs us back down the hill, then waits with us until the appropriate minivan drives past, flags it down, pays the driver (what!?), before bidding us farewell. Bolivian hospitality...amazing!

By now we have learnt that there are two bus terminals in La Paz, and the one that serves Coroico is different to the one that serves Uyuni (our next destination). The result is a 20 minute journey with all of our bags pressed into my abdomen so that I can hardly breath, while a local tries to convince me to trade caps - but we arrive, locate our bus company's office, and ditch the big bags.

Now moving (and breathing) slightly easier, we track down a local bar to watch what remains of the World Cup semifinal between Holland and Argentina. Pretty quickly it becomes clear that most of the crowd favour Holland, except for the drunk guy slumped over the table next to us who today is a staunch Argentina fan. This leads to some interesting "banter" between him (when he wakes up) and another guy, but it advances no further that a few insults and a shake of the fist.

Some promo people from the beer company arrive, and woohoo - because we've bought 2 beers, we get a free cap. Later on, they're back again, and if we buy another 2 beers, there's a free bottle opener to be had. With extra time looming, ¿por que no?

This is where the trouble starts - we wave over a guy that's serving drinks, ask how much the beers are (as the first two are on our tab), order them, and pay this guy cash for the 2 new beers. Bottle opener in hand, promo photos taken, and all is good. Until the end of extra time, when the main barman is collecting on everyone's tabs, and thinks we have to pay for all 4. We explain that we paid his amigo when we ordered the 2 new ones, so pay for only the original 2, and that appears to be be final.

Until he comes back, asking for payment for the other 2 beers. Erm... remember that conversation we had just 2 minutes ago? This goes back and forth for the next 10 minutes, exhausting my Spanish vocabulary as I search for a different way to explain this to him. Occasionally he seems to give up and wanders off, only to return asking for the money. Meanwhile the penalties are in progress and we're only half concentrating on the beer payment issue anyway.

By now it feels like half the bar is involved trying to explain what has happened. He's claiming no one else works there, but we'd seen our guy get other people drinks, collect money, change money with this guy, etc etc.

Someone suggests paying for 1 of the beers... why would we pay for extra beers? Then again why would we go into a very local bar and then try to not pay for 2 beers when we've sat here watching the football? Things reach a head when an indigenous lady (a "Cholita") who has clearly had more beers than most decides to get involved, shouting away from the stairs above us. It seems like she's on our side, until she starts shouting a lot more. I don't understand much of it, but when she starts shaking her fist in CPs face and throws in a "PUTA!" (thats "bitch" or "whore" for any linguists out there), it's clear that she's a bit nuts and has to be told to sit down - by us, and our new band of supporters.

The result was, we didn't pay for the beers again, the barman wasn't happy, and we missed most of the penalties - just like the Dutch...

Moving on, there's time for a brief catch up with Chantal and Danilo before we head for our bus, and we're on our way to Uyuni and the famous Salar, aka the salt flats!

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