Posts tagged ‘World’s most dangerous road’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.


There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery


December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

As easy as riding a bike. The world’s most dangerous road, La Paz, Bolivia

“If you go over the edge you have no hope of surviving. You fall for around 600m before you even reach anything you can grab onto.”

“At points the road only stretches across for 3m before ending in a sheer cliff face and a drop of around 1,000m.”

“Sometimes trucks and buses just come out of nowhere and you have to swerve towards the edge of the cliff to avoid them. And it’s really hard to stop that suddenly on gravel.”

“Two tourists die on Death Road every year!”

“Only a few weeks ago a woman died there. She pulled her front brakes instead of her back ones and just flipped herself over her handlebars and off the edge of the cliff. She never stood a chance.”

“I heard about two guys, best friends who were messing around. One gave the other a playful shove, not really thinking, and his friend stumbled and fell over the edge.”

Like most travellers visiting Bolivia we heard a lot about The World’s Most Dangerous Road before we got there. Probably the country’s most hyped attraction, Death Road (as it is also known) just outside of La Paz is a constant topic of conversation among backpackers who feel they have earned bragging rights. After hearing a few horror stories and talking to some people who had been to the front line and returned with broken ankles, ribs and egos, we had pretty much decided against the idea. It wasn’t that we were afraid for our own lives you see, it was more that we were worried about each other. What if Gary went off the edge? How would I ever forgive myself for letting him go in the first place or vice versa? No, if we were alone we would just leap at the chance to risk our lives needlessly but we had to be selfless, we had to consider the other person first….

It came as a bit of a surprise then to find ourselves kitted out in knee and elbowpads, protective trousers, high visibility vests and full face helmets waiting for our tour guide to lead us down Death Road. I thought there was no way we were going to do this? I thought we were too fond of each other to allow such a suicidal act? Obviously not. All of a sudden we were sailing down the side of a mountain in single file, leaning into hairpin turns and getting up to speeds of 65km/hr on the straights. Our guide had told us that we should only go as fast as we were comfortable with but with such a stretch of beautiful smooth road, with the wind whistling through our helmets and with such spectacular scenery all around us fear had somehow slipped pretty far down the ranks on our list of current emotions. In the van on the way up the mountain (one of the best things about Death Road is that the 60km cycle is all downhill) I had been toying with the idea of just walking the whole way yet for some reason I was now pedalling furiously, trying to overtake two cars and a bus on a corner. Adrenaline does strange things to a person.

All too soon the first section of our trip was over so we bid adieu to the lovely tarmac road, loaded our bikes back onto the roof of the van and tried not to think too much about what was to come. After a few minutes we rounded a corner and absolute silence broke out in the van. In front of us was a huge valley of emerald green mountains cut by a sandy ribbon of road. The narrow road passed under waterfalls and plummeted down mountainsides, always staying closer to the top of the mountains than the bottom. Were we really going to cycle that? The only alternative was staying in the van and considering the width of the van, the width of the road and the width of our top-of-the-range bikes, the bikes somehow looked like the safest option.

Lunch next and a bit of nervous banter over our stale bread and yogurts before we mounted the bikes and started down the hill. We moved slowly at first, getting used to the gravel roads, the constant twists and turns and the ever-present fear of death. The first fall happened within a few minutes – a girl somehow went over her handlebars but, wrapped in cotton wool as she was, she was up and back on the bike within seconds. So far so good. Actually, it wasn’t even that bad. The roads were pretty easy to handle once you remembered not to use the front brake and slowed before you got to a corner rather than during it and we were so busy concentrating on watching out for potholes and cars that we totally forgot that we were on a narrow road 600m above the canopy. By the time we took our first break (for most of the trip we stopped every 15 mins in case anyone had any issues) we were actually, God forbid, starting to enjoy ourselves. World’s Most Dangerous Road? Pah, this was easy. Give us a real challenge!

As the day went on we started to move faster and faster, becoming more comfortable with the bikes and taking the time to check out the awe-inspiring scenery around us. Everywhere we looked there were mountains covered in thick vegetation and shrouded in mist. Every now and then a condor swooped overhead, showing off no doubt and the silence was broken by a crashing waterfall. Dangerous or not, it wasn’t hard to see why people chose to drive this route to Coroico or La Paz.

Of course there were a few hairy moments too. A few corners where back wheels slid under the shock of brakes or where we met locals in cars (or in one case a truck), powering up the mountain. Death Road has been closed to traffic for four years, replaced by a better, lower, newer road, but many locals still use it to get from A to B for some reason – suicidal tendancies no doubt. It was always nerve-wracking having to siddle out to the edge of the cliff so they could pass, praying that a gust of wind wouldn’t take you away or that, as so often happens in life, you wouldn’t just randomly fall over while standing still.

The scariest but also most fun part of the trip was at the end when we opted to take the foot-wide single track down to the base of the mountain instead of the road. When we saw the track we regretted our decision. It was impossibly steep and narrows with huge sharp rocks jutting out here and there and ridiculously tight corners every metre or so. And just to make it interesting it nose-dived off the edge of the hill onto a road about 20m below. Our guide led the way, making it look simple with little bunny hops here and there, turning his bike on a sixpence piece with ease. Apprehensively we followed suit, two hands tightly clutching the brakes and, after a metre or so, faces flat in the dust. How did he stay on? Every time Gary or I tried to get on our bikes we fell off because we were holding the brakes too hard, because we hit a rock, because there is no way a bike could take that corner and because why bother even try anymore, we might as well just walk down. Eventually we got the hang of it though – the trick was to let go of the brakes and feign confidence – and before we knew it we were at the end, the bikes were back on the van, we were covered in beer and we were heading to a nearby hotel for a swim and some lunch. What a day.

There is no question that Death Road is dangerous. When it was the main road in the area there were 1,500 deaths a year on it alone – cars, trucks, buses and vans falling off the edge with families stuck inside. Since the road opened to tourists around 15 years ago, 31 people have died cycling down it – that’s an average of two per year. Yet those figures are far lower than the amount of tourists that die on the Salt Flats in car crashes and when we were cycling it, I rarely felt threatened. In truth, I was too focused on watching the patch of road in front of me to even notice the cliff’s edge right beside me and I know that Gary felt the same. Accidents do happen but, like muggings and bar fights, they tend to happen to some people more often than others.

I think that The World’s Most Dangerous Road is definitely bigged up by those that have done it and want to make it sound like more of an acomplishment than it is. Our advice would be that if you are considering taking a trip but have been freaked out by the boasts of other backpackers, go talk to one of the travel agents about all of their safety measures and see if you feel any differently afterwards. I would absolutely recommend Vertigo as a tour operator – the bikes, safety equipment, guides and souveniers they provided were really fantastic and, although they are half the price of Gravity, we couldn’t spot a single thing they had scrimped on. If you have the stomach for it, Death Road is absolutely one of the highlights of Bolivia.

There are more photos of The World’s Most Dangerous Road available in the gallery

August 20, 2010 at 4:54 am 4 comments


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