Sometimes in life you encounter the most unclear, unhelpful, and downright loopy border controls imaginable. I’m sure plenty countries do have much worse, but until I cross those particular lines in the sand, Peru and Bolivia will hold the title of the most ridiculous. The Bolivian side especially! I can see now why Bolivian police have about 20 pockets in their uniform, they need somewhere to keep all that money they collect from passing tourists. They sometimes even claim to have no change despite having a bundle rolled up inside their jackets. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, corrupt bastards!
As such was my initial confusion as to where to get my stamp on my passport I found myself wandering between the two countries for the best part of half an hour. No help seemed to be on offer, in fact it wasn’t until the following day that I was able to gain my legal entry into Bolivia. Of course having spent the night back in Copacabana the policeman’s pocket couldn’t wait to take advantage and I duly had to pay. Soon after two equally confused tourists then turned up with the exact same problem I had experienced the previous day, fortunately for them I now had all the knowledge in the world in dealing with this border and was able to point them in the right direction. I’m pretty sure they got through without a hitch, lucky gits!
In between my illegal stay beyond the border like some sort of fugitive and actually leaving Copacabana, I managed a detour to the much hyped ‘Isla Del Sol’. A pretty island miles from the shores of Lake Titikaka that took ages to get to and ages to get back. Apart from a couple of half interesting remnants from past civilisation and a cafe that did a decent chocolate pancake, the trip was a slight waste of time. I did manage to find another bloody mountain to climb though!
A power cut ensured that the sinking sun was to mark the end of my sightseeing in Copacabana. Only the beaming headlights from the departing buses at the nearby plaza cut through the darkness that swallowed up the mayhem that was beginning to ensue. I battled through the hectic mass of people to reach one of the buses. Everyone had rather peculiarly began behaving like an uncontrollable swarm of moths, attracted by all the bright lights shining from the blackness that the sun had left behind. My bus was cheap and it left soon. Good, I’d had enough and just wanted to get moving again. Next stop, La Paz.
After a few cold hours I had arrived, although I had no idea where in the city I had arrived at. It also just so happened to be raining. I performed a quick 360 to grab my bearings as the rain increased to an almost cats and dogs level. With taxi’s lining up in front of the stationed bus I rushed to the nearest one and hopped in. Apparently La Paz struggles when things get wet. From where my taxi journey began to near where my hostel was situated all seemed well. As we climbed the numerous hills that occupy la Paz I chatted to the driver a little, telling him about how it also rains in Scotland, as if this were an interesting fact to tell anyone, when all of a sudden things came to a standstill. Glancing out the window we weren’t the only ones. A whole convoy of cars and buses had become stuck on the steep greasy streets. It appeared that with the rare heavy downpour came a slippery slickness as months of oil, dirt and goodness knows what else was evenly spread over the roads. The second hand cars that made up the majority of the traffic simply couldn’t cope and after much wheel spinning later the only thing left to do was to reverse back onto the busy main road that cut across the hill we were currently sitting on. A massive yet less steep detour later, and I had reached my hostel.
Dumping my belongings in my room, I went in search of some street food from the few scattered places around that I knew of. When you can by a burger, a slice of pizza and a hot dog all for the combined prize of around £1 it’s worth the wander around. A wee bit o’ scran later and an early night beckoned. It wasn’t long before the second bike ride of my travels was to begin. After my wobbly escapades in Peru I had decided it would be a good idea to do some more biking. Nowhere risky or anything of course, because that would just be stupid. ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ here we come…naturally.
For all the things I have been and do get nervous about, this has to be up there as one of the genuinely most appropriate times to be at least as little worried. After all I a good track record of biking mishaps. This combined with the actual road I was about to rally down on two wheels and it’s safe to say thoughts of flying over the edge and into oblivion did cross my mind. To add to the road’s infamous reputation, it is also known as ‘The Death Road’. This may sound scary to some but the name was actually given to the road due to the high number of casualties during it’s construction. So not all was bad. As I fastened my helmet and adjusted my gloves, any thought given to such mind easing titbits were long banished. This was after all, ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ (WMDR).
In the beginning things were surprisingly easy. The first section of the journey was a simple tarmac road. The WMDR was still a short journey away. As it was early on a Sunday there wasn’t much traffic. The clouds swirled far below as my group sped down the winding roads. It was just like Peru. Easy, fast, familiar. The only difficulty encountered was the near freezing temperatures we had to endure to begin with. At the start there had been ice and snow all around. Like Peru it was to be a day of extremes. Some good, some not so good. I just hoped the rather extreme sport of falling over a cliff with a bike instead of a parachute wasn’t on today’s list of activities. That one I could do without, and with my already numb like fingers clutching on to the handlebars, aching already having not fully recovered from my previous day of biking, things looked a tad bleak. Just a tad mind. As a consolation, the view once again, was positively breath-taking.
With section one completed shit was about to get real. The surface had changed from a calm flat, trustworthy tarmac to the ever unpredictable dirt and rocks. This I was most worried about. Our tour guide, a hell of a good mountain-biker named Steve, was quick to explain what lay ahead. We were also given a talk on how to handle the bike. A theme of the day. It was reassuring and thinking back, probably saved me from reaching the bottom via the express route. Now where did I put that parachute?
The WMDR had arrived. More health and safety talks followed by a briefing on what to expect were dished out. With my bike at the ready, I hopped from my left onto my right foot, pushing down on the pedal to give my bike an initial boost and away we went. The road was bumpy, rocks bigger than my head were scattered everywhere like land mines. I was sure someone had been out earlier that morning with a truckload of them, tactically placing them wherever they thought I might cycle. If I ever catch that guy I won’t be held responsible for my actions! The key was to stick to the tracks that had been etched out by passing vehicles over the years. The ground was firmer and the wheels didn’t sink in. It also provided more speed. This wasn’t something I was keen on. I now truly believe I possess some sort of fear when it comes to downhill mountain biking. Although rational as it may be to fear falling off, I had the extra bonus of my horrific memory of sailing over my handlebars as a young boy in Scotland. I do hope that BMX is a rusty mess now. Or better still, has been recycled into a Poundland toaster. Karma’s a bitch right?
I applied the brakes, careful not to overdo the front wheel. This was exactly how I would end up sailing again. Never ever heavily apply the front wheel brake! The rear wheel was working hard, for around 90% of my descent it strained as gravity wrestled with my demands to slow down. Every so often I would release them only for my bike to shoot off as if I had a nitro boost attached somewhere. With more speed brought a feeling of less control The bike ate up the treacherous terrain as a $3000 mountain bike should. With every tight corner I could see the drop that accompanied me the whole way. It was like a bottomless pit. A vast valley that only the clouds dared enter. The only thing that was genuinely keeping me from a huge plummet downwards was keeping control of my bike. This meant a continuous application of my breaks. Slow and steady, let’s try not to die today.
With the drop to the left and the high cliff to the right, one would assume cycling on the right, as they do in South America, would be the way to go. As it turned out, we were advised to cycle on the left hand side. WHAT?! With almost every corner turning to the right it was actually safer as it vastly widened your visibility to traffic that was coming up the hill. Most would beep their horns before approaching every corner. The sensible thing to do. Some wouldn’t, cretins! There was one particularly tight corner I was readying myself to whiz round when suddenly a loud blast from a horn was sounded not long before a giant black 4×4 emerged. Grateful as I think I have ever been, I slowed down and allowed the mammoth to pass by without incident. It did however, give me a small insight into just how easily a fatal accident could occur. Without that horn I could have possibly either crashed right into the 4×4’s massive bonnet, or even worse, swerved to my left and straight off the cliff. It was a very real possibility. This was a dangerous road. That, I was in no doubt.
Another hairy moment that sticks out as I think back was another corner I navigated. This time with no traffic present, it somehow caught me out as a tighter corner than it had first appeared. This was actually a fairly common occurrence for all bikers and we were warned it could happen. A corner can seem pretty open until you are halfway round when suddenly you find yourself simply going to fast and unable to match the curve. On tarmac it’s not so much a problem. You lean over a little and tighten your projected route. Not so on the soft soil that this road was made from. As I made my way around I could see the cliff edge getting rather close, I made an immediate effort to move further to my right but this corner was suddenly comparable to a right angle. For a brief panicky moment that cliff edge drew nearer and nearer and like with all pending disasters about to take place, I pictured what was about to happen next. Increasing my grip on my breaks I desperately sought to turn more to my right. With the road quickly running out ahead of me the bike finally reacted with a sudden twist towards safety. I wouldn’t say I was quite inches away from falling off but I was pretty damn close. Less than a metre that’s for sure. Had I insisted on bombing it down like some bikers did, I’m convinced I wouldn’t be here typing this blog. Slow and steady, let’s try not to die today.
Have I mentioned the view yet? I’m convinced I must have now cycled in some of the most beautiful, albeit dangerous places on Earth. I assume Earth because this view was simply out of this world. Even the narrowest section, a paltry 2.5 meters wide, which led under a hazardous waterfall didn’t worry me now. This was actually the very point in the journey where Jeremy Clarkson scraped past a truck in a Top Gear special. A must watch episode I might add. Continuing my descent, my fingers were now aching from the seemingly endless hours of applying my brakes. No matter how much pain they caused, I refused to ease my grip The road was beginning to level off somewhat, the end was near. “Don’t pick up speed now. Don’t get cocky” I said to myself. We were warned prior to this final section about the increase in accidents. Weariness and a sense of over confidence were blamed. I kept my sense of fear at the forefront of my mind. It was perhaps my best attribute right now.
The crossing line was almost in sight, only a minor river that flowed from another waterfall presented one final challenge. Well, the second last really, but I’ll come to that soon. During the entire day, I had continuously forgot which trigger to click with my thumb to switch the gears. Drat! As soon as I splashed into the water my bike almost came to an immediate standstill. “Use your gears” I heard. I thought I was! I stood up on my pedals and sunk every pound of weight I had on each one. With a snail like pace I finally emerged. Another close call. Another section of bumpiness and I was nearly finished. The bike sometimes slid and swerved as it fought against the rocky surface. Once I nearly fell off completely, the skid I performed to regain control, I was later told, looked awesome. At least I didn’t look a quivering mess the entire way down.
One last push and the finish was literally in sight. The pedalling was all but over and several hours of this fear driven nightmare were finally coming to a close. Shit, a chicken! A quick swerve from this seemingly suicidal piece of poultry and I was there. Stupid animal! High fives were dished out all around by Steve followed by some complimentary beer in a nearby bar. All was well. I had come through the other side, slow and steady, and I thankfully, hadn’t died that day.