Monday, March 10, 2008

world's most dangerous ...

With Mel over the border in Peru for a few days I decided to make my own little excursion into the rainforested lowlands of the Yungas region to see a very different side to Bolivia.

This was one trip where it would be every bit as much about the journey as the destination. My chosen mode of transport for the 64km to Coroico? By mountain bike down the worlds most dangerous road of course. You can read more about the terrifying Yungas road here.

After enjoying two rather sleepless nights in anticipation of the day I'd resorted to an extended session at the English Pub in La Paz on the pretense of "ensuring sleep". As a coping strategy it was rubbish.

I awoke at 4am in a cold sweat convinced of two things, firstly that adrenaline is a far more powerful drug than alcohol, and secondly that a high altitude hangover is terrible preparation for riding a bike within inches of the edge of 600m+ high cliffs.

We started by taking a minibus to the top of the snowy mountain pass high above La Paz at almost 5000m where we would start our ride, and spent the next half hour getting to know our bikes and kitting ourselves out with all weather gear.

Despite the fact that we were in Bolivia where people drive on the right hand side of the road, our safety briefing revealed a shocking piece of information. We would in fact be required to ride on the "scenic" left hand side of the road. Otherwise known as the side next to the huge drop.

It seems that where steep, unpaved, single track roads with precipitous drops are concerned the road rules are conveniently reversed. Logic being that left hand drive vehicles are safer driving close to the edge as the driver can look out the window to see how close his wheels are to the edge.

Whilst I couldn't dispute the logic, the fact that the road has consistently claimed 2-300 lives per annum didn't really fill me with confidence either. I could at least take a little comfort from the fact that I wasn't a bus, the mode of transport reputedly responsible for the majority of deaths.

In actual fact biking death road is quite a bit safer these days, since most of the traffic uses the quicker and considerably safer new road which opened in 2006 at a cost of $5m per km. That is unless it's blocked by landslides. Which being wet season it had been the previous day.

Today's outlook? Rain. A lot of rain.

In the end the torrential downpour that accompanied our descent turned out to be a blessing as far as my fear of heights was concerned. Not only did the cloud obscure the full extent of the exposure, but the new road remained open, leaving us to enjoy a very wet, but largely traffic free day as we hurtled down the 64km of downhill through landslides, waterfalls, streams and several hundred litres of mud, most of which seemed to have made it into my shoes by the time we reached the bottom.

Here's a short video one of us riding through a waterfall as we approach the most photogenic corner on the route. Just for the record I'm in 7th place, wearing a silver helmet - but as you'll see, it could be anyone.

Rather than return to La Paz with the group in the afternoon I'd arranged to stay in Coroico at the incredible La Senda Verde wildlife rescue centre. When the resident monkey population weren't unexpectedly jumping on my head from the treetops, they were engaged in a rather amusing running battle with the catering staff in their attempts to steal food.

The main protagonist always seemed to be Sambito the Spider Monkey (below) who had acquired an almost Che Guevara-like reputation around camp for his daring guerilla-style attacks on the kitchen.

Of course it wasn't just the staff who suffered at his hands.

On my first evening he jumped from behind onto my shoulder as I drank from a beer glass, with the inevitable consequence that I spilled the contents on the floor. He then proceeded to greedily lick up the evidence.

I'm convinced he planned it.

Then, as I sat waiting for my taxi to the bus station for the trip back to La Paz he struck again. As he jumped onto my lap I mistook his actions for genuine affection, that is until I felt the telltale warming sensation seeping through my jeans.

Through their barely stifled laughter the staff informed me he has a little difficulty controlling his emotions.

Lucky for him I have better control of mine ...