Leave Your Fear and Trepidation Behind

Someone stopping by for a morning coffee at Café Alexander in central La Paz on 7:30 AM on Friday morning would have been greeted by an international group of groggy adventure seekers eagerly and nervously awaiting the day of mountain biking that lay ahead. Me and six others were a part of this group, arriving early in the morning to sign in with our guide, a goofy, always grinning Australian man named Marcos, and hop on the minibus that would take us to our destination. We were off to Coroico, but this time, via the old road, the Death Road, and on a mountain bike.

What now is a haven for mountain bikers and adventure tourism agencies, the Death Road used to be the only way to get from La Paz to Coroico. This two way road, less than ten feet wide in places, with the mountain wall on one side and an unforgiving precipice on the other, it claimed the lives of 200-300 people a year during its years in operation. Needless to say, this wasn’t a road built for a safe daily commute.

Now, tourist companies have capitalized on this commuter vacancy (although we did see a few random taxis and families in vans making their way up and down), and for the most part the only cars on this road today are the minibuses that follow the mountain biking tourists flying down the mountain road. For a brief, but informative look at the cycling attraction of the road, click here.

We walked into Café Alexander with only a vague history of this road in mind and our boisterous guide announced that here is where we should leave our fear and trepidation behind because the most dangerous thing we’ll do all day is leave the café and cross the busy street to the minibuses. Joking about the dangers of the ride was definitely the “comical” theme of the day.

We learned on the way to the start point that Marcos has been leading riders down Death Road for a year now. Some weeks he traverses the road six days in a row. He boasted that he only had one person hospitalized during that time (with punctured hands and a brain hemorrhage), and added that none of his riders number in the road’s casualty count. Inspiring words indeed.

Getting set up with our equipment: Helmet, neck band, jacket, orange vest, gloves and mountain bike.

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Our crew.

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We got decked out in our gear, which wasn’t exactly water proof, but provided an extra layer to buffer hard falls, and provided our guides and our group with a way of identifying one another.

According to Marcos, the most dangerous part of this journey is always other riders. He said that many other groups end up riding in packs down the narrow road, or, if riders are isolated, they swerve all over the place instead of keeping to the left as downward traffic is supposed to.

Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking Tours, the name of the organization we were with (and received a discount through BX), definitely seemed like the most organized and best run outfit. During the ride down we did indeed witness other groups swerving from side to side, and whole packs traveling together, potentially magnifying any fall to include most of the group.

Before starting down the road, Marcos gave us a run down of mountain biking technique and etiquette on the trails. He finished by declaring his most important rule, “Just don’t be a f!*%king idiot!”

The first part of the Death Road wasn’t really the Death Road at all. We began on the new road, joining the car traffic on the way to Coroico. According to Marcos, in the past year he’d never seen so many cars on the road as there was that day. It was Semana Santa, Easter weekend, and Coroico is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike during this time. In addition to the holiday, many people were headed to the music festival that we were going to in Coroico as well.

We set off through the mist at 10AM, faster riders in front, slower in back, leaving a minibus and half length between each rider. Down through the mist we went, peddling unnecessary on the steep incline. True to the tour company name, gravity’s pull was all we needed in our descent down the steep mountain grade.

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I’d never gone that fast on a bicycle, and never been on a mountain bike, but felt at ease amidst the exhilarating ride. I kept Marcos’ last words circling in my head, “If you remember anything that I tell you, trust the bike.” I hunched forward, flicked the rear brake every now and then, and tried not to get too distracted by the powerful mountain views that surrounded us. Marcos had also affectionately told us with a big grin, “Don’t get distracted by the butterflies because they are trying to kill you.” Lots of feel good wisdom from this happy Aussie!

We cruised down the paved mountain road watching faster cars pass us by. Bolivian families packed in vans, minibuses loaded with Coroico bound vacationers, and huge tourist buses squeezed by us. At times, when traffic was heavier, we zoomed by these folks. That is, if we had space. “Bicycle lane” doesn’t really exist here.

In fact, traffic lines and signs seem to act more as reminders that traffic laws probably exist on paper, even if they aren’t a part of daily life. Passing on a double yellow is just the way one drives here, lanes being optional placeholders as long as there is no oncoming traffic. Even with oncoming traffic, and I saw this as we drove back from Coroico at the end of the weekend, it’s possible to be passing a car on their left over a double yellow and have an oncoming minibus passing you on your left. Just like we were told to trust in the bikes, one learns to trust in the Bolivian drivers.

On our way down we stopped at various turnouts every five or ten minutes for some more advice from our guide about any upcoming sharp turns or especially tricky areas. At one point near the end of the paved journey to the beginning of the Death Road, we stopped just outside a tunnel. Marcos informed us that bicyclists are forbidden to continue through the tunnel now ever since several riders had been seriously hurt by traffic while riding through it.

Our path went around the tunnel, on the first rocky, gravel part we would experience. According to Marcos, it would be a good time to get a feel for mountain biking, begin to trust the bike, and commit to the rest of the journey. With that in mind, we hopped on our bikes and took to the mountain path. Behind us, a group of what looked like local bikers cruised by us (and the sign saying ‘bicyclists forbidden) into the dark tunnel.

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The first thing I learned in that short jaunt around the tunnel was to heed Marcos’ advice about not braking while turning. This causes the back wheel to slide out from under you quite easily. Instead, we were instructed to almost never break fully, just flick the brake a bit, let go, and turn the bike the direction you want to go. The bike will do the rest. I didn’t fall, but a little slip and sliding made a fast learner out of me. We reentered traffic on the paved road shortly and were cruising down the mountain on smooth ground once more.

We passed through a narcotics checkpoint shortly thereafter. This consisted of a large sign, then a seemingly vacant checkpoint area. We were instructed to walk through, and I expected at least some contact with a security person, but with none to be see, we obliged by walking through the area and then hopped back on our bikes. After about an hour, at 11am, we arrived at the Death Road start point.

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A wet and misty start to the journey.

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Last advice from Marcos: he lined up three large rocks and told us, when you can, go between the rocks, but when you can’t, just hit them head on and trust the bike. Don’t brake. Don’t turn. Just keep flying downward. Essentially, if you feel out of control, let go of control. Counterintuitive advice to say the least, but as we got a feel for our bikes, it must have saved many of us from many a fall. I know it did for me.

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Half the time I rode up front with faster riders, and then spent some time in the middle and towards the back as well. I had my tire skid out on multiple turns during the ride, but managed not to fall. We got to this rest spot (see below) and were finally out of the mist that accompanied our ride to that point, disguising the sheer drops off to one side and the spectacular views all around us. While we had some granola bars and refilled water, it started to pour. We had started in the mist, then it gave way to rain, and we would get to the sun eventually. We definitely got our money’s worth weather wise!

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The narrowest part of the journey awaited just after the rest stop in the rain.

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Our group taking a rest on Devil’s Tail.

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Little memorials like this lined the road all the way down.

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Luckily we avoided any rock slides that day, although we had to navigate parts of the road covered in loose rock from recent landslides.

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And sometimes a little water to navigate as well.

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Having too much fun.

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Part BX and friends of BX having a much deserved rest.

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On the last stretch of the road we passed the start of the zipline course, which we would be driving back up for later!

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Celebrating survival!

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A complimentary beer after our five hour ride. Tasted sooo good.

Made it! A beer never tasted so good.

The zipline was an optional add-on after making it down to the bottom of the Death Road. Most of our group elected to keep the adrenaline going and opt for it. After returning our gear and being treated to a cerveza at the bottom of the route, we got harnessed up and driven to the first zip line point.

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The first line was the highest up, at 300 meters, the second would be the fastest zip line, at 50+ mph, and the third the longest at 2,000+ ft. I’ve done two zip lines before, one in the Costa Rican jungle and another in Northern California. Both were longer courses than this one, although the Bolivian version had something the others didn’t: Superman.

Non-Superman style

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The Superman harness.

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As you can see from the photos normally you are strapped in and laying back with your feet in front of you. However, this outfit had another harness option where you can lie face down with your back to the line. Flying forward, looking down at the ground, with your hands out in front, and you have become a flying Superman. Since there were only two Superman harnesses, at each base point, those who wanted to do the Superman harness switched out of their normal one and jumped into the Superman style experience. I did on the last run, the longest one, and truly felt like I was flying through the air. Definitely the way to do a zip line!

After the zipline, we were taken to La Senda Verde, an eco resort and animal refuge where we had a spaghetti buffet, included in our Gravity experience, and rested for a bit.

From there we finally made the last bit of the journey to Coroico in minibus. We met up with some others who had opted to not do the Death Road at La Finca, the place where we were camping.

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A relaxing night around the fire awaited and then a sleeping-in morning followed. Our lodging was a hotel/hostel, but had wide open grounds which made camping (40 bolivianos a night, less than $6) an option for us that we took advantage of. The place also had a large pool, a pool room, and lots of dogs running around!

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On Saturday we took our time getting up, played some pool, swam, and headed to Coroico for lunch in the early afternoon.

Pique Macho for lunch, a traditional Bolivian dish. Essentially it is the Bolivian version of paella, a whole bunch of food (french fries, onions, peppers, cheese, eggs, various kinds of meat, and all drenched in a mysterious sauce) thrown together in a delicious and extremely filling way.

Pique Macho, un plato boliviano.

From there we headed to the music festival, which was in the hills outside of Coroico in the opposite direction from our camping area. We arrived around 6pm and found that not many people were there yet. We passed the time exploring the area a bit, learning to juggle and visiting with other festival-goers.

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As night came, more people showed up and the music started flowing. We had a great time that night, had plenty of time to sleep in the next day, played some more pool, and then headed back up the mountain to our home in La Paz.

To top off the fun and wild weekend, the minibus that we took back to La Paz came with its very own parrot co-pilot. This little guy clung to the rear-view mirror the whole bumpy ride back, with the occoassional surprised chirp when we hit a particularly large hole in the road. I was amazed it held on the whole way, and it seemed quite at ease during the trip. Like us, he trusted this driver’s navigation abilities, and had long ago left behind any fear or trepidation he may have had about this crazy journey.

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On the road back home.

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By Alan

¡Coroico! ¡Coroico! ¡Coroico! ¡Minibus! ¡Coroico!

It is now my sixth day in Bolivia after landing in La Paz early on Friday morning and it’s been a busy six days, two of which were spent three hours outside of the city in a town called Coroico. No time wasted getting in a short weekend trip!

I arrived at 5:30AM and was greeted by the driver Bolivian Express had arranged to be there, a paceño named Joaquin. With him was another soon to be journalist for Bolivian Express named Rob who flew in from England. We took a twenty minute taxi ride up and down, and up and down the hilly roads into the main part of La Paz. San Francisco has nothing on the hills in this city!

At one point we turned a corner and were greeted with a sweeping view of the sprawling city down below, a haphazard spattering of lights spreading outward into the mountainous darkness. Needless to say, a daytime trip to a vista point is on the agenda, not only to get a better sense of the city layout, but to witness (and photograph!) the spectacular views of this 12,000 foot high city.

Our accommodation arrangement is a house owned by the magazine in a residential area of La Paz. It is two stories with all of us sleeping in the rooms downstairs (in bunk beds) and some of the staff in rooms upstairs.

Part of the purpose for Bolivian Express as a publication is to provide insight on different aspects of Bolivian culture from the perspective of foreigners, and to do so in the style of narrative journalism. That first day we had a meeting to determine the topic for the upcoming issue, and ended up deciding on “Healing.”

Instead of reporting the latest health statistics, or monthly health news, our task is to choose a topic within healing, identify an angle or question we will be exploring in that topic, and then paint a written (and visual) picture of our narrative.

The director of the program noted that only about 50% of the article process involves writing as we’ll also be responsible for either taking photos to accompany our text, commission a photo through their network of photographers, or use an existing photo from a variety of resources, as well as taking part in the other aspects of the print publication process. This blog will end up much too long if I describe all the operational aspects of the magazine, so I’ll leave the rest for another blog as I get further along in the process.

During that first day, other participants who have been here for a month or two already told us they were planning a trip to a town called Coroico the following day. Seven of us ended up going, leaving the house in a taxi to the bus station around noon. Clear on the other side of the city, the bus station is more of a minibus/minivan station, crowded with men and women with clipboards yelling out destinations to the folks getting out of taxis.

We heard numerous earnest shouts of “¡Coroico! ¡Coroico! ¡Coroico! ¡Minibus! ¡Coroico!” from some of these men and women, and eventually agreed on a price of 25 bolivianos each to take us to our hostel in Coroico, which was three hours away. That’s about $3.50.

It turns out that the man we paid for the tickets was also our driver, and the woman whose shouts of “¡Coroico! ¡Coroico! ¡Coroico! ¡Minibus! ¡Coroico!” caught our attention, his wife. She came along, as did their two young sons, and we were off down the mountain with this family of four to our weekend destination. Below is a picture of their older son enjoying the spectacular view, new to us, but probably a weekly sight for him!

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A dense fog wrapped itself around the mountain for the first half of our journey down the windy mountain road to Coroico. When we got below the fog, we could then see what we had been missing, a landscape of vast and lush mountain valleys accompanied by dizzying drops from the side of the road hundreds of feet to the valley floor below.

The old road to Coroico is affectionately named “The Death Road,” because of, to put it nicely, its safety challenges. This new road appeared to be much better, although eventually it too gave way to dirt and gravel, and some not so safe turns through thick mud or gaping holes.

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Whether it’s taxi drivers navigating the crowded and frantic city streets of La Paz or a father and his family navigating treacherous mountain roads, I feel very safe on these journeys. There are no other people in the world that know these roads better than our hired bolivianos, which makes it easier to just sit back and enjoy the thrill of the very bumpy ride.

We got dropped off a short walk away from our hostel, which is located about a mile above the town of Coroico itself. Below is a picture of our ride leaving.

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The spectacular view that awaited us.

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The group walking to the hostel.

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Arriving at the hostel.

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Checking out the facilities which included two pools, a hot tub, short trails through the lush grounds, gardens and a small restaurant.

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A tropical mood.

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Exploring the grounds.

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We spent a relaxing afternoon at the hostel area enjoying the cool humid air and the tranquility of our mountain forest haven. After dark, we headed down to the town for some drinks, dinner, and exploring. Coroico has about 3,000 people to its name, and true to its size, every shop or restaurant is a real “Mom and Pop” place.

In one small restaurant we went to for a drink, a small boy stood behind the bar counter greeting us with a shy smile as we walked in. A little while later his friend, even smaller than he, came through the open restaurant door and curiously looked at our group of very un-Coroican looking people. I spoke with him for a bit and told him everybody’s names. He played peek-a-boo behind my chair with one of the girls for a little while, then shared a laugh with his friend and scampered back out into the streets.

Chatting with the locals, like this little boy, helped ease any sense of isolation we might have felt in this place. As travelers who look and act and speak different than the locals, we were a curiosity at best, and the locals a similar curiosity for us. But with every interaction, those cultural barriers fell away, the sense of isolation lessened, and a feeling of our shared humanity strengthened.

This is one reason why I love traveling. It helps establish or reinforce one’s understanding of human diversity, accompanied by an even deeper sense of our shared humanity. The traveler’s state of mind, and the locale he or she visits, provide a fertile ground for such growth, and expands one’s capacity to bring that openness back home, to explore and understand and embrace the diversity that is always around us.

This turned into quite a long blog, and there is work and fun to be had here! I’ll finish up this post with some photos of our day time adventure the next day to some nearby waterfalls, as well as some photos of the town of Coroico itself.

On our way to the falls.

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The windy road we minibused to get there.

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The trailhead, 2 bolivianos por favor.

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Arriving at the waterfall.

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Post plunge, freezing and invigorating.

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The view from our walk up to the lunch place outside of the main town area.

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A relaxing spot to watch the passersby.

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First time eating llama…very tasty and the first meal since getting to Bolivia that didn’t leave me with a stomach ache. Not exactly sure what that pile of brownish yellow stuff was…

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Back down into Coroico.

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By Alan

Southward Bound

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Sitting in Miami International Airport waiting for my flight to take me to La Paz, Bolivia, I have the opportunity to put to words where my mind is and create a space to do so again in the future. Because if there is anything this 7 hour layover is good for, it’s ample time to set up a blog and see where the keyboard takes me.

In the first week of January, I decided to pursue the adventures that now await in these next four months. I applied and was offered a place with Bolivan Express, Bolivia’s major English-language publication, as a journalist for their team. I’ll be living with other writers, individuals like myself from all over the world who have ventured to Bolivia to discover the vibrancy of its culture and convey it to the English speaking world. More on BX once I arrive and become better acquainted with the people and the program!

After living in La Paz (and traveling on weekend trips) for two months, I’ll be leaving in mid-May to begin traveling north. I have no set plans for the northward journey through Peru, although Machu Picchu will definitely be on the itinerary. I also may be meeting up with a friend in Cuenca, Ecuador along the way. Regardless, there is much to explore between La Paz and Quito, so we’ll see where the path leads me.

In Quito I’ll be meeting a contact with Fundación Pachamama, sister organization of The Pachamama Alliance, a nonprofit where I worked as a writing intern for about five months late last year. Preparations will commence in Quito for my upcoming five or six weeks in the Amazon jungle where I’ll be living in a small community of Achuar, indigenous Amazon people with whom The Pachamama Alliance does much of their advocacy and consulting work. My lodging will be a hut they built, my food will be whatever they share with me, my shower and laundry facilities will be the river, and my task, teach English to the community members. Needless to say, it will be like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I have a feeling it will end up giving me more than I could ever ask for.

In all, these next four months will be a time to explore; to explore journalism as a profession, to explore myself as a teacher, to explore culture and places and people, including myself. It’s still four hours to go before my flight boards, plenty of time to dig deeper into my Bolivia travel book, grab a bite to eat, and reflect on all the goodbyes and well-wishes I’ve received from friends and family the past several weeks. I’ll send my next post flying out into cyberspace from the other side of the world. La Paz, here I come.

By Alan