Bolivia’s geography is one of extremes and it is this more than anything that defines the country and its people. On the country´s western border the Andes are at their most spectacular, forming one huge, dominating mountain range of snow and ice. To the east these peaks give way to the high, freezing altiplano before plunging down into the sticky rainforest of the Amazon Basin.
I witnessed this massive transition in a spectacular fashion when I did a mountain bike ride on “the world’s most dangerous road” just outside of La Paz. It involves dropping from 4850m to 1100m over 64 stunning kilometres. The drop is so steep that you basically don’t need to pedal for the entire ride.
As with any good travelling adventure, much lore and myth has built up around “Death Road”. It involves speeding down a gravel road with a sheer drop on your left hand side while trying desperately to keep your balance as you negotiate rocks and waterfalls. The road developed its current reputation when it was a major transport route and the scene of many fatal accidents – as much to do with the mad Bolivian driving as the dodgy road I reckon.
Today vehicles no longer drive on the road meaning cyclists have it to themselves and I am skeptical as to how dangerous death road actually is. On our bike ride we did have one chap wipe out but that was more because we were being boys and competitive rather than any problem with the road. Still, I met a girl who said that on her tour one guy went straight off the edge but fortunately managed to grab some foliage while falling. The tour operators threw him a rope, pulled him up and everyone carried on! 22 cyclists have died on the route over the last 10 years so there is definitely some danger associated with it. That aside, it really is a spectacular bike ride where you start in the snow all wrapped up against the cold and finish sweating profusely in the jungle.
A Kiwi bloke was the first to see the potential appeal of the road to mountain bike enthusiasts and set up a company offering rides down it. There are now more mountain bike companies than tourists and it’s a core part of the Bolivian backpacker circuit so he has done an excellent job marketing the experience. There is a cool video on his site: http://www.gravitybolivia.com.
The final stop before Peru is Lake Titicaca – at 3800m it’s the highest navigable lake in the world and also the largest in all of South America. From the very peaceful lakeside town of Copacabana you can see the Andes stretch out on the other side of the lake in Peru. From here it’s possible to catch a ferry across to Isla del Sol, the place where the Incas developed their taste for worshipping the sun.
My plan was to get to the island, hike around a bit and check out the Inca ruins but this was scuppered by a very enthusiastic and charming Dutch chap I met at the bus stop. Ines convinced me that he was a master sailor and questioned why anyone would want to catch a ferry to the island when you could sail. Why indeed? After some good sales patter I was convinced. We roped in a German girl as third mate and arrangements were set for the following morning.
When we commandeered a vessel off one of the local chaps at the harbor, I did have some reservations but at this point things were moving along nicely and I didn’t want to kick up a fuss. Our ship had a very rustic look to it – the mast was constructed of carved tree branches and she looked pretty handmade. For instruction, we carried a very rudimentary map (picture below) drawn on a piece of paper the size of my hand and we were told to seek out Tomas on arrival at the island. Full of enthusiasm the three of us set off on what turned out to be a grueling journey to Isla del Sol.
We spent 8 hours sailing, and doing rather a lot of rowing, into a side wind. On the ferry the journey takes half an hour. We persisted through freezing temperatures, a thunderstorm and I was decidedly grumpy by the time of arrival but it did feel like an achievement. We found Tomas, moored our boat and got digs in a village high up on the Island. It is such a beautiful and tranquil spot. We had no time, and less inclination, to walk around, however, we did see a spectacular sunset with a beer in hand. Our return the next day could not have been more different – the sun was shining, the wind was at our backs and we returned in 3 hours with minimal effort on our part.