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Blithely Biking the Road of Death

High in Bolivian Andes, vehicles regularly plunge off cliffs. Still the tourists come.

November 17, 2002|Graham Gori | Associated Press Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Onlookers inched to the edge of the road and peered 600 feet down into the misty jungle where a shattered bus and its victims lay.

Someone flung down a rope. About 50 men pulled and then fell silent when the corpse of an Indian woman rose through the clouds, her clothes bloodied and torn. They stared as rescuers laid her on the muddy ground with a tropical fern over her face.

Then came a strange click-clacking sound. Swooping down the road came a group of tourists in bright red cycling suits, riding modern mountain bikes and offering an incongruous sight on "El Camino de la Muerte" -- the Highway of Death.

"It's nice, and it's really dangerous," said Esther Marechal, a 28-year-old tourist from the Netherlands. She and four other Dutch cyclists weaved through trucks backed up on the 10-foot-wide road, then squeezed past the accident scene and disappeared around a sharp curve, arms joggling with every bump.

So far this year, 101 Bolivians have died in traffic accidents along the 40-mile road carved into a mountainside that drops 11,700 feet, or 2.2 miles, from snowcapped Andes to steaming jungle.

Yet what is a deathtrap for Bolivians has become one of this nation's hottest tourist attractions for adventurous and athletic bicyclists.

Guidebooks bill the single-lane dirt road as the world's most dangerous highway.

"Those up for an adrenaline rush will be in their element, but if you're unnerved by a gravel track just 3.2 meters wide -- just enough for one vehicle -- sheer 1,000-meter drop-offs, hulking rock overhangs and waterfalls that spill across and erode the highway, your best bet is to bury your head and not look until it's over," says the Lonely Planet guide.

Travel agencies in La Paz, 40 miles to the southwest, transport cyclists to the top of the road and then accompany them with a guide the entire way down.

"It's a thrill, especially for young boys looking for bragging rights," said Karin Gembus of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, which charges $49 a person for a guided tour.

"It's dangerous because there are buses falling off the road, not because there are buses hitting cyclists," Gembus told one prospective client. "You've got some incredible views."

Moss-covered crosses dot the shoulder where people have disappeared over 1,000-foot precipices. At the top of the road a monument memorializes two young Dutch lovers killed in a fall. Farther down, a memorial marks where some political dissidents were pushed over the edge on orders of a military government.

Soldiers with red and green flags emerge from the mist to regulate truck traffic in an effort to prevent collisions.

Some of the road's most dangerous sections have nicknames. The curve where the bus accident happened is called "Central Sacrament."

Rescue workers pulled 31 dead from the jungle floor after the crash Sept. 2. Julio Paco, 30, one of 16 people who survived, woke to screams around 5 a.m., and realized the bus was leaning over the muddy edge.

The bus, which was traveling uphill from Coroico to La Paz, fell 600 feet down the mountainside, or about 50 stories. After regaining consciousness, Paco managed to climb up to the road, despite a torn scalp.

Paco told his story from a hospital room he shared with another survivor, Fortunato Guarachi, 36, who lost his brother in the crash. Guarachi broke his collar bone but also was able to climb back up to the road.

The government is building a safer highway. It was supposed to be finished two years ago, but officials say tunneling difficulties have set back the schedule. They now aim for completion by April.

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