Derren Patterson went out to see the world and landed in Bolivia leading bicycle tours down the world’s most dangerous road.
Patterson is one for adventure. After graduating from WSU with a history degree, he decided to travel, paying for it first by teaching English in Asia. He spent a year at a middle school in Korea and then found a one-year job in China at a university.
Patterson often rode his road bike and a motorcycle when he was back in the States, but in China his bicycle was his main mode of transportation. During a break, he rode from Northern Vietnam to Saigon. He was having adventures, but Patterson was itching to see more. He was interested in South America and had heard about a job leading bicycle tours in Bolivia for Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking.
The gig was guiding tours along a twisting road that stretches from high in the Andes down into La Paz. It had been dubbed the “Most Dangerous” road in the world by the Inter American Development Bank in 1995. At the time an estimated 200-300 people died on the 40 mile stretch each year. With hairpin turns, and narrow lanes, in some places the road is just a tiny ledge on a nearly vertical cliff. At the same time, it offers spectacular vistas from the snowy mountains down to the steaming, verdant Amazon rainforest–“majestic views and tropical splendor,” is how Patterson describes it.
During Patterson’s first week in Bolivia, after adjusting to the high altitude, he had an intestinal infection and was ill for most of his first day at work. After a few miles on a bike, he decided to get back on the bus. “It wasn’t one of my proudest moments,” he says. But it provided him with a good anecdote for his future tours. “I always tell my clients, especially the nervous ones who haven’t ridden bikes in years, that on my first ride down, I was on the bus.”
Now he rides the road four or five times a week taking people down 3,600 feet from the high peaks of the Yungas region into the Amazon. Fortunately, in 2006 much of the car and truck traffic was diverted from the most precarious portions onto modernized bypasses with guardrails and multiple lanes. Patterson starts his days in La Paz at 5:30 a.m. to start loading the bikes and gear on the bus at 6. He usually works with a team of two others—the bus driver and a Bolivian guide. As the “Anglo” guide, he does most of the talking on the tour, he says.
During the drive up the mountain, he chats up the 14 clients, making sure everyone is awake and sober. They listen to music and hand out gear. At the top, they unload the bikes and Patterson starts the rules and safety speech. “If it’s all Aussie rugby players that day, I tell them all the scary stories I’ve seen and read to make sure they don’t ride like idiots,” he says. If it’s a more nervous, sensible crowd, he tones down the stories and urges them to be confident and comfortable.
The first 24 kilometers are on paved road and pretty easy. As the terrain changes, Patterson stops and talks about what’s coming up next, and offers tips to make the clients safer and more comfortable. At all times either he or the Bolivian guide is in the front and the other brings up the rear. When they get to the “world’s most dangerous,” part, Patterson is on high alert, stopping to offer history lessons, tell a few jokes, and cope with issues like bad weather, landslides, oncoming cars, or injuries.
At the end of the four- to five-hour trip, the group is hot, dusty, and thrilled by the experience. The team takes the riders to an animal refuge on the jungle floor, serves them lunch, offers a swim, and heads back to La Paz. While the riders’ day wraps up around 8 p.m. and they are deposited at their hotels, Patterson and his team still have to unload the bikes and gear. Then Patterson pays the driver, splits the tips, and uploads the videos and pictures from the day’s tour.
The long days can be grueling, but Patterson is still enraptured by the scenery and drama of where he spends them. “I never get tired of the ride itself,” he says. “I never get tired of the beauty.