The Death Road

World’s most dangerous road

Camino de la Muerte ("The Death Road") is a notorious transportation route in the of Yungas region, going from La Paz (Bolivia’s capital) to the town of Coroico. This 61-kilometer long stretch initially rises up to La Cumbre pass at a height of about 4650 meters above sea level, then it gradually lowers to finish at the altitude of barely 1200 meters. Most of the trail is a narrow road through mountainous terrain, often just inches away from breath-taking precipices. Surely it is a dangerous road, but on the other side, it is accompanied by stunning and various landscape. The harsh and rigid climate of the Altiplano highlands gradually turns into an increasingly dense, hot and humid tropical forest.

Every year many people die in accidents. The greatest catastrophe took place on July 24, 1983, when an overloaded bus lost control on a turn and fell over the edge into a several hundred meters deep abyss. More than 100 passengers died. No one survived. This is the worst accident in Bolivia’s history. In 1994, there were 26 cars falling over the edge – an average of one every two weeks. The last few years, after the construction of an alternative, bypassing road, many people still use this traditional crossing. Thus, nowadays the road’s death toll are local coca farmers, soldiers, inhabitants of nearby villages and. .. adrenalin-thirsty, unlucky travelers riding bikes. It is assumed that over the last few years as many as 30 bikers, including three Bolivian guides, died while riding downhill the road. Just as in many other aspects of life, it is often not the lack of skills, but venturesome boldness that calls for adversity.

The expression world’s most dangerous road rings a bell. As I approach western Bolivia, I hear about it increasingly more often. Finally, a few inspiring talks with other travelers make me put the popular Camino de la Muerte on the top of my priority list. Before we start, I promise myself that I would be very careful. As soon as I sit on my Iron Horse Maverick hardtail with hydraulic brakes, I know that it will be hard to say ‘no’ to going fast. There are around twelve people in our group. Shortly after the start, I realize a few of these have a tendency to ride too fast. It is also me (I already forgot about a heavy backpack with a big camera on my back). Speed, adrenalin, jumping and turning fast on sharp corners prevail over being reasonable. It’s an amazing experience, the road tends to be as narrow as 3.2 meters with precipices reaching 600 meters, some of these being a vertical wall. There are no safety barriers or security warnings whatsoever. The rule of right-hand traffic is also lifted. Coming from the top you must always keep to the outer (the dangerous one) side of the road. Being utterly focused and trustful is essential.

The landscape is changing together with decreasing altitude, so is the weather in course of these few hours. At times it is sunny, rainy, foggy, cloudy, then sunny again and so on. We pass a few specific points, cross deep pools, pass San Juan waterfall, see the notorious and most dangerous turn and many terrifying precipices. Hold on.. “terrifying”, or simply "interesting and stunning"? Probably the latter. We stop for a couple of breaks, take some pictures and in general, keep progressing downhill.

Is this road really that dangerous? The statistics suggest that it is true – and this is probably an argument sufficient enough to believe so. However, for a rider with some past biking experience it can be quite a nice ride. Myself, I have many times ridden a bicycle in the areas requiring more technical skills, so probably for those really into biking the road is plain sailing.

The major risk factor rises when, for example, your attention is distracted by the green valley below for a short while and at this unlucky time a huge truck might come right in front to surprise you. The brakes of those rental bikes are used daily by hundreds of different tourists and I presume, they are usually not serviced daily. You are better off with working breaks ahead any of these sharp turns. Also, innocent jokes and fooling around with a friend next to you can result in one of you having a free fall into the abyss.

To sum it up, I definitely recommend giving it a try. To be more specific, just visit the agency El Solario in La Paz and they will fix everything for your for about €35. I survived and even got a souvenir T-shirt!

Early afternoon we reach Yolosa village (1200m). It is perfect timing to relax and enjoy, as promised by the agency, an all-you-can-eat buffet. Filled to our heart’s content, me and Priscilla, which whom I am traveling now, leave the group and take a bus going to the town of Coroico. It turns out to be a pleasant town, so since we’re here, we decide to stay overnight. As the evening comes, we sit down on the main square, talk with people, enjoy a cold beer and gaze at a group of Argentinian girls playing drums and  making improvised performance with long ribbons. We reflect the adventures of the day and there is one more thought coming to my mind. It is now stronger than ever. “I will try to return as soon as possible to a height of about 4000 meters, in order not to lose the acclimatization. It is a dream of climbing Huayna Potosi, my first six-thousand meter summit.”

January 2012

death road