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Reflections: The Road of Death – Bolivia’s North Yungas Road

From the high altitude plateau’s of Bolivia’s easy going capital La Paz, to the cool and temperate climate of the village of Coroico. Bolivia’s North Yungas Road certainly makes it’s way through some spectacular scenery, but it’s not know for being the world’s most beautiful road. The North Yungas Road is renowned the world over for it’s heavy and consistent death toll. A toll that has continued to increase year upon year, decade after decade. Since it’s initial construction in the 1930’s, right through to the present day. This road has taken many lives from the local community.

The Road of Death - Bolivia's North Yungas Road

The most horrifying accident on the North Yungas Road was back in 1983, when over 100 people died in a single accident. The bus they were traveling in tragically plunged several hundred meter to the ravine below. In 1995 the ‘Inter American Development Bank’ christened the North Yungas, ‘The Worlds Most Dangerous Road.’

The Road of Death Is Now A Playground For Mountain Bikers

For many years I’ve seen the words ‘Road of Death’ and ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, mentioned throughout the world of cyberspace, as well as a couple of times in the print media. Since the opening of the new sealed and far safer route, that now bypasses the seemingly impassable mountainous terrain. Traffic on the road is now slowly beginning to dry up. It’s now mainly driven by the curious,  the foolish or the brave (in no particular order).

It also seems that the North Yungas Road is now somewhat of an adventure playground for thrill seeking mountain bikers, but it hasn’t always been this way. ‘El Camino de la Muerte!’ (Spanish for ‘Road of Death’) used to be the only possible route for many local people making there way into La Paz, for their once or twice a month shop for food and supplies.

The North Yungas Road

I think this image pretty well tells the story. The North Yungas road, is definitely one of the most dangerous in the world. (this image was taken by Ilosuna and protected by the Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 Licence)

I thought I might share and reflect on my experience in making a couple of journeys along this infamous stretch of road, during my travels throughout South America, back in 1992.

During this period many large buses filled to the brim with people would tackle this perilous route, day in and day out. There’s no doubt that many of the passengers on those buses knew they were rolling the dice, each and every time they boarded, but what else were they to do?

Even on a good day, with calm weather and clear visibility the road was dangerous enough, but as luck may have it. On my initial experience with the North Yungas, I encountered thick fog, with poor visibility and rain.

The elements were against us that day, but it was the passing of multiple heavy vehicles coming from the other direction that made it a trip that I will never forget.

After the first segment of the of the route made it’s way up and over the high pass of La Cumbre (alt 4650m or 15,260ft). Before beginning to twist and turn it’s way steeply downward and towards the village of Coroico. I was beginning to think to myself ‘What’s all the fuss was about?’ The road seemed pretty consistent with what I’d witnessed elsewhere throughout the Andes.

Although it was only a few moments later, when my bus came to a complete stop. I popped my head out of my sliding window, and through a break in the thick mist that engulfed the road. I managed to sneak a view of the immanent path that lay before us.

I Managed To Sneak A View Of The Immanent Path The Lay Before Us

The rocky and muddy roadway (road is a slight exaggeration, as for much of it’s length it’s more like a goat track) started to quickly drop away into the clouds below, with thick tropical vegetation clinging to the steep rock walls towering hundreds of feet above. This section of the Death Road that I was now witnessing, was is no doubt it’s most dangerous. The path had literally been chiseled from the side of a cliff face. Simply an extraordinary sight.

I believe many of the images taken along this road, just don’t do it justice. Like most things in life, it needs to be seen and experienced and to top it all off, the wet season was now upon us. There were many small waterfalls cascading down the cliff face from high above, and falling directly into the middle of the roadway. It was like a scene from a perfectly assembled Hollywood computer animation, just stunning.

Bolivia - North Yungas Road (Road of Death) - Route Map

At this point our driver hopped out with a very serious look on his face, quietly munching on a mouthful of coca leaves. The local women around me were going through a series of hail marries. As I glanced outside to the driver, he was now walking the perimeter of the bus and checking the wheels and tyres. The words ‘seriously dangerous’, were now coming to fruition, and off we went.

As we began to slowly make our way towards Coroico, there were many small wooden and iron crosses that littered the edge of the cliff. No doubt marking the exact spots where others had slid and fallen to their deaths.

Passing Oncoming Traffic On The Yungas Road Was A Nightmare

After a short while we had a break in the weather, and I was begining to relax and take in the amazing scenery. When all of a sudden, a large truck was making its way around a tight hairpin bend directly in front of us.

I was wondering what would happen if this situation would arise, and I was about to find out. There was a bit of back and forth banter of horn tooting, before the law of the road was enforced. As we were heading in a downward direction. It was our vehicle that was forced to reverse back to a section of road that was wide enough, for the truck to pass.

Oron Cross on The Road of Death

This was one of many of the memorial’s along that dotted the route. This road has claimed many lives.

This maneuver was obviously the most dangerous part of the journey, and I still have vivid memories of looking out of the window at the sheer vertical drop, with our wheels only 30cm or 1foot from the edge.

There was no bottom to be seen, just a couple of hundred meters of free fall and then clouds. Who knows how far down it was, but to me it seemed to go on forever.

I encountered two more of these passing’s before the roadway eventually began to widen, and the steepness of the cliffs began to subside to a less fear full, but still quite dangerous angle.

We arrived at the village of Coroico a short time later where I thanked the driver for his skill and patience, and wandered off along the cobble stone streets, amazed at the journey that had just unfolded.

My return trip was much the same, but this time around I knew what to expect and it didn’t have the same impact on me. As I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I would love to one day return to this spot and revisit the scenery and once again drive this amazing route.

The Road of Death is one of the most perilous journeys I have taken whilst travelling, although there were a few road’s in Northern Pakistan that would give the North Yungas a run for it’s money.

Your Thoughts and Comments?

Who out there has either driven or ridden this amazing roadway? I’d love to hear what it’s like today. What about other dangerous roads throughout the world. Can you name others that are in the same basket as the North Yungas?

A Little More About The Author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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20 Great Comments So Far (Have Your Say)

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  1. Michelle says:

    I used to live in Bolivia and make the trip up to La Paz as a little child. Wow! What memories. Certainly scary at times! What took you to Bolivia?

    • Jason says:

      Hey Michelle, Yes I also have great memories of the trip along the North Yungas. I travelled through Bolivia as part of an overland journey around the continent of South America approximately 20 years ago. From all accounts it’s allot more touristy now, than it was back then.

  2. nino says:

    Another extremely dangerous road in Peru is so called Comas road from the town of Comas to German-Austrian town of Pozuzo

    • Jason says:

      Hey Nino, I’ve heard of a few other roads that are quite dangerous in that part of the world, although the Comas road is a new one. I shall do a bit of Googling….. Thanks for your input..

  3. Biked it in 2010 — great fun! I actually think it is less scary on a bike because you are not elevated. Plus, your eyes are on the road trying to avoid a skid in loose gravel so you don’t notice the drop as much. In 2011, we rode the bus to Chulumani – taking the other turn shortly after La Cumbre — much more scary road to me, but perhaps it was because we were elevated and the confident bus drivers felt no need to slow down. You can read some details if you like here http://www.latinamericafocus.com/chulumani-road.html
    ~great memories,

    • Jason says:

      Hey Tracy, I think you might be onto something when you describe being less elevated on a bike. I believe it’s like many things in life. If your not in control of your own destiny, such as having your life in the hands of the driver who you don’t know then it makes the stress levels run a bit higher. The bike tour sounds like fun, and you never know, I may make it back there one day and give it a shot.

  4. Maria says:

    Wow! Get out the bat gear – that’s got to be exhilarating and simultaneously… WHOA!!! and I’m just reading/viewing photos.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Maria, Glad you liked the post, and hopefully you could follow along in your mind on what it was actually like. It’s hard to actually inform people on situations like these through words. It was quite an amazing journey.

  5. I’m so sad that I didn’t get to do this bike ride. I broke my ankle in Lima a week before and had to sit the ride out, while my ex had the time of his life!

    • Jason says:

      Hey Andi, It’s disappointing you couldn’t get to bike the road. I hope he didn’t rub it in to much, on what you missed out on.

  6. Having traveled through Central America now for over a year, I cannot imagine the terror of have a Latin American drive a bus on a road like that.
    It is letting your life sit in the hands of one of the craziest people of the world when it comes to driving – Latin American drivers are just loco when it comes to “defensive driving’!
    Great story and good pics – I could relate to it all!
    Play nice and travel safely.
    John D. Wilson

    • Jason says:

      Hey John, Yeah that Latin bravado can certainly wreek havoc on the roads. We did encounter some of it on the particular trip i described in the post. Where our bus came face to face with a truck head on, and both drivers stood their ground. Blasting their horns and refusing to budge. In the end as I mentioned, we lost and were forced to revers up the path.

      You touch on a good point John. That being, that your life is in the hands of another. You have no control over the situation. None….

  7. MarkG says:

    That’s quite topical. Only last month there was a three part series on BBC Television called ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ in which three pairs of British celebs took a trip on some really rough roads.

    It featured the Dalton Highway in Alaska, an un-named road from India through Nepal’s mountains to China and lastly a drive through the Peruvian Andies to the Amazon. The latter looks very similar to your trip.

    The is recognised as being the most dangerous by the Inter-American Development Bank. So you are very lucky to tell the tale!

    I don’t think that I have the cojones for that. Each time I have travelled on Indian roads I have to try and blank out the fact that 125,000 die on those roads each year.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Mark, I havent seen the series but I reckon the road through the Andes would more than likely have been ‘The Road of Death’, but you mention Peru but it’s actually in Bolivia, so I might be wrong. I hearing you on the Indian roads, and the road tolls are quite monumental.

      I remember many times just sitting in a bus and basically crossing my fingers for the whole journey. Madness, can be the only way to describe some of their driving skills (or lack of them?). Thanks for stopping by mare.

    • nino says:

      Road in question was the Chacas road in Peru as dangerous as the North Jungas road.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Nino, thanks for that mate. I did a bit of reading and the Chacas Road definitely looks like the road in question. Thanks for your input.

  8. Never been on that road Jason. I’ve been on a few others though. I think every road in Nigeria can be classed as a “death road” :) Unfortunately the truth is it’s Nigeria’s biggest killer, more so than anything else.

    Other than that, there was mudslide in The Philippines, and the “road of bandits” in Pakistan. All very memorable and life touching! As I’m sure you recall in this post from Bolivia.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Dave, Thus far, I’ve not made the journey to Nigeria, but I will get there on day, so thanks for the forewarning. Mudslides can be nasty, thats for sure but the ‘Road of Bandits?’ has got me scratching my head. I’m normally pretty good on these things, but can’t recall that one. I’m curious as to where that one is.

      You’ve got to love the names that they come up with for these notorious stretches of roads. I must admit, I do enjoy traveling or driving along roads that have these fancy names, and checkered histories.

  9. Leigh says:

    My daughter was one of those thrill seeking mountain bikers. She loved the bike ride but I don’t think she or I would even consider a bus ride on that road.
    I would have needed to sit on the inside seat with something over my eyes & music playing (on a walkman back then)to survive it.

    • Jason says:

      He Leigh, Your daughter must have had an exiting time riding the road. I’s an activity that would interest me, if I made it back down that way. There’s no doubt that sitting on the inside seat would have been the easiest way to get down, for those afraid of heights. There’s no doubt that many local people chose to do this as they had seen it all before.

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