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 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.
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.
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.
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?