This road is not your typical Sunday drive.
Located 56 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of La Paz, North Yungas Road (colloquially known as El Camino de la Muerte or Death Road) is a 64-kilometer (40 mile) stretch of winding roadway in the Yungas region of northeast Bolivia. Carved from the mountainside of the Cordillera Oriental range, the road was originally constructed in the 1930’s by Paraguayan prisoners captured during the Chaco War. Today, approximately 50,000 tourists and adventure seekers from around the world travel to Bolivia each year for a chance to cheat death and ride on the infamous Death Road.
And as the name suggests, this road is not your typical Sunday drive. Since 1998, at least 18 tourists have died biking down the road, and during the 1990s an average of almost 300 people died each year from fatal falls. The worst accident on Death Road occurred on July 24, 1983, when a bus veered off the roadway and over the cliff’s edge, killing more than 100 passengers. Given its deadly past, the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed it the “world’s most dangerous road”.
Despite enhanced security features and safety precautions, the road’s notorious reputation has proven difficult to dispel. It wasn’t until 2006, after a twenty-year renovation project commissioned by the government that the roadway was finally modernized implementing new sections of pavement, drainage systems, bridges and guardrails.
It continues to be the primary route for locals and companies transporting goods from Yungas region to the country’s capital. Vehicles (from commuter buses and cars to heavy duty machinery and large work trucks) are often forced to negotiate and maneuver along the 3.2-meter wide (10 foot) single lane roadway, with such precision and accuracy that any mistake or miscalculation will undoubtedly lead to a fatal fall (a 600-plus meter, or just under 2,000 foot, sheer drop to the canyon below). And it’s not uncommon to perform this careful balancing with incoming traffic from the opposite direction, where vehicles are forced to slyly maneuver passed one another with careful consideration of the cliff’s edge.
In the late 1990s, tourists started to flock to Death Road, attracting mostly backpackers and thrill seekers. Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, founded in 1998 and the first tour company to provide tours on Death Road, is a reputable company with a proven safety record (with the unique distinction of taking more than 35,000 people on tour and having zero fatalities in almost twenty years of operation). The bike ride begins at La Cumbre (4,700 meters/15,400 feet) in the chilly morning hours, and soon after you will transition from paved highway (reaching speeds of up to 50km/h or 31mph) to a dusty, rough roadway where the real fun begins. Lasting between four-five hours, the ride is intense, exciting, exhilarating, and (I’d be remiss not to mention) death defying, as you traverse across a range of terrain while riding on a narrow roadway, ever so close to the edge of death.
Check out the photos below to see why Death Road continues to attract and intrigue travelers and adventure seekers alike!
Hanging on the edge of Death Road.
Gravestone memorial to an Israeli woman who died in 2001. A sober reminder for us all.
Our bus slowly making its way around a bend.
Taking a much needed break after a few hours of cycling.
Half listening to our guide and half peering over the edge.