Bolivia’s Road of Death: El Camino de la Muerte
After recovering from my climbing experience on Huayna Potosi, a new chapter was about to begin. We found a buyer for Angela’s motorcycle in La Paz. She needed to return home to Santiago, Chile to help her father with his business. From now on, I was going to continue riding south solo.
I had heard about the Yungas Road commonly known as “El Camino de la Muerte” or “The Road of Death.” Said to be the most dangerous road in the world, I needed to ride it to believe it.
This deadly 60 km stretch between the city of La Paz and the town of Coroico is estimated to claim the lives of over 100 travelers each year.
Between 1932 and 1935 Bolivia and Paraguay fought the Chaco War, a bloody conflict over control of the northern part of the Gran Chaco (Chaco Boreal) region, incorrectly believed to be rich in oil. Both landlocked countries wanted to expand their territories to gain better access to the Paraguay River, which would give the winning country access to the Atlantic Ocean. Although the Chaco Boreal was sparsely populated, control of the river was of great economic importance to both of the poor countries. The conflict was devastating to both sides, resulting in the loss of 100,000 soldiers on both sides. Finally, in 1935 Paraguay would claim victory over Bolivia, establishing the Chaco Boreal as Paraguayan territory.
During the war, Paraguayan prisoners were put to work building the Yungas Road, which winds into the clouds and reaches an altitude of 4,700 meters before descending to 1,200 meters near the town of Coroico. As the road descends, the terrain transforms from the cool and dry Altiplano to dense rainforest.
In most places the road is no more than four meters across, a small ribbon seemingly draped around a steep, never-ending cliff, plunging hundreds of meters. Hairpin turns and countless blind corners without guard rains would make for a deadly road, but additional dangers abound – during the dry season, the dust from passing vehicles makes it nearly impossible to see. During the rainy season, the road is crossed by numerous streams and the soil becomes a slimy, slick goo with no traction. Falling rocks cascade from the towering cliffs above the road and mudslides are an ever-present threat.
The rules of the road specify that the downhill driver never has the right of way – they must move to the outer edge of the road to let the vehicle coming uphill pass on the inside. Often there is no room for two vehicles to pass, so the downhill driver must reverse uphill to find a wider spot, paying very, very close attention to what he is doing and keeping his fingers crossed that another vehicle doesn’t come downhill while he is reversing uphill.
In Bolivia, vehicles drive on the right side of the road, as in the United States, but on the Yungas Road, drivers must use the left side of the road, which gives the left-hand drive vehicle’s operator a much better view over his outside wheel, often only inches from where the road plunges steeply into space.
On July 24th 1983, a bus veered off the road down into the deep canyon killing more than 100 passengers in what is said to be Bolivia’s worst road accident. Furthermore at least 20 cyclists have died since 1998 while riding with guided adventure tours, which are popular on the Yungas Road. Even after reading about all these crazy stories, I had to try it.
Now that a new paved road to Coroico has been built, only a small amount of traffic continues to use the Yungas Road and it is now mostly used for guided adventure mountain bike tours.
After dropping off Angela at the airport, I packed my bags and headed for the adventure. As I climbed out of La Paz along the twisting paved scenic mountain road, the scenery quickly changed from dry brown Altiplano to greener lush, deep canyons. I noticed some big sign off the main highway, which looked like it could be the beginning of the “Camino.” I asked a kid outside a bus while he was checking the air pressure of the tires, preparing for a long bumpy ride. ”Camino de la Muerte?”
“Si si,” the kid told me. I let out some air from my tires as well and started to make my way down the dusty curves. It didn’t seem as scary as I expected it to be. No steep cliffs, nothing different from any other mountain roads I had ridden in Ecuador or Peru. Some 80 km later, I saw a sign – 100 km to the next town! – and it wasn’t Coroico.
Great, I’m lost, took the wrong turn! Too far to turn around I decided to continue along since it was quite scenic and hoping I would eventually get to my destination. Passing by major landslides and very narrow parts, I stopped at a small run down shack selling cold drinks. “Camino de la Muerte?” I asked an elderly man. He looked at me confused, as if wondering what in hell is this gringo doing here.
“Si, si,” he said as he pointed down the road.
I soon figured out that in Bolivia, all roads are “camino de la muerte!”
Four hours later I found myself passing through small villages, I was happy to finally see sign of civilization. Now asking for Coroico, – 20 minutes one guy told me. 20 minutes later, “Coroico?” – “si“ 20 minutes… Two hours later, finally a sign appears Coroico – 15 km – Now… I was 20 minutes away! I arrived in town beat tired just before sunset.
Sitting next to my bike by the Plaza I heard, “Hey Mister!” As a young kid pulled over next to me on his BMX.
“Me, Renaldo. You need room?” he asked in his broken English. “ Si ” I said, following him down the cobblestone road to a beautiful hostel overlooking the lush green Yungas region valley and high mountains.
A friendly lady opened a big gated door to let me roll in my filthy, muddy bike. She noticed how exhausted I looked. My face covered in dust and my clothes in mud, she quickly gave me a room so I could clean up with a warm shower. I was relieved.
The next morning I enjoyed a nice breakfast and coffee while admiring the incredible views over the never ending green rainforest. I accounted my detour adventure to the owner of the hostel and he laughed. He pointed out across the valley a twisty road disappearing into the mountains “ Camino de la Muerte” he says. “Oh!!!” I had ended up doing a 180 remote detour and luckily didn’t run out of gas!
He also pointed out to me across the valley the new paved highway to La Paz.
“Mas seguro,” he said, insisting that I take that road for my own safety. I ignored his wise advice of course, I came to ride the famous road of death and wasn’t going to ride some new paved highway instead.
Wired on a few super strong cups of coffee, I was anxious and ready to get on the road. I waved goodbye to my friend Renaldo and cruised down the cobblestone streets to fuel up at a gas station. Chatting with the guy at the pump, he asked if I was going to ride the NEW road.
“No. No,” I said, “Camino de la Muerte!”
“Ohhh” he said, “Peligroso!” and then he warned me of the dangers and about the gringos coming down with mountain bikes. My friend Renaldo had also told me the same, leave early because the tours come down around 11 am.
“Loco Gringos,” he said.
Now with the knowledge on where to find the right road, I raced up the dirt track until the road started to get narrower, barely enough for a small car to squeeze by around the tight curves, the drop-off falling into the abyss on my right side and endless steep walls to my left. As I gained altitude, thick fog made the riding more exciting and sometimes I couldn’t see more then a few feet ahead. I passed a couple minivans coming down at turtle speed. I was happy to be on a motorbike rather then a car and really didn’t see how they dealt with oncoming traffic.
As the fog cleared, I continued racing up at good speed. While going around a corner a group of mountain bikers were riding downhill. The leader of the group never saw me coming and I could see that I had scared the life right out of him! He slammed on his brakes and nearly went flying over the 500 meter drop. What was he thinking – that the whole road was only reserved for gringos on mountain bikes? Luckily for him I wasn’t a big truck.
An hour later, I was back on paved road. I had survived the famous death road but nearly killed one biker. My detour the previous day had turned out to be even more of a “Camino de la Muerte.” Had I run out of gas, crashed, or broke down I would still be stranded there, as I didn’t see a single soul along 100 km of dirt single track road.
I was happy to ride asphalt surface again after 250 km of nerve racking, twisty, dusty dirt. I reached the pass of La Cumbre, passing by more mountain bikers getting ready to race down the death track so they could proudly own a T-shirt titled “I survived the Camino de la Muerte.”
While approaching La Paz, I was cruising at 100 km/hr when a pack of dogs appeared on the side of the road out of nowhere. I only had a chance to slow down to about 80 km/hr when one of them ran straight into my front wheel. I nearly lost control when my bike started to wobble at high speed. Luckily I was able to hold it together but when looking back, the poor dog was sent flying on it’s back 50 meters in the middle of the highway. I was too shocked and shaken by the impact to even turn around. Behind me was a semi truck I had just overtaken a kilometer back. The pack of dogs where all surrounding the one dog lying still on its back. I could only imagine with the trucker coming at fast speed around the corner what the damage was going to be.
I kept on riding to my hostel in La Paz still trembling from my experience.