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Bolivia Has The World’s Most Dangerous “Death Road,” So We Biked It

BY JERRY ALONZO LEON

10 View of Yungas Road seen from the start of our ride. Bolivia

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.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia Tips & Tricks: Every FYI You Need To Know

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”.

La Paz, Bolivia

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.

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

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.

La Paz, Bolivia

Gravestone memorial to an Israeli woman who died in 2001. A sober reminder for us all.

7 Gravestone memorial to an Israeli woman who died in 2001. A sober reminder for us all. Bolivia

Our bus slowly making its way around a bend.

9 Our bus slowly making its way around a bend. Bolivia

Dangling off the edge, admiring the view.

Dangling off the edge, admiring the view. Bolivia

Taking a much needed break after a few hours of cycling.

15 Taking a much needed break after a few hours of cycling. Bolivia

Half listening to our guide and half peering over the edge.

16 Half listening to our guide and half peering over the edge. Bolivia

Flickr/Jerry Leon

Jerry Leon contributor profile

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2 Comments on “Bolivia Has The World’s Most Dangerous “Death Road,” So We Biked It”

  1. January 21, 2016 at 8:53 am #

    An amazing place. Back in the day people used to stop over in Coroico after the bike ride. Having done Death Road last year with Gravity, I’ve decided to try to do it again this year and maybe stop off for a few days there. Apparently, it has Bolivia’s only black minority who are descendants of slaves from Potosi.

    In the meantime, I enjoyed reliving the experience through your post.

    • January 23, 2016 at 8:15 am #

      Unlatinoverde, thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      I know Gravity offers riders the option to stay overnight at either La Senda or Coroico, which is a great option if you don’t want to return to La Paz the same day. I never knew that about Bolivia’s only black minority. Thanks for sharing. I think the next time I go to La Paz, I definitely want to try Gravity’s Chacaltaya-Zongo tour (14,000ft+ downhill descent in one day).

      Let us know how your stay in Coroico goes!

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