Saturday, January 23, 2016

Bolivia’s Road of Death

Rain explodes on the windscreen faster than the car’s wipers can push it aside. The driver tightens her grip on the steering wheel, knuckles turning a pale white, and leans as close to the glass as she dares. Up ahead, the road swerves dramatically to the right, giving a spectacular view of the world at nearly three miles above sea level. The driver, though, sees only the cross that tells her what befell the last car whose occupants observed the scenery and not the slippery road – a sheer plunge down at least 1,968 feet of rock face – and pleads to the heavens that she’ll make it through the journey alive. For this route has an alarming if horribly appropriate nickname: “El Camino de la Muerte,” or “The Road of Death.”

Trucks on the death road
Image: Ngaire Hart

The treacherous North Yungas Road runs for less than 44 miles from Bolivia’s foremost city, La Paz, to Coroico in the Yungas. Still, for those drivers who dare to take it, this journey is probably more than long enough.
World's Most Dangerous Road
Image: The World by Road

Construction on the road itself began in the 1930s, but even before that it had an alarming reputation. Indeed, during the 1800s thieves utilized the passage to waylay traders moving their commodities between La Paz and Coroico. The bandits would steal the traders’ wares and likely murder them as well.

El Camino de la Muerte
Image: via Wikipedia

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that a road in an area with such a deadly history should be built during a time of war. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Bolivia engaged in conflict with neighboring Paraguay over control of the then supposedly oil-rich Gran Chaco plain. The so-called Chaco War resulted in the deaths of roughly 100,000 men – a higher toll than any other conflict waged on the continent throughout the 20th century.
North Yungas Road - scary
Image: Mikel

The conflict ceased in the summer of 1935, with Paraguay subsequently awarded most of the contested territory when a treaty was signed three years later. This horrific war, however, served as a chilling precursor to the tragedy and death that would transpire on the North Yungas Road.
Bolivia's Road of Death
Image: Alex Proimos

Indeed, El Camino de la Muerte, as the North Yungas Road would come to be known, began life thanks to the toil of captured Paraguayan soldiers during this period of bloodshed. There were approximately 2,500 such prisoners of war in Bolivia six months before the conflict died down, and they were put to work on the country’s infrastructure.

Image: Ngaire Hart

One of the projects of the prisoners of war, it seems, was to build this most deadly of roads. Sadly, even the construction of the passage proved fatal for some of the men – and so the road claimed its first victims.
Yungas Road rain
Image: Globetrotter Girls

Today, the North Yungas Road begins its path almost 12,000 feet above sea level in La Paz. From this already exceptional starting height, the road then commences to abruptly climb in a snaking pattern to La Cumbre Pass, this 3,285-foot ascent taking in the road’s first 19 paved miles.

Sheer cliff face
Image: Globetrotter Girls

Elevated at more than 15,000 feet above sea level, La Cumbre Pass is the place to enjoy some of the route’s incredible views, including majestic snow-capped mountain peaks. After this point, though, the road lurches into its descent.
Yungas Road waterfall
Image: Globetrotter Girls

Over the next 40-odd miles the road becomes extremely treacherous as it descends for more than 11,000 feet to Coroico, a town itself still at an impressive 3,900 feet above sea level. The route becomes unpaved, there are no barriers, and much of the way is barely wide enough for two cars to squeeze past one another.

Bus on the edge
Image: tk-link

The road is so dangerous, in fact, that it has its own set of regulations. Unlike in wider Bolivia, drivers on this stretch must position themselves on the left-hand side. In theory, this affords them a superior view of the verge of the road, though whether one wants to see what’s below is a matter of opinion.
El Camino de la Muerte
Image: Ngaire Hart

Since the 1990s, the North Yungas Road’s reputation as a thrill ride has grown – and this was arguably cemented in 1995 when the Inter-American Development Bank gave it the dubious honor of being the “most dangerous road in the world.” It’s estimated that from 2010 to 2011 more than 25,000 people negotiated the deadly route.

Watch That Edge
Image: The World by Road

Many of the visitors are adrenaline-seeking cyclists, apparently enticed by the long, almost uninterrupted descent into Coroico and, perhaps, the ever-present danger of death. The road’s sharp gradient also allows for bike riders to travel at over 31 mph, no doubt giving it extra appeal.
Bolivia’s Road of Death
Image: intrepidacious

There are even tour operators who will take adventurous cyclists along El Camino de la Muerte for a fee, and they are at least able to better ensure safety along the hazardous road. The best advice on offer, though, is to make sure that the bike’s brakes are working: they’ll be needed when going around the road’s many perilous hairpin bends.

Yungas Road truck
Image: Yvon Maurice

Indeed, the road has no mercy. In dry conditions, dust clouds in the wake of passing vehicles will hamper vision, while rain makes the path terrifyingly slippery. Fog, meanwhile, has a hazardous presence throughout the year. And the various dangers account for the deaths of up to 300 people annually; crosses adorn the road’s steep sides where many have met their end.
Image: Alicia Nijdam

Perhaps predictably, this is the location of Bolivia’s gravest traffic accident. On July 24, 1983, a bus carrying more than 100 crossed the road’s edge and fell over the verge of the cliff, plunging the people inside to their deaths. Then more recently, in December 1999, eight Israeli tourists lost their lives while navigating the road; and – as of 2010 – at least 18 cyclists have died here.

Tourist bus on the edge
Image: Frank S

Meanwhile, in early 2012 dramatic footage emerged of a driver trying to negotiate his bus over one of the road’s numerous problematic sections. His passengers, walking outside of the vehicle, watched on helplessly as the bus plummeted over the edge of the road. The driver was killed.
Car on the edge
Image: The World by Road

Fortunately, The Road of Death isn’t nearly as bad as it was back in 1983. From the late ‘80s through to 2006, huge improvements to the road’s safety were implemented. For instance, the enhanced North Yungas Road now has a double carriageway, properly constructed paving and balustrades.

Truck on the Yungas Road
Image: Yvon Maurice

Furthermore, there has been the addition of a whole new stretch of road, taking travelers from Chusquipata to Yolosa and completely avoiding what was considered among the most perilous parts of the old road. This path, too, has a guardrail.
muerte fog
Image: Roger T

The bypass means that climbing upward from La Paz is now much safer, and it has also helped with congestion on both the new and old roads. However, the reduction in traffic may have only added to the appeal for cyclists and tourists, and the old route remains a popular attraction in Bolivia.

The Yungas Road cliff edge
Image: The World by Road

In its long and sometimes morbid history, the passage has had many names: Grove’s Road, Coroico Road and the North Yungas Road, among others. But there’s only one name that can befit its treacherous reputation: El Camino de la Muerte, The Road of Death.


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