Biking Down Bolivia’s "Death Road" 5

Yungas Road is known as the world’s most dangerous road, due to its insanely high death rate

Bolivia is one of the least visited countries in South America by North American tourists, let alone anyone from outside of the continent. For years, it’s been a destination for backpackers and the more adventurous types, as not a lot was known about the small landlocked country. Today, tourism has picked up some, but the country still struggles mostly due to the current government’s lack of funds spent on tourism as well as consistent reports of the country being unstable. There is constant turmoil within the country due to political issues, but politics aside, Bolivia is one of the most fascinating countries most will never visit. The microclimates alone and the differences between each region are practically mind-blowing, as, in one day, it’s possible to be high up in the Andes Mountains covered in snow and, in just a few hours, be at the bottom depths of the rainforest, dripping in sweat from the extreme heat.

Yungas Road, sometimes referred to as “Death Road,” due to it’s insanely high death rate, was cut into the side of the Cordillera Oriental Mountain chain in the 1930’s by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War. Mountain terrain and terrifying dramatic drops surround the narrow road. The winding road stretches 42 miles from the administrative capital city of La Paz to Coroico, a small town within the Amazonian rainforest.

From La Paz, the road climbs to around 15,200 feet at La Cumbre pass before gradually descending to 3,900 feet at the town of Coroico. With the drop in altitude, travelers experience both chilly conditions in the Altiplano highlands, as well as hot and humid conditions once reaching the rainforest below. Since the 1950’s, the road was the only link between La Paz and the Yungas region of Bolivia, and it was not uncommon for crowded buses and trucks overloaded with people, wood, crops and supplies to overtake each other on the hairpin turns, even during the darkness of night. Because of these conditions, many buses and trucks went down the side of the cliffs, taking the lives of everyone on board with them.

Due to the combination of a one-way road that high up with rainy weather, limited visibility, rock falls and the lack of guardrails, many motorists have fallen to their deaths. It is estimated that 200 to 300 drivers were killed yearly, and as late 1994, there were cars falling over the edge at a rate of one every two weeks. Lining the side of the road, there are an unsettling number of crosses and altars marking some of the many spots where people lost their lives. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed Yungas Road “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.”

Is the road still dangerous? After 20 years of hard work, Yungas Road has been modernized to include two driving lanes, asphalt pavement, drainage systems and guardrails. Additionally, in 2009, construction of an alternate road replacing the “most dangerous road” was completed with all traffic being diverted to the new road. Nowadays, Yungas Road still claims lives, but not of motorists. The death toll is now limited to local workers, extreme backpackers and cyclists, with an estimate of more than 22 cyclists having lost their lives on the road since 1998.

Even with the statistics that exist, the 42-mile downhill bike ride has been a major attraction for thrill seekers and avid mountain bikers since the 1990’s. The ride is not for everyone, especially the faint-hearted, but the adrenaline-pumping “Death Road” tour is suitable for both overly confident beginners and expert mountain bikers. Those who lean more towards the beginner side of the spectrum will find that their handgrip will be pained and sore for days after the ride, as they will have most likely been holding on to the handlebars extremely tight.

There are many options for “Death Road” tour companies in and around La Paz, each ranging in price and quality. When it comes to biking down the most dangerous road in the world, it’s advised to not be thrifty when choosing which company. Having bicycles in proper working condition that have been maintained is key to having a successful and enjoyable trip down to the Amazon. Most tours start at $120 and any Internet search can lead you to the most reputable companies to select. When choosing one, it would be an appropriate time to read customer reviews. All the tours offer a bus service back up to La Paz as the uphill climb is rarely done, but can be if you choose to do so. There is also a small town at the bottom, as well as hotel options, so extending your visit and taking in the rainforest as a reward for your death-defying ride to the bottom can serve as a reward.