As a longtime trucker myself, I’ve taken some heavy loads down some big hills, or so I thought. Like the very first time I ever went down Cabbage (westbound I-84 heading down into Pendleton, OR). With a gross weight of 80,000 pounds and no Jake Brake, I found myself in great peril, with the bottom of the hill still a long way off.
As I made my way down the hill, all of my wheels were smoking as I mashed on the brakes with both feet, looking for a place to pull over, yet knowing I couldn’t stop if I found one.
I was the topic on the CB, with advice coming through about the last two turns I was about to face – after a long straightaway down, a sharp right, then another long straightaway down followed by a sharp left. After that final left turn there was a long straightaway where the road leveled out and I could relax, but those last two turns were terrifying, as I took them too fast for the conditions. I actually even considered bailing out. But that was nothing compared to the perils drivers face on the world’s most dangerous road.
The North Yungas Road in Bolivia is considered to be the most dangerous road in the world. It stretches about 40 miles from the capital city of La Paz to Coroico in the Yungas region of Northern Bolivia, by way of the Amazon rainforest. Depending upon the source, anywhere from 50 to 200+ people a year lose their life on this road. Still to this day, there is a fatal accident there about every two weeks or so. “Death Road” (as many call it) begins from La Paz going uphill for about four miles, then it descends about 13,000 feet over the next 35 miles or so, hugging the side of a cliff all the way. Sometimes as narrow as ten feet wide, the road has sharp turns and traffic going in both directions (mostly trucks) all the way. One side of the road is a wall of rock and the other side is a drop-off of anywhere from 300 to 1000 feet – and there are no guardrails.
It begins as a two-lane asphalt road, winding its way through the scenic hills for about 20 kilometers, then you get to “the split” where you have the choice of taking the new asphalt road, or the old gravel and dirt road (the shortcut). On the old road, people fall off cliffs on a regular basis and you have to drive on the left side of the road until someone wants to pass. As you inch your tires as close to the edge as possible so the other vehicle can pass, you suddenly realize that one little tap from that car or truck could send you into the abyss. Let me think, which road would I take? Apparently a lot of people take the shortcut, but they don’t always get to the other end. Sometimes they die by the busload. Many roadside crosses remind passersby of the many who have lost their lives there.
As you might imagine, dropping that much altitude will cause some serious weather changes, too. But, add to that the fact that Yungas Road heads directly into the rain-forest, and you get some very thick, impassable fog and, of course, a lot of rain. It is common to see vehicles stuck in the mud for days at a time, waiting for the road to dry out or until a trucker with time to spare (oxymoron) comes by and pulls them out. Local motorists usually help each other get through it, though.
There are basically two types of people you will find on North Yungas Road: locals, who travel on it because they must, and joy riders, who travel it for the fun of it. For some reason, most of the area trucks still prefer the old road and all of its risks over the time-consuming, longer (though safer) new road. The truckers and other locals in cars are usually found traveling slowly down the mountain, having great respect for gravity and all of the stories they’ve heard and often seen with their own eyes. Tourists and thrill-seekers (often on motorcycles or bicycles), on the other hand, are usually found challenging gravity, laughing in the face of death as they go along with their “it-won’t-happen-to-me” attitude. Needless to say, tourists are often the victims on this road.
Death Road is quickly gaining popularity among the cyclists. Every day hundreds of bicycles take it on, dragging their brakes all the way down, oftentimes skidding through the turns on the dirt and gravel. Many cyclists with weak brakes have met their doom on this road. There are several bicycle groups and guide services available for those who dare, including at least one that boasts a safety record of zero casualties. For $50.00 you can take the tour, get a t-shirt and return transportation by contacting the appropriately named Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking at GravityBolivia.com.
Along the road, you will find several people who direct traffic at some of the many blind turns, voluntarily. One man in particular, who stands at the point of a switchback with a stop sign in his hand, directs traffic through the difficult spot where a bus plummeted into the valley below – a bus that he and his family was on. He lost several family members on that fateful day, but somehow survived himself. Only two weeks after he survived that, he survived another bus accident, where almost everyone else was lost. Because of his good luck surviving both crashes, he now feels it is his obligation to direct traffic, to help prevent another similar tragedy. People often give him money as they pass by, not only to support his worthy cause, but also because they believe they will receive some of his good luck if they do so.
So, if you plan on going down Death Road in Bolivia, be sure to stop and give this “lucky” guy a tip – you’ll need all the luck you can get. As for me, I’ll wait for you over here, at the hotel, by the pool, with a cold and fruity drink in my hand. Have fun!