Rather than taking our time to make sure the truck repair in La Paz was done correctly, we decided to go all out and drive the most dangerous road in the world; the Bolivian Death Road. The Bolivian Death Road is a road in the Yungas Region of Bolivia that connects the Amazonian region of the country to the mountain region. It’s name was quickly earned over the years as deaths along the road ranged from 200 to 300 annually. The road varies between two lanes and one lane. In the areas with one lane, opposing traffic often forces one vehicle right up to the edge of the cliff. This can result in the vehicle falling off the edge of the cliff and there are many videos to satisfy your hunger for the carnage. Like this one. Or this one. In the late 1990’s, a new road had been built rendering the Death Road obsolete. Nowadays, the road is traveled mostly by tourists which has reduced traffic drastically, but the danger still remains.
The most common way to visit the Death Road is by taking a tour from La Paz which takes tourists to a mountain pass about 20 miles northeast of La Paz at which time they hop on a bicycle. From the pass, tourists ride along the highway for around ten miles, then the 17 miles down the Death Road. When I first suggested that we do this, Laughlin came unleashed and was upset that I would even consider this idea. We read some blogs about other peoples’ experiences and decided it wouldn’t be too dangerous. After some research, we found that these bike tours cost about $120 per person which was a lot more expensive than we initially thought. We researched a little more about driving the Death Road and found that it is very doable and costs substantially less; about 50 Bolivianos or about $7.
Our research about the Death Road resulted in some great information that is important to consider before driving it. We learned that there is very little traffic on the road but that hundreds of bicyclists ride down the road each day. Tours drop off bikers at the mountain pass at 9am meaning they wont actually begin the Death Road until 10am. Next, other people suggested that it is easier to control your speed if you drive uphill rather than downhill. The elevation gain or loss from the beginning of the road to the end is around 6,000 feet over 17 miles, which means it is pretty steep. Curiously, traffic drives on the left side of the road because this allows the driver to see where the vehicle is in relation to the edge of the cliff. If you are driving up the hill and must pass a vehicle, you will be against the wall as opposed to being on the edge of the cliff. Additionally, uphill traffic has the right of way, providing another advantage. Most of the research we found said to begin driving the road after about 3pm as most bicyclists would be finished riding by then. Rather than waiting around all day, we planned to camp at the beginning of the road and begin our ascent starting at 7am in the attempt to beat the bicyclists. A little after 7am, we left our camp spot and began driving.
Early in the morning near the beginning of the Death Road close to the city of Coroico, the fog was pretty dense. We began driving uphill making sure to have our headlights on for opposing traffic. The first two miles were pretty tame with a nice gravel road two lanes wide. We passed four collectivos (collectivos are essentially small vans that fill the role of a bus) and one passenger truck in the first few miles. We didn’t see any other traffic for the remainder of the drive. The road is essentially in the jungle meaning vegetation is thick on both sides of the road and in many places, small streams cross the road. In a few places, it is necessary to drive through waterfalls that fall right onto the roadway. Near the halfway point, it is clear that we are on the correct road as the drop off to our right was between 200-300 feet. In many places, the road was very wet, narrow and steep but it was never necessary to use four wheel drive. Two hours after beginning the drive, we tied into the new highway alive and in one piece.
So, what are our thoughts on driving “Most Dangerous Road in the World?” Firstly, many people said that it wasn’t scary at all and wasn’t even worth doing. We disagree. The drive was very scenic the entire way. Aside from the fog here and there, we could see mountains perhaps 50 miles away. It wasn’t overly scary but there is still a lot of risk to driving this road. Luckily, we didn’t have any oncoming traffic but being forced to pass or possibly reverse to allow traffic to pass while perched on the side of the cliff sure would make me pucker. That said, the Canyon del Pato in Peru had equally as impressive cliff edges and quite a bit of traffic making it our pick for the “scariest” road thus far. Next, we were happy to do the road first thing in the morning. For starters, we slept great at low elevations and comfortable overnight temperatures compared to camping on the altiplano. Coupled with a big cup of coffee, we were alert and ready to tackle the road. Our early start just after 7am gave us plenty of time to stop and take lots of photos, drive slowly and still beat all of the bicyclists. In fact, we probably could have left at 8am and beat the bicyclists, but it was nice to have a cushion. Lastly, and the icing on the cake, nobody was around to collect the tourist tax this early in the morning meaning we didn’t have to pay 50 Bolivianos to drive the Death Road.