The Bolivia Road of Death is an 80-90 kilometer stretch leading from La Paz, Bolivia to the small city of Coroico, located to the North in the Bolivian yungas, a jungle high in the Andes mountains. From Coroico it eventually leads to the small town of Rurrenabaque passing through towns like Caranavi. The road of death Bolivia is the world’s most dangerous road because several hundred people die in accidents on this road each year.
When I was growing up in La Paz it was a one-lane dirt road all the way. However, now death road is a paved 2-lane highway between La Paz and the Cumbre (summit) where cars and buses stop for a break and something to eat in a tiny village called Unduavi. Still, this hasn’t reduced the number of accidents that occur. From La Paz to the Cumbre it’s about 27 kilometers and you’ll be at 4643 meters above sea level at that point. At these heights, cars going over the edge can drop over 1000 meters in some places, crashing against boulders and trees as they roll over and over. Few people ever survive this. The road is lined with small stone altars and crosses, each marking a point where someone has died on Death Road. There are between 100 and 300 deaths per year and I’ve lost several of my friends on this road.
Although it is only really about 90 miles from La Paz to Coroico, the Bolivia road of death is carved around each mountain. The road winds up and down the sides of several mountains in a zig zag pattern, then curves around each mountain and on to the next where the zigging and zagging begins anew. It has a total of over 200 hairpin turns. The first 20+ miles are now a paved 2-lane highway, but once you read the second stretch, it returns to being a one-lane dirt road. Every 2-3 kilometers there is a slightly wider patch just wide enough for one or two vehicles going in one direction to pull over to the edge of the cliff to allow vehicles going in the other direction to pass.
Since the road has so many curves and twists around each mountain, it’s difficult to see when cars are approaching from the opposite direction. Thus, strange as it may seem, some drivers (and passengers) prefer to travel Death Road Bolivia at night when cars and buses have their lights on because they can see the lights of vehicles heading toward them and can plan ahead to stop at one of the slightly wider areas to wait for the other vehicle to pass. During the day, when it’s impossible to see other vehicles coming, cars and buses sometimes have to back up (!!!) extremely slowly until they find a patch of road wide enough to allow the other car to pass.
Several additional factors make this the world’s most dangerous road: rain, rock slides and water falls. Because the road is simply dug out of the mountain, landslides and rock slides are frequent, especially during the rainy season when the soil and vegetation loosen. When the road becomes blocked by mud or rocks, Death Road can be closed for hours or days while crews repair it. Between La Paz and Coroico two water falls also pour over the road (dubbed la Carretera de la Muerte in Spanish), falling from unknown heights above the bus and splashing onto the road and further down beyond your view over the cliff. The water erodes the edge of the road and causes it to narrow. It also makes it muddy and slippery.
Sometimes drivers ask passengers to disembark and creep slowly across the slick, narrow patch by themselves so as to risk only one life rather than dozens. Passengers walk across and return to the bus which waits for them on the other side. Between the hairpin turns, the ruts and erosion on the road, the rain, mud, waterfalls, landslides and the many stops that must be made when vehicles pass each other, the Bolivia road of death from La Paz to Coroico now takes about 4-6 hours.
When I was younger the organization my parents worked with had a post in the distant town of Caranavi, several hours past Coroico (it was a harrowing, stressful 12-15 hour trip on this road which, beyond Coroico, continues to be just as dangerous). Several times a year we’d travel the Bolivia Road of Death by bus to Caranavi praying the entire way. I’ve taken this road 15 or 20 times before any part of it was paved. On four or five occasions we came very close to death.
My most vivid memory is of a time when I was 12 and the bus we were on moved over to the edge to allow another vehicle to pass. As we were passing the vehicles scraped each other slightly and our bus slid closer to the edge. We heard rocks and dirt spilling over the cliff. The left rear wheel of the bus slid off the road and the bus began to tilt and slide backward. All the passengers on the cliff side began hurling themselves toward the right side of the bus to remove the weight from the side by the edge. As they threw themselves on top of us and over to our side (the mountain side) every passenger on that bus was screaming and crying, except my mom.
She had my brother in one arm and me in the other and as she squeezed us so hard we couldn’t breathe, she was yelling a prayer “Jesus save us!" and my brother and I joined in “save us God, save us!” in total panic. At that moment, the bus driver sprang into action, stepping hard on the accelerator and whipping the steering wheel toward the mountain and the bus jolted forward putting us back on the road. Other passengers joined in and the screaming turned to shouts of “Gracias Jesucristo, gracias, gracias Dios!” (Bolivians are quite religious).
With everyone shaken and crying, the bus driver stopped the bus and we all just sat there stunned, not daring to move and weeping until our hearts stopped pounding. The driver of the car that had passed us had also stopped. With his eyes as big as saucers he ran over to us and I heard him shouting, “How did you do that? How the hell did you do that!” “I don’t know!” said our driver, still shaking. “But isn’t your bus a rear-wheel drive?” asked the other man. “Yes, of course, of course,” said our driver. “So how did you get back on the road?” questioned the other man, “both your rear wheels were in the air!”
There is one little stone altar on the Bolivia road of death that doesn’t mark someone’s death. The passengers on the bus piled up some rocks that day in gratitude to their god for saving their lives and the bus driver left his little bag of coca, from which he had been inseparable until then, for the Pachacama (Mother Earth).
Stories like these make the Bolivia Road of Death so interesting to others who cannot begin to imagine why people would risk their very lives just to travel to a tiny town. Tour operators have taken advantage of the thrill factor to set up Death Road biking tours. Biking the Road of Death is now a way for tourists to see for themselves what makes this the world’s most dangerous road.