The ‘Death Road’ is actually the North Yungas Road and the nickname has come about because it has officially been labelled ‘The Most Dangerous Road in the World’ by the Inter American Development Bank. This is due to the high number of fatalities on the road, with around 100 people dying on it each year. Around 26 vehicles of all shapes and sizes each year go off the edge of the road. It should be noted that this is not just due to the nature of the road, but the attitude and approach of the local drivers.
Despite the danger, this particular route has become something of an attraction for those who are adrenaline junkies and there are many tourists who travel to the region each year with the intention of driving or even cycling the route. The road covers a distance of around 40 miles and runs from La Paz to Coroico. Along the route you can see crosses which mark the spot where people have been killed. However, it is one of the few routes which link these two places, so for many people there is little choice but to use it. If you begin at La Paz, you will find that the road rises to a height of 4,650 metres at La Cumbre Pass and drops to around 1,200 metres when you get to Coroico.
In some places there are sheer drops at the side of the road of around 600 metres and long stretches of the road are single lane. The lack of guard rails adds to the danger, and when you take into account the unpredictable weather, then it makes it even more dangerous. It should be noted that there are some local rules for use of the road. If you are heading downhill, then you do not have right of way and must move your vehicle to the outer edge of the road so that others can pass safely. This has the benefit of making the faster moving drivers slow down. All vehicles drive on the left on this particular road and this is different to the rest of the country, so you need to be a little wary.
Tourist activity first began here during the 1990s and many of these were mountain bikers. You can arrange trips with a tour operator who will provide you with a bike, a guide and all the information you need. However, it is estimated that around 20 cyclists have died on the route since 1998, so biking does not necessarily make it any safer. There are some sections of the road which have been modernised with asphalt surfacing and there have been new sections built that have bypassed the older and more dangerous road.
So why do people still come here? One of the reasons is that this it is a very beautiful part of the country and the views are amazing if you find somewhere safe enough to stop and enjoy them. Even the possibility of altitude sickness does not put people off and this is something that many of those using the road will suffer from.
When you begin your journey, you may notice a local man using red and green flags on the road. This man’s name is Mario and he has guarded one particular corner of the route every day since he lost his entire family in an accident in 1990 on the same stretch of road. He now guides traffic around the corner to help prevent further accidents. His home is a small hut on the side of the mountain and travellers give him food and money to help him to survive.
In order to be sure of surviving a trip down the death road, you need to make sure you take the advice of your tour operator and do not take any risks. Bolivia has no minimum safety standards for a trip of this nature and if a tourist is lost en-route, then there is no redress. Check in advance the safety advice from each tour operator and then choose carefully to make sure that you are happy with the advice and the safety precautions that are being taken.
One of the main pieces of advice for those who want to cycle the route is to concentrate on the road and where the bike is actually heading rather than the beautiful scenery. A good tour operator will bring with them all the equipment needed to help those who fall short distances over the side but as a point of reference, if you fall more than 100 metres there will be no hurry to get you back, as it is generally accepted that you would not survive. If you begin to ride your bike in a dangerous manner, a good tour operator will stop you and make you travel on the accompanying bus in order to prevent you from injuring yourself and others.
A day’s riding on the death road will not necessarily set you back a lot of money. Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, for example, will provide tourists with an experienced guide and a good quality mountain bike and the cost is fairly low, at an average of 35€ for the day.
You need to ensure that you have the right clothing and the tour company will be able to advise you on what is and is not suitable. You may need to take along water and most companies will also provide you with a lunch if you are taking the day trip with them. There will be a minimum number of people in the group, and this will vary from company to company. It is not a good idea to tackle this road on your own, particularly if adventure sports are new to you. Always book with the tour operator in advance if this is something you really want to do while you are in the country, as at peak times the trips fill up very quickly.