al Camino de la Muerte
June 10, 2016
We went back and forth on whether we would do “Death Road” while we were in Bolivia. Part of it was due to how much time we had while we were in La Paz and part of it was due to the reputation of how dangerous of an adventure it could be. In the end, we decided that we didn’t want to miss out on the experience, so we chose to be another couple who survived this treacherous experience. As we look back, it was definitely a worthwhile, but not without incident. It is a gravel road that is extremely narrow with blind turns and 1,000 meter (3,000 foot) cliffs all along the edge, which is why so many vehicles have plummeted into the jungle killing all of those inside. It certainly isn’t to be taken lightly, but it isn’t as bad these days as it was in the past.
About six years ago, Bolivia built a new road that is a more traditional highway, so other than for the people whose villages are along the old road, taking death road is now a choice. These days, most people ride down death road on mountain bikes, which can be dangerous, but only if you decide to throw caution to the wind and go faster than you should and don’t listen to your guides. We drove down the road in a van and it is probably more dangerous in a vehicle than on a bike, but still not as bad as it was before they built the new road because most vehicles go down the old road and come back the new road, so there isn’t the same risk of running into traffic coming the other direction, forcing you to try to pass on a road that isn’t wide enough for two vehicles.
We left La Paz, which is at about 4,000 meters (12,000 feet) and went over the mountain pass at 5,000 meters (15,000 feet) to get to the start of death road. As we reached the top of the mountains, we were met with a dense fog and clouds from the hot, moist, dense air from the jungle meeting the cold air from the Andes mountains. It wasn’t the rainy season while were in Bolivia, but apparently someone forgot to tell the Yungas rain forest as it was cloudy and rainy during our entire drive from the top of death road until we reached the bottom at about 2,000 meters (6,000 feet). Very early into the drive we came across a skull on a stick, which seemed to be a clear warning of the danger that lied ahead. We asked our guide, Ricky, if this was always there and he said that it was the first time that he’d ever seen it.
The thick cloud cover that hung over the jungle trees that were below us were both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it kept us from seeing the true depth of the sheer drops that were inches away from the wheels of our van, but they also brought rain, making the road even more slippery and dangerous than it would have been if it were completely dry. We’ve added a video in addition to the pictures, but nothing will truly give the full sense of what it was like to wind down the narrow road as we worked our way to the town of Coroico where we were to have lunch. The winding road, steep cliffs, and dense fog created an almost surreal and eerie atmosphere as we drove our way down death road.
We drove over waterfalls where the water literally ran across the road and saw many areas where landslides had occurred causing deterioration. At one point we did come across another vehicle which was broken down, forcing us to have to try to pass at a spot where the road bent narrowly to the left. The expression on our driver’s face was all that we needed to see to know that this was not going to be an easy task. Water was running across the road and on our left the road had been washed away, making it even tighter than some of the other spots we’d previously navigated. Slowly he worked the van past the broken down truck when suddenly our rear wheels slid towards the precipice. Our driver gunned the engine and we were able to escape from sliding down into the jungle below. We gasped out loud and our guide and driver both looked at each other we an obvious sigh of relief as we made our way back to the center of the road.
We had been constantly scanning the tree-tops looking for any wildlife that we might see such as a toucans, macaw, or even monkeys. At one point, we saw a bird on one of the trees that we were passing and we asked the driver to stop so that we could take a closer look. Our guide suggested that we get out of the van to take our pictures, so Pete exited the van with Ricky to take a few pictures. Pete heard noises behind them and looked at an area right behind the van where a previous rock slide had taken place. He then saw boulders, about the size of a large soccer ball, rolling down the slide, so he looked at Ricky and said “perhaps we should get going”. Ricky saw the rock slide starting as well and said “no more pictures, we have to go” and they both leapt into the van and Ricky told the driver to get us going.
In the end, we made it down without any further incident and went into the village of Coroico where we were taken to see a gorgeous waterfall. From there we went to a local hotel and enjoyed a wonderful lunch. Afterwards, we drove past some of the many legal coca fields that were in the area and we saw many trucks filled with bags of dried coca leaves on their way to sell them in La Paz. We took the new road back up from the jungle and over the mountain passes to get back to the hotel, feeling as though we’d had a good day without any serious incident.
That night, Dona awoke with severe pain in her left ear. In the morning, we got the hotel to call a doctor who came and looked and said (through an interpreter) that this was a normal result of the extreme altitude changes that we’d experienced in a short period of time. He prescribed some extra strength Tylenol and said she would be fine. The next day we flew out of La Paz and back to Lima, Peru, where we had a fifteen-hour layover on our way back to Colorado. While we were at the airport, we were walking around, trying to kill some of the time, when Dona suddenly became extremely dizzy and nauseous. We slowly, very slowly, made our way back to the lounge where we were spending the bulk of our time and they called the airport paramedics for us. Her ear drum had perforated and was infected. The paramedics were insistent that we should cancel our return flight and spend a week in a hospital in Lima. They gave her a shot to stop the dizziness and nausea and said that the decision was up to us, but stressed that if she got on a plane, bad things would happen and she might not make it. Fortunately, we were able to reach our own doctor back in Colorado Springs who told us that their dire warnings were overstated and that we would be fine to fly, although the pressurization would cause her a lot of discomfort. Obviously we made it home and Dona is still recovering, but doing much better now.
It was definitely an interesting day and we really enjoyed seeing the jungle once again before leaving Bolivia. Having driven around Bolivia several times before going down “Death Road”, we’re pretty sure that all roads in Bolivia can be called death road and we certainly saw enough markers along the various roads to know that is true. If you get a chance to visit Bolivia, going down death road is certainly worth the experience.