The Death Road

How did they even build this road?

We returned to La Paz, feeling depleted and discouraged after having failed to meet our goal of climbing Huayna Potosi, a 20,000 footer. It was the wife of our guide Hugo who suggested that we might enjoy a day trip to Coroico, down in the warmer, moister climate of the Amazon basin. That might help us recover from ailments caused by the thin, high, cold air of the Altiplano.

She neglected to mention that the trip to Coroico was accomplished on a highway known as the “Death Road.”

It sounded good to us, so we signed up to join a vanload of adventure travelers for the trip. The next day we headed out early in the morning. Our van first climbed from the 12,000′ elevation of La Paz to a point called “El Cumbre,” or “The Summit,” at 15,260′. We would descend all the way to 3900′ at Coroico in just 43 miles.

At El Cumbre, drivers of vans, trucks, buses, and passenger vehicles all stopped to pray. They had good reason to do so.

No driver passes this point without stopping to pray.

The road, at least at the time we experienced it, featured certain unusual rules. First of all, on the lower section, traffic was all one-way: downhill in the morning, uphill in the afternoon. This was because the single-lane width didn’t allow vehicles to pass each other. In the places where two-way traffic was allowed, vehicles drove on the left: this gave the driver on the outside, next to the dropoff, a better view of the exact amount of room he had to move over.

An estimated 200 to 300 people are killed on the road each year. In a single “bus-plunge” incident in 1983, more than 100 were killed. The road has become a famous destination for thrill-seeking mountain bikers, of whom 18 have died.

It was built during the Chaco War by prisoners from Paraguay. A Wikipedia article gives a good overview about the road, but it doesn’t say how many of the prisoners died. It explains that a modernization was completed in 2006—after we visited Bolivia. The new roadway bypasses the most dangerous section of the Death Road.

Having visited El Cumbre, we began the precipitous drop into the warm jungles. Mist streamed everywhere, especially near the collision point with the Altiplano climate. I suspect these transitional zones have fascinating plant life, but we couldn’t see it clearly, what with the fog and with clutching the armrests of our seats.

The road contours around through the mist.

All along the way, throughout the whole day, we were treated to traditional Andean music piped into the van—or maybe a commercialized version of it. By the end of the day we would have killed anyone we saw with a panflute.

A lovely instrument, but not for twelve hours straight.

We stopped a couple of times for picture-taking.

Bob, Jenny, and Steve on the Death Road.

At last we arrived in Coroico. We got out and breathed the thick, warm, moist air into our battered lungs. It was indeed restorative. To me, the town had a familiar feel to it. I’d traveled in Latin America a fair amount and experienced a number of tropical places. It was the Altiplano that seemed so unusual. We took a short stroll to a scenic point, reveling in the huge amounts of oxygen.

A pleasant stroll, in contrast to the lung-challenging outings of the Altiplano.

We wandered around the downtown area, which boasted large palm trees.

Town square of Coroico.

Bob had never seen a banana plant before, but there were lots of them around and lots of bananas for sale.

No shortage of bananas.

Eventually we headed back to the van to face the long trip back up. At least this time, driving on the left, we’d be on the inside rather than the dropoff side. After a very long drive filled with the music of panflutes, we arrived back in the hustle and bustle of La Paz. Two days later we flew back home. We did not accomplish our goal of climbing a big mountain, but we had many experiences that I will always remember. Bolivia is a place like no other.

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2 responses

  1. The Bolivian Death Road! So you were recommended to travel the most infamous highway in the world as a relaxing excursion? That’s what I love about third world countries. Think you’ll ever go back to the Andes?

    I’m 0 for 4 for Latin American summit attempts myself. I could care less though. At some point I decided those cloud forests clinging to the eastern slope of the Andes are where the real adventure’s at. Some of the wildest most unexplored places anywhere.

    • I hope to get back there! The only other Andean country I’ve visited was Colombia, and Bogota is not my favorite place there—I preferred the Caribbean town of Cartagena, as you might gather from my book. I’ve been to Venezuela and Brazil, and would love to go to Argentina and Chile as well as further into Brazil.

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