Annabel Lindsay discusses ‘Death Road’: an essential part of Bolivian culture, not just for your gap year bucket list.
The Bolivian North Yungas Highway, aptly named ‘Death Road’ and voted ‘the world’s most dangerous road’ is a 50 mile deathtrap that winds its way perilously from La Cumbre, at around 4,600 meters above sea level and (if you’re lucky) takes you down into the Amazon region of Bolivia. The road is an undeniably important, everyday route for Bolivians connecting the capital city, La Paz with The Yungas.
So what did we, a group of naive Western tourists do when we came to Bolivia? Overconfidently, like many before us, we decided to take on ‘the road of fate’ by mountain bike. Like bungee jumping or drinking to oblivion (out of buckets) on some Thai beach, The Death Road is a classic gap yah activity that must be ticked off the list, sort of like a rite of passage for any gringo in South America, whether a thrill-seeker or not.
Once our beaten-up minivan had started its ascent, staggering and spluttering up the treacherous road, there was no going back. However, adrenaline was running high and it was not until we mounted our bikes that we realised that perhaps we had made a huge mistake after all. I was struggling to remember how and why we had decided to do it. You can’t quite grasp the level of fear felt even by the most confident of cyclists until you are on a rocky dirt track, peering over seemingly bottomless precipices.
My nerves and stress were further cranked up when our guide decided to show us the remains of a bus that “had gone a bit too close to the edge,” killing 20 people. This maniac, who cycles Death Road almost every day with a group of tourists, was also keen for us to know that “7 people had already fallen off the cliff this year,” before adding reassuringly, “don’t worry, not all of them died.”
Fortunately, the climax of this article will not describe some tragic accident. We all made it down alive (thankfully as our tour ended with a visit to an animal sanctuary, where we engaged in a rather lower risk activity… playing with monkeys). We had cycled 50 miles downhill, surviving spine-tingling hairpin turns and close encounters with rickety vehicles, and had quickly come to the conclusion that Bolivians are crazy.
We were struggling to comprehend a country so dependent on a road on which 200 to 300 people are killed annually and whose government is unable to provide funding for the safety of such a vital transport link.
However, we soon remembered that this was Bolivia, one of the poorest Latin American countries, whose GDP is an 100th of our own in the UK. This road is part of the everyday life of these people, and they are forced to risk it, for without doing so they would have no means of communication with their capital city and the rest of Bolivia. I soon began to think twice before labeling Bolivians ‘crazy.’
Header photo: theroadchoseme