Dave had anticipated this road for over a year; pretty much ever since we started seriously planning our trip around the world.
“Oh we have to do the Death Road,” said Dave.
“No way,” said me. “Sounds terrifying. Why do they call it the ‘Death Road’ anyway? No way.”
In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank claimed the road to be the ‘world’s most dangerous road.’ In 2006, it was estimated the road killed between 200-300 people yearly.
And yet somehow there I was, curious and 56 km (35 miles) northeast of La Paz at the beginning of Bolivia’s Death Road. I envisioned diesel-belching South American busses filled to the brim with livestock and humans taking corners so fast that nothing was left in its wake but a few chicken feathers floating lazily to the ground. I envisioned coming around said corner and meeting said bus and one of us would have to give in and fall off the side in order to let the other pass. I envisioned trying to control my heavy beast of a bike down this muddy dirt road heading straight into the grill of a truck. Dave envisioned railing the corners and throwing rooster tails from his rear tire.
Dave said we’d be going up the road from the bottom, which to me is far easier on a 600 lb motorcycle than going down because of sheer physics plus it also meant I’d always be on the inside passing lane. But he’d gotten the direction mixed up and in fact we were now ready to descend into it from the top.
From its summit beginning at La Cumbre Pass (15,400 ft/4693 m) we began. Within approximately 3 km (2 miles) we came to a rope across the road and looked over to see two guys appearing quite lazy but also clearly the people who were going to open the ‘gate’ after we paid our 25 Bolivianos each (about $3.50 USD/$4.50 CAN). They had us write down our names, nationality, where we’d come from, where we were ‘hoping’ to get to next… all quite formal information for a jaunt down the Death Road. It felt more like next-of-kin info.
One of the rules of the road here is the downhill driver does not have the right-of-way and must keep to their left. This is in order to give the driver a better view of his/her outside tires. As the road is at times barely as wide as the width of a car, this can create some very intense situations when two cars—or worse yet—busses or trucks need to pass each other.
Dave and I squeezed through the rope-gate to begin the 64 km (40 m) ride of our lives overlooking the Amazon rainforest trying to politely get ahead of the 50 or so mountain bikers that had collected at the gate in a swarm of matching helmets and bicycles ready for their own descent. It wasn’t too long after that we realized the road was basically defunct as a throughway having been replaced as a valuable tourist magnet. A safer, wider and paved highway is now in full operation and far more preferable for motorists travelling in the area. As a result The Death Road has become little more than a tourist attraction for which you can buy a t-shirt with the conversation-starting words: “I survived The Death Road.”
With all due respect to those who lost loved ones in the past when this road was actually, well, a road, this is not to say the El Camino de la Muerte isn’t scary in sections—even ‘playing’ on it as a tourist. Since 1998, 18 cyclists have been killed on the road. There are few guardrails. It is mostly single lane and dirt. There are drop-offs up to 2000 ft (600 m) and waterfalls plummet directly onto the road. I think it would be quite eerie to explore the valleys below for their collection of car wrecks and other ‘debris’ from over the years.
The Death Road is certainly beautiful; the waterfalls crashing onto the road create a pretty cool effect giving the illusion of heavy rain in these sections. A few times we were completely doused along with whatever happened to be exposed on our bikes. There are also plenty of vantage points into the Amazonian valley. The blind corners that would be a truck driver’s nightmare offer great views for mountain bikers and motorcycle riders alike, provided we can all remember to keep left…
Because there is basically no traffic outside of the chase vehicles for the mountain bikers and the odd overlanding traveller seeking to settle their curiosity about the ‘world’s deadliest road’ all 64 km (40 miles) of it felt in the end more like our own private road. We passed most of the mountain-bike crowds and knew the likelihood of meeting a car head-on was slim to none. The Death Road in this day and age was in fact nothing compared to some of the roads we’d been on previously and were about to be on the next day after a good dousing of rain had turned our route out of Coroico into slippery snot-mud. And this time, there was plenty of oncoming traffic, not to mention locals walking in the middle of the road from one village to the next, a few dogs dashing out from houses to chase us and many times, a driver who’s just unwilling to get out of your way, forcing you into the ditch. It took Dave and I three hours to complete a 50 km (30 mile) section. In the end, we bailed for the highway, very happy to have it as an escape route from the 300 kms (185 miles) we were going to do that day.
The Death Road was certainly worth doing for the sheer beauty of it and to be able to say we ‘survived’ the Death Road (I really wanted that t-shirt…) but both Dave and I agreed we could name quite a few stretches of roads we’ve been on these past 16,000 km (9940 miles) as Death Roads in comparison.