Life on Death Road

See the rest of the Death Road pics here…

That corner, we call that ‘Italian Corner’.” Our tour guide, the self appointed Speedy Gonzales laughed.

Why do you call it that?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

A few years ago, an Italian – he fell down!” Speedy grinned, “And the jungle, it ate him. So be careful amigos! Let’s go!” Speedy pulled a mini-wheelie and headed down the rocky, cliff-side trail.

‘Death Road’ (AKA Yungas Road) runs from Bolivia’s lofty capital of La Paz to the town of Coroico, just on the border of the more tropical jungle region. It’s a one-lane dirt road with sharp, gravely corners and 600m drops into dense jungle. By the way, there isn’t just the Italian corner. There is a Chinese corner, a Brit corner and numerous Australian corners – in fact pretty much every stretch of road had Speedy telling us a gruesome story. During some years as many as 300 people have plunged to their death, but others only a handful. The worst accident in the road’s history is when a bus full of 100 travelers plunged off the edge in 1983.

Long, narrow and extremely steep, Death Road drops from 4600m to 1200m in around 65km. Just to clarify, that’s almost a three and a half kilometer difference (2.2 miles) in vertical height. And here were were, bouncing and sliding down it far too fast. Testosterone. It’s a real bitch. As a man, you can possess the theoretical mental strength of restraint, but when things get going, and a cocky British guy has just whizzed past you, you can’t help but push harder. Stupidity has a habit of kicking theory in the nuts. The wheels hit the rocky surface like a jackhammers. The handlebars rattle your arms so much that the vibration reverberates throughout your body, including to your head where your vision becomes a series of poor resolution snapshots.

Some years ago the Bolivian government had finally built a safer, alternate route between the highlands and the lowlands but last week’s rains created a landslide that took out a large portion of the road. This meant that all the traffic was once again using the Death Road, the same road that we were struggling to stay attached to.

BUS! There’s a bus coming!” Speedy had pulled off to the edge and was yelling and waving. The same British guy obviously confused his breaks, pulling down hard on the front break accidentally, and in a split second he was a blur of arms and wheels as he tumbled over the handlebars. A second later he was lying less than a meter from the edge.

RIGHT breaks amigos! Use the back break!” Speedy yelled. The more expensive tours provided guides who were also trained with ropes and climbing in case you fell off the road. There was no other way to get you other than climbing down. I had a feeling that Speedy wasn’t one of those guides. The leading group of bikers – all testosterone pumped young guys gathered in a small turnout. OK, I’m only 30 and was definitely the oldest but that’s still a ‘young guy’, right? The bus approached with horns blaring, hardly slowing as it passed us, giving us just a few feet clearance. The driver, cheek stuffed with a large ball of coca leaves, was grinning maniacally. In the back of the bus there was about twenty-five indigenous peasant folk, mostly farmers, their wives, some kids and some bundles of goods destined for the La Paz market. A little kid in a colorful hat giggled and waved as they passed. The bus was called the ‘Titanic’.

Every few kilometers someone burst a tire. I felt like a professional boxer had used my ass as a punching bag. The cool mountain heights had given way to an intense humidity, exchanging craggy spires and sparse vegetation for waterfalls accented by lush ferns and verdant palms. Mosquitoes began to attack our exposed flesh in droves; God bless DEET and it’s carcinogenic powers. As we finished a packed lunch of dry cheese sandwiches (again, this was the budget tour) another group of bikers passed us.

OK!” Speedy said. “That is a weak tour. We must beat them to the bottom!” The Japanese tourists in our group looked nervous. The British guy’s arms was bleeding. I had mud all over my repurposed ski-goggles. I was pretty sure that guides like Speedy, not the road, might very well be the reason for the gruesome statistics. We saddled up and barreled down the final kilometers of the road, blazing past the more ‘weaker’ AKA more cautious bikers of the other tour.

Finally we closed in on our destination, a small ranch with a questionable green pool. I didn’t think twice before stripping off and jumping in. It didn’t matter that the bottom was slippery with algae, it was one of the most refreshing moments of my life and a delightful refuge from the insects. The family put together a large brunch and let us use their showers. Eventually Speedy announced that we better start heading home – it was going to take a while, because we had to take the bus back up the way we came, back up Death Road.

If the ride down was scary, the ride up was even more so. There wasn’t a lot of oncoming traffic, maybe about 10 or 15 oncoming vehicles during the 3 hours it took to return to La Paz. There’s a complex system of “right of way” that I still don’t really understand. I think whichever vehicle is going uphill at the time uses the outside ‘lane’ and has right of way. At times I could press my face to the glass of the minivan and not actually see the edge of the road, just the drop. We drove under a waterfall to wash off the bikes that were attached to the roof. I thought how smart it had been that I’d also tied my shoes to the roof to dry off.

In the lowlands, ferns clung to the cliff’s edge and roadside. Occasionally a Dr. Seuss style tree popped up from beyond the edge; long thin branches pierced the undergrowth, with just a little crop of leaves near the top. In every direction there were giant, green-bearded mountains, uniformly covered in a broccoli texture, save for the occasional naked gray of the rocky surface.

At one point a wide tour bus approached us going the opposite way. Slowly, carefully it lurched forward one inch at a time. The couple of British lads in the front row wooped. The Japanese girl in the back yelped the stereotypical-in-Japanese-porno, pre-pubescent squeal from the back. I smiled and considered my own demise.

Some months before leaving for South America I had been giving an introduction talk at Mindshare. I forget the exact topic, but the take-away was a question: if you’re final moment was imminent – would you be able to say you had given this life your best? Of course there’s lots more things that we all would want to stick around for but if it was your time, could you peacefully, and with honest surrender, say goodbye? I had said that while I might fear the method of death, I do not fear death itself. After the talks, as the event continued, I remember a few of my friends approaching me and asking: “Hey Doug, is everything alright, man?” I laughed and assured them it was more than alright. And now even more so, I feel that while I have many things I still want to experience and to achieve, I can honestly say that if my time to go is on Bolivia’s Death Road, then I am at peace with that. I’ve had damn good run.

We continued to inch back up the infamous road to the bizarre city of La Paz.

Posted by: Dougie In: Experience Junkie
  • Doug – A few weeks ago I read about a trip on Death Road. Your trip story captured the Near-Death Experience. It reminds me of my trip down the Dalmation coast on the Adriatic. I saw two cars fall a 1000 feet into the sea, several times I nearly joined them. Chan W