Death Road

El Camino de la Muerte/Death Road

I am happy to report that I survived the first of many trips on El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road).  I feel like the journey is worthy of its own blog post, given it was so epic unto itself.

El Camino de la Muerte connects La Paz with the region of Los Yungas, the Amazon rainforest where the coffee production zone is situated.  Prior to renovation, it was once labelled the `World`s Most Dangerous Road`.  Although it has since undergone construction, with a new road bypassing the most treacherous section, I can well understand why it remains renowned for its perilous nature.  It was disconcerting to see several crosses adorned with flowers at intervals along the roadside.  There are various google images and YouTube videos that frankly I did not need to see!  After my curiosity got the better of me, I confess I was incited to add `write will` to my to-do list (somewhere between `tattoo` and `yoga`, though like those it got neglected in my pre-departure preparations).

A milder stretch of Death Road, stretching far into the distance

A long way down

Winding through the valley, El Camino clings to mountain gorges with hairpins turns, a steep drop on one side to the river below and rocky cliff face on the other.  At its worst locations, the road is gravel and only wide enough for one vehicle, yet it is a fairly busy, two-way highway.  Consequently, when the many cars, buses, lorries and trucks meet, negotiation ensues to determine who will have to reverse (often around corners) until there is a spot wide enough for vehicles to inch by.

Landslides are a frequent occurrence due to the rain and mud.  The road is currently undergoing construction, and is being widened at various areas with plans for completion within the next couple of years.

Local road rules are such that on the most hazardous stretch, drivers suddenly switch from driving on the right side of the road (customary in the rest of Bolivia) to the left.  This increases visibility to make passing safer, though one would think it would add to the confusion.

Face-off on Death Road

Reversing along Death Road

The distance from La Paz to Caranavi is a mere 170km, but our outgoing journey took a whopping 6hrs, and our return journey 7hrs.  (If I`m not mistaken, isn`t that closer than Montreal to Ottawa?!).

We set off when the mountains were shrouded in thick fog, and that together with the huge clouds of dust rising from overtaking vehicles meant that visibility was poor.  I shudder to think what happens during the heavy rains that are a daily occurrence during the peak of rainy season (December to February).  The drivers must have nerves of steel.

Heading into the fog on Death Road

Death Road dust

Surprisingly, I was the only one of 5 concerned enough to wear a seatbelt (nonchalance or could it be that a quicker exit is desirable?!).   Within 10 minutes of our journey, we had downed a shot of whiskey – discounting the driver, thankfully – and received a speeding ticket.  As an aside, it is customary to spill a few drops of any alcoholic drink on the ground before taking a sip, as a t`inka (sacrificial offering) to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

At one point we found ourselves caught up in a huge traffic jam, involving trucks, buses and cars all fighting to pass.  After much honking of horns, gesticulating and animated discussion, somehow negotiations were worked through and we were on our way.

Traffic jam on Death Road                                                                               (photo credit: Derryl Reid)

Traffic jam negotiations on Death Road

The last two hours of the journey were in darkness.  I marvelled that Celso, my colleage and our driver, could even make out the road and cliff edge, but he claims it`s easier to drive at night since there is the benefit of oncoming headlights.  True enough, during daylight hours unfazed drivers navigate hairpin turns at great speeds with no indication of oncoming traffic, honking their horns madly at the last second.

Death Road confrontation

During our return journey, we came to a grinding halt behind 15 or so vehicles.  We got out to investigate and upon rounding the corner, were met by the unbelievable sight of the road disappearing into an enormous mound of rubble and earth.  A crowd of agitated drivers and passengers stood spectating as bulldozers ploughed a path through the dirt.  It was unclear whether this was the clean-up job after a landslide or simply construction.  (Either way, it made me think that contrary to popular belief, Montreal construction may not be the worst in the world.)  I heard that it would take half an hour to fashion a new road and though I was highly skeptical, sure enough that was the case.

Another traffic jam

Reason for the wait…       Photo credit: Derryl Reid

Bulldozing a path

Photo credit: Derryl Reid

Finally on the way

With anticipated monthly visits to Los Yungas, I hope to develop nerves of steel to accompany my desired stomach of steel.  We shall see.

More soon about the jungle visit itself!  Stay tuned…

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13 thoughts on “Death Road

  1. Oh my god!! Not that I believe in the almighty but maybe I should, knowing that you are going to be making regular journeys … I am getting palpitations just looking at the photos. It reminds me of one of our journeys in Bhutan but there were tall trees by the edge which gave some protection or perhaps just a false sense of safety. I am going to need something to calm my nerves after this!!

    • Oops, sorry mum. Should`ve spared you that post, but I have to give realistic accounts of my adventures! Hold on for my next update – the jungle was well worth the frightening journey. xx

      • Will be glad when you are back in Montreal but then the thought of you cycling in Montreal gives me nightmares too!

  2. Joni, je viens de finir de lire et j’ai encore des frissons. N’y a-t-il pas des plantations de café accessibles sans risquer sa vie! J’espère que tes parents ne liront pas cette étape de ta vie!
    Il faut dire que ta façon de raconter nous fait croire que nous sommes avec toi dans l’auto!
    À bientôt pour un texte plus relaxant.
    Sylvie

    • Oups, il est trop tard, ma mère ne dormira plus…la pauvre. C`était effrayant, mais je te jure que la visite a valait la peine! Et oui, le prochain texte sera plus relaxant, promis! Bisous Sylvie.

  3. Good thing it’s you in Bolivia and not me. I could never throw any drops of a good drink on the ground for no good reason! The multiple “face off” pics and inevitable bulldozer interception made me laugh. Nervous laughs.

  4. Joni I have never seen anything like that. Like your Mum I find it difficult to contemplate you being exposed to that journey several times. I’ll gladly spill my booze if the Earth Mother agrees to take good care of you. Royx

  5. Oh my goodness. Very glad you wore a seatbelt. If I remember correctly, you and I also showed such sensibleness and respect for the seatbelt during some interesting (but in comparison v tame) journeys in Tanzania all those years ago!

  6. You are a mighty brave woman, Joni! I hope you only have to do this journey once…..
    It reminds me slightly of the road from Leh to Ladakh (very north India), which is only open for a couple of months a year, which I travelled on in my packpacking days. However, it is but a pedestrianised shopping precinct compared to your description of El Camino del Muerte!
    Keep safe – we want to keep on reading your wonderful blog!
    love,
    Jonathan x

    • Thanks Jonathan. Unfortunately I will be making monthly trips next year. I got a text today from a friend asking if I wanted to accompany her on an excursion on Death Road tomorrow, just for fun… Not exactly my idea of fun, so an easy enough choice! Take care, x

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