NORTH YUNGAS – BOLIVIAN ROAD OF DEATH
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
There is nothing more exciting than to be lost in Amazonian rainforests, searching for way out, but trying to remember all vibrations of colors and sounds, It is happening once in a lifetime, to be stuck in the another dimension, in the universe of the nature and its rules. The beauty of this area is well known but there is a little sparkle of mystery that leads us to La Paz, the Bolivian principal’s city and pride. In the veins of Bolivian culture and national identity, this city presents all: the history, the dangerous charm of being located about 12,000 feet above sea level and the perfect mixture of urban style and ancient feelings.
If you are discovering La Paz for the first time, you will be amazed by the rhythm of the Bolivian capital. Nobody sleeps but everyone can relax. There is no stress or at least, Bolivians know how to get rid of it. All you can feel is music, frenetic atmosphere and the atmosphere of constant adrenaline. This Lady of Peace – Nuestra Señora de La Paz- is the highest administrative center in the world, hidden in the mesmerizing aura of Andes, kissed by Choqueyapu River. Back in 1546, October 20, the Spanish conquistador Alonso de Mendoza hadn’t thought that the town he founded will be one of the first with the world’s longest aerial cable car system. Mi Teleférico enables spectacular rides and possibility for all to meet the city from above.
But, La Paz is just a one piece in the wonderful collage of Bolivia. The passionate Bolivians have much more to offer and the dangerous and hazardous roads for mountain bikers and adrenaline junkies are definitely worth of mention. One of them is unforgettable, remarkable and challenging El Camino de la Muerte , known also as Coroico Road, Grove’s Road and Unduavi-Yolosa Highway. It is 40 miles long but it is described as road of death. La Muerte is lurking everyone who is trying to provoke this threatening route and it takes from 300 to even 1,000 lives every year.
What is happening on this roadway? The risk of walking on the edge. According to one tourist description, the road connects La Paz and the low-lying region of Coroico in the Bolivian area of Yungas:”With solid rock on one side and 2000 feet hole on the other this La Carretera de los Yungas that is only 12 feet wide is one of the most spectacular road with its beautiful landscape view. The Death Road was made in the 1930s by cutting the side of the huge Cordillera Oriental mountain chain. It starts at La Paz at 3,660 meters altitude and then goes 4,650 meters high to La Cumbre Pass. From there it takes a steep slope to Coroico which is at 1,200 meters altitude. The steep descent of 3,650 meters is one of the longest downhill stretches in the world. Many sections of the road are unpaved and have no railings.”
The road itself is hazardous because the nature plays the final role. The rainy days and nights with fog turn this highway into the horror route. The visibility is reduced, the ground is slippy and the sharp curves promise the end without end. The road experienced a lot of bloods, tears and suffering. Bolivians still remember the 100 people who died in the bus accident in 1983, on the North Yungas Road. The tourists have been also targeted by the evil spirit of the La Muerte, 8 of Israeli globetrotters have been killed in a jeep accident in 1999. The worst part about this road is absence of all rules in the driving. Unlike the rest of Bolivia who keep on the right side, the vehicles on this road have to keep on the left side. That is the only chance for a driver to see the edge and to pass over it as much safe as it is possible. In spite of the strange rules on the road, the terrible accidents are numerous and so the breathtaking view from above is the last what those victims have seen before they faced the death.
Those black moments stimulated the Bolivian goverment to make the new and modern Yungas Road in 2006 with two lanes and asphalt pavement. The old route is now just a trap for tourists and adventurers and about 25,000 of them do not miss a chance to visit this cursed old road, just for their adrenaline pleasure. The biggest task is for mountain bikers who believe that cycling on the La Muerte highway is something that brings appetite for life back. It is beyond imaginable that some people live on challenging their own limits and fears. That is not anymore about sport but about secret madness and looking into the abyss.
The Gravity Bolivia offers exactly what many hope to feel alive. The Mountain biking named as GHOST RIDE:Dare to ride. This comes along with promises that the highlights of Amazonian jungle and the downhill mountain bike ride will be difficult but feeling for a whole life. The interesting thing about this road is that it attracts the mountain bike beginners as well as the experienced seniors. Some manage to survive the La Muerte and to tell the tale to the new generations of addicted on risk.
In past times, this road was the only link between La Paz and the forgotten places. People who had to reach the Bolivian capital had no any other choices but to drive over the dangerous, dark road. It was the part of their life, dealing with death every new day. It was a part of Bolivian culture and unique identity. The marvelous courage of Andes people with indigenous roots.
Nowadays, people chose this road for fun, provocation and ego. They do not go there because they must, they do go there because they want. They believe they are able to defeat the death on every corner where it is. They bring the pure life, even on the edge of the world’s most dangerous highway. They give their own pulse of hope that human spirit is capable to overcome the wicked intentions of La Muerte.
Dare to ride and you will be just fine.
6 thoughts on “ON THE EDGE OF LIFE: EL CAMINO DE LA MUERTE”
Thank you, Sarah, for such an insightful article. Too dangerous! I wouldn’t walk on that road, so never mind biking or driving on it. Since it is only less than 40 miles in length, it shouldn’t be too hard for the Bolivian government to widen the road and make it safer for people to use.
Sarah’s fascinating and elucidating article brought to mind the poem ‘Standard Oil Company’ (1940), by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973); which refers to The Chaco War (1932-35) between Bolivia and Paraguay, emphasizing the then definitive and conspicuous influences of the Western European and North American petroleum companies (i.e. Royal Dutch Shell backing the Paraguayan elite families and Standard Oil supporting the Bolivian elite):
‘Standard Oil awakens them:
Clothes them in war garb,
Designates which brother
Is the common enemy.
The Paraguayan gnaws at its war,
And the Bolivian wastes away
In the jungles with mechanical death…’
The original route of ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ in Bolivia was constructed by forced labour; Paraguayan POWs under Bolivian Army control. Under both then existing International Law and regional codices, slave labour and forced labour were illegal (any Western European or North American company involved in this was liable to prosecution, but this threat of punishment has never managed to stop them).
I mention this because all those people who access and ‘enjoy’ the thrill of mountain biking along The Yungas Road should be educated about and try to remember why and how it was originally created…
A major supporter of the Paraguayan elite was the US-Senator and radical populist Huey Long (1893-1935): in a speech on the US-Senate floor in 1934, he claimed the war was the work of Standard Oil executives; as the Paraguayan government refused to give the company oil concessions. In addition, he was an ardent critic of the policies of the US-Federal Reserve System. He was assassinated not long after declaring that he intended to run for the US-presidency.
Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia (ELN – the guerrilla group led by Che Guevara in Bolivia during the mid-1960s) took up the legacy of the impoverished and exploited Bolivians who were indoctrinated into fighting and killing their Paraguayan brothers and sisters during The Chaco War in the name of Wall Street profits. The guerrillas operated in many areas of Bolivia; including the Yungas Road region.
The US-government considered Che Guevara the most serious threat to US-interests in Latin America and the CIA was ordered to organize a neutralization campaign in Bolivia. The former SS and Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie (1913-1991), ‘The Butcher of Lyon’, was employed for this purpose: US-intelligence services helped him escape to South America, after World War II. Specifically, they were interested in British interrogation techniques which Klaus Barbie had experienced firsthand.
In 1965, Klaus Barbie was recruited by the West German foreign intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), but he immigrated to Bolivia; as it was easier and less embarrassing for him to find employment there than in Europe, and he enjoyed excellent relations with high-ranking Bolivian officials, including Bolivian dictators Hugo Banzer and Luis García Meza Tejada. While engaged in arms-trade operations in Bolivia, he was appointed to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel within the Bolivian Armed Forces.
On October 7, 1967, an informant apprised the Bolivian Special Forces of the location of Che Guevara’s guerrilla encampment in the Yuro ravine. On the morning of October 8, they encircled the area with two battalions and advanced into the ravine triggering a battle where Che Guevara was wounded and taken prisoner. The following morning, he was executed, without proper recourse to International Law (there was no trial, the Bolivian president ordered his execution).
Sarah concludes her article with ‘Dare to ride and you will be just fine…’ In the context of people daring to speak out against oppression, she is right, because humans will never stop risking their lives for what they believe in…
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Thank you so much, Sarah, for such a riveting article ! I am always reading your articles awaiting the next next step, and then the next one all the way up to the denouement !
This adrenaline rush that people are wishing for is beyond extremely dangerous ! This is literally “living on the edge” ! There are many people who enjoy the adrenaline rush and they usually get it through bungee jumping, or sky diving, or yet hang gliding, but riding on “El Camino de la Muerte” is more dangerous in my opinion !
Life has enough challenges and there is no need for that additional one ! In fact, the road of life itself is “El Camino de la Muerte” in its own way !
I remember in the 90’s, during my California years, when I went with my family from Los Angeles to San Felipe in Mexico ! The road looked just like “El Camino de la Muerte” and we almost died several times ! It was extremely scary, for if the driver misses swerving along the sharp curves, the car would fall off the cliff !
Thank you again, Sarah, for your research and your beautiful writing style !
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