Rubicon Trail, Darien Gap, Khyber Pass… there are many routes around the world that lure off-roaders with their history or their infamy… But how keen would you be to drive the Road of Death, a tragically perilous track cut into the soft rock of a mountain face high above the Bolivian rainforest? With an average of 300 deaths a year over its 80km length, that’s almost one death for every 250m, the Carretera Yungas has the dubious accolade of being the most deadly stretch of road in the world. A great place for a few friends to driver a Land Rover. Brazilian 110 owner Reinaldo Junqueira did just that!
A friend of mine drove this road and came back with some great stories and I loved the idea of being in a place like that in my ‘Landy’. My family and friends weren't exactly encouraging though, in fact, everyone was so against the idea that I started planning on going alone, although I didn't know how I could take photos and drive at the same time… I already knew that this is definitely a road that would take all my attention behind the wheel.
Fortunately a couple of months before the trip Douglas Moreira called me. He had many years experience of off-roading, travelling and photography… a perfect combination. And then to complete out team we added Refalo Laurent, a young French guy and very capable videographer. Yet we needed one more angle. On some of my other trips I felt I was missing something by just passing through as a passive visitor, so this time I want to try and give a little something back. None of us was a doctor or had the scope to do anything majorly humanitarian, we just wanted something simple that would give some kids we passed on our route a smile. We decided to hand out footballs. This simple gesture wouldn't change to world but perhaps it would change a moment in a child's life. What price can you put on a smile?
The Landy got a service and a check-over to make sure that nothing was about to go to go wrong and then the first part of the journey was to drive from Brazil to La Pas, the capital of Bolivia, the highest capital in the world. As we got there we began to understand perhaps why the Carretera Yungas is so dangerous; the traffic in the city was just pure chaos. No one bothered to follow any rules… and if they had the same carelessness or impatience on a 2m wide track with a 400m drop off the side… I was nervous just to imagine it.
But then we had our first problem. Either there was no diesel or the station owners didn't want to sell any to us. We drove around for a few hours getting ever more impatient and nervous until our guide suddenly remembered that the place right next to our hotel might sell some. It did. We narrowly voted to spare his life but that messing around put us some hours behind schedule and it wasn't until mid-afternoon that we came to the tunnel that leads to the Road of Death.
We were already at 4650m. The mountains behind with evocative names like Nevado Sejama, Illimani and Huayna Potosi rise to a staggering 6500m, in fact the range is the second highest in the world. Only the Himalayas are higher but it was so high that the weather can change really quickly. Warm air from the temperate forest hits the vertical walls in the east face of the Andes and as it rises produces heavy rain and thick fog. One moment it was bright, beautiful sun… the next it got very cold and a dense white cloud covered everything… It gave us all the feeling that if something went wrong we would never be found again. My heart began to beat faster. The adventure was about to begin… the tarmac ended and it wasn't long before we got to the first memorial cross! All draped in hanging moss us it sat on the edge of the dizzying drop, where the person it was dedicated to had fallen… It was a stomach turning warning of what was ahead!
There are several reasons why this stretch of road is so incredibly dangerous. Perhaps the main one is that it is so incredibly narrow. It’s cut into the rockface with cliffs hundreds of metres high and on the other side there is a 400m drop so there’s not much that could be done about the width. Legend says that the Incas were the first to use it so it was never intended for heavy motorised traffic. It was ‘modernised’ to its present state in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners because the authorities believed there was oil at the foot of the Andes. Some 60,000 men died in the war, how many making this road… no one knows. Just a few minutes in and it already seemed insane that for many years this was a main road that had trucks laden with fruits, coffee and cocoa leaves heading to the markets of La Paz… and buses full of people, all vying for every inch of space. Once the authorities tried to make a one-way system so that all the vehicles went up one day and all vehicles went down the next but the local truck drivers rebelled against this and so it carried on… and more crosses were put up… But the situation couldn’t continue so 10 years ago the government built another road, and now the Carretera Yungas, practically abandoned, has gone a decade without proper repairs. The road descends some 3000m so with very little traffic it's a well-known tourist attraction for cyclists to freewheel the 80 km from top to bottom. But even tourists and not immune to the dangers… In 2011 a Japanese cyclist was trying to film himself, lost concentration and was never seen again. There is also a strange rule which is that those who are going downhill must always remain on the left (the opposite of every other road in the country) so that the driver can look out of his window and see exactly how close is wheels out to the edge. Like I said, this road is so narrow that literally every centimetre counts. We met a minivan and it took a minute to edge past, outside wheels just over the abyss on one side and wing mirrors touching on the other. Not recommended for someone who doesn't have complete car control… Really, there is a different energy here, an eerie silence, a lethal beauty, and each of us in the car felt constant chill. The year was present for every metre. And when, I mean if, the car falls off it isn't rescued. There is no access to the valley below so it is left as an open graveyard. The crosses that line the way are the closest loved ones can get to the lost… and we were constantly aware of this.
A local superstition is that the road is inhabited by an evil entity called Kari Kari that can make drivers tired and then suck out their souls. To protect themselves motorists should fill their pockets with garlic. Another place people are particularly frightened of is Devils Curve. It's a tight corner with bad visibility and many believe that they can hear the ghostly cries of the lost souls below. In my opinion the most dangerous part of the whole road is a point called San Juan. It's one of the narrowest parts and a waterfall falls directly on the road so the ground is constantly wet. We could see our tyres pushing stones off the edge.
It was dusk when we saw the first lights of Coroico below and because we started late we had to do 5km of hairpins in the darkness before we got there. It was a nice little touristy town because it was 3km lower than where we started we could feel the warmth of the Amazon. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, problems with poverty are everywhere, but handing out the footballs to the kids was a brilliant experience. To see their smiles and hear their laughter was lovely especially as to say thank you they gave us cocoa leaves, corn, necklaces and bracelets in return.
To go back we wanted to drive up the Carretera Yungas but had to wait for the weather to clear because driving in thick fog didn't really appeal to us. We delayed a day but the next morning was nice and clear so we headed off. Priority is given to those going up so when we passed an oncoming car this time we stayed to the inside of the road which was much less scary. But then we noticed a thick mist forming below us… and just a minute later we were almost blinded by the cloud… And then a terrible scare. On a corner a cyclist hit us head on. We'd forgotten that in the morning tourist agencies take cyclists on the downhill route! Visibility was about 10m so we inched up the road honking the horn the entire way because we just couldn't see what was coming. We were terrified about what might happen if we scared a rider whose first reaction might be to try and go around us. We couldn't see it but we knew that just a few centimetres to the side there was that huge and terrible drop down to the open graveyard.
Going so slow and not being able to see anything ahead made it feel like we were driving forever. It felt like we were in another world, one full of ghosts! It was a real horror movie, especially as every now and again another old cross would come slowly in to view out of the gloom… a near constant reminder that we were on the most dangerous road on the planet! I felt the pile of garlic in my pocket…
We made it though. The trusted 110 never missed a beat and took us up the 3000m climb faultlessly, and at the top we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’d successfully driven the Road of Death. Twice!
Photos: Reinaldo Junqueira