Bolivia’s “Death Road” plummets 12,000 feet over a 40-mile stretch from a mountain pass near La Paz “to the balmy resort town of Coroico,” said Ethan Todras-Whitehall in The New York Times. The “grim nickname” of the North Yungas Road dates back to the 1980s, when Bolivia estimated that it had more fatalities than “anywhere else in the world”—300 a year. A new road was built, and auto fatalities dropped significantly. But cyclists who pedal at the route’s edge, next to a 1,000-foot drop, still die at the rate of more than one a year. Bolivia’s Most Dangerous Road, is now “Third World infrastructure turned into a tourist attraction.”
Bolivian adventure and eco-tourism is booming, thanks to tour operators promoting the country’s Amazon Basin region, its otherworldly Uyuni salt flats in the southwest, and the bicycle journey along the Most Dangerous Road. One company alone has attracted 33,000 cyclists in the past 10 years. Thrill-seeking bike riders must deal with headaches and dizziness caused by the high altitude and gastrointestinal problems that result from low standards of hygiene. Fortunately for daredevils, the Most Dangerous Road can be traveled downhill in a single day, even if the experience does rank “roughly on par with throwing rocks at a hornet’s nest.” The replacement road takes cars partway along a safer route, but bikes still follow the old gravel path for much of their journey. “It is unwise to skimp” by going with a less expensive tour operator: Fresh brake pads and bike maintenance remain all-important.
After a van took our group to the top, we set off in a freezing rain at 15,000 feet. Though there was no traffic, some cyclists rode just a few feet from the cliff’s edge—undaunted by the scarcity of guardrails. “I hugged the mountainside.” At one point, I had to let go of my fear as I whipped around a hairpin curve and spurted through a waterfall in the middle of the road, laughing and pedaling hard. As we cruised into the little town at the end of the Death Road, parakeets flew overhead. We were “sweating, grinning, alive.”