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A round peg in a world of square holes...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Barely clinging to the east side of the Bolivian Andes is Yungas Road, deemed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) as the most dangerous road on Earth. IADB's criteria is simple: deaths per mile.

       Yungas Road runs between La Paz and Rurrenabaque. La Paz is at 11,800 feet above sea level, the road goes down to Coroico at 3,000 feet above sea level. The road peaks at 15,400 feet above sea level at La Cumbre.

       In an average year, about 26 vehicles (one per week) drive off the single-lane road, resulting in fatalities between 100 to 200 per year. In Bolivia's worst single road accident, bus driver Carlos Pizarroso drove off the edge in July 1983, dooming himself and more than 100 passengers.

       On this road, many believe that wearing seat belts is foolish. "If you go over the edge," one truck driver said, "jumping out of your door or window is sometimes your only chance." Before setting out, truckers pour libations of beer onto the ground to pacify Pachamama, the earth deity, and feed the stray dogs, supposedly the souls of dead drivers petitioning for safe passage. Their petitions are not always heard.

       In recent years, this deadly road has become an attraction for mountain bikers seeking a taste of a downhill to remember. The road (with ice and snow!) begins at chilly La Cumbre at 15,400 feet (4700 m) in the mountains near La Paz and plunges down 11,800 feet of vertical to 3,600 feet in Coroico, a small village on the edge of the Yungas Jungle at the Amazon basin. Bikers ride through bitter cold, dry mountain air, then through the clouds, rain storms, dense fog, steamy humidity, and finally, warm dry air at the bottom — all in 40 miles (64 km). Martin Li signed up for one such ride and wrote about it.

       Since 2003, more than 7 mountain bikers have plummeted to their deaths for reasons such as failing to negotiate the road's 200+ turns, being bumped off the edge by passing vehicles, or even in a moment of absent mindedness, stepping back off the cliff to make way for passing traffic.

       Bolivia is right-hand drive, like most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, EXCEPT on this road. Downhill traffic is shifted to the left side of this road, because it is necessary to have the driver closest to the edge of the road, so that he can see if his tires are still on the road.

This driver of this car went a little too far to the left. It is not clear if he opened the door and stepped off into the abyss.

Yungas Road is typically 12 feet wide (i.e. one lane). But there are wide spots every several hundred meters to allow passing. Downhill traffic is expected to yield to uphill traffic. The problem is that when vehicles going in opposite directions meet in between the wide areas, the downhill vehicle must back up to the nearest wide point.

Unfortunately, many vehicles drive off the edge of the precipice during the process of backing up.

This bus driver did the opposite.

Meanwhile, uphill traffic face the danger of scraping against the inside rock face. People traveling in the back of open trucks sometimes literally lose their heads due to a lack of vigilance.

Tales of Yungueña's hazards abound:

The bus I'm riding in slides to a stop.  The driver asks us not to move.  We realize that the front right wheel of the vehicle is hanging over the edge of a fathomless drop.  We vacate through the driver's emergency door and fifteen of us help to pull the bus backwards onto the road again.

A woman gets out of her car to relieve herself and steps into thin air.  Her body had to be recovered by rockclimbers.

With a macabre twist of humor, these crucifixes, each a memory to the poor souls who have gone over the edge, are called "Bolivian 'Caution' Signs."

El Balcon, "The Balcony," the most fearsome precipice on the entire route, with an almost vertical drop of 3280 ft (1000 m) off the edge.

Another shot of El Balcon.

That's mighty close to stand to the edge of a 3280 ft (1000 m) cliff, IMHO.

The rest of the pics:

Rallying, anyone?
BYOP (Bring Your Own Pillow Parachute).


Blogger two said...

This is incredible! Great posting

February 14, 2007 8:09 AM  

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