After cresting the 4,800m Cumbre pass, the trufi (shared taxi) plunged into a cloud of swirling mist. Inside the vehicle it felt strangely peaceful, as if we were trapped in a bubble, which was perhaps for the best given we were travelling along the “Camino de la Muerte”, or Death Road.
Running from the high-altitude Andean city of La Paz to the subtropical Yungas valleys and the Amazonian lowlands beyond, the 64km Yungas Road involves a sharp 3,500m descent. Parts of the highway are only 3m wide; there is a series of sharp turns and blind corners; and mini waterfalls splash down the surrounding rockface. Safety barriers make only a rare appearance – far more common are roadside shrines: white crosses, bunches of flowers, yellowing photos.
During the 1990s, so many people died in accidents on the highway – built by Paraguayan prisoners of war following the catastrophic Chaco War (1932-35) – that the Inter-American Development Bank described it as “the world’s most dangerous road“.
The trufi slowed to a crawl and the driver hunched forward, peering intently over the steering wheel as if at an eye test, before we suddenly emerged into the sunshine. Outside my window was a near-vertical 1,000m drop, while on the opposite side a motorbike whizzed past, clipping our wing mirror. Just ahead, a trio of cyclists gingerly navigated a crater-sized pothole: although a bypass has been built around the most perilous stretch, the road’s macabre reputation has made it something of a tourist attraction and it attracts a steady stream of travellers eager to ride down it.
The route is also the gateway to an overlooked region with powerful associations. The Yungas (“warm lands” in the indigenous language of Aymara, spoken by around 1.7 million Bolivians) are a fertile, remarkably biodiverse transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon, closely linked to two resources that have provoked fascination and reverence, misunderstanding and controversy: coca and gold.