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Defying Death on The Death Road

Narrow passages. Rocky terrain. Vertical drops of 3,000 feet. Turns out getting to the Amazon is more terrifying than the jungle itself.

Our adventure began in the bustling city of La Paz in Bolivia’s Altiplano region. We had arranged for a shared taxi to drive us to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the Amazon. The grueling 12+ hour journey includes traversing Yungas Road, also known as the infamous Death Road. Carved into sheer mountains with over 200 hairpin turns, it’s considered the world’s most dangerous road. For most of this harrowing stretch, the road rarely gets wider than 10 feet. Rounding corners, we braced ourselves for the possibility of an oncoming car. And we didn’t dare look out the window where the road, absent of any guardrails, plunged into the Amazon rainforest below.

At one point, we spotted a group of uniformed men in the distance. As we approached them, our driver slowed down. We watched as the men peered over the cliff’s edge. A car had careened off the road and they were now looking for survivors. Up until 2009, when the government finally constructed a new road, accidents were all too common with hundreds of people dying every year.

Needless to say, we were not prepared to witness actual deaths on The Death Road.

The drive could not be over with soon enough. Every now and then, we’d look over at the young Bolivian couple we shared the taxi with to gauge their reaction. Traveling with a newborn infant, they seemed unfazed by the experience. Their indifference (sort of) helped keep our nerves at bay. We continued on making pit stops in the small towns of Caranavi and Yucumo. It was a relief to take a break from the bumpy roads, stretch our legs and allow our bodies to realign. Along the way, we also briefly pulled over to grab a snack from a humble roadside stands. Our favorite snack: a buñuelo (fried donut) and Coka Quina. A tasty distraction and hopefully, not our last meal.

Finally, after what seemed like a week-long trip, we arrived in Rurrenabaque. Thankfully, we already knew where we were staying as lodging was included in the Amazon tour we set up in La Paz as well. The taxi dropped us off and after checking in, we immediately headed to the showers. The air was warm, the water was ice cold and we were exhausted. For the next half hour, we attempted to wash away any memory of the horrendous, bone-rattling drive.

Over a groggy dinner of pollo frito (fried chicken) and a much needed Paceña beer, we had a coming-to-Jesus moment.

We would not be doing The Death Road drive again. We were heading into the Amazon the next day and it would be a week before we had to return to La Paz for our onward travel to Uyuni. But we did not want to forget what a harrowing experience it had been, so we made an immediate pact. 

And then, in a not so Cheap and Charming move, we went ahead and bought tickets for a one-way flight back to La Paz. At $80 per person, it was well out of our budget. But the trip had scarred us so much, we felt we had no other choice. After the purchase, we felt a huge sense of relief come over us. We climbed into bed and quickly fell into a slumber. A slumber so deep and relaxed, it likely only happens when you’ve cheated death.

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