Epic Drives: Traveling the BR-319 Across the Amazon from Manaus to Porto Velho, Brazil

This post is part 1 of 3 in the series Epic Drives

Deep mud. Giant potholes. Rickety wooden bridges. And all in the middle of nowhere. The BR-319, which connects Porto Vehlo to Manaus in the Amazon in northern Brazil, is one of the most epic drives in the world. While technically a numbered highway, the BR-319 is known as 540 miles (870 km) of travel torture (or driving adventure, depending on your POV). But recently, some of the most hazardous aspects of the road have been improved. Has the BR-319 lost its bite?

BR-319 Manaus to Porto Velho, Brazil

A smooth section of the BR-319, an infamous road linking the Amazonian city of Manaus with the rest of Brazil.

Driving Brazil’s infamous BR-319 road

The BR-319 was built in by the Brazilian military in 1973 and inaugurated in 1976  to link Manaus to the rest of Brazil. However, it was never paved and almost instant neglect meant that extreme weather and persistent jungle vegetation quickly did their worst. In the rainy season the road is often an impassable mess of deep clay pools. Then there are the 40-year-old wooden bridges–rickety,  narrow and best navigated with extreme care and very, very good karma.

A quick search on YouTube offers many entertaining glimpses of the considerable challenges on this infamous highway across the Amazon. Even the two million people living in Manaus don’t really consider their city in the middle of the Amazon jungle to be truly connected to the rest of the country by road. They prefer to fly.

Improvements to the BR-319

Reluctant to beat up our truck on the BR-319 by driving  this torture test round trip, we left our truck in Porto Velho and flew to Manaus. When we got to the city we heard about new regular bus service along the BR-319 from Manaus to Porto Velho (and vice versa), so that’s how we made our return trip. We figured if full-size buses can do the road then the worst sections and barely passable bridges must have been improved.

Bus BR-319 from Manaus to Porto Velho

She may not look like much to you, but this “executive” bus was actually pretty plush and far more comfortable and new than we expected on the BR-319.

Sure, the road is still rough, and bumpy, and mostly made of potholes, and likely a total mess in the rain, and the ferry you have to take over a small river inspires something less than confidence, and the bridges are still made out of wood but, overall, the road was nowhere near as bad as we’d been lead to believe.

Ferry across The Amazon BR-319 Manaus

The bus journey over the infamous BR-319 road out of Manaus begins with a ferry ride over the Amazon River. In front of us is the famous “meeting of the waters” where the dark water of the Rio Negro and the milky-looking water of the Rio Solimões meet but don’t mingle for miles.

The most dramatic moments of the journey happen right out of Manaus when passengers get off the bus and onto a ferry, followed by the empty bus, to cross the Amazon River. The BR-319 is paved (poorly) for about an hour out of Manaus then it’s all dirt (and one short DIY looking ferry) until a couple of hours before reaching Porto Velho when crappy pavement resumes. All of the bad bridges seem to have been fixed up to accommodate full-size buses and we even saw a grader. With no rain in sight, our one-way journey was a relative breeze at just 22 hours.

There’s been talk about improving and paving the entire BR-319 for years. After talking to locals in Manaus, it’s our belief that that will never happen. It’s generally understood that powerful shipping interests in Manaus will never stand for an improvement in the road since that would bite into their profitable monopoly on moving goods to and from Manaus. The city is a free-trade-zone and home to hundreds of factories which means there’s big money in moving goods which now happens exclusively by river. Environmentalists also prefer that the road stay rough to keep the area wild.

So, for now, at least in the dry season, the BR-319 can be taken off the list of the world’s most infamous roads.

Arriving in Porto Velho BR=319 from Manaus. Madiera River

Arriving in Porto Velho on the Madiera River after 22 hours on a bus driving the infamous B-R319 road from Manaus.

How to travel the BR-319 by bus

Multiple bus companies send buses over the BR-319 between Manaus and Porto Velho daily. We booked with the Aruana bus company and paid R/229 each (about US$72). We got a ticket with a reserved seat. You will need to show your passport when booking and again when boarding.

The buses have a toilet at the back so sitting as close to the front of the bus is advised. The toilets get nasty by the end of the journey. Some buses also supply water on board, but don’t count on it.

Our bus had inside storage space overhead that was similar to that found on small airplanes (ie, not very big). The main luggage area under our bus was lined with a grippy material to reduce bouncing and sliding. We were also given big plastic bags to put our luggage in to keep the dust off.  We got a claim ticket for each of our bags and the luggage compartment was locked.

We stopped a few times during the journey for quick (mediocre and cheap) food and (basic and dirty) bathroom breaks. Overall, the bus was comfortable and reasonably clean, though the A/C was VERY cold. Bring layers.

Sadly, this journey is done mostly in the dark which means passengers don’t get much opportunity to see the pristine jungle or look for wildlife.

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Epic Drives: The Trampoline of Death Road, Mocoa to Lago de la Cocha, Colombia

This post is part 2 of 3 in the series Epic Drives

The Trampoline of Death road in Colombia is said to have taken hundreds of lives due to the dirt road’s dangerously narrow, winding, eroded, and often foggy conditions. Of course, we had to this epic drive (and film it).

Driving the Trampoline of Death Colombia

On Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

Driving the Trampoline of Death road

The Trampoline of Death is also known as the Devil’s Trampoline (which sounds even grimmer in Spanish: Trampolín de Diablo), the Most Dangerous Road in Colombia, and Adios Mi Vida (Goodbye My Life). It was built in the 1930s to transport troops through mountain terrain in Southern Colombia and it remains a narrow dirt road (single lane in some places) with blind corners and hairpin turns often rendered even more perilous by descending fog and periodic washouts.

Trampolin de la muerte Colombia

The Trampoline of Death cutting a swatch through the jungly terrain near Mocoa.

The most notorious road in Colombia is just 45 miles (70 km) long and rises (or descends, depending on which way you’re traveling) between 1,968 feet (600 meters) in Mocoa, at the edge of Colombia’s steamy Amazon, to 9,120 feet (2,780 meters).

Then the road drops 2,000 feet (600 meters) into an inhabited valley where it becomes paved and is no longer The Trampoline of Death but just another mediocre Colombian road. Beyond the valley, the road climbs again to the route’s high point of nearly 10,700 feet (3,261 meters) before dropping down to Laguna de la Cocha at 9,200 feet (2,800 meters) and finally to the city of Pasto at 8,300 feet (2,529 meters).

We embarked on our Trampoline of Death drive from Mocoa at 9:30 am on a drizzly Saturday morning with the usual excitement from Eric and gnawing apprehension and crossed fingers from Karen. Water bottles were filled. Engine fluids and tire pressure were checked. We even charged up our walkie-talkies thinking Karen might have to scout ahead and direct Eric over particularly perilous patches.

Trampoline of death Colombia

It look innocent enough from a distance…

We were prepared for steep grades, blind corners, and narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass. Pot holes? No problem. Rock slides? Been there. Precipitous drops? Our middle name.

You call this a death road?

What we weren’t prepared for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs alerting drivers to particularly narrow spots, and what appeared to be newly installed guard rails along many of the sketchy sections. Guard rails? What kind of a death road has guard rails? There were even a few pleasant turnouts…

Trampoline of Death dangerous road Colombia

“Danger Narrow Road”

Still, we drove slowly and carefully. During our four-hour drive on The Trampoline of Death we saw about 40 other vehicles including motorcycles, private cars, taxis, minivans, and medium-sized cargo trucks (no 18 wheelers). Some areas were washed out by the many waterfalls which tumble onto the road and yellow tape, helpfully printed with peligro no pase (danger don’t pass), was up in areas where road erosion was particularly bad. There were also numerous roadside shrines marking spots where loved ones lost their lives.

Trampoline of Death shrines

Just a few of the roadside memorials to those who lost their lives on Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

There were many blind corners and long one lane stretches hugging the cliffs. More than once the road was so narrow that we sat for a few minutes and waited for an oncoming truck to chug past us before continuing. This concept of “discretion is the better part of valor” is very anti-Latin. Most drivers just continue moving until they’re face to face with a truck or bus at which point a game of chicken ensues until one driver backs up to a wider spot in the road so the vehicles can pass each other.

After four hours we reached the end of The Trampoline of Death without incident. No trampolines, no death, and we never even used our walkie-talkies.

Check out our dash cam video of our Trampoline of Death drive, below to see this infamous road (and some close calls) for yourself.

Even the guys at Top Gear took their chances on Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

From the death road to a hotel inspired by The Shining

Six hours after leaving Mocoa we arrived at Lago de la Cocha. About an hour from the city of Pasto, this is a glacier fed reservoir which is the second largest body of water in Colombia behind Lake Tota.

Lago de la Cocha Colombia

Lago de Cocha, the second largest body of water in Colombia.

We splurged on a room at the Hotel Sindamanoy. On the outside its got a Swiss-ish chalet look and feel with a bit of old-school US National Park Lodge style tossed in, all shaken up with a dash of inspiration from The Shining. Inside it’s like a time machine back to the 1970s:  Carpeting, rotary phones, gingham curtains, creepy red towels. We half expected a Thousand Fingers massaging bed with a slot for quarters. No luck.

Hotel Sindamanoy Lago de la Cocha Colombia

Swiss-ish Hotel Sindamanoy on Lago de la Cocha.

However, the hotel is right on the lake and has great views. Unfortunately, the weather was too wet and cold to make the boat transfer to La Corota Island in the lake which is the smallest national park in Colombia. But we did venture out to a nearby restaurant for a trout dinner, a local specialty.


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Epic Drives: The Death Road in Bolivia

This post is part 3 of 3 in the series Epic Drives

This 23 mile (37 km) stretch of dirt road in the mountains north of La Paz, Bolivia may be the most notorious death road in the world.

Beginning of North Yungas road, Bolivia's death road.

The North Yungas Road, aka the Death Road, in Bolivia was once the most dangerous road in the world.

Driving the Death Road in Bolivia

Right out of La Paz, the paved highway climbs to 15,260 feet (4,651 meters). After cresting La Cumbre pass, we traveled 19 miles (30 km) down the highway to 10,433 feet (3,180 meters) and the beginning of the North Yungas Road, also known as Bolivia’s Death Road.

Driving north yungas death road Bolivia

The entrance to Bolivia’s Death Road.

There are two entrances to the Death Road and they’re very close together. They both get you there, but the first turn off you come to when traveling from Lima (you’ll see a beat up old sign) seemed slightly less rough.

Check out our video, below, taken with our Brinno camera mounted on the dashboard of our truck as we drove Bolivia’s Death Road.

The 23 mile (37 km) road drops about 6,820 feet (2,080 meters) and ends in the valley below the town of Cocoiro where the dirt North Yungas Road rejoins the paved highway.

Vehicles in both directions are required to travel on the left hand side of the Death Road so that the driver is on the outer edge of the road instead of the center-line. This allows drivers to more safely maneuver as close as possible to the cliff-edge or mountain wall when passing another vehicle. If you’re traveling from Lima toward Cocoiro you will be driving on the cliff side of the road.

North Yungas Death road Bolivia

The scenery is stunning along Bolivia’s Death Road.

The road is all dirt but it was in very good condition when we were there. It’s single-lane in many places, there are some blind corners, and there are areas were water is cascading onto the road from the hills above.

However, the road also has guard rails now and we saw just two other vehicles during the 1.5 hours we were on the road. There are a few tiny settlements along the way and there’s a 5 BS (about US$0.72) fee per car to drive the road. 

Our receipt for the 5BS per car fee you have to pay when you drive Bolivia’ Death Road.

A new paved highway to Cocoiro was built in 2007 which greatly reduced the number of vehicles on the old Death Road. This means that Bolivia’s infamous Death Road, where hundreds of people died in traffic accidents, is really not all that dangerous anymore. 

Before the new highway was opened in 2007, the North Yungas Road, aka the Death Road, carried a lot of traffic and was the most dangerous road in the world. Photo: Wikicommons

The Death Road is now used almost exclusively by travelers who’ve signed up for a downhill biking adventure. A dozen or so bikers still die on the road each year and if you drive the Death Road in the morning there will be bikers on the road along with your vehicle. Most bikers are gone by the afternoon.

Biking Bolivia's death road.

Travelers on a guided downhill bike trip make up the majority of traffic on Bolivia’s Death Road these days.

A chilling Death Road back story

Bolivians we’ve spoken with say that the Death Road is called that not because of the substantial number of fatalities from accidents on the road fatalities but because opponents of the government were thrown off the road in to the gorge to certain death below during Bolivia’s bloody revolution in the 1950s.

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