Exploring Family History on the Death Road


While my fellow Torontonians partake in ribfests and fireworks to pay homage to the birth of our Motherland, I sit here on the couch, sipping some red, as my mind wanders off to another region of the world (sorry, Canada).

Los Yungas. The lush, green rainforest that stretches across Peru, Bolivia and Northern Argentina. Teeming with colourful flora and weird and wonderful fauna, it is accessible from the city of La Paz in Bolivia via the deadliest road in the world, “la Camino de la Muerte” (the Death Road).

About 50 years ago, a Korean family consisting of nine siblings and the parental heads ventured across the world from their home country to South America. (The tenth sibling would later join them). They landed in the Los Yungas valley.

My mom was eight at the time, third youngest of the siblings. Although most of the family later moved to La Paz where they opened a clothing business, my mom stayed in the rainforest for another year with her father.

They would frequently make the trip to La Paz and back, and the whole family would sometimes journey to the Yungas for restful getaways. Which meant a lot of Camino de la Muerte for my mom.

My mom remembers how unregulated the Death Road was back then, absent of guardrails and vehicles having to play the passing game when the road became too narrow to constitute a two-way. (Don’t think too much has changed there, ma).

She also recalls trucks filled to the brim with oranges and people sitting on top of the oranges as they zoomed towards their destination on the winding road.

I remember hearing about these stories when I was much younger, but back then I didn’t comprehend the global infamy of the Death Road. After days of travel research, I now find myself in awe that this rugged journey — that thrill-seekers from all over the world pay bike tours to take them on — was just a part of life for my mom.

Yes, a significant piece of my family history puzzle lies in Bolivia. Thus, Bolivia is where I must go.

Visiting “the heart of South America” was barely a shade of a dream a couple years ago. I could only hazily envision myself in what I conjured up to be a dusty town where old Bolivian señoras in their bowler hats sold fresh fruits and nuts in open markets.

But today, the dream has actualized itself into a plan. It won’t happen tomorrow, but I’ve sketched out a pretty solid draft of my future explorations in what I consider to be the Third Motherland.

While I’d love to do the typical tourist traps, like Salar de Uyuni, I also want to be able to travel slow and really immerse myself in Bolivian life and culture. And, of course, I want to visit the Yungas and experience an important part of my mom’s childhood.

Now I just need to work up the courage to face the Death Road …


… and maybe stop watching stuff like this:

If you were to explore your family history and culture, where in the world would your journey take you?

– Cafe <3

13 thoughts on “Exploring Family History on the Death Road

  1. You’re just like my mom – always watching yungas videos on YouTube! Lol. Went on similar roads in peru last year, it was scary but I survived! Excited for you that you’re going! I wanna go in the next few years. Have a few friends/contacts there now too. We gotta meet up soon and catch up my luv. :)

    • PantalooOOooOOooons!

      Ha! Your mom showed me one of those yungas vids one time I was at your house lol. Scared me silly.

      Alright, I have a pretty good idea of when I’m going so we should try and coordinate schedules!!! Yesss, let’s meet soon!

  2. I remember la paz, Even how hard it was to breathe for a bit because of the raised up altitudes and especially the guard rail’s missing on the roads, every turn meant you would either drive off the cliff or the loose dirt would take you there, the people there still made it happen though, I’ll always be absolutely awed..

      • I was a kid way back in the day so I vaguely remember, It’s one of those broken memories that you usually forget when you grow up, I remember we visited so many old plots by people who couldn’t afford to buy graves too.

        Be VERY careful to not fall for tourist traps, for the most part the people there are humble but they look for tourists checking out wares :O

        • Wow. Yes, Bolivia is still a pretty poor country overall, so that story doesn’t surprise me — though of course it’s very sad :(

          Thanks for the tip! I think there always needs to be a balance of caution and openness when traveling to foreign countries :)

          • btw i accidentally replied this reply to another comment lol

            ” The trails behind Iquique going to Arica aren’t the safest either, Chile and majority of south america is extremely dangerous terrain :O ”

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