A Spanish friend of ours who recently traveled through Bolivia said the following about his experience there: “Bolivia is a good country if you want to put your patience to the test. What you are told will happen rarely does; improvisation is your first friend of the day. The good part for us was that you can eat for 1 euro, and you can sleep two people for 5 euros. ”
After roughly 8 days in Bolivia, I have to say, truer words have never been spoken.
From the botched entry visa to the last moments spent in that country, the whole experience was a constant exercise in creative adaptation…and cheap as hell everything.
I don’t want to imply that we had a bad time there; not at all. Bolivia rocked our respective worlds — the people were friendly, the food was tasty, the landscape was breathtaking, the cities were historic and interesting, there was a profound and fascinating past, and so much more.
But there was a definitive lack of structure in a lot of ways. A visit to any restaurant, in a variety of cities, invariably produced the following experience:
SHANNON or JORGE: I’ll have the gnocchi.WAITER: Oh, we’re out of that.S or J: Okay, uh…*looks through the menu quickly* How about the vegetarian lasagna?WAITER: No, we don’t have that either.
We had planned to arrive to Uyuni, the city nearest to the salt flats, during the day Thursday. But our bus that morning was inexplicably cancelled due to a bloqueo, a blockade. They told us we’d leave that night at 8:30PM.
So we called the terminal in advance of making the full 20 minute cab ride with the bags, confirmed the bus was in fact leaving, and showed up for the 8 hour bus ride to Uyuni. We departed on time, all things normal. Excellent.
We were informed that the blockade was still, in fact, in effect. We were totally unable to drive further. And we were about 4 miles from Uyuni.
Jorge and I trudged along, finally passing the blockade itself. The road was littered with rocks of varying sizes, from pebbles to boulders. We didn’t say anything as we passed the protesters themselves, who sat in a group around a fire at the side of the road, the Bolivian flag waving gently in the morning breeze.
After about 20 minutes of walking, Uyuni looked no closer but we had certainly traveled far. However, we didn’t pack for real backpacking. Our belongings are ample and heavy. We packed up a whole life in Chile, and aren’t traveling as light as other backpackers who are just on a little vacation. Certainly not equipped to be walking miles with my luggage. Just as we were about to collapse and rest a bit, a truck rumbled past. Jorge stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped.
Fast forward to our tour through the salt flats. We took a roundabout way out of the city due to the blockades. Someone mentioned the regular route out of town was now similarly covered in boulders and armed with protesters waiting for people to attempt to pass. We didn’t think much of it, just enjoyed the bumpy road and craggy mountains in the distance. Everything seemed to be continuing as normal despite the blockades and protesters.
On our way back from the salt flats tours, around 7pm, our Jeep shuddered to a stop. The other Jeeps we’d been traveling with similarly turn off and go dark. Our driver disappears, rushing to the other drivers. They stand there talking for 15 minutes. Finally, he comes back to us and says,
But they didn’t go away. And as time wore on, and the night grew darker and colder, our driver and the others decided to risk it.
With lights off and driving in a tight single-file line, our 5 Jeeps attempted to circumvent the protestors. Unable to see us, the plan was that we were swing wide around them, and gun it into the city.
I didn’t know where to watch. I was horrified by the proximity of the Jeep in front of us, how murikly dark it was, how dangerously close we sometimes came to it as our driver struggled to stay connected to the line and look out for protestors. In the distance, we saw the wide sweep of headlights. Protesters looking for people just like us: trying to escape into the city.
The protesters following us got distracted, maybe they decided to pursue someone else. Their goal was to prevent us from entering the city, and to do so they pelted trespassers with rocks. We knew our lives weren’t necessarily in danger…but we didn’t want an errant rock through the window, either.
Our driver doubled back and, flying solo now, began creeping along the far side of the field. All of us in the Jeep scoured the countryside, looking for protesters that might have spotted us. So far, so good. All clear. We continued on.
To our far left was the burning bonfire marking the protesters and the beginning of the blockade. We saw groups of people milling around; the road full of boulders.
And then, we saw three pairs of headlights following us.
We’d been spotted again, and this time, we had two motorcycles and a car racing after us. Our driver gunned it — we were in the city limits now, no turning back — and in the distance we could hear the accelerating whine of the motorcycles pursuing us.
This was no easy escape for our driver. Pitch blackness plus a very jagged, bumpy road, littered with bushes and dips. A few minutes once we’d driven past the protesters, he flicked on the lights. We drove in incredibly tense silence, all passengers craning to see if anyone would catch up with us. What would happen if they did? Would they make us stop, circle around us, throw a rock through the window? Or would it go even further? The driver made mention of the campesinos getting drunk and macho, liking to push the protest further at night. Would they force us to walk back into town? Or maybe they’d take all our stuff first?
Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.