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.
Repeat for up to five menu items until you finally hit an item that is available and/or the waiter kindly informs you what fourth of the menu is actually capable of being produced.
This sudden and unexpected unavailability of something tended to be the norm for Bolivia. All the way down to regular transportation.

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.

Around 4:20 AM, our bus came to a stop. Jorge and I stirred to life, partially frozen from the cold night in the bus (Bolivian buses don’t tend to have any sort of heat or air movement). The bus had come to a shuddering stop. Not just casually idling on the side of the road, but OFF. And in the middle of nowhere.

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.

What to do? Grumbles, complaints, fears, ideas, and plans began filling the chilly air of the bus. Bolivians familiar with this phenomenon informed the rest of us what was up: These blockades were serious. Creeping past was not an option. It was unlikely the blockade would lift by tomorrow. We would have to walk to town.
We, and a majority of passengers, decided to stay in the bus until daybreak. That way, we could complete the journey on foot with at least a modicum of daylight to guide us. From my bus window, the lights of Uyuni burned bright but distant, tiny flickers of life just beyond reach.
Around 5:30 AM, Jorge and I suited up and headed out. The new day was clear and bright — and terribly cold. For reference, the salt flats sit at about 3,000m above sea level — that’s about 12,000 ft. And on top of that, it’s winter down here. It felt like Ohio on an early February morning.
Good morning, Uyuni! Lovely way to start the day.

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.

The saviors took us into town, mercifully dropping us off right outside the center where all the tour agencies and hostels are found. I think the guy was a relative of someone on the bus, who had been summoned to pick her up, and just happened to see us withering on the side of the road.
Uyuni, the morning we arrived. The cars blocking the road
in the distance are part of the protest, too. 

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,

“The protesters are blocking our road back into the city,” he explains. “The one we took this morning can’t be taken again. We are going to wait to see if they go away.”

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 inevitable came: we were spotted. Those sweeping headlights suddenly focused only on us. Our driver turned wide, executing a 180, and we began running from the car. We lost all of the other Jeeps we’d been following. We were on our own.

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?

Nobody knew the answers; nobody dared ask.

Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.

We breathed a sigh of relief; and by the time our driver had parked in front of the tour agency, we were lauding him with applause and claps on the back.