Roadblocking in Bolivia

My primary goal in Bolivia was to see the world’s largest salt flats in Uyuni. I planned the perfect 10 days through Bolivia, booked all of my accommodation, tours, buses, and flights. Suddenly, the day my overnight bus to Uyuni was to leave, the lovely people of Uyuni decided to protest and block the only road into town. All buses to and from Uyuni stopped running.

I went directly to the tour office that sold me the trip. After they gave me a refund for the bus, I asked when the protest would end.

“Maybe tomorrow. Maybe Saturday. Bolivians never strike on Sunday, so maybe you can go Sunday.”

Sunday wasn’t going to work. I had a limited amount of time and needed to find another solution. The tour agent made a quick phone call to the bus terminal.

“You can go to Potosí. Maybe the buses will run from there. I don’t know. But it’s very close – only a few hours away. You have to hurry. The last bus leaves at 9pm, in two hours.”

I quickly packed up my things and checked out of my hotel. The taxi driver maneuvered through La Paz’s maze of streets and dropped me off at the terminal.

I stopped at one bus company. They were fully booked. Another. They had one basic seat left. Two more. No luck. Finally, Trans Copacabana had one remaining fully reclining cama. I bought the ticket, had a quick and greasy bus station dinner, and boarded the bus.

I arrived early the next morning in Potosí and visited a silver mine to pass the time of day. On the tour, I met Celine, a Swiss girl traveling through South America. She was also planning to go to Uyuni but was having trouble with the road block. We decided to have lunch and try our luck at the bus station.

The bus station was like a ghost town. All of the offices advertising buses to Uyuni were closed. We asked information and she told us it would be impossible to get there.

Outside of the bus station, we found a group of colectívos, or shared taxis. They all were headed for Sucre, but one driver was willing to take us as close to Uyuni as possible if we could get five more people. It would cost 80bs per person.

A backpacker couple from Ecuador walked up a few minutes later. They were also trying to get to Uyuni. That was four. We only needed three more. Right on cue, three locals asked to be taken to a village on the way to Uyuni. We all settled in for a beautiful four hour ride through the Andes.

I tried to sleep but it was nearly impossible. The road was bumpy and the seat was lacking a head rest. I popped on my headphones, turned on some music, and looked out the window. Small bushes and the occasional ruined stone house dotted the barren, brown, mountainous landscape. From time to time, the driver would slow down and honk to disperse a herd of llamas crossing the road.

At dusk, the driver stopped the vehicle seemingly in the middle of nowhere and let the remaining four passengers out. He told us to follow the road. It was a winding downhill walk and would take us all the way to Uyuni. We all looked at each other skeptically and began our journey down the road.

The sun set behind the mountains and it was soon pitch black and freezing cold. We could see the faint lights of Uyuni in the distance. It looked an eternity away. 20km? 30km? It was difficult to judge with all the curves in the road.

Sunset in Bolivia

Sunset in Bolivia

I turned on my iPhone flashlight so we could see the road. Small stones were neatly placed in straight lines at 500m increments. The stones were getting bigger every time we passed a new row. We were definitely getting closer to the roadblock.

An eerie feeling began to overcome the five of us. We grouped together a bit closer. Each tiny sound seemed much louder than it was. An animal rustling in the bushes startled Celine. She grabbed hold of my arm and started laughing.

We had been walking a good 40 minutes when we saw a fire and five men below the road. They began whistling at us. I turned off my light to avoid attracting attention. I looked up at the clear sky and saw every star in the galaxy. Yes, that seemed like the best thing to do. Look at that stars. At least that would keep my mind off the possible danger ahead.

Further down the road we could see a convoy of cars, trucks, vans, and buses parked along the sides. There must have been 50, if not more. The stones placed across the road turned into boulders. The distances between the stone barricades were getting smaller. The noises louder.

The scene was surreal. People were camped inside and outside of their cars and trucks. Fires raged from 55 gallon drums. Some people were using them to barbecue, others to stay warm. Small groups were drinking alcohol. Families who weren’t near a fire huddled together for warmth.

As we walked past the vehicles, we noticed every pair of eyes was on us. We were the only ones attempting to walk through the roadblock. It was mostly silent, though we would attract the occasional yell or a question asking if we were police. Otherwise, there was no conversation, no laughter, not even a deep breath. The only sound was the crackling of the fire or the wind whistling through the bushes.

Suddenly, it occurred to me. Here I am, walking down a road in a mountainous desert in complete darkness, through a politically motivated protest and roadblock in a country with a threat of kidnappings and a history of social unrest. Brilliant. Is Uyuni really that important? I should have stayed in Potosí. I’m going to end up like Joe Pesci in Casino. They will never find my body. If I get through this alive, I’m calling my mother.

After what seemed like eons, we made it past the roadblock. It probably took only 15 minutes. We let the air out of our lungs and unclenched our…teeth. Unfortunately, Uyuni still looked like an eternity away.

An SUV drove by us going the other direction and stopped. It sat with its lights on and engine off. We walked back and talked to the driver to ask how far it was to Uyuni. He explained that he was trying to get to La Paz with his family and was stuck in Uyuni like almost everyone else. We told him our story and without blinking an eye he offered to drive us into town.

15 minutes later, we finally arrived in Uyuni. The driver dropped us off in the main plaza. We offered him some money but he refused and said it was his pleasure to help visitors to his country.

We survived. We successfully made it through the roadblock. Celine and I searched for a hotel room and were very lucky to find one. After we grabbed some dinner I called my mom. I made sure I avoided the subject of the roadblock experience.

Travel advice on Bolivia from the UK (https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/bolivia):

“Ongoing conflicts in the town of Uyuni can lead to blockades, which disrupt road travel in the area and can affect the supply of food and fuel. Seek local advice before travelling to/from Uyuni.

In advance of the national elections planned for 12 October, the frequency of road blockades has increased throughout the country. These have caused significant disruption to road travel, including access into and out of a number of towns and airports. It’s likely that further blockades will continue in the lead up to the elections. Some of these blockades could potentially become violent. Seek local advice before travelling.

Social conflict is common in Bolivia and blockades may occur along the main roads. Public transport can be disrupted at very short notice and strikes may result in widespread road blockades, including on roads to and from airports. You should never try to cross a blockade.

There is a risk of ‘express kidnappings’. Take care when travelling around Bolivia, particularly when you first arrive. If you take a taxi, use a registered company.”

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