Iain’s Birthday Blockade: How to escape from Uyuni…

After our four wheel drives had successfully managed a three day Salt Flat Tour over bumpy terrain, without so much as a broken part or a flat tyre, we didn’t imagine we would find ourselves stuck in the desert in yet another 4WD only a few days later. On Iain’s Birthday no less. With our wheels spinning in the sand to no avail and an angry farmer waving a stick or possibly a shotgun quickly gaining on us, after we sped past him only a few moments ago, our hopes of reaching Potosi were dwindling.

Welcome to the Real Bolivia. Clarkson take note.

Like most we had settled on the customary one night in a hotel in Uyuni after our three day tour across the Salt Flats. As temperatures had reached -25 degrees and with the accommodation having no heating or hot showers we were dying for a bit of Bolivian luxury when we reached Uyuni. The next day showered and refreshed we headed to the “bus station”, or rather the row of ticket sellers that line one street, to secure some tickets to Potosi. Finding all but one of the ticket booths shut, we made enquiries with the only willing seller.

The closed ticket offices should have been our first clue but we quickly established no buses would be running from Uyuni today. When we enquired as to why the response was one word…”Bloqueos” or roadblocks. Accepting this as a good enough explanation we booked tickets for the 10am bus the next day and settled on another night in our hotel and the seemingly quiet town of Uyuni. Queues for the bank can be pretty lengthy in such a small town….

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The next day, bags packed, we boarded our bus and waited. The bus left promptly but paused on the outskirts of town. When our police escort joined us we knew the “Bloqueos” were more than simple roadblocks. The only road to exit town was lined with seemingly not so menacing protestors…mostly elderly Bolivian ladies. However as we approached and the large sticks, poles and rocks became apparent we knew something was up.

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Suddenly our police escort was nowhere to be found and the little old ladies did some fairly serious damage to our bus and only narrowly missed the driver. Windscreen cracked and driver’s window broken we retreated back to town.

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These roadblocks and protests had been apparently going on for some time. The government want to build a new bus terminal and the locals disagree with its location as far as we could establish. To make their point the town was on lock down – nothing was going in or out by road.

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Our bus company assured us they could get us to our destination and so a few hours later after a few botched repairs and a town meeting we set off once more.

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This time we were heading off road, with our curtains firmly shut to hide us and to protect us from any broken glass. We were now navigating the local rubbish dump, in a 3-coach convoy. And this is the three drivers discussing what to do next when our coaches inevitably got stuck…

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Back in town once again we decided to give up on the coaches and take our only remaining option. The prospect of spending yet more time in a 4WD didn’t thrill any of us but nor did staying in Uyuni…we had eaten in every restaurant and drank in every bar already.

Failing to secure any 4WDs from the tour companies we began trudging the streets. The local taxi drivers were promising us they could traverse the desert terrain and get us to Potosi but having experienced the coaches attempts we held out. Thankfully that’s when we bumped into Mariam, an English speaking Bolivian trying to get home to Sucre, who had been on our bus earlier. With a few phone calls and calling in a few favours, she managed to secure us four 4WDs to transport us, herself, and the gaggle of foreigners we had acquired in the panic.

The drivers looked nervous as we crossed the rubbish dump and they looked even more worried when we started to make our way through a valley. Even the little dirt roads through this wilderness had been blocked with stones and tyres by the protestors – cue some heavy lifting from the boys.

Upon seeing the aforementioned angry farmer waving the nondescript object, our driver, who is in the lead, decides to floor the accelerator and try to skip round the next set of tyre blockades. Stuck and the track now blocked by our own transport, the four drivers set off to reason with the farmer. Thankfully they return successful and the said farmer begins instructing us all how to orchestrate our escape…

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(The farmer is in a blue jumpsuit and green hat)

After some huffing and puffing, mostly from the boys I’ll admit, we were eventually free and back on the dirt track. After some further tense moments and deep intakes of breath we made it to the open road. Top Gear Bolivia Special Eat your heart out…

After arriving in Potosi we later learnt that things in Uyuni got considerably worse over the next few days. No transport was able to leave, protestors had quadrupled in number, the police force had abandoned the town, and the dirt roads were more successfully blockaded. Dribs and drabs of people made it out by 4WD but the drivers were forced to become ever more inventive with their routes. These protests are common in Bolivia, so we are told, so we will just have to kick back, relax into it and enjoy the rest of the journey. Wish us luck!

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