Travel Hell Vol 3 - Hostage in Bolivia
The day started in earlier than usual at 3:15am after arriving in Uyuni the previous night. There were vague excuses given about possible road closures. Once on the road our driver tells us there are protests about living conditions in the city and they are setting up roadblocks to disrupt. He explains that we’ll take a back road and should be fine.
We traverse some off-road terrain for five minutes and rejoin the main road - success! Or so we thought. Clear of imminent danger we hit the highway and overtake a white Toyota Highlux that had been in front of us.
Given it’s 4am we are surprised by the throngs of people walking towards the town to join the days protests in central Uyuni. The protest organisers had threatened to disrupt cargo and tourist movements from midnight to midnight and to stage protests in the city itself. Our guides thinking is that they won’t have been organised enough to get things set up so early.
We come up to a train overpass and hit some backed up traffic. We file in behind some trucks and realise too late this is a second roadblock and that the organisers are in fact very organised. Our drivers quickly uturn and try get out. To our surprise we see the Hilux from earlier maneuvering to block the exit. The trap being sprung it dawns oun us that they had spotted us trying to skip town and had followed us.
Two of our three vehicles were now trapped! The third saw what was happening in time and reversed before being blocked in, an angry mob appears from the sides of the bridge and chase the escaping vehicle down the road throwing rocks - Well this escalated quickly.
Our driver gets out and confronts the rock armed mob to negotiate, the effort albeit ballsy, yields no fruit. We are informed that ‘today we are unlucky’ and we will be here for 24hrs. By ‘here’ it was six of us in the seven seat car with luggage. When we ask if this is a dangerous situation our guide tells us they have rocks it’s best to remain in the vehicle.
Two incredibly uncomfortable hours pass with little to no information or progress. Topics are raised ranging from ‘where will we go to the bathroom’ to ‘are we actually hostages or just unwanted accessories to their roadblock’. Dawn breaks and we can see our captors who to our slight relief appear to be pretty disinterested in us.
The crowds eb and flow, at one quiet point our guides appear to be planning a break for it, seeing if the car can clear the lip of the bank and traverse the desert but eventually seem to think better of it. We ask our driver who drops in on us occasionally if we can leave the car but he says no but there is a plan in the works and to be ‘ready’ whatever that means.
The other trapped vehicle of our group has some of the more seasoned members of our tour group. The drivers line of negotiation is to convince the protest leaders it is not advisable to keep a group of international 60+ year olds captive without access to bathrooms. It is apparently for this reason he wants us to stay out of sight, if they realise the other vehicle contains much younger captives then they may try and split our group.
After three hours we are abruptly told we are getting out and walking but we must do so ‘quickly’ - I assume before the throngs figure out they are losing some leverage. We are told to walk one kilometer in the direction we came from and more vehicles will meet us and whisk us away. We take our large luggage off the roof racks and trundle past the front of the roadblock - the ‘guard’ at the front gives me a nasty smirk as I walk past which I refuse to acknowledge.
We walk the one km in the brisk desert morning to awaiting vehicles. We load up and prepare to depart but the second car is delayed due to a missing driver. The blockade masses finally figure out what is happening and begin running towards the other group shouting in Spanish, the driver emerges running towards the vehicle instructing what was assumed to be ‘get in the f$%king car’. They manage to peel off and join us a few km down the road where we have stopped to collect ourselves and unpack the events that just unfolded.
In safety we can reflect and joke about what just happened. We turn around and see our two original vehicles coming overland from the desert? As it turns out we were just a distraction to keep the mob busy and allow the guides to run the blockade via the desert (these are full 4WDs and can handle any terrain as we find out later in the trip). The guides apparently did decide the trucks could make the escape route but that it was risky with a car load of Gringo’s.
After redistributing the luggage we head back to town. A few km out of town we veer off road into the desert and take a very back streets way into town. It Dawn’s on me that the main protests are in the town center and by now have exhausted any good will we had with the organisers.
After twenty minutes we are rejoined by the third vehicle that had eluded the initial trap attempts. Our tour leader was one of the passengers of this vehicle who had been unsuccessfully trying to mount a rescue via the local constabulary.
We are told that we are continuing on with our days plans to get to the salt flats. However, due to the road block issues we were going to have to take the ‘back road’, it turns out this is not a road at all more just a donkey trail through the desert hinterland. After the mornings excitement this off-road experience is quite fun and spirits recover to pre-hostage levels. That is until we get lost?! We are loosely trying to stick to dirt trails that the local farmers use to access their sparse Quinoa plantations. After a number of double backs and testing various paths we find a small town that the drivers recognise and we are well and truely in the clear.
We finally arrive at salt flats and begin the days ‘planned’ adventuring, the part of the journey that was supposed to take 45 minutes had taken 6 hrs. By the time we reach our basic accommodation that night we are thoroughly exhausted, but with a story to tell that not many visitors get (I hope).