Stranded in Uyuni

Trip Start Oct 09, 2009
Trip End Oct 05, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

V: We drove into Uyuni via a "secret road". We were relieved to have arrived in Uyuni safely but things did not look promising once there. Uyuni is the worst place you want to be trapped in. The town was windswept, dusty and littered with rubbish. It was also bitterly cold and yet nowhere provided heating or fires, we soon found out the towns electricity was down. We were all tired and also worried how long we'd be stuck here - especially when we discovered that the town's two ATMs had either run out of cash or had no electricity. Actually Ash was really lucky as he passed a bank which had a temporary diesel generator - he managed to get as much cash as he could before the machine ran out. Some unfortunate travelers had been trapped here for several days already with no money. As the afternoon progressed more jeeps were arriving into town and we heard many reports of tourists vehicles being attacked by armed masked protestors, people having their vehicles seized and being forced to walk several kilometers into town with all their luggage and tourists being physically attacked by the protestors. One French man and his jeep driver had their arms broken and another jeep was chased across the salt flats by several groups of masked protestors all carrying rocks and base ball bats. Some protestors carried guns and one group were shot at. People were pretty disturbed by these first hand encounters and had started to contact their respective embassies to see if they could help. We did the same. Ash encountered a group who had to beg the drivers not to leave them in the middle of the salt flats when they were attacked the first time - apparently the drivers were so scared they told the group to get out and walk 10-15km on their own. In the salt flats with no point of reference that is nearly impossible to navigate if one doesn’t know the area.

The reason behind the blockades was due to a border dispute between the residents of the departments of Potosí and Oruro. This has been a long-standing dispute but the situation has been aggravated recently because inhabitants of both Potosi and Oruro want rights over minerals and natural resources located near Cerro Pahua, a mountain said to contain marble, uranium and limestone. Both regions have been demanding cement factories be installed on their sides of the border and this has heightened tension over where the actual border is. As a result protesters had blocked all roads to the Potosi region, some were protesting in the streets, whilst others were carrying out a number of hunger strikes throughout the region.. In the area of Potosi itself demonstrators were not allowing anyone to leave the area. Many French tourists were trapped in the city of Potosi and the French Embassy sent an airplane to evacuate its citizens but it was unable to land as protesters blocked the runway using sticks of dynamite!
It didn’t look like the situation would be resolved any time soon despite this being the longest blockade for many years. Government attempts to negotiate had been futile with both government officials and protest leaders putting the blame on each other for the failure to reach an agreement. There was another meeting between the government and the protestors the following day so we were hoping they might reach an agreement and lift the blockade.

Several tour operators were offering to ‘sneak’ tourists out of Uyuni in jeeps during the night. They were charging from US$50 to US$70 per person or US$450 per car, an extortionate amount given the short distances involved. Many people who had been trapped here for days were eager to leave and took this opportunity. However we also heard that some of these cars were stopped just outside of the town and turned back - and those who paid got no refunds whatsoever despite promises and guarantees they would be able to pass. Our group were waiting to hear from our travel agency who said they had two jeeps with fuel that were arriving that afternoon and that might be able to help us leave the town. Those jeeps never made it through the blockades. This made us wonder if those trying to escape would be able to get out? It seemed too risky to try and escape from Uyuni during the night for a number of reasons, namely that we may run into violent protestors and if the jeeps broke down we would be stranded in minus 20 degrees conditions with no help for miles on end. The advice from the UK embassy was to stay put in our hotel, stock up on food and water and wait for further advice from them. This seemed like the safest option. It was a crazy atmosphere, as no one knew what was really going on. Some locals told us to leave tonight or we wouldn’t be leaving for days or weeks. Others said it was too dangerous to leave and the protest would be called off tomorrow anyway. Who were we to believe ? That night we waited in a restaurant in candle light whilst travelers were still coming in, telling us their horror stories of what happened to them on the flats. Things were definitely getting dangerous. We met a French family with children , despite being attacked and injured during the day, were risking it all again trying to escape in the middle of the night to Chile -they were a bit crazy especially when an Australian bloke told us some locals were trying to shoot at them. Apparently in his group, the drivers managed to break through one of blockades but only to be chased by other protesters in vehicles - they were comparing the scenes to a scary movie !

The following morning the town of Uyuni had completely shut down. All shops, restaurants, travel agencies had shut up shop. We anxiously waited to hear the news from the meeting between the government and the protestors, sadly no agreement was reached. The president didn’t even turn up for negotiations. We also found out the jeeps that tried to escape Uyuni the previous night did not make it through the blockades - and to top it all some of those tourists did not get a refund. Later that afternoon there was a glimpse of hope, we heard there was a bus that was going to leave for Oruro with a police escort the following day. The police had apparently negotiated with the blockaders to allow all tourists to get out of Uyuni. As soon as we heard the bus station was open some of our group headed immediately there to try and buy tickets. There was a long line of people there already but they managed to buy the last 8 tickets. As there were ten of us, it made sense that the French go as a group. Ash and I resigned ourselves to spending another day in Uyuni. Many other tourists were not able to get seats on the bus either. Later that evening we received a tip-off that there may be a second bus leaving for Oruro and we headed to the bus station to find out what was going on. The station was closed but we went to the police station to verify if the rumor was true. Luckily the Swiss girls from our jeep crossing were with us and one of them spoke fluent Spanish. The chief of police was very helpful, apparently the British embassy had contacted him directly to let him know there were British Nationals stuck in Uyuni. He even seemed to know our name ! He told us there would be a second bus and asked us to return to the hotel and tell every tourist who did not have a ticket to come to the police station at 7.30pm to buy tickets. We did as he requested and by 7pm there was a long line outside the police station, luckily we were at the front and secured seats on the bus. We met an English girl who had no money to pay for a ticket so we bought her a seat too. It was an early night for us in preparation for the long bus ride the following day.
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