It started when the flight attendants opened the overhead luggage compartments and sprayed the luggage with bug spray. Down one side and up the next.Welcome to Bolivia.
Lesson número uno. Take altitude sickness medicine before you stay in the highest Capital in the world.That would be La Paz, Bolivia resting at 11,940′. But wait, the El Alto International Airport’s elevation is 13,320′.
Picture Bill with a head cold getting off the airplane at 1:30am and an 18 wheeler slams into his chest. BAM!
The immigration and visa process had us arriving at our hotel at 3:00 am. After an uncomfortable evening or I should say what was left of the morning we decided it was not in our best interest to stay.
By 11:00 am we were heading back up the mountain to board a plane to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia (Bolivia’s largest city) – at a lovely 1,365′ elevation (18 wheeler not included).Picturesque La Paz rests in the bottom of a bowl and thousands upon thousands of houses climb up to the rim where the airport rests. Beyond that are the stunning Andes – craggily and covered in snow. The view from the top is stunning – the airplane even better.
A quick 50 minute flight and an equal taxi ride had us standing at the front desk of our hotel being told that as of medio día (noon) the whole town would shut down for an indefinite period of time while voters protest. No stores, no offices, no transportation, no nada will be open!
Violent protests have already been in the works after Sunday’s presidential election went south. The incumbent declared victory without the vote.
Oddly during the electronic quick count vote after Sunday’s presidential election suddenly the count was stopped and all went quiet when it looked like the vote was close enough to cause a run off vote in December.
Both parties declared fraud.
The winner needs more than 50 percent of the vote, or 40 percent plus a 10-point lead to avoid a second round of voting in December.
With nothing open all we could do was walk. Every intersection was blocked – creatively with either rocks, tree branches, tires, cars, 18 wheelers, wire, flags or humans.People were walking, on motorcycles or bicycling. Most blockades were surrounded by people set up like a tailgating party. Some wore the state flag and others the Bolivian flag.The end date unknown. The extent of the protesting unknown.
Our 7:45 am flight had been changed to 3:33 am. With no taxis running we weren’t sure how we would get to the airport. It was a 4 hour walk.
At 6 pm our desk clerk called and said they found a taxi driver who was taking two other people to the airport at 10:00 pm. He had room for two more people and had successfully driven five people earlier in the day. Did we want to give it a try.
Yes! Of course, right? We didn’t want to be stranded there and assumed the protesting would get worse if Morales, the incumbent, declared victory.
We packed and then nerves sent us to the bar!
A bedraggled guest checked into the hotel. I rushed over to ask how he arrived. He took a motorcycle cab half way until the driver gave up and he walked the rest.
At 10:15 our ride arrived – a KIA suv. Besides the driver a man sat in the front seat and a young lady by the window in the back. I scooted in the middle and Bill took the other window. Bummed I wouldn’t have the window to take photos. Yes. That was my first thought!!!
To say the least it was exhilarating! I was so nervous at the thought but when it was happening I became the person in the spy novels we often read. It started out with me saying to myself – I could never be a war journalist and after a half hour of driving I was all about it.
The driver was on his phone constantly. Switching between map mode and talking to friends with Whats App or taking calls. By this time of night many barricades were unmanned.
To maneuver we took every side street and dirt path possible, drove down the wrong direction down lanes and highways, drove on sidewalks, crossed planted medians, squeezed between a perpendicular 18 wheeler and a tree with two inches to spare on each side of the car and then there were no options we had to confront the people who were blocking the roads.
Out of options we had to stop at our first manned road block. Let me rephrase that. Woman-ed roadblock. Two women completely in charge said “No” and proceeded to lock arms and cry out for their friends to join in.
Our driver begged for mercy. Now the block is seven or eight people wide and a dude waving a large Bolivian flag. “Por favor, tenemos extranjeros (foreigners) and must get to the airport”. Upon verification of boarding passes the roadblock parted, smiles were had by all and we were bid “buenas suerte” good luck.
This happened about ten more times. I felt we met our match when a shifty eyed man wielding a five inch wide by six foot long stick approached the driver. After much conversation he and his partner in crime allowed our driver to step out and clear the blockage.
Our ultimate confrontation came on the three lane road nearer to the airport. This was a a bit more serious. Men were hooded and there were lots of them. 18 wheeler tires and lined up motorcycles and vehicles made this blockade. After the negotiation was completed our driver got out of the car and moved the man sized tires – drove us through – stopped the car and replaced the tires.
Only one minor blockage required a small monetary bribe.
We even 4 wheeled it through a heavily treed section with a deeply potholed dirt road.
We made it. It took an hour and a half to drive a 20 minute drive.
All along American music played on the radio. Help by the Beatles cracked us up. “Help, I need someone. Help, not just anyone. HELP”.
Olivia Newton John asked us if we’ve ever been mellow.
Happily we walked to the security line. Handed the guard our boarding pass looking forward to the Priority Lounge and was told our flight had been cancelled!!!!!
Are you shitting me? Serious?
There was another airline leaving at 4:44 am but registered full on their website. Another airline was full per the clerk and had a flight available in 36 hours. While at the airport Avianca emailed me the cancellation and rebooking ya for 48 hours later. Obviously we’d be stuck at the airport for days.
UGH! What do you do! You text your mom in the United States and ask for help!
She managed to get us on the 4:44 flight to Lima. 25 hours later we rested our heads upon our pillows and slept for 3 hours….
So much for exploring Bolivia.