Bolivia is a remote and interesting country. Together this combination attracts a good number of adventurous tourists roaming Bolivia. There are also a much larger number of Bolivians visiting nature and major sites. Bolivians are proud of their country – at least the part they are from! – and they take the time to see it, staying with families and friends. For this reason, transportation are almost booked to capacity but hotels are easy to find, even during the high season.
Bolivia is certainly remote from North America but is even isolated from neighboring countries with very few direct flights. More crucially, most parts of Bolivia are remote from the rest. Only a small number of domestic airports exist and most travel occurs by overnight bus. The roads are generally in poor conditions with less than 10% of them paved. The few paves ones though, for examaple between La Paz and Potosi, are impeccable and new highways are under construction as we speak.
Just over one week ago, I returned from an exhausting trip to the Salar De Uyuni, the largest salt desert in the world, measuring over 10,000 square kilometers. Without any knowledge other than reading two chapters of the Rough Guide to Bolivia, I decided to make arrangements from La Paz which was my point-of-entry into Bolivia.
Within the tourist district of La Paz, there are dozens of travel agencies, all waiting for someone to come in a book a tour. All the agents were friendly and willing to spend time to answer my growing number of questions. This revealed my first problem:
If you ask the same question to 10 Bolivians, you get 10 different answers.
This revealed to be true of anyone, not just travel agents, and even for unsolicited advice. This made me ask the same questions repeatedly to different people in order to get a feel for reality. The time it takes to get from one place to another for example, easily got a spread of 300%, making precise planning difficult to achieve. The guidebook also had one important piece of warning about transport in Bolivia:
All transports and tours are frequently subject to late departures and arrivals.
While buses and tours can be late, sunset and sunrise are always on time. This is a big issue for photography, making it surprisingly difficult to be at the right place when conditions are ideal. Late is a relative term. When the bus arrives 15 minutes after the scheduled time here in Canada, it is late. While I would not have been that surprised if a bus in Bolivia would be an hour or two late, I was shocked when my transport from La Paz to Uyuni took 14 hours more than anticipated. Here is how it happened:
- Booked a 10 hour tourist bus departing La Paz at 9 PM and scheduled to arrive a 7 AM in Uyuni from a travel agency which also got me a private guide and logging. A little more expensive than the standard bus but this one takes two hours less because it makes no stops in between.
- While I was checking out from the hotel, the agent calls and lets me know there was mechanical problem with the tourist bus, so I had to take the standard bus which takes 12 hours and departs at 7 PM. Does not seem so bad, plus options were limited considering I had already paid in full.
- After driving almost continuously for 6 hours, the bus comes to a complete stop. Windows are fogged up but the contour of a bus right in front of us can be discerned. An hour later, the bus door opens and some people go out to find out what is going on. The road is blocked we are told and the driver wants to wait and see.
- An hour later, everyone is getting very anxious. A few Bolivians get off and tell the bus about a detour 3 km back. We see a few buses turning around, so I assume that is where they are going too. The drivers refuses to turn around and says he wants to wait some more. Apparently though, some passengers were told the bus would take the detour by their travel agents because this road block was know and had been there the night before!
- The bus stays immobile for a whopping 8 hours! Once the road block starts to get cleaned up, it takes a over one hour to pass through it due to the chaos. Piles of dirt block the road and they get cleaned up slowly by hand.
- The bus resume its course in heavy traffic. After several more hours of driving, I notice the road signs saying were are approaching Potosi rather than Uyuni. Also, the road is still paved which the guidebook says it should not. Conversing with my neighbors I realize in horror that the bus is on the wrong road! We apparently drove passed the road to Uyuni and almost reach Potosi which is 5 hours away from Uyuni.
- The road to Uyuni has to be taken back, costing another 4 hours delay! Most passengers are shocked at such incompetence We finally arrive at 6:20 PM, actually 24 hours exactly after I left to hotel and about 27 hours since my last meal, a copious half-portion of Pique a Lo Macho.
Not only was the large 8 hour delay avoidable, the roadblock was known in advance. To make matters worse, the bus bathroom was broken but people used it anyway, its contents accumulating until it spilled on the road bellow. The driver knew this too and did not make any bathroom stops or stops for food after the long delay. He only stopped every few hours at random places and some people dashed out and back in to see what they could find before the bus left again. This is completely unprofessional and regular stops should have been made and announced with a head-count each time the door closes.
After such grueling journey, cramped with much less space than on a Cathay Pacific economy flight, my choice was to return as quickly as possible and ignore the recommendation of the travel agent that I take a bus arriving two hours before my return flight to Peru. Luckily there was space on a return flight from Uyuni which has its own airport now. The Rough Guide to Bolivia does not show an airport their, despite being completely updated in February 2012. There is actually train service part of the way but my travel agent said it was no longer running which proved to be untrue yet again.
The next time in Bolivia – who knows when – my expectations will be lower and I’ll be taking as many domestic flights as possible. In the mean time, I hope Bolivia improves its tourism services and infrastructure to make it more accessible. As it happened, it took 24 hours to get to Uyuni, plus almost 2 hours to the Salar and I only say it for around 8 hours which counts as not worth it in my book. Sure, it is a beautiful sight but there are so many which can be enjoyed with much less overhead.