The road to Potosí
In our last adventure, we had an eye-opening and breathtaking introduction to Bolivia’s southwest. The action didn’t stop once our 4-day tour ended, however. The local political landscape turned out to be just as dramatic.
Before we could reach our destination of Uyuni, our driver Alejandro received a tip that the people of the town were on strike. The region is home to 70% of the planet’s accessible lithium, an essential component for batteries and thus the world’s energy supply. Bolivia has the poorest economy in South America, and poverty is widespread in its rural areas. If you are connecting these dots correctly, you’ll see the outlines for conflict over land ownership are broad and deep. Which brings us back to the strike.
All roads going in and out of Uyuni were blocked as the townspeople and the mayor locked horns. After an anxious delay and a number of phone calls, Alejandro found a long-cut around the city through unpaved farm roads. We made it into town, but getting out would be a whole other story.
Hell to the Highway
Our destination Potosí is roughly 4 hours northeast of Uyuni. We boarded a bus shortly after noon. This in itself was an accomplishment — a number of exasperated tourists stood outside waiting for the next one. Tensions started off high because the bus was overbooked and seats were ticketed to multiple people.
With the main road out of town blocked, the best option appeared to be backroads once again. This worked swimmingly for about 10 minutes. A hodgepodge of pickup trucks and small boulders were lined up across the road, along with strategically placed elderly women and small children. As other vehicles explored nearby passageways, young men moved accordingly. They picked up a small arsenal of rocks to make it clear they would make it very uncomfortable for anyone daring to break the blockade. So we waited. And waited.
Eventually, our bus attendant worked out a deal with the protesters. If everyone on the bus pitched in 30 Bolivianos (about $4.50 USD), they would let us through. Collectivism! Capitalism! A little something for everyone. You’d think that extorting travelers might undermine their political aspirations, but whatever – we were back on the open road! Except we weren’t. We just successfully bribed our way to the other side of a roadblock, miles away from the nearest paved road.
Onward we lurched. Up and over dirt piles. Down and across dry gullies. A few minutes stopped on train tracks because — the driver’s a masochist? Llamas looked on indifferently as they munched desert grass.
This went on for an eternity. We crested another hill, hoping to see a road somewhere on the horizon. Nothing. Just dust, dirt, and dry air in every direction. This was the perfect location for the bus to get its wheels stuck. Every able-bodied passenger got the chance to get out and stretch our legs as we pushed our carriage out of its predicament. We celebrated by climbing back in and trudging through the parched landscape.
We’re now a few hours into what is already the craziest bus ride of my life. Truck-swallowing pot-holes in Cambodia? Drove right past them. Driver asleep at the wheel in Viet Nam? We woke him up. Interstate turtle trafficking on the Fung-Wah bus to Philly? That’s part of its charm. This ride just kept finding new ways to make us regret taking it. Then we arrived at the ravine.
To our left was a sheer cliff about 30 feet above a small valley. To our right, a precipitous drop of at least 20 feet. Ahead of us, a precarious stretch of dirt just wide enough for the bus to pass. Behind us, hours of torment and no alternative in sight. There was no turning back now. The bus tip-toed forward. We teetered to the left. We rocked to the right. With each swaying movement passengers leaned the opposite direction, righting the bus with more will than weight. A few hair-raising moments later we passed the treacherous chasm.
By the time we wound up trespassing through a quinoa field, not much could phase us. The vicuñas we startled were more bemused by our presence. Guess they don’t get too many commuter buses here. Mercifully, we arrived at the highway. Everyone clapped as we hit pavement for the first time in 4 hours.
We check the GPS on our phone: we’re a half hour outside of Uyuni.
The final ascent
The paved portion of our journey passed by uneventfully. We entertained ourselves by making faces at the boy in the seat in front of us. We spend a lot of time on buses. We make funny faces at lots of children.
Potosí is among the world’s highest cities. The drive from Uyuni involves a rapid ascent to 13,420 ft (4090 m) above sea level. The highway switchbacks straddle mountainous curves, offering new views of the valleys below as the evening sun hides behind the Andes. In these remote stretches and extreme elevations, the night sky is full of stars. I gazed out the window, head tilted up, and noticed a new constellation. Brighter than the rest, it seemed closer than anything in the sky. The bus made one final bend around a ridge when I realized these were no stars. Impossibly high on the mountain ahead of us were city lights. We made it to Potosí.