Yes. A true story.
I’m only publishing this because my mum now knows I’m safe and sound. I also don’t want to deter people from travelling to Bolivia, as I’m pretty sure it was a one-off situation.
A hostage situation.
Everyone asks me “what was the highlight of your trip?”, and although difficult to categorise this story as a highlight – it is definitely the most memorable adventure.
On arrival into Uyuni (btw, so happy that we flew from La Paz instead of another 8-hour bus journey!) we were allocated our rooms in a really cool little hotel. We all sat down for dinner, enjoying delights from (apparently) the best pizza chef in Bolivia, and soon found out that there was a slight change to our itinerary due to a planned protest by the local residents.
A 4am start they said. We all hated these early starts now. But at 4am the next day we found out why we were deprived of a luxurious 9am lie in.
Groggy from very little sleep we zombied our way outside to the three jeeps waiting for us, awkwardly mingling so that the ‘cool kids’ were allocated into the same jeep. By this point – after the Death Road trip and pretty much every travel journey so far – Josh and I were known as instigators of the ‘party bus’. For those that know me, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion…
I was allocated the front seat because of my bung knee and the rest of the car was piled up with bodies, bags, ‘#thoselegs’, massive pizzas (last night’s leftovers for a gourmet breakfast), and basically just dazed and tired people.
The three jeeps headed out off-road into the moonlight, on what seemed like a premature 4WD-trail adventure as I was sure that this town had sealed roads. We were sneaking out from the town, maneuvering our way over a railway track, between shrubs, dodging plastic bottles and copious amounts of litter.
We shortly made a turn onto the main road and our driver seemed more relaxed. At this point he explained that the locals had planned a road block at all entry/exit points to Uyuni. A protest that had been planned for weeks, perhaps months, against the local government, because of their insufficiency to put tourist revenue into their local infrastructure and council services (e.g. rubbish collection). They also had a severe lack of control over squatters and ‘squatters’ rights’ in the town, and housing was an utter mess. The locals were not just pissed off, they were livid.
Our 4am start and clever off-road escape meant that we avoided the road block. We had sneaked past.
Or so we thought.
Our jeep was the first of three in our convoy, finally on the main road and headed to the salt flats.
The drive was eerie though. It was shortly after 4am and very dark. No other cars were on the road, only several dark figures (the local residents) walking back towards Uyuni – the epicentre of the protest. They looked like zombies walking towards us in drones.
We came up to a white ute which was driving slower than normal and overtook it, as did the second jeep behind us. I recognised this ute lurking on our odd off-road route as we first left town, at the time thinking nothing of it.
We were starting to relax into the drive, cruising around a corner and overbridge, then suddenly, there it was. The road block. A lorry was parked, spanning the width of the road and blocking traffic in both directions.
Our driver quickly braked to turn around to go back, but we were too late. That anonymous, conspicuous white 4WD ute had pulled in behind us and parked itself sideways across the road. Another car appearing out of nowhere, also parked up to assist the white ute with the counter-block.
What was going on!?
Two of our jeeps were trapped between the blockade. The third jeep managed to turnaround before being blocked in, and got away – with large rocks being hurled at it from the surrounding protesters.
Our driver got out of the car to talk to the dark figures surrounding our jeep, who now seemed to have grown in numbers. They still reminded me of zombies, the dark silhouettes moving slowly in the night. Surely it was all just a mistake and misunderstanding that they had blocked us in. We were just tourists, harmless, and we just wanted to take cool photos on the salt flats!
The driver came back to the car looking solemn. The protesters wouldn’t budge and causing an inconvenience for tourists was exactly what they had set out to do. We were stuck there until the protest was over, another 20 hours in duration.
The reality of our dire situation started to sink in. Our driver told us to remain inside the car for safety, and that we would just have to reschedule our trip to the salt flats to tomorrow. We were being held hostage. There was nothing we could do about it, and we were over 10km from Uyuni. We were in the middle of nowhere, barricaded between two blockades, peering out to the scary dark figures who were carrying rocks as weapons.
After the shock and disbelief had passed, the mood in our jeep turned to nervous joke-making, a facade for the anxiety we were all feeling about our situation. My fellow hostage-ees and I became alike to participants of Survivor. We started to discuss what food we had and how we would ration it among ourselves throughout the next 20 hours. How were we going to go loo? What if someone needed to do a ‘number two’!? – a likely and worrying eventuality as we had all experienced a certain level of gastro over the previous few days.
We were cramped in the car. We wanted to get out and stretch our legs at least. But we couldn’t as it was dark, cold, and there were foreign protesters still holding rank. So we sat and waited. Waited and waited. Soon the sun came up – a beautiful sunrise on a clear morning.
The two drivers remained outside talking amongst themselves, and then trying their best to negotiate with the protesters.
Our driver’s phone rang and it was Christian, who had been in the jeep that managed to get away. He assured us that he hadn’t deserted us and was going to talk to the police about coming to our rescue. We could hear that concern in his voice. He was going to emphasise to the police that it was illegal to hold foreigners captive – plus, with several 60+ year-olds in the second jeep he was terrified of the potential headlines… “Travel company neglects tourists resulting in death while being held hostage in Bolivia”.
Meleika offered to get out her make-up and give us wrinkle lines to make us look old. We didn’t want to be left behind as ‘the young ones’ if they only came to rescue the ‘oldies’. A perfect example of our conversation and nervous silliness.
Our drivers came back to the car and started the engines to reverse back a little and ‘park-up’. We noticed that behind us there was now a wall of rocks across and beyond the edges of the road, preventing any escape off-road around the parked lorry. It was as though they had thought of every possible escape route. They were cunning, they were a step ahead. They weren’t going to let anyone go anywhere.
With a sudden interruption to our boredom, the driver opened the door. We could sense his heightened determination and nervous energy as we were told to hastily get out and remove all our belongings from inside the car. He then quickly jumped up to the roof and preceded to pass down our big backpacks, saying that it was imperative that we grab everything quickly. “Go! Go! Go!”
I couldn’t help but relate to the feeling that your family home was on fire and only having time to take what was most valuable.
The pizza didn’t make the cut in our dash and grab.
We were instructed to walk in the direction of Uyuni for 1km through the crowd of protesters and don’t stop. There would be someone there to rescue us at the other end, “Go, go, go!”. So with no choice, and the excitement of a rescue mission pumping through our veins, we lugged all of our bags and walked hastily. But not too quickly, we didn’t want to show any fear as we pushed through the blockade of cars and zombie-like people.
The woman who seemed to be the ring-leader gave us a smirk look as we walked past her. We stood out like a sore thumb among the local protesters, and all eyes were on us.
My sore knee which debilitated me for the entire 24 hours prior was completely forgotten. We walked that 1km in what seemed like 1 minute. The focus of our rescue mission was intense.
Finally, familiar vehicles were in site as we noticed the same decals and a waving driver. The plan was coming to fruition. In record time, we lifted our packs onto the roof of the rescue jeep and quickly jumped inside.
We saw the ‘oldies’ about 100m away, also making there way towards the rescue vehicle.
Two rogue jeeps then caught our attention, coming towards us from the desert and traversing over bumpy terrain not meant for any vehicle. The first jeep pulled up and we recognised it immediately – it was our jeep from back at the blockade! We clicked. The drivers had used us as a diversion so they could escape. Dangerously, but thankfully successfully, they hooned off the road and into the desert while all the protesters were distracted.
We were the decoys. It was like we were part of a cunning military strategy.
The other jeep started to load up the packs arriving with the stragglers of our group. I thought that a few people seemed a little too relaxed at this point – I was already belted up in our jeep ready to go. I wanted out of there. Now.
All of a sudden, panic filled the air. The driver demanded the last of the group to hurry up and get inside the jeep. He could see the protesters running towards us – they had realised the sneaky move that we had pulled, and they were not impressed.
“Go, Go, Go!”
Hilary grabbed and pulled Jerry into the jeep just in the nick of time. Both jeeps accelerated down the road, only moments before the running protesters had caught up to us – yelling with their rock-clenching fists in the air.
We had escaped. We had escaped unscathed and apart from wasting several hours sitting in the car, we were fine. The adrenalin still pumpedthrough our veins as we exclaimated over the morning’s events.
What an adventure story to tell! Josh and I were already considering our blog post headline – but we all agreed that our family would be best not knowing about our eventful morning, not until we had returned to our home countries, and safe.