Bus Travel in Bolivia: Beware of Strikes

Bus Travel in Bolivia: Beware of Strikes

Bus travel in Bolivia is an easy and extremely cheap way to get around, meet other travelers, and see the country. In general, it’s comfortable, safe and convenien. There are plenty of bus options, so you don’t have to worry about not getting a ticket. The thing to keep an eye out for, however, are strikes.

There is no doubt that #busproblems was the official hashtag for my trip to Bolivia with my best friend Teresa. First, our bus broke down on the way to the Uyuni Salt Flats, and we got ditched by our driver and the entire bus crew. Stranded in the middle of La Paz and Uyuni, we hitch-hiked and got to see another city, Potosi, for lunch before finally getting to our destination.

Bus Travel in Bolivia
Our first bus problem was en route from La Paz to Uyuni. It broke down and our driver ditched us when no one was looking. Passengers made a fire to keep warm.

Then, a boulder fell off the mountain and literally landed in the middle of the one way curvy mountain road heading to Cochabamba. We had to stop and wait till a crew of burly dudes came and hauled that boulder way. At least Mother Nature gifted us a gorgeous sunrise as a consolence prize.

Heading to Villa Tunari, stopping through a narcotics check and other little things led from 3 hours to 6 hours. On top of the bad weather that followed, we spent 6 hours on a bus for our best dinner in Bolivia. Again, good consolence prize.

I knew to leave some “wiggle room” when embarking on bus travel in Bolivia.

But, whoa, was I not expecting the strike that stopped us in our tracks on the way to Copacabana. It was a whole new meaning to #busproblems or even #travelproblems for that matter.

So here’s the story. Like our Uyuni trip, this journey became a bit more of an undertaking than anticipated. But, in resilient backpacker fashion, we moved forward, worked with what we had, and enjoyed nonetheless. All’s well that ends well.

Bus Problems in Bolivia
Teresa was fed up with so many bus problems hahaha.

After a pretty comfortable 8 hour ride back from Cochabamba, we arrived to La Paz just 45 minutes later than scheduled. Awesome. It was about 6:45 in the chilly morning and we were in perfect timing. The bus for Copacabana left at 8:00am. We hadn’t eaten since an uninspiring meal the night before, but we decided not to find breakfast before heading out. Not worth the risk of missing the bus.

The plan was so perfect, surely the premonition of a problem!

In theory, we’d get to Copacabana about 11:00am and find a cute cafe to eat breakfast. Then, we’d take a boat to Isla del Sol, a gorgeous island not far from its coast. We’d get dropped off at the South end and spend the day walking across its picturesque landscape before arriving to the North to stay the night. In the morning, we’d hike for a couple hours before taking the boat back to Copacabana, just in time to have dinner and head back to La Paz.

In La Paz, we’d grab our hostel, hit the sack, and wake up early to enjoy our last day. Oooh, what a relaxing last day it would be!!! We be busy laughing, buying souvenirs, eating at the cute cafe we tried before the Death Road bike ride, and, finally, heading to the airport for our 4pm flight.

So, yeah, that’s not exactly what happened.

At the bus terminal I learned there was a strike and no transport could get to Copacabana. Now, I was already living in South America at that point and knew that strikes happen all the time… so this was “no big deal.”

The lady at the counter didn’t know when it’d end and said we could try waiting till tomorrow. Then, pointing to a map, she said, “Or, we can take you in a van to Desaguadero.” From there, she said there were “many” busses to Copacabana. “It’s really easy,” she said.

This was our only chance to go, so, based upon her description, we figured to go for it. An Argentinian guy named Patricio was in line and went for that option too. With an hour to kill, we bummed around and then went to wait on the side road where we’d get picked up.

A guy came up and said “you two are the ones for Copacabana?” “yep,” we replied. About a block away, we stopped and hopped in the van.

To make this perfect for a movie storyline, he was only missing the trench coat. We followed him to the van which would take us to Desaguadero, where we’d find a real bus to travel to Copacabana, Bolivia.

Yes, we hopped into that random, regular van, aka travel bus.

Teresa and I nodded off a bit, our heads bobbing up and down like we were falling asleep in the middle of class. Along the way we got stopped by police 3x, needing to show our Bolivian visas and paperwork. One of the Peruvian guys had an expired visa and needed to get out and pay a fine. Yep, nothing else, just pay a hefty sum then continue on. Sounds… corrupt?

Anyways, after about an hour and a half, we arrived to Desaguadero, a city near the border of Peru. There we found out that we needed to cross the border into Peru. Uuuugh. The lady had “mistakenly” left that out.

Bus Travel in Bolivia
Crossing the border to Peru wasn’t part of the plan, but, hey, life’s an adventure!

So, we went through migration, walked across the border, and proceeded to immigration in Peru. That was not fun and the people were unpleasant. We were starving but everything was in Soles (Peruvian money) and we obviously only had Bolivian money. We could see 40 feet across the border to Bolivia, but, nope, no one wanted Bolivianos.

The man tells us to get into another normal van, aka travel bus.

The man we who brought us to Desaguadero directed us to another minivan, driven by a Peruvian, that would take us to Copacabana. Some middle-aged Peruvians in the back were talking about the strike, mentioning that they didn’t think we’d actually be able to get to Copacabana. They said that usually the strikers shut down all access paths.

Bus travel in Bolivia
Often in strikes, people will put big trees or rocks in the road, preventing travel.

We were a bit, ummmm surprised. The couple said that most likely we’d get dropped off as close as we could to Copacabana and then we’d have to walk the rest of the way. They weren’t sure, so we crossed our fingers and hoped it wasn’t true.

Along the way we made a couple stops to pick up people on the side of the road…. at one point I counted 28 people in the van!!! Yes, you heard me right. Anything is possible.

To make the cramped quarters worse, one young Peruvian girl was seriously hacking up a lung. She had sick mannerisms, and was wiping her nose on the van curtains, palming her entire face and wiping them on the seats, and laying over her mom/family (mouth in the air).

I closed my eyes, tried to ignore that cough, and went through spurts of holding my breath for as long as possible. To make the almost impossibley cramped and quite undesirable quarters even worse, no one opens windows there! No matter if it’s a stale air bus you’ve been riding in for 15 hours, if it’s a stuffy, smelly minibus, or if it’s a minivan made for 12 that’s holding 27 breathing adults and 1 child who’s obviously carrying something nobody wants to get.

Back to Bolivia, hoping we didn’t have meningitis.

We got back to the Bolivian border, jumped out of the van as quick as possible, and breathed deep. Aaaah, clean air. Now, it was time to hurry through immigration and entering back into Bolivia. We went to pay the Peruvian guy, our 2nd minivan driver, and he must have decided along the way to take advantage of the situation.

He doubled what he originally quoted for that nasty ride. After Patricio (the Argentinian) and I were unbelievably questioning him, we ended up giving him what we had left. It was a bit short of what he “newly” asked for. It was still cheap in general, but a disrespectful and distasteful move on his part. When you travel by bus in Bolivia and Peru, sometimes things like this happen.

Worse, there was a Japanese guy who understood nothing of Spanish and, in his uncomfort and lack of understanding of the situation, was just handing this guy money. Patricio and I noticed and went over to help, making the guy give him his change. It was obvious he had no intention of doing so if we hadn’t caught that. Annoying.

Bolivia Tourist Attractions - Copacabana and Sun Island
We walked for hours and hours, kilometers and kilometers, with our heavy backpacks and empty stomachs.

Back in Bolivia but with no available transport.

The roads were blocked but a taxi agreed to take us to where the strike started, taking 2 miles off our trek. The reality is that his was not a taxi, but instead a man with a car who knew there’d be travelers walking and needing rides. We hopped into unknown transport for the third time that day.

In search of Copacabana, we walked a good couple hours up hills, across farms, and over un-marked land. The altitude was getting to us and an Ecuadorian guy shared some of his coca leaves. We got into Copacabana around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, a good 24 hours since we ate last. We were, obviously, STARVING.

Bus travel in Bolivia
The mix of happiness and desperation we felt upon arrival is beyond words.

Lining the beautiful beach were some restaurant tent/huts and, right away, we stopped at one and ordered a menu del dia of delicious grilled trout, salad, fresh cut french fries, and rice. And, of course, an ice cold beer. Damn, the was one of the best meals in Bolivia for sure.

A couple days later, we still weren’t lucky. The strike hadn’t ended. There was no bus travel in Bolivia near the Copacabana region.

You can read the other article for the splendid time we had in Copacabana and Isla del Sol, but in this one, I’ll just keep to the ever-so-eventful journey. With our super late arrival to Copacabana, the last boat to the island Isla del Sol had already left- squashing our plan of hiking all day and sleeping on the island. So, we got a hostel and decided to go the next day.

If the strike ended, we could spend all day on the island, getting back just in time for the 7pm bus back to La Paz. If it didn’t end, we could only do a 1/2 day, getting back around 3:00 and repeating that exact same trek backwards. Well, to our luck, we woke up to find the strike wasn’t over. So, 1/2 day it was.

After spending an absolutely lovely day on Isla del Sol, we were on the boat heading back to Copacabana. I asked the captain about the status of the strike… it had gotten worse. That meant all roads were shut and not even the 4km “taxi cab” type guys help would be available. Uuuugh.

Bus travel in Bolivia
The strikers lined the streets, but helped us know the shortest way, and directed us over their private property for shortcuts. In the end, they weren’t mad at us, we were just stuck in the middle.

I was talking with some Argentinians on the boat and they were heading our way so we decided to make the 4 hour trek to the border together. Once in town, quite a few non-Spanish speaking travelers were frantically trying to figure out how to leave. With big suitcases and other things, they weren’t in the condition to walk so, unfortunately, their only option was to wait it out.

I saw one couple that had a flight in Peru that night, so they really needed to leave. One of the Bolivian ladies was trying to explain to them the situation, how to walk to the border, and what to do from there. I went over, helped them understand, told them we’d be walking to, and that they’d be welcome to come with us. Oddly enough, they weren’t very friendly and walked on ahead of us. Just stressed, I assume.

We were waiting for another American couple who was also going to walk with us, but when they didn’t show up on time, we gave them 15 minutes. We were losing important daylight and it was a long path ahead. They didn’t come so we grabbed our packs and set on foot.

4 hours walking, with heavy backpacks, from Copacabana to where the strike ended.

The path split in a couple places and it was hard to know which way to go. But, the strikers themselves where there to help us.

The strikers were stationed along the way and kindly guided us on the “shortest” paths, cutting through different people’s land, off the road, etc. After all, they weren’t mad at us. We, the tourists, were just stuck in the middle.

We trekked on, climbing over the big rocks and knocked down trees that blocked the roads. We passed a couple groups of people going in the opposite direction to Copacabana, just like we had a couple days before. One guy was a Bolivian on crutches. It made me so sad to think he still had a good hour and a half to go.

Soon, we saw a man in a parked car. He said he’d be able to take us to the border!! A bit skeptical because I had been told that all the roads were shut down, I talked to him to clarify things. He was kind and said he’s a local and that he knew land/little dirt paths that surely could get us there. In fact, he had just dropped off the man with the crutches. So, we decided to go for it and along the way he also helped us better understand the situation.

That said, we happily jumped into our 4th unknown trasport of the trip. Everything your mama told you not to do when you were little, yep, we definitely did it.

Karma is a beotch

In his car, we eventually passed people that were also making the journey. They all looked at us in desbelief, “whaaaaaat????” We saw the couple that wasn’t friendly and didn’t want to walk with us. And, then, we saw the couple that we waited for but didn’t show – they left without us!!

Hmm, as much as I felt bad for everyone else, I couldn’t help but internally giggle at those 2 couples. I guess it teaches them to stick with the friendly people that speak Spanish 🙂

Sure enough, the life-saver of a man weaved all over and got us almost to the border, cutting 3 hours of hard walking. We thanked him from the bottom of our hearts. We were in dire need to get back to La Paz because our flight was in less than 24 hours! We went through migration, entered Peru, and then found a ride to Desaguadero where we would cross back into Bolivia. Unknown transport #5.

Travel problems till the wee end – a semi gets stuck in the road.

Bus travel in Bolivia
No, semis cannot flip a U on narrow roads. C’mon, logistics!

About 1/2 hour into our ride, pitch black outside, the van taking us back to Bolivia stopped. It had been stuck for over 30 minutes, with no real positive outlook for getting out.

A semi had tried to flip a U in the middle of this tiny country road and had gotten itself stuck. There was no ability to cross. You’re kidding me…. are all the forces against us?!

About 20 minutes of people pushing it later, it moved about 6 inches… just enough for a brave car to try and pass around it. It made it!! A couple other cars/vans went successfully.

Our van had all the backpacks on top so it was a bit taller and we didn’t know if we’d make it, but, our drive was on point. He told us all to get out, and he went for it.

Bus travel in Bolivia
Please, please, get us outta here.

He made it and we all ran to hug him. Yaaaaaaay, we were back on our way to La Paz!! We got to Desaguadero, went through migration to leave Peru, and, while talking to the lady at the desk, she told me (basically) to book a** because the Bolivian office was in an earlier time zone. An hour earlier than Peru, it would be shutting down in… 5 minutes. Holy. Shit. 

We grabbed our passports and, literally, ran as fast as we could across the border. Panting, we stumbled in with 10 seconds to spare. They slammed the doors behind us.

I quickly grabbed the forms we needed and they shut the window as soon as my fingers slipped through, not wanting to give papers even to those already in the building. We needed to fill out the forms but they wouldn’t give us pens. They were yelling to finish the papers and I borrowed a pen from someone who was done, filled out my form, handed the pen to Teresa, and went into the other room to get in the line. I was so stressed.

Other travellers arrived seconds after “closing” time and were at the door, begging to get in. Nope. I tried to explain that a couple of them had been with us but were delayed because of silly beaurocracy in Peru. They, angrily, let them in but no one else.

Basically, that meant that no one else who walked from Copacabana that day made it into Bolivia. And, many of those who “made it” didn’t even get to pass. Everyone must have had to change money in that sketchy area and find a random place to stay until the morning.

So freaking grateful, we made it back into Bolivia.

We waited about 45 minutes in that questionable area for enough people to fill a car for La Paz. Yes, this was unknown transport case #6. Ooooh what at trip this was. I was grateful that I spoke Spanish and had been living and travel in South America enough to know the ropes.

Once 6 people had gathered, someone agreed to take us and we crammed on laps for the couple hour ride back. This definitely gave me a new perspective on what immigration feels like. We walked down the road and found a taxi (real taxi) that took us the hour and a half back to La Paz.

Bus travel in Bolivia
We were so happy when we got through and were oficially back en route to La Paz. It was truly a miracle. We won the opposit of the #busproblems lottery.

We arrived around midnight, just grateful for all the luckiness we had, in the midst of all the unluckiness. Arrival in time for our flight was almost a miracle.

Okay, so why were people striking?

To get to Copacabana, you need to take a bus, then a boat, then a bus. Most of villagers in the region want a bridge because the boat passage makes trips for groceries, trips to La Paz, and general errands very time-consuming.

People from one village are in control of the boat launches. They obviously make money from tourists, and other villagers, needing to cross the lake. Tourists pay 4 Bolivianos ($.75) and Bolivians pay 1 Boliviano. Side note: they also increased the tariff to 2 Bolivianos for villagers, making that passage also less affordable.

The bridge would additionally increase tourism because it would facilitate getting to the area and it would also create jobs while the 2 necessary bridges were built. The bridge was up for voting by the Tourism board, but rejected because of the boat-launchers’ arguments.

Bus Travel in Bolivia
Thousands of tourists from Peru and Bolivia make a pilgrimage during holy week to do the Stations of the Cross in Copacabana.

Therefore, the people who wanted the bridge went on strike and shut down all the roads, so that the people in the village that controls the boats would not make money. It was right before Easter Week and Copacabana receives thousands of tourists around Holy Week. Many Peruvians and Bolivians make pilgrimages to Copacabana during this week to do the Stations of the Cross.

Obviously the strike also hurt their tourism income as well, but it was meant to force the boat launchers into conversation.

What do you do if you’re caught in a strike?

Strikes can be pretty common in Latin America, ranging in various degrees, from workers not working and impacting a certain business, to whole streets blocked with rocks, boulders and trees, shutting down a whole region.

If you’re caught in a strike, I recommend talking to someone local and getting a big picture of the situation. Understand why people are striking to get an idea of it’s gravity and time estimation. Don’t panic and don’t get angry and local people. They are not mad at you and, in general, will help you if you’re friendly and trying to understand the situation.

Be rational and get the facts, and then decide how to proceed. It may be that your travel plans are crushed. Unfortunately sometimes that happens. Try to frame it another way and realize that you’re being lucky to travel, and probably, these people are dealing with something that is impacting their daily lives.

All in all, I still recommend bus travel in Bolivia. Things can happen so just leave some room for error.

Don’t plan your Bolivia itinerary minute by minute. Bolivia really is a magical country and so rich, geographically and culturally. Put together an epic plan and tour off the beaten path… with some wiggle room 🙂 Here’s some other articles that lay out the amazing time I had in Bolivia that left me wanting more.

Don’t be afraid, go for the bus travel in Bolivia and here’s a list of “what not to miss!”

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