July 14, 2004

Running for the border

The deadline was set. It was July 13. We - Alex, the German I'm travelling with; Nick, an American; and a couple, Ian and Louise (funny eh Steve?), an Aussie and a Brit - were in Puno, a Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca. There was a nationwide strike planned for July 14, which meant no buses, no taxis, no services, and no border crossing for at least a couple days, so it was either leave yesterday or wait until at least tomorrow. Waiting wasn't an option.

We talked to a few buses, but none were going to the border - there was already fear that they wouldn't be able to make it that far. After a little haggling, the 5 of us hired a collectivo - a van taxi - to take us the 3-hour trip or so to the border. It was 2PM, and the best information we had was that the border maybe closed at 6, but maybe at 8.

Half an hour out of town, we knew it would be difficult. Already the beginnings of roadblocks had sprung up across some of the major roads, and soon we began to keep to gravel backroads. Most of the time, I'm pretty sure even our driver had no idea where we were going. Everyone we passed, we asked for the situation up ahead, and it didn't sound too good.

An hour later, we came to a river. Crossing on the bridge wasn't an option, as it had been completely blockaded, so we came upon the river a couple kilometers downstream. From our vantage point on our gravel road, a hill sloped down to the right for about a hundred metres, a few tire tracks following the hill down and leading directly into the waters. Either we were driving right through this river, or we were turning around - there was no other option.

The situation didn't bode well. The river was about 70 metres wide at this point, and just a few metres from the opposite shore and pointed in our direction were two other vans that had obviously attempted the crossing and hadn't even managed to get near a quarter of the way across, the river coming up to the top of their wheelwells. Our driver got out, took off his shoes and waded across the river to check out the path. For the most part, the water was only up to his calfs, but occasionally it got just past his knees.

Meanwhile, the five of us were standing outside the van, thinking the situation had no hope. We were surrounded by schoolchildren who, judging by their complete fascination with us, had hardly ever seen tourists come through these parts. If you want off the beaten track, this was it - and if our vehicle got stuck, as the other two miserably had, off the beaten track meant nowhere to go.

There were a good fifty or seventy people watching the scene, and a hush came over all of them as our driver suddenly decided to go for it and sped towards the near shore. I had gotten out of the van to lighten the load, and I didn't think there was any way that the van was going to get across. This was no off-road vehicle - this was a 20-year-old 2-wheel-drive Toyota van, the model with the ridiculous mid-mounted engine where if you want to perform routine maintenance, you have to take the whole body off. The driver kept her going well across the first three-quarters of the river, drove right between the two abandoned vans, and miraculously made the far shore. We couldn't believe it. The guys who stayed in the van claimed that half the time it didn't even feel like the tires were touching the riverbed.

From the river, we improvised a road through a farmer's field before coming across the main paved road. We weren't home free yet. We came across a couple more roadblocks, with ever-more-vigilant protestors. The only reason we made it through any of them is because we are tourists - generally they let the tourists through, as we're not the target of the job action and the locals realize we inject a fair bit of cash into the local economy - but it nevertheless on occasion took a little financial lubrication, brokered by our driver, to get through.

Finally, at 6:30PM, we made Yunguyo, the Peruvian border town, praying that the border was open. People in the plaza were informing us that it wasn't, and we almost gave up there. However, we had a feeling that they were trying to con us, so we'd stay and rent rooms in their hotels, so we crossed the final few kilometres to the frontier.

A couple minutes later, we were there - with all of ten minutes to spare, as the border in reality closed at 7. Five hours of avoiding roadblocks, and we make it by mere minutes. We went through Peruvian immigration, then got our passports stamped in the Bolivian office, and they literally closed and locked the door as soon as we walked out. The only other tourists there were people who had tried to cross into Peru and had to turn back. I'm sure we were the only ones to make it across that afternoon.

Welcome to Bolivia.

Posted by major at July 14, 2004 07:14 PM

Way more exciting than our crossing the otherway! We just missed the roadblocks in ilave after the lynching of their mayor. Then you arrive in Bolivia just in time for more fun with their gas refferendum! Hope you manage to get to Argentina for some skiiing/boarding eventually.

Posted by: benf at July 19, 2004 11:56 AM
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