Monday, August 26, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Strikes In Copacabana And Detour Through Peru

***This post is part 6 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The day prior to leaving Copacabana, we went to the Titicaca Bolivia office to inquire about tickets to La Paz. Tourist buses cost about 30 Bolivianos and depart daily at 1:30 pm, with another possible departure late in the afternoon. There are also local buses that leave every hour for about half the price. 

Besides comfort, the main trade-off is the fact that local buses will drop you off at the cemetery bus terminal in La Paz, which is located in a more dangerous area outside the center of town. There have been documented robberies against tourists here, especially at night, so we opted to play it safe and booked the tourist bus instead.

We were warned, however, that there was a high possibility of a workers strike the next day. When that occurs, all transportation into and out of Copacabana ceases, and we would be left stranded. Of course, our tickets would be refunded. Feeling somewhat helpless, we hoped for the best and returned to the hotel.

Ominously, we woke up the next morning to the sound of loud chants and banging drums. From our windows, we could see a long parade of strikers marching through town.

Strike in Copacabana

Still clinging on to a shred of hope, we quickly got ready, checked out of our hotel, and headed to Titicaca Bolivia to see what the situation was like. Unfortunately, we were informed that all roads out of Copacabana had been blocked by strikers, and even the remaining possibility of taking a boat out of town was unfeasible since the boat drivers were refusing to cross the picket line.

The only way we could leave Copacabana that day would be to walk eight kilometers back to the Peruvian border at Kasani, find a taxi or shared minibus to drive us to the alternate border crossing at Desaguadero approximately an hour away, and then catch a local bus from Desaguadero to La Paz. This would be a huge detour, not to mention a complete waste of time crossing back into Peru and then returning to Bolivia. But it was the only option left.

After we made the decision to hike it out of Copacabana, we left immediately so as not to waste any more time. Behind us were at least another half dozen backpackers who were determined to leave as well. The eight kilometers to the border turned out to be relatively flat, but walking with the weight of all of our belongings under the intense sun was still very strenuous. On the way, we passed by several makeshift roadblocks set up by the strikers, including large stones and toppled tree limbs.

Starting the hike back to the Kasani

Edge of town

Leaving Copacabana behind

Eight kilometers to go

Makeshift roadblocks

Roadside pigs

About a third of the way to the border, we came across a large group of strikers gathered in the middle of the road. They looked to be conducting a meeting of sorts, and frankly, we were a little uneasy about approaching or even going around them. Just then, we saw two backpackers walking in the opposite direction and stopped to ask them if it was safe to pass. The were absolutely certain that the strikers meant us no harm and we would be fine walking past them. So on we went - without any issue. 

Approaching the strikers

More roadblocks

After passing the large group, we followed a few other backpackers through a shortcut that ran past the local dirt landing strip and along the marshlands next to Lake Titicaca. This saved us a little bit of time since the main road curved further inland. Cows, sheep, chicken, and other farm animals roamed this area while we carefully avoided stepping in the plentiful droppings they left behind.

Follow the shortcut

Copacabana landing strip

Through the marshlands

Lake Titicaca and flowers in bloom

Finally, after about two hours of walking, we arrived back to where we started two days ago. Once again, we entered the Bolivian immigration office, this time getting stamped out. We walked past the border archway and made our way to the Peruvian immigration office for re-entry into the country. The officials were fully aware of the strike situation, and weren't fazed by the multiple exits and entries already logged in our passports.

Kasani again

Bolivian immigration office

Back into Peru

As we exited the office, there was already a small group of backpackers gathered around looking for a way to get to Desaguadero. We joined in, and began asking some of the waiting taxi drivers how much it would cost. Just then, a minibus pulled up and dropped off a number of passengers. Our group negotiated a price with the driver to take all of us, although he told us if we waited for more people, the cost per person would go down.

While we debated, the nearby taxi drivers became increasingly hostile towards the minibus driver since he was essentially taking their business, and it was apparent to us that he was not a local. A couple of policemen from the station across the street were called over to calm things down as the taxi drivers began to shout obscenities and threatened to get physical. Legit or not, they accused the minibus driver of not having the proper permits to work in the area.

We tried to steer clear of the fracas, but at the same time, all of us wanted to get to Desaguadero as quickly and cheaply as possible. Finally, the policemen told the minibus driver to simply move down the street, where he was free to pick up passengers. We decided to follow him so we could leave immediately, but things got more tense as the taxi drivers proceeded to tail us. We quickly threw our gear into the back and climbed aboard as the police kept the taxi drivers at bay.

Minibus to Desaguadero

This was certainly one of the scarier situations I've encountered while traveling. Although at the time, I wasn't too concerned since the police were right there. Also, it wouldn't have made much sense for them to attack tourists. In the end, everything turned out fine, and each passenger paid six soles to get to Desaguadero. Once we arrived, it was the same immigration routine yet again. By then, it was beginning to feel like déjà vu.

Desaguadero is quite a bit more chaotic than Kasani, since locals use this border crossing as the main artery for commerce and trade. Still, after crossing the bridge into Bolivia, it wasn't too difficult to locate the Bolivian immigration office and get stamped in. Luckily, the $135 USD reciprocity fee is valid for five years, so we didn't need to pay it again.


Leaving Peru... again

Entering Bolivia... again

Bolivian immigration office

After completing immigration, we asked one of the officers for directions to the La Paz-bound buses, and we were told to continue down the main street for about 500 meters. There, we were greeted with a line of dilapidated buses waiting to fill their seats with passengers. With the only option being local buses, we knew we would be arriving at the cemetery terminal, which I had really wanted to avoid. My main concern now was to minimize risk by getting into the city before sunset. Prices were set at 10 Bolivianos per person.

Unfortunately, there was not enough space for three more people in the first bus that was about to depart, so we boarded the next one in line, which was completely empty. We sat there for the next hour, not only waiting for more passengers, but also watching as they loaded cargo box after cargo box onto the roof. My stomach literally sank as I slowly realized we would not make it to La Paz before dark.

Walking to the buses

Finally, at almost 5:00 pm, we pulled away from the stop and started on the four-hour journey. Saying the ride was uncomfortable would be an understatement, as I held onto all my belongings the entire way there. Every inch of floor space was taken up by boxes and bags, and the seat I shared barely had enough room for the larger-set woman next to me, let alone two people. But at this point, I was just glad we were on our way!

Local bus to La Paz

As we approached El Alto just outside of La Paz proper, the bus began to make several stops, dropping passengers off and unloading cargo from the rooftop. This process took almost an hour, and by the time we continued on our way, it was well past 8:00 pm.

Descending into the giant bowl that La Paz sits in is quite a stunning sight, especially at night when all the buildings are lit up. It almost looks like you're standing on the rim of a massive crater with the dense city center located at the very bottom of the depression.

Streets of El Alto

We wound our way down the steep slopes, and soon arrived at the cemetery bus terminal in total darkness. Feeling slightly anxious, we quickly gathered up our belongings and stepped onto the street, where we were immediately accosted by several questionable drivers asking us where we wanted to go. My instinct told me to leave the area and look for a more legitimate taxi on the main street, which is what we did. After walking about two blocks away from the terminal, we were able to hail down a radio cab that looked fairly new. We negotiated a price before getting in (18 Bolivianos), and thankfully, arrived at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in about fifteen minutes safe and sound.

It was a monster day of traveling... from hiking, to two border crossings, to minibuses and decrepit local buses, to taxis, but fortunately, things turned out alright in the end. Obstacles can arise at any time when navigating abroad, and it's important to be ready at a moment's notice for plans to change. Otherwise, you may end up stranded at a location and your itinerary completely halted. Stay alert in unfamiliar situations and always keep your wits about you!

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