South America

Great Escape from Bolivia

Steve McQueen did it. The Singing Von Trapp Family did it. Andy Dufresne of “The Shawshank Redemption” did it. And so did we. What am I talking about? The greatest of escapes, of course. Although we made it back safely, it could’ve been so different.

After completing our Inca trek, we journeyed from Cusco to the backpacker-filled town of Copacabana, on the shore of the world’s highest lake. Located on the Peruvian border, Lake Titicaca is so picturesque, even the world’s worst photographer could take snaps that would look absolutely Lebowitz.

Buses were leaving for La Paz, packed with Gringos ready to experience the world’s highest capital city. We were in no hurry and instead, would enjoy a few quiet nights here before we headed over to nearby Isla del Sol. Upon our return, we realised La Paz (and indeed the rest of Bolivia) was in the midst of major, civil unrest. Otherwise known as a Coup d’etat, I was blasé as to the actual extent of what was going on. Who honestly takes these things seriously?

What initially seemed like a minor distraction to our travels, quickly escalated. It seems the Campesinos (peasant class) were angry with the government, in particular El Presidente, about selling natural gas reserves wholesale to overseas interests. Poor Bolivia was, once again, being exploited by a neighbouring country. Long ago, they even had a Pacific coastline until this was whittled away from them by Chile.

After returning from Isla del Sol, “Copa” had become a ghost town. Only a few pockets of Gringos remained. Like a scene from “High Noon”, with eddies of dust rolling down the main street. Roadblocks set up by the Campesinos ensured No-one could enter the country. A handful of people had escaped from La Paz with disturbing stories of having been in the firing line of tear gas and harrowing taxi rides from the capital through roadblocks, reminiscent of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

We had the entire town, normally bustling with Gringos, to ourselves. How did we manage to escape? Well, we didn’t steal a motorbike and jump over a fence. Nor did we stage a concert and sneak out by the exit door. We certainly didn’t chisel through the wall of our hotel room, covering up the passageway with a poster of Rita Hayworth. Nothing like that I’m afraid.

Instead we met another stranded couple and decided to make our way by boat for the eight kilometres to the border. I strolled down to the lake shore and awaited “The Boy” to approach. It was like a drug deal going down. I waited by the lake shore, observing the view, when The Boy came over and asked me if I was looking to “get off the island”. “When”? I asked. “How much?” and “what time”? Deal was done. For 200 Bolivianos (less than $22), we hired a rowboat, an oarsman and space for four of us and our heavy packs to the Peruvian border.

It was still dark at 7am, extremely cold, and the thought of being in a very small boat on a very large lake, did not inspire much confidence amongst the four of us, but we had no choice. Either escape or apply for Bolivian residence. Our oarsman was our saviour. This poor guy was probably 65 years old and must’ve only had six teeth. He was so strong and focused, even pointing out some sights on the lake as he rowed by. Think, “Groundskeeper Willie” from “The Simpsons”. I’m sure that if this guy had ripped off his three layers of clothing, a six-pack and shoulders like tree trunks would have been revealed. Narrowly avoiding rocks hurtled by some Campesinos witnessing our escape efforts at the helm of a traitor, we safely rounded the point. Our freedom came into view in the distance. Suddenly, the old guy paddled the boat to shore and disappeared into the bushes, turning his back on us out of humility. A swell had developed and waves splashed into the boat. Still our hero persevered, and after more agonising moments of rough paddling (well, not for us), we finally arrived at the border.

Photo by Peta Rake

Fearing a Campesino ambush, we quickly disembarked, negotiated a bog and made our way through a furrowed field full of cud-chewing cows and local farmers with bemused looks on their faces. Carrying a heavy backpack, over rock walls at 3,800 metres above sea level is great for improving your fitness at sea level, but at altitude, you feel like a weight belt is on your chest. Then we caught sight of it. The border control post. Cries of relief were heard, we made it. We had escaped Bolivia during a coup. It was sad to leave Copacabana behind, I was slowly getting used to the “music and passion, being the
fashion”, but it was great to be back in Peru.

It was a shame that we did not make it to La Paz. We had heard such great things about it
At least we were safe and now have a story to tell our Grandchildren.

Have you got a story about a “great escape” from your travels? We’d love to hear about your own narrow escapes from danger whilst on holidays, whether they be escaping a coup or simply getting away from an annoying travel partner, send us your story in a comment.

Photo Credits: 1, 2

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