Let me tell you a story about this one time in Bolivia…
We left Cochabamba on May 10 and headed to a very remote area of Bolivia, the small town of Inquisivi, using nothing but Bolivian public transportation. Our reason for visiting such a remote town is that a certain bird, the Bolivian Spinetail, can be found there and ONLY there. So for this ONE BIRD, we boarded a bus at 6:00AM and headed towards La Paz, but got off a few stops early in the town of Konani so that we could hop on a collectivo (a mini-bus) headed to the small town of Quime. In Quime we boarded yet another collectivo and took the one-way dirt road to Inquisivi, finally arriving at 3:00pm! (FYI the nine hours of bus rides and collectivos actually went very smoothly and we made our transitions fairly seamlessly!)
When we arrived in the small town we asked around if there was a hotel to stay in and finally were pointed in the direction of a green building with gated doors that looked more like a jail than a hotel. We got a very small room, dropped off our bags, and headed for a walk to stretch our stiff legs.
The endemic Bolivian Spinetail can be found along the dirt road heading down to the river, so we started walking that way. We had contemplated getting a taxi to take us to the bottom and bird along the way, but we opted for the [cheaper] walk instead. On the way down, we realized that the road was steeper and longer than we expected and the better habitat for the bird was a few steep kilometers away. As we walked along, we were able to hear several Olive-crowned Cresentchests calling and Ross was able to make a few recordings. We didn’t really know how far away the “bottom” of the road was, but we had walked nearly 3 kilometers before hopping in the back of a pickup truck headed to the bottom. Nine kilometers later (whoops) we found ourselves at the bottom of a steep hill wondering how we would ever get back to the top before nightfall. Nonetheless, we got started on the long, steep, walk back up to town and birded along the way.
After a few kilometers of walking we caught sight of two very tape-responsive Bolivian Spinetails! Since we were able to get a glimpse of the bird we decided that if any car comes by we would attempt to hitch a ride with them. A few semi-trucks passed us before a kind man from Texas working as a missionary in Bolivia picked us up and drove us back to town.
The next day we woke up early and headed down the dirt road towards the river knowing exactly where to stop for our target birds. We once again had great views of the Bolivian Spinetail and Ross was able to get a near-perfect audio recording of these endemic birds. Additionally we finally caught sight of a very photogenic Olive-crowned Cresentchest.
As we found out from asking around the night before, the bus out of Inquisivi (think Greyhound or Megabus) departed to La Paz twice a day at 9AM and 9PM. We weren’t sure we would be back in time for the 9AM departure and we didn’t want to wait around until the evening to catch the later bus but we also didn’t want to compromise a morning birding. We went out birding and figured we would play the rest by ear but it was currently 8:30AM and we were 4km outside of the small town with a steep walk back up – making the 9AM bus didn’t seem like a possibility. As it turns out, we were able to hitch a ride back to town on the very bus that we wanted to catch into La Paz! The bus stopped in the plaza to pick up passengers meaning we had 10 minutes to run to our room, pack our bags, buy our tickets, and board the bus. Thankfully we completed all of that and boarded the bus with a few minutes to spare.
The day was going very smoothly and we were excited to arrive in La Paz early and finally have a whole night to research and relax, something we hadn’t had much of the previous four busy days. The trip was going smoothly but much to our dismay we noticed a line of around 200 other buses stopped on the main highway when we were 30km out of town! Traffic was crazy backed up and we had no idea why. Our bus driver took a dirt road detour bypassing the lineup and we were naïve to think we were out of the woods, as sadly the trouble didn’t end there. Unfortunately the lineup of buses we noticed earlier was caused when Bolivians had decided to “riot” in the middle of the street and create a blockade along the highway into town! Every few kilometers another group of rioters were in the streets piling rocks, burning tires and standing in the way refusing to move.
It didn’t take long for us to get stuck in all of the mess. We came up to a blockade after arriving back on the highway. Eventually we were able to get past the people by convincing them to move and then moving the blockade (AKA large rocks) off of the highway. We managed to bypass about 3 blockades before one group absolutely refused to move. The bus put it in park and turned off the engines to wait. All of us passengers would debark for some fresh air and some of the Bolivians on the bus would attempt to talk to the rioters (which were mainly comprised of old men and women.) For the most part they were peacefully rioting and the only form of aggression was threatening to throw rocks at the bus if it got too close (which thankfully didn’t happen because we kept our distance.) After a few hours the police started to arrive and we thought we were golden especially when the blockade we had been sitting at was moved and we were one step closer to getting to town. But as it turned out, the police kept going, presumably to break up other riots.
Sadly as soon as the police left the people regrouped and moved the blockades back into the road so we got stuck once again after advancing only a few hundred meters. When the police came by a second time they used tear gas which helped, but I took a nice deep breath of that while standing outside running back to the bus! We moved a bit further but again the police left and we got stuck in another blockade. (Ross joked that it would only take one platoon of US Marines a few minutes to clear this entire event!)
By this point we had already been detoured for 3 hours! In an attempt to make it to town quicker, our bus driver decided to take a back dirt road, one a large bus should not traverse. While on the back dirt road the bus had to turn and cross a ditch at the same time but in the process nearly tipped on its side (twice!) with everyone still inside! Everyone then scrambled to get off of the bus and walked.
In theory the back road we were taking should have cut back onto the highway after bypassing the mess and then continue on to La Paz, but the rioters saw our bus moving and had built a fire in the middle of the road! If that wasn’t enough, the police started clearing the main road again and the rioters were regressing to where we were!
After sitting on the back road for a little while, we noticed the traffic on the highway was starting to move! Unfortunately for us we didn’t have the police reinforcements where we were! It was decided that we would turn around and go back to the highway. So again we crossed back over where the bus nearly tipped over and headed back to the highway. The closer we got to the city the more serious the damage on the roads and the more serious the rioters. When they saw our bus driving through the people started throwing rocks at the bus! We heard a few thuds but the worst was when a rock the size of a large grapefruit came hurling in the bus. All I heard was the sound of glass shattering. I didn’t realize the rock had come in through the window right behind where we were sitting!
After FIVE HOURS of blocked roads and minor detours we arrived in La Paz. To make matters worse, when we arrived in La Paz we didn’t have a hostel/hotel booked figuring we would be there at 3PM with plenty of time to find a place before dark. Unfortunately it was already dark and we hopped in a taxi to be taken to a nearby hotel. We were turned away from several establishments who were already full before finally settling in a comfortable hotel in town. It was a LONG day for us for sure! To this day we have no idea what the people were rioting about but it really did ruin our day… Thankfully all of what we had previously seen of Bolivia’s natural beauty and charm was making up for this one terribly frustrating day.