LOCKDOWN IN BOLIVIA
Updated: Sep 20
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I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I became stuck in La Paz, Bolivia. I traveled around South America from January until March and if not for Covid would have continued for much longer. During the middle of March, I arrived in La Paz from Cusco, Peru; I intended on spending a few days in the city then heading to the Uyuni salt flats on the border of Bolivia and Chile. I booked a private room at Selina for two days, then left La Paz for Uyuni. The day I arrived via flight from La Paz, it was March 16th or 17th, the lockdown began. All tours and buses were canceled, and flights were in danger of being canceled. My tour was canceled, and I barely made it to a local mercado to get a few things for dinner since the restaurants were already shut down at 4pm. I signed up before arriving in Uyuni for a three-day tour, which would finish in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. Chile was a place I was eager to see, as there are many amazing tourist locales such as Valparaiso, Santiago, and the glaciers in the deep south. Here I was, locked down in a hotel after arriving only four hours before. For anyone not familiar with Uyuni, the town has a population of around 29,000 as it is strictly tourist driven. It feels like a town of five hundred, more like Huacachina, Peru and if you saw the airport, you’d think so. Luckily, I was able to book an early morning flight from the extremely tiny Uyuni airport back to La Paz.
Arriving in La Paz from Uyuni, I booked a four-person dorm at a hostel I saw prior to entering Bolivia, called the Nest Boutique Hostel. It was brand new with an empty, four-person dorm and an 8th floor rooftop restaurant and bar. Initially, there was around twenty-five people in the hostel, mostly from Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. Slowly that number dwindled down as European countries offered re-patriation flights very quickly, free of cost. Offering a disclaimer, I liked the owner Jack quite a bit at first. I stayed at this hostel for almost three weeks, usually eating at least two meals a day in the restaurant, sometimes three. There was always a keg on tap, which was self-service on the honor system. Eventually, I moved to an Airbnb in the trendiest area of La Paz, called Sopocachi. The good parts: it had fast WIFI, really hot water in the shower, and was in a newer building on the 20th floor. The view each morning was amazing, with the clouds settling in the valley of the city and the snow-covered peaks. La Paz in Bolivia is the world’s highest city, at an average elevation of 3,869 meters or 12,693 feet. The two tallest peaks visible from the city center are Nevado Illimani, 6,402 meters or 21,004 feet and Huayna Potosi which sits at 6,090 meters or 19980 feet. They are truly magnificent, and their snow-capped peaks make them immediately visible from decent vantage points.
Now the negative parts of being locked down in La Paz from March 2020-April 2020. The first is that no one in the city could be outside in the street except on their designated day. All Bolivians and all tourists had to utilize the last number on their ID to determine their day to visit the grocery store and other shopping they needed. You could always visit the Farmacia though with a prescription or obtain necessary medical care. The second negative is that when you barely have human contact for weeks at a time, it has a long-term effect on your mental health. The first couple weeks I watched a lot of Netflix, drank heavily, got my TEFL certification to teach English, and re-did my website. A third effect which didn’t hurt me but really affected the citizens of Bolivia, is that many people do day labor.
What they earn that day, is how they eat that day. Since the people of La Paz, and all Bolivian cities really were restricted, many people struggled for food. Eventually, the Bolivian government authorized a 500 Boliviano monthly payment for families to buy food. That comes out to be around $83.00 U.S. roughly, depending on the exchange rate (I haven’t looked at it in a while, not even for this blog post). Because the condo building I stayed in was on a major thoroughfare in downtown, there was always some fruit and vegetable vendors even if there wasn’t supposed to be. Sometimes I would go out the front door and buy fresh produce; usually the police and the army didn’t concern themselves for such a quick interaction. Luckily, the grocery store or mercado was only one block down, so on my shopping day I could make multiple trips. One for food and another for things I forgot the first time and a plethora of booze (vodka, rum, tonic, etc..).
Eventually the U.S Embassy began to allocate repatriation flights. This is where I have to populate an observation slash complaint. For weeks, European nations had been flying their citizens back to their respective countries. The U.S. though was slow to respond and when they finally started, they of course ran them through a private travel agency who made sure to get their “pound of flesh.” Bolivia would stay locked down for months after I departed, so I made the right choice in leaving. But…because the embassy and U.S. government decided to outsource the repatriation flights to a private travel company, instead of using the National Guard or one of their contracted 747’s (I’ve been on a contracted government flight from Kenya to the U.S., it’s a normal overseas flight), the price was ridiculous. The flight from La Paz to Santa Cruz (the biggest city and airport in Bolivia) was $250.00 while the flight from the Santa Cruz to Miami was $1500.00 for economy. I fly business class often; $1500 for that flight is outright extortion. There’s really no excuse the U.S Embassy can make here that legitimizes what they did; it’s essentially passing the buck, so the government doesn’t have to pay. I was sad to leave Bolivia without seeing most of the country. I wish to return one day when the world is back to normal; in fact I got the vaccine yesterday at the border in Laredo, Texas. I still long to take a multitude of photos in Uyuni and continue down to Atacama. Chile is a whole other world waiting to be explored. I’d love to hear other travelers stories of being locked down, no matter which country you were trapp