How we got rescued from Bolivia by a military aircraft – part 1

When we first heard about the coronavirus, we had been in Ecuador. We did not worry ourselves for a long time because we were at the best place in the world, or so we thought, there was no sign of the virus in South-America. 2 months later, we watched the news in Cuzco as the Peruvian government announced the first case, yet somehow we were still chilled. In a few weeks, things got crazy. The countries in South-America acted surprisingly fast, and before we could decide what we should do, Bolivia closed its borders and announced a nationwide curfew.

Salar de Uyuni and car troubles

The must-see-thing on our Bolivian bucket list was definitely the Salar de Uyuni. We fled La Paz after a short while, as at that time we didn’t want to spend our time in crowded places and we are not fans of big cities and headed to Uyuni. We had a quick glance at the news before entering the salar, and learned, that Argentina closed all of its national parks, so we changed our plans (originally, Iguazu would have been our next destination) and decided we are heading to Chile next to sell the car and fly home if we have to. We spent two wonderful days in the salt desert. It was one of our best experiences in South America. Amazing landscape and unique views on the neverending salt flats. I think everybody should see it someday. Thanks to the rain, some parts of the desert acted as huge mirrors which made it even more special. Unfortunately the next day I woke up with diarrhea and vomiting which was probably caused by the not properly boiled water the night before. That was the first time I realized that maybe it would be better to go home as soon as possible, as the virus attacks the weakened immune system.

We were in the middle of nowhere without cell coverage and internet connection, so we couldn’t follow the news. As we wanted to make a run for the border from here, we took the southern exit from the salar and found this part of the country sparsely populated. The gravel road took us through small villages and deserts. We stopped to take some rest, then our car didn’t start anymore. In a lunar landscape, far from everything. Only one pickup came on that road the whole afternoon but he couldn’t help us.

Fixing the car in the middle of nowhere

So far, Balint could fix small things on the car. And f course, he tried his best this time as well, without any luck. We couldn’t even figure out what the problem was. Soon it got dark, so we spent the night on the side of the road. I still didn’t feel very well, I ate crackers and drank coke all day, so far it helped settle my stomach. The weather was so windy that we didn’t open the tent, and the first time on our trip we slept in the car instead. Somewhere deep down we knew we should continue our way before the borders are closed…

At the border

The next day a van came on the road! It was a team of dentists in a moving clinic, we asked them to tow us to the border. Naively we thought that the town there would have a mechanic, ATM, supermarket, etc. Well, there was nothing. Only trucks and some official buildings for migration and duty.

Chilean-Bolivian border

The doctors weren’t satisfied with our remaining bolivianos that we offered them for the help which didn’t help us feel any better about the situation. But the worst was yet to come. The border was closed, we couldn’t cross to Chile and the car was still broken. Truck drivers tried to help us but none of them could find the problem or call a trailer. We had to get back to Uyuni, the closest town, 170 km far from us. Fortunately, a bus showed up crossing the border in the afternoon. We quickly picked up our small backpacks and left our beloved car alone in the middle of nowhere. By the time we got to Uyuni, it was already dark, around 8 pm. The town was empty, everything was closed and the military was patrolling the streets. We rang the bell to the hostel we chose earlier, fortunately, the owner let us in despite the curfew they ordered from 3 pm. The owner was very friendly with us, as we couldn’t buy any food all day, he has offered us some.

Mechanics and rushing to the airport

The next day Balint walked around the town to get a really expensive trailer, but because of the huge distance and the afternoon curfew, they could only get back to Uyuni the next day. (The wife or the driver packed him lunch too and they had some beers together in the evening so it wasn’t so bad for him 😀 )

Finally on the trailer

Meanwhile, I started to look for flights and contacted the Hungarian Embassy in Peru. As it turned out, there were no more flights in or out of Bolivia and the embassy advised us to either get to La Paz as soon as possible, because there was a chance for a rescue flight organized by the EU, or, we could stay in Uyuni until it would be over.

Although we were thinking about staying, because the country is absolutely amazing and cheap, in the end we decided to leave, because nobody knew how long this situation was going to last. Bolivia is well-known for its riots, 6 months ago people closed roads and there was shooting on the streets, who knows how would they handle a possible crisis. Because of the quarantine, a lot of people have already lost their jobs, and this is just the beginning.

The mechanic found the problem quite quickly, it seemed like we are good to go soon. But we forgot about the latino mañana attitude, which means everything would be ready for tomorrow. He promised the car would be ready by 7 in the morning. Well, the garage was closed at 7 am and he didn’t even answer the phone, he was probably still sleeping. We went back after breakfast with all of our belongings, and he told us that there was a part missing, his colleague is in the town looking for it. We were waiting for long hours. Meanwhile, they announced on the radio that from midnight the measures in the country would be more strict, they ordered full quarantine for 14 days, traffic was allowed until 6 pm. These hours were the most stressful part of our whole trip, I already cried out of nervousness. And our part was still missing. Finally, the guy realized that he could take that exact same part out of a car that has been in his garage for over a year now. In an hour, we were good to go. The consulate couldn’t give us any official paper that would have allowed us to drive despite the measures, but we had to try. At 6 pm we ran into the first military checkpoint. With gathering all our Spanish knowledge and showing them the only email from the consulate that wasn’t in Hungarian we explained that we need to reach the airport that night. Finally, they let us pass and they even gave us a handwritten certificate which ensured that we had no more problems at checkpoints afterward. At 11.30 pm, 30 minutes before the nationwide quarantine we arrived at the parking of the closed airport.

That’s how we spent the next 4 days

The story continues here.