Bolivia Stories and Tips

Accident in Uyuni

Mururata Mountain and La Paz Photo, La Paz, Bolivia

On the first - and long - weekend of May 2008 a terrible accident occurred in the Salar de Uyuni, one of the main attractions in Bolivia. I reported that on IgoUgo's Message Boards and a series of events that lead to my hurried leaving of the country began. To my best understanding, this article is important not as a reaction to the violence exercised toward me, but as a warning toward other travelers. They still may decide to visit Bolivia, but then it would be a much better informed decision.

The Accident in Uyuni

On Thursday, May 1, 2008, between 2pm and 4pm two vans collided front to front between the "Isla del Pescado" (the Fish Island) and the Salt Hotels in the Salar de Uyuni, near Potosi. Ten tourists died together with three out of the four Bolivians accompanying them.

The vehicles were traveling on the Salar, a dried surface of salt where the visibility is unlimited and there are no roads; they were traveling freely and on what was by all accounts a safe environment - thousand of vehicles could travel side by side there. However, the vehicles exploded upon an unnecessary front collision.

One of the vans belonged to Natur Tours (the guide and the driver died), while the second belonged to Kantuta Tours (the cook died, the driver survived). The only survivor admitted that both vehicles were traveling at over 100kmh at the time of the accident and that gasoline containers were attached to the vehicles fronts. The last detail accounts for the explosion and total burning of the vehicles. Beyond that, he claims to remember nothing and blames the driver of Natur, the other company, of having fall asleep.

The most probable scenario is that both drivers were playing the "Iron Man," traveling head to head and trying to be the last to deviate the vehicle from the collision path. A third van from Turismo Balsa arrived minutes later, but could do nothing to save the victims.

The Media Coverage in Bolivia

As expected, the international media showed little interest in the event. In Bolivia it appeared on one of the main newspapers front page, but no follow up was done.

Slowly, the facts began to emerge. The internet edition of a popular Bolivian newspaper (La Razon) was a bit more informative featuring at least two short entries on the topic.

The only Bolivian survivor was interviewed on the local television but he looked frightened and was careful to say nothing of value.

My Coverage

Shortly after the accident, I posted a short note on IgoUgo's Message Boards, recommending avoiding the area.

The post coincided with my publishing elsewhere - and not for the first time - regarding the methods used by Bolivian authorities to spy on its citizens and foreigners living on the country. Bolivian authorities openly admitted the events, while making clear they will continue the operation. The disturbing topic was widely featured by the Bolivian newspapers on January 2008 - I can supply scanned newspapers clippings on the topic. This time I had mentioned the video cameras placed on the Andean Plateau rim and watching over the city of La Paz; innocent pictures are featured daily by the "Al Despertar" program of the Bolivian Unitel television network.

This attitude is not new. Luis García Meza Tejada was a Bolivian general who gained power through the "Cocaine Coup" of July 17, 1980, which was performed with the help of the Argentinean army. His Minister of Interior, Colonel Luis Arce, said shortly afterwards on the Bolivian television that all Bolivians opposed to García Meza’s illegal military regime should "walk around with their will under their arms." His young officers are the generals leading the army and police nowadays; their victims were never compensated.

Bolivian Reaction

Apparently, this time the Bolivian Military Intelligence decided to show the gringo who runs the show. Shortly after the posting I got a verbal and unspecified warning. A few days later, on May 7, at 12:20PM, while standing at the front entrance of the Papiro's Internet Café on Pasaje Iturralde St, La Paz, a Coca Cola truck rapidly approached me driving backwards, stopped next to me and immediately - with no one of its doors being opened - dropped a box full of empty Coca Cola and Fanta bottles over my head.

Thanks to God, a fraction of a second before that - due to the strange trajectory of the truck and an unusual noise emanating from its back - I began moving. The box landed an inch from my right foot. Shattered glass covered my trouser and temporary damage was caused to my right eardrum, but beyond that I was unharmed.

A Bolivian citizen witnessed the whole event and provided me with a written declaration. I doubt that my preference of Pepsi Cola over Coca Cola was the reason for the event; moreover, even in Bolivia, bottles do not fall from the skies without a reason.

This is all part of a long attitude of Bolivian governments attempting to cover-up uncomfortable events at all costs. I am confident travelers would have trusted much more a government openly denouncing of the companies and people involved, taking away their operation licenses and a conducting a completely transparent report of the event. Against my will, I left Bolivia on May 27; these lines were written from the US.

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