Trapped in the Andes

Temperatures were dropping fast and the slush and water on the roads was quickly turning to ice.  Heavy trucks and busses were becoming more and more stranded with each passing minute.  Fog swirled around the stranded vehicles, but stars shown brightly overhead as clouds heavy with snow moved past the summit toward the valleys below.

To be fair, the authorities had closed the roadway to all scheduled passenger transit.  We probably should have listened to their advice but decided to make an attempt in our private vehicles; we had a train to catch on the other side of the pass.  We hit the first backup around 4pm, vehicles lined up for miles along the only highway connecting east and west in the whole country.

I have never been so impressed with the Bolivian highway patrol as I was this day.  I had walked only a half mile to investigate when I came across the patrol truck blocking one lane to prevent egotistical cheaters from passing the line and cutting in at the last minute, usually blocking the oncoming lane and snarling traffic even worse than before.  After an hour we crept upward, and I gave the officer a tip as we passed him.  We made it as far as the police checkpoint near the summit when we came to a stop once more, this time for 2 hours.  It was near maddening to see the toll gate not 200 yards from our position and not be allowed to pass.  Turns out the police were attempting to let congestion work itself out farther up the road without adding to the mess.

We finally got to move again just after nightfall, and in the back of my mind I knew we should turn around then while the return to Cochabamba was clear, but we pressed on.  With glee we sailed past the summit and began the descent to Oruro, only to round a corner and encounter another bottleneck.  Freezing temperatures had caused half of the road to sheer off and fall away, leaving one lane and a precarious drop to one side.  Upon investigation we found that a 2 inch layer of ice was forming over this stretch.  Even so, truckers clamoured to be permitted to pass.  Yeeeah not getting involved in that mess.

After much debate we turned around and headed for home with plans to catch a bus toward the tropics, circumnavigating the country and reaching the border with Argentina via safer but longer roads.  We reached the checkpoint again and became stuck in a line of traffic that stretched for miles in either direction.  Some of our group went knocking on doors in this tiny roadside town to see if a room could be rented to sleep in since it was clear nobody was going anywhere.  But the highway patrol proved their worth once again, working constantly since 2 am the previous day to get traffic moving.  They managed to get one lane moving toward Oruro with the idea of freeing up that lane for Cochabamba-bound traffic to use, weaving around the countless busses and trucks aready stuck on the ice, rocks behind tires the only thing keeping them from slowly sliding off the road and plummeting into the valleys below.

They succeeded in getting several miles of traffic to pass, but several more remained.  We advanced bit by bit, stopping for 30 minutes, then 50, then another 10, then an hour, and finally came to a total stop.  Two of our boys ran ahead to see what the issue was, and 3 miles down the road they found the main problem was that drivers had given up and were sleeping since oncoming traffic had tried to pass and blocked our lane as well in multiple places, banks of snow on either side.  Pretending to be policemen, they knocked on windows and yelled and whistled to wake the drivers, startling them into moving again.  It actually worked.  20 minutes later we were sailing downhill toward home, and finally reached it at 3am.

Thus began my trip to give a workshop in Argentina.

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