Bolivia’s road safety record is appalling. The country of 10 million people has only about 500,000 cars yet around 40,000 traffic accidents are recorded every year. Over 3000 people died between 2008 and 2012, an average of more than one per day which is a lot for a small country. Many of those fatalities were from bus accidents.
In the month of January 2010 (when I first visited Bolivia), bus accidents claimed 82 lives and 196 injuries. Many of the crashes were due to drunk drivers so in March 2010 El Presidente, Evo Morales, decided Bolivian bus drivers should lose their license indefinitely for drink driving offenses.
How did bus drivers react to this news? By hosting a nationwide strike of course. Angry bus drivers across Bolivia blocked off roads and caused general mayhem to protest for their right to be drunk while driving a 20 tonne piece of steel containing 50 or more terrified humans. The strikes went on for days and were known as the Paro de los Borrachos (strike of the drunks) in the media. However, Evo’s new policy proved effective as the next quarterly statistics showed bus related fatalities had dropped by 30%.
Fast forward a few years and fatal bus accidents are still alarmingly common. In late August 2014, the worst accident involving tourists in recent years happened between Uyuni and La Paz. A bus operated by Trans Tourismo Omar veered off the highway at speed and rolled several times. 10 foreign tourists were killed in the accident including a guy from my hometown. The accident made international headlines for the number of foreigners killed. Sadly, multiple fatality accidents along Bolivia’s poorly maintained Andean roads are still relatively common.
A traveler touring the country can see the results of this nonchalant attitude towards safety firsthand. Indeed, I’ve witnessed a few worrying events first hand.
On a journey on notoriously dangerous La Paz – Chulamani road, I spotted a burnt out bus a few hundred metres down a cliff. It was alarming to see the local emergency services abseiling down to recover the bodies. I later read in the paper that the accident happened just half a day before we passed. The driver was fatigued from a 16 hour shift and fell asleep at the wheel, veering off the sheer cliff face and claiming the lives of some 20 people.
On different trip to Sorata our minibus driver nonchalantly pointed out a mangled minibus down the bottom of a ravine. That was two days ago he said, eight people died.
Another time while travelling to Rurrenebeque I got off my bus to buy some snacks and water about 1:00 a.m. When getting back on I noticed the driver and co-driver were boisterously singing karaoke at the top of their lungs. Probably not an activity a typically shy and sober Bolivian would be doing. Worse still, that route goes through narrow mountainous roads and is infamously treacherous. In hindsight, I should have taken my bags off the bus and waited for the next one,but being half asleep I shrugged it off and thankfully woke up alive the next morning.
So now that you are probably scared shitless about bus travel in Bolivia (sorry mum and dad) I should point out that millions of Bolivians travel long distance every year without incident. More importantly, there are also some steps a traveler can take to minimise risk.
1. If you are travelling on a Flota (big bus), opt for a well known company as they tend to be more concerned with safety and reputation. Some respected companies include El Dorado, Trans Copacabana, Bolivar and Todo Tourismo.
2. On shorter routes, particularly through poorly developed, narrow and mountainous roads you are probably better off getting on a minibus or minivan. The smaller vehicles have better traction and handling so are theoretically a better option. But ultimately it all comes down to the bravado and sobriety of your driver.
3. Choose a seat at the back of the bus. In a head on collision your chances of survival are much greater.
4. If your driver is taking unnecessary risks, let him know. You’ll well within your rights to give him an earful.
5. Travel by day whenever possible. Drivers are less likely to be fatigued which is a major cause of accidents.
6. Spill some beer for Pachamama and hope for the best :)