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Tourists caught in Bolivia unrest

By CNN's Simon Hooper

Protesters in La Paz
Protesters on the streets of La Paz as unrest grows in Bolivia

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South America

LA PAZ, Bolivia (CNN) -- Political unrest in Bolivia closed one of South America's busiest and most popular tourist routes this week, stranding many travelers in the capital La Paz and other parts of the country.

The road from La Paz to the ancient Inca city of Cusco in Peru has become a popular route for gap year backpackers and round-the-world travelers, attracted by Bolivia's spectacular scenery and budget prices.

But since the start of Bolivia's national strike, which is in its third week, the route has been closed by protesters campaigning against government plans to export gas to the United States. (Full story)

Other road blocks also cut off La Paz from the rest of the country, making travel by land to tourist attractions like the Salar de Uyuni in the south and the rain forest in the north virtually impossible.

Buses that tried to break the blockade returned to La Paz with windows smashed.

"Everything is going to get worse," says Evelin Rodriguez de Ortiz, a tour agent at Eco Jungle Tours in La Paz's "Gringo Alley," the street above Plaza San Francisco where hostels, bars and tour operators have multiplied in recent years to cope with Bolivia's promotion to the A-list of adventurous travel.

For the tour operators, the strike has been a financial disaster during one of their busiest periods of the year.

"It hasn't been possible to send anyone anywhere in these conditions," Rodriguez de Ortiz said earlier this week. "It is too dangerous. There's a group stuck in Corioco (a popular mountain biking destination) since Sunday and it's impossible for them to get back.

"We stopped our tours a month ago because we didn't know when the strikes would start. It's been very bad for business.

"We are trying to tell people that we have really nice places in Bolivia, lots of unspoilt landscape, but it's not possible for them to enjoy them at the moment.

"We are in high season now. We have many muchilleros (backpackers) here. But everything is closed. The road to Cusco has been closed for a month."

Normally four or five buses a day make the nine-hour trip to Cusco. But most tour operators have been advising travelers to get out of La Paz by air.

The road from La Paz has been subjected to flash blockades and the scene of violent clashes between police and protesters.

Franck Germain and Severine Hubert, a French couple six weeks into a year-long trip around South America, were stuck in La Paz for five days and planned to fly to Chile.

With protesters having cut off fuel supplies to La Paz, they were preparing to take a taxi to the airport almost 24 hours before their flight was scheduled to leave.

"We are fed up with the blockades and we're trying to get out by plane," said Germain.

"We've had enough of Bolivia. We'll come back next year when there's a new government."

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