Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Unpredictability of Public Transportation in Bolivia

Traveling around Bolivia can be quite the adventure, considering 75% of the roads are unpaved.  The plus side to this: no worries about getting stuck in traffic!  The negative: some of the routes can be quite bumpy (as we experienced traveling between Potosí and Uyuni and on the Salt Flats tour) or downright dangerous (there is a reason there is a former major route known as the Death Road).  So imagine how excited Sam and I were to find out that there was an actual train between Uyuni and the town of Oruru, which you have to pass through to get to La Paz, our next destination.  Of course, we could have taken the bus, which was not dangerous, but from what we heard extraordinarily bumpy, not to mention no bathroom (which is not very appealing for a 7-hour bus ride).  And even better, for a mere 112 Bolivianos, or $16 per person, we could ride in the Executive class, which has seats that recline almost all the way.  Win!

Thankfully the timing of our Salt Flats tour and the departure of the train worked out perfectly, since the train only leaves a few times per week.  We just had to find a way to kill 8 hours in Uyuni.  No problem--we grabbed dinner with some of our new friends we made on the Salt Flats tour, checked our e-mail at one of the several internet cafes, then went to a couple bars.  Finally when the last place closed at the late hour of 11:00 pm (would have closed earlier if not for the fútbol game that was on) we headed off to the train station.  It was a tad chilly, but no worries, I had my numerous layers and handy alpaca hat and double-thickness gloves.  We were told the train would start to board at 11:35 pm, a half hour before our train was to leave, so we found a place to hang out for the time being. 

So 11:35 rolls around and no sign of the train, but at this point we're not surprised, being that things don't seem to happen on time anyway.  Plus we knew we were at the right place at the right time since we saw a couple Swedish girls we had met when we went to buy the train tickets.  

Midnight comes and we see Sam's classmates from his first week of Spanish classes.  We had run into them at dinner and they told us their train down to Uyuni had been an hour late, so it was not too disconcerning to us that our train had not yet appeared.  A slight annoyance, but not that big of a deal.

More time passes, and no sign of the train.  Of course no one seems to be working at the train station to let us know what is happening, and definitely no handy signs like you see in Amtrak stations telling you when the train is due to arrive.

More times passes, and after two nights of little sleep I feel like I can barely keep my eyes open.  Even though I am not the least bit hungry, I snack on some Pringles to stay awake (so many American snacks all over Bolivia).

More time passes, and despite the slience and numerous people napping on the floor someone is talking very loudly to no one in particular.  I was too fatigued to try to figure out what he was saying, but it sounded like he was ranting about something.

Finally at around 1:00 am someone comes out to announce that there is a problem with the train and it won't be there until at least 4:30 am.  Whaaaaaat?

After not showering for almost 4 days and two nights of fitful sleep, I am less than pleased.  All I want to do is get to La Paz, shower, and sleep.  Thankfully Sam's classmates, who had wisely rented a hotel room for the night to hang out in until the supposed departure time, said they had an extra bed that we could crash in for the next few hours.

Off to the hotel in the now completely deserted Uyuni.  After an hour of sleep we are jolted awake by the sound of a train arriving just after 2:00 am.  After a brief moment of panic that we had missed our train, we realized it was the other train arriving that was going south to the border with Argentina.  Back to sleep and 2 hours later we are woken to Sam's alarm going off at 4:00 am.

It's back to the train station, which somehow during the time we were gone had filled with people who had set up makeshift beds all over the station floor.  (These people obviously know what they are doing!)  We ran into the Swedish girls again, so we knew we hadn't missed the train.  More waiting and wondering, and finally, miraculously, at 5:45 am, with the sun was starting to make its apperance, the train arrived!  And it was better than I could have hoped for--a surprisingly nice bathroom (nicer than any we had seen on our Salt Flats tour), and wonderful seats to sleep on!  At 6:00 am as I was drifting off to sleep as I felt the train depart the station.  Finally!

After that it was a thankfully uneventful ride.  We were woken at 9:00 am to the movie The Cave dubbed in Spanish playing loudly, ham and cheese sandwhiches, and orange fanta.  Mmmm, soda for breakfast.  The train pulled into the Oruro station just after noon.  

We grabbed a cab with the Swedish girls, bought our bus tickets to La Paz, and had a very tasty and filling Bolivian lunch.  It was then off to the sprawling city of La Paz, set in the valley between the mountains, where we had booked a very nice hotel and I had the best shower of my life, an amazing night's rest, and an awesome buffet breakfast (can you tell yet how important food is to me?), and then it was off to the tropics of the Amazonian region of Bolivia, to the town of Rurrenabaque.  And with that, dear readers, I shall leave you in anticipation of our very next tour!


  1. Guess you will always remember the details about this train ride!
    Your experience reminded me of a similar one when I leaving Paris [from studying abroad] to return to the US. The flight was a chartered one departing from a small airport - the entire airport was boarded up until one hour before departure! Finally the plane and attendants showed up and all ended well.
    Great photos! Looking forward to new postings.

  2. YAY! Great story.. that sounds really exciting, exhausting and unpredictable. Glad you made all those friends and way to be trusting and out-going :). Keep 'em coming.