A grand adventure part 3 – Buses from hell

I was high on my adventure travel buzz – either that or the newly acquired high altitude we were now in – and with a stiff upper lip accepted my fate. The steps into the bus began at chest level so it was with some feat of flexibility that I hoisted myself and my carry-on luggage into the creaking carriage. I tried not to look too closely at the rickety seats that had been all but stripped of their upholstery, and instead snuggled down as best I could to look out the window and enjoy views of Bolivia.

It was only an hour-and-a-half ride, so inbetween gazing out at gorgeous altiplano landscapes dotted with bizarre cacti, and some twitchy sleep, the Rustbucket Express wasn’t the bad experience I had anticipated.

Now we were in Tupiza – a more touristy town, with street-fulls of hostels, tour agencies and ‘Italian’ restaurants. Here, travellers come to go horseback riding in the badlands and relive where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allegedly met their ends. It’s also another place where you can start or finish tours of the Uyuni salt flats, so it was weird to be back being offered tour packages everywhere we turned, when we had completed that adventure some months – and many miles – ago.

Tupiza's market for breakfast

Tupiza’s market for breakfast

We made our first stop the essential market hall and had another delicious, recuperative soup, before finding a hostel. A few hours of sleep later and we set out to explore Tupiza and get our bus ticket for Atocha the next day. Afterwards, we ended up walking way out past the bus station, beyond the last row of houses and out into the countryside where we followed the already overgrown railway track past corn fields, and horses grazing, with beautiful birdsong and stunning red rocky mountains all around.

Walking in the countryside outside Tupiza

Walking in the beautiful countryside outside Tupiza (note the overgrown rail tracks)

That night, our close relationship with thunderstorms continued. Holed up in a cosy ‘Italian’ restaurant, we enjoyed hearing the tremendous claps of thunder and watching through the window as the whole street was illuminated by lightning, until we realised we’d soon have to be splashing back to our hostel. The rainfall was so heavy, roads had turned into flowing rivers, with no hope of us crossing unless we wanted to be swept away down-current, so we took a long detour to the upper streets where the water ran shallower and we were able to hop across to our side of the town!

Day 5
We got on the 10am bus for Atocha, which is supposed to take two-and-a-half hours. If I had known what was to follow, I would probably never have set foot on the bus. After just a few metres of paved road out of Tupiza, we turned off onto what looked like a silt riverbed, and that was our road for the next what was to become four arduous hours.

The 'road' (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

The ‘road’ (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

It got even worse when the ‘road’ started winding up mountainsides and our tall bus leaned and creaked as it seemingly impossibly negotiated hairpin bends, or started reversing on the edge of a precipice because a truck was coming in the other direction. Feeling hot and breathless, I reached to the air conditioning adjuster above my head, but all I found was a handful of wires hanging out of a hole. Somewhere behind me a baby was wailing. At regular intervals, I spotted memorial shrines set up on the edge of sheer drops by the side of the road.

The dusty road lined with cacti

The dusty road lined with cacti

These hours are probably among the most terrifying of my life. Thoughts of standing on solid ground once again and remembering Paddy in BA’s experience kept me going.

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

As the painful hours ticked by, and with the dust track visible as far as the eye could see across the desolate altiplano landscape in front of us, we began to question whether this was actually the bus for Atocha. Then finally, finally, joy of joys, after one last cliffhanging bend complete with memorial shrine, Atocha appeared.

First impressions of Atocha (not good, though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

First impressions of Atocha (not good; though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

I practically fell out of the bus and would’ve kissed the ground if I hadn’t needed to run so fast to get to the toilet.

Everyone else on the bus was continuing on to Uyuni, and even though we were to be left stranded in this bizarre and bleak mining town that doesn’t get tourists, I had no intention of stepping back on that bus. Please let the trains be running from here!

Now go to part 4! And did you see parts 1 and 2?

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A grand adventure part 2 – Chasing trains

We hadn’t given up hope on the train just yet, as in these parts you can rarely get a straight story – tales ranged from that the train hadn’t been running for two years, to that a bridge was swept away in the recent rains. When we finally reached the station, nobody could be found, but opposite was a small guesthouse where the young woman owner gave the straight facts – the track had been damaged and so the train hasn’t been running for a month – but – there was hope! It was only the stretch between Villazon and Atocha – from the latter we should be able to pick up the train that leaves in two days time!

Full of optimism and the relief that we would at least be sleeping in a bed not a bus seat tonight, we checked into her guesthouse and I took a very long hot shower.

Villazon often gets a bad press from travel bloggers – described as dodgy and a place to hurry through quickly. But I felt nothing sinister about the women setting up their food and drink carts for the day, the uniformed children scurrying diligently to school, the hardworking men loading up cars and vans (yes, with what were probably illegally imported goods, but heh).

We headed to the Mercado (market hall) for breakfast, and I was so happy to be pushing my way through vibrant Andean stalls again, with plump, multi-skirted women seated among their wares of enormous fruits and vegetables, flame-red gladioli, unfathomable piles of eggs, and uncountable other useful products and nick-nacks.

Typical Andean market hall scene

Typical Andean market hall scene. Photo: Rachel Ricks

All these markets smell the same too – the air is pungent with fruit and vegetables as fresh as you can get them, along with raw meat. Comidas (food) was upstairs, and we joined a long row of tables to be served the most delicious meal I’d had in a long time – a big bowl of peanut soup with pasta, potato and a hunk of meat. Just what the doctor ordered, before we returned to the guesthouse and to bed for a few hours’ sleep catch-up.

Day 4
We rose early to get to the bus station for our 7am bus to Tupiza. Buses in Bolivia are of an entirely different calibre to their Argentinean counterparts we’d come to enjoy. No ultra-modern, high-luxury vehicles here. Most that we watched pull in and out of the terminal were weird and tall and 1970s-looking with ear-shattering engines. I spotted one pull in to beat them all – a bus that was riddled with rust and in fact had lost its entire rear undercarriage to the affliction. I nudged Carlos – “Look – I bet that’s ours! Check the ticket – I bet it says ‘Rustbucket Bus Lines’!” Again, I should have known better in Bolivia – it was our bus.

Rusty bus from Villazon

Rusty bus from Villazon

Did you see part 1? Go on to part 3!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A grand adventure: Iguazu to Cusco. Part 1 – Which way?

It all started in Iguazu – the town from where you visit the eponymous falls. The falls were spectacular, a real highlight in my life (see my Iguazu Falls story). However, back at the hotel that night, it was time for practicalities. The problem with Iguazu is it’s miles away from anywhere. We had taken a bus from Buenos Aires that took no less than 20 hours to reach here, and it was looking like journey times of 24 hours upwards to get out the other side.

Rapidly running out of money, we had decided in overpriced Buenos Aires to return to Peru, and planning the best route was proving tricky. Iguazu is way up on the tip of a promontory of Argentina that juts between Paraguay and Brazil,  and on the map, it looks very sensible indeed to go straight up through either of these countries to reach Peru, rather than do a dog’s leg through Argentina before heading northwards. However, a trawl through online forums brought comments such as, “if you want to take the most arduous, painful, endurance-testing journey of your life” – on bus travel in Paraguay, while the Brazil route would involve traversing the Pantanal – a vast wetland covering 21,000 sq km (apparently “the size of Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Holland combined”). So, there was no other way round it – the best way meant getting to the north-west of Argentina, traversing  Bolivia and out through Lake Titicaca to Peru.

Now the added issue was, as those of you who know me know, I love travel, but unlike my good friend the Overland Traveller, I do not always enjoy the travelling part. I have what’s bordering on a phobia of buses and am prone to horrendous motion sickness, so imagine how I felt at the thought of days and nights of long bus journeys ahead – however more comfortable than Paraguay it would be.

So this is my tale of what happened…

Day 1
We needed to get to Salta, in north-west Argentina, from where buses headed north to the border with Bolivia. However, our first obstacle was that no bus companies run direct from Iguazu to Salta, but eventually we worked out that they would sell a combined ticket where you take a bus with one company as far as the transport hubs of Posadas or Corrientes and then change onto your 20-hourer up to Salta. The kind assistant at Iguazu’s ticket office must’ve felt our increasing stress levels as she even slipped us into cama class for the stretch to Posadas, and cama ejecutivo to Salta, all for semi-cama prices – score!

So at 10am we boarded our bus at Iguazu that hurtled at an alarming rate along a muddy road through to Posadas. By 2.30pm we’d arrived at Posadas, and with just a couple of hours until the next bus, we set up camp in the terminal’s old-school cafe. At 4pm it was time to board our night-bus for Salta. Three movies, a chicken dinner and a fairly decent sleep later and we reached…

Inside the Flecha bus from Posadas to Salta

Inside the cama Flecha bus from Posadas to Salta (18 hours)

Day 2
…Salta at around 10.30am. We decided to keep our journey ball rolling and get tickets for that night to La Quiaca – Argentina’s border town with Bolivia. We had already spent five days in Salta three months ago, so didn’t need to spend another night here. We knew the centre was an easy stroll away, and knew where to get our lunch (Vea supermarket, Florida) and dinner (Doña Salta, Cordoba 46); we even slipped in a cable-car ride up the mountain and a trek back down. Then an almighty thunderstorm rolled in – we were soaked within seconds and still had to get to the bus terminal. Cue some soggy socks and t-shirts hanging on the rail in the bus (lucky we had the front seats). And so on with our next overnighter, departing with spectacular views through the front window of the electric storm in the mountains all around Salta.

The calm before the storm in Salta

The calm before the storm in Salta

Day 3
5.30am: Arrival in La Quiaca (we think).
I woke at some hour of darkness with my mouth stuck to the armrest and to the unmistakable sound of Bolivian women’s high-pitched, screamy voices, and deduced it was time to get off the bus. We blurrily gathered our belongings and stumbled out the door into what immediately felt like Bolivia – the air was freezing cold, the ground was dusty and there were lots of well-wrapped Bolivians sitting with big piles of boxes and bags.

I immediately had that thrilling pang of adventure kick in again – Argentina and Uruguay had been very nice in places, but I felt a little too much like I was in a wannabe 1980s-Europe most of the time, so getting back to the nitty-gritty of South America was an exciting prospect. One of the things I love best about travel is sometimes not knowing where on earth you are, and this was one of those moments. For a time, you have no fear, nor even concern as to what happens next, you’re simply living the present. And usually, everything does work out alright; we walked straight to a taxi, which dropped us within minutes to the border crossing – easy.

Now we just had to wait two hours in the icy cold until the border offices opened. I dug out all the woolly clothes I had faithfully carried round sweaty Argentina and Uruguay, knowing I would regret throwing them away. Then we sat on our backpacks with our sleeping bags wrapped round us, watching as dozens of people casually passed indifferently across the border in either direction – some hurrying to work, some drunk teenagers staggering home.

Finally the sun began to rise and staff slowly emerged to unlock the offices and we were through! Within a few steps we were in the Bolivian town of Villazon, through which we staggered with quick stops for toilets and money exchange on the way to the train station. Yes, we were to take a break from buses and make use of the railway that runs from Villazon to Oruro – saving some 18 hours of Bolivian buses and roads.

But, knowing Bolivia, I kind of guessed what would happen next – everyone we asked directions for the railway station shook their heads and warned us there were no trains! No! Please tell me we don’t have to cross Bolivia entirely by bus?!

Rachel and Salta's cable car

Me and Salta’s cable car

Salta in downpour

Salta in downpour

You can now go to part two!

Dear Driver

Anyone who’s travelled has been there – the rusty vehicle, the splintered windscreen, the hairpin bends, the lack of seatbelts, the honking horns. It’s the aspect of travel I hate most – sitting powerless in a car or bus as the driver hurtles me to certain death (so I convince myself as my white knuckled hands clench the seat tighter). So this is what I would like to say to them:

Dear Driver,

I know you’re in a hurry to drop this lot of people off so you can shoot back and get the next load in – more people, more money. But does it never occur to you that maybe you won’t ever get to enjoy that money if you carry on driving like this? Thought not. So may I be so bold as to drop you a few tips to ensure you – and your passengers – get to see out the rest of your days…

Number 1 – seatbelts aren’t there just to hurriedly put on when you spot a police car, only to take off again once the cops are out of sight. Why not just keep it on? It’s really no trouble. And please ensure all your passengers are wearing theirs, too – if I’m sitting in the front, I don’t want to be crushed by five people from behind me when you brake too hard, as invariably you will (also see number 4).

Number 2 – hairpin bends on precipitous mountainsides are really not the choice spot for overtaking nor for looking at your mobile phone (also see number 3).

Number 3 – could you please not spend a mean average of five minutes with your eyes not on the road but checking your mobile phone at regular intervals? Just a suggestion.

Number 4 – another idea, don’t know what you’ll think, but how about not driving so insanely fast that when something does get in your way or the car in front isn’t going as fast, then you won’t have to brake so aggressively, therefore saving us all a bit of whiplash?

Number 5 – the horn. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the horn is actually not supposed to be used in conjunction with the accelerator. I.e. hooting at pedestrians in the road but not slowing down to avoid hitting them won’t really pass in the eyes of the law. Same goes for overtaking on blind spots – honking the horn does not bring salvation.

Number 6 – ok, I get it – you want to overtake everything else on the road, but if you really must insist on doing so, once you’ve overtaken, is there any chance you could then return to the correct side of the road? It’s not fun to wait until something is coming rapidly towards us in the other direction to then swerve jerkily – and terrifyingly – out of the way at the last second.

Number 7 – finally, the music. If I must spend the entire journey with my life flashing before my eyes, the last thing I need as the soundtrack is a plinky-plonky, wailing cassette tape playing on loop and at top volume for four hours.

Thanks ever so much.

Yours in eternal hope,

Rachel

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

See also my post on buses from hell