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…
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…
…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.
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?!
You can now go to part two!