Bolivian Bus Adventures

I arrived at the bus terminal and purchased my ticket for the 18:00 bus from La Paz, Bolivia to Cordoba, Argentina with an estimated travel time of 40hrs. Yes, 40 hours, almost two full days spent on a bus. Not to worry, I had prepared myself with 4 liters of water, and copious amounts of snacks.

All would be fine, or so I thought.

Now the 40 hours had passed and I was the only Western person on a bus of local Bolivians, a bus which was lost in the deserts of Bolivia. With no information provide about our whereabouts or when we would finally start on route to the border, I was worn thin. Water was running low and discomfort was high. There were rumors that the bus was taken control by a cartel and all throughout the night cocaine had been distributed to small villages out the back of the bus. I realized that when the police came onto the bus at several checkpoints there were money exchanges and then they left with haste. Panic set in and all the worst thoughts went racing through my mind, but there was nothing I could do but wait and hope we would press onward.

The following morning the 5 men who were in control of the bus left and then a man who we didn’t recognize assured us there was nothing to fear and that after we stopped off in Uyuni, Bolivia we would be on our way. Given Uyuni is located only a 4–5 hour drive south of La Paz, the locals erupted with displeasure.

Once in the small town consisting of 2 main roads and a train graveyard, I rushed to the only internet cafe I could find and made contact with my family in the States. Now feeling a tad safer, the locals and I started talking and supporting each other. We replenished our supplies and after a warm meal walked back to the bus and to our complete astonishment, the bus had broken down. Another 4 hours past and we could finally leave. Feeling more confident that I would get to Argentina, I drifted to sleep.

I woke to the biting cold air that consumed the bus. We weren’t moving. I scanned the bus and most of the weary passengers were missing, so I wrapped myself in my alpaca scarf and jumper and ventured outside. We were in the mountains, apparently a staggering 5,100 meters up. You could feel how thin the air was. I asked the one Argentine woman I had befriended what was going on and she informed me that while I was asleep our back tire caught edge of the cliff and went flying to its death and we were fortunate that we didn’t follow.

Hours upon hours past. We were so cold that the driver lit the shrubs on the side of the mountain on fire. In an awe-inspiring blaze, we felt warmth for the first time in days. It kept burning for at least three hours as we lay staring at the sky. Even though we had gone through hell for almost four days, as I watched the night sky I felt happiness. There were so many stars it barely felt dark. The dazzling view above gave me comfort in a place I never thought I could find it. I felt stronger than ever before, when hours ago I thought all hope was lost.

After 10 hours stationary in the mountains, we were able to continue. I fell asleep on the bus again, to only be startled awake by the shouting of passengers. Once again the bus had broken down and we were still in the middle of the desert. The driver weakly defended himself, saying that a road block had forced him to drive our charter bus across barren, unpaved land. It wasn’t his fault, but tensions were so high that people cracked. At this point the Argentine woman, another local Bolivian woman and I decided to abandon the bus. We set off in the direction of the nearest town. After walking just shy of three hours we made it to the village. Once there we bartered with a local man to drive us the additional three hours to the border of Bolivia and Argentina. He agreed and finally we felt completely certain we would make it.

When we arrived at the border people stared and gawked at us. I was covered in a thick layer of dirt from head to toe. I bid farewell to the women and thanked them for their support through it all. Then I found a toilet, looked at myself in the mirror and started laughing. Then I started crying. I had made it; I was safe.

I had an additional 24 hours of busing to get back to Cordoba and only 29 hours until my flight departed to bring me home to New York, but at that point I was as cool as a cucumber. Nothing could be worse than the previous four days. Luckily, I was right. The 24 hours went smoothly and I arrived with 3 hours to get myself to the airport. When my host mother from the volunteer program I participated in months before saw me at her house, she screamed! I just laughed and told her a brief version of the escapade before rushing to the airport.

I don’t look back on that bus journey and think about all of the bad. I prefer to laugh and think of the stars and the way that the passengers looked out for each other. I tell people that story not to scare them of travel, but to show them that it’s possible to be put in strenuous, dangerous positions. I haven’t let it stop me from traveling on buses. As a matter of fact I am currently writing this story on a bus trip in Northern Thailand and who knows when I will arrive.

Middle of nowhere Bolivia — At least the views weren’t too bad!