INTRO: Taking a Bus in South America
The journey from Potosi, Bolivia back to Buenos Aires officially marks my final and ´crowning´ bus journey in South America. It is only now, armed with four months of perspicacity, that I´ve figured out the decoded language that was once all too foreign to my ears. Having logged over 15,000 kilometers I feel I´ve just about seen it all. To put this into perspective, it´s the equivalent of doing a ´return´ road trip from Vancouver to Halifax twice! However, much unlike the paved and spacious Trans-Canada highway, the road conditions I´ve encountered here have included paths that were nothing short of white knuckle nightmares. The bus rides were unforgettable for both the best and worst reasons plausible. The astonishing scenery, at times, dazzled my every sense, yet, the constant scams, lies and abhorrent conditions of both the buses and roads made for some formidable moments. Anyhow, getting back on topic, the concept of deception is no doubt a part of being a passenger in South America. Being the fool that I am, more often than not I took promises at face value. However, I´ve now become privy to the what certain promises actually entail in reality. If you´ll take the time I´d like to share some of my experiences with you.
One would generally think, direct service means literally going from point A to point B without making any unnecessary stops. If I´m wrong please correct me on this. However, direct service from the outpost in Ecuador to Quito, Ecuador meant getting on board a fake PanAmerican Bus (quite a reputable international service company) and stopping off in every little dusty hole you can imagine to pick up passengers, who frequently got on and off the bus, along with ´unofficial´ stops at VERY off the beaten path warehouses where conspicuous looking crates were on and off loaded by shifty hands. Finally, the ´direct´ bus arrived in Quito over 5 hours later than scheduled, at an ungodly hour (3am), in an unofficial part of town with no street lighting, taxis, hotels or hostels anywhere in close proximity.
As I´m waxing on nostalgic, a direct pus from Potosi, Bolivia to Buenos Aires, Argentina meant leaving at 3pm, a full 6 hours later than the promised 9am departure schedule, after spending an impossibly long 5 hours at customs searching for contraband on Bolivian passengers who are notorious for entering either illegally with or without drugs. After finally crossing the border, it meant stopping off at Jujuy for no apparent reason, with the immediate demand that ALL passengers get off the bus. Our bus with our main bags is then driven off to some service depot and we´re stuck waiting at this unfamiliar bus station late at night wondering whether we´ll see our bus or valuables ever again. Finally, another bus arrives back at the station several hours later with our bags and the direct service now leads us to every bloody town imaginable where passengers hop on and off at will. Compounding things was the fact our bus full of visible minorities was stopped by no less than four military checkpoints. Argentinian soldiers boarded our bus, checked our passports and ripped apart the bags of select Bolivian passengers. Clearly discriminatory, the procedure added hours to our journey. What was supposed to be a day and a half trip ended up totaling 49 hours! A full 12 hours behind schedule we finally pulled into Retiro station, the largest bus terminal I´ve ever seen in my life feeling groggy, ravenous, dehydrated, disoriented and tired beyond belief, yet, absolutely thrilled to have completed my final bus journey.
There were countless other examples of direct buses not quite living up to the those exact standards, but these were the two most vivid examples I can
MEAL ON BOARD
A delicious hot meal shall be served told the lady selling me the bus ticket. You´ll get a full sized meal twice on your journey of 24 hours. Well going from Lima, Peru to Tumbles, Peru we got fed a grand total of once. A miniscule two slices of bread with a thin spread of margarine and a soggy slice of processed meat with no accompanying beverages. It wouldn´t have been so bad had we been given the opportunity to purchase food or beverages at some roadside stops along the way. I´m all for fasting but kind of enjoy having it self directed not enforced. What made this experience even worse was that I got robbed at the border crossing into Equador. In my guidebook, clearly stated as the worst border crossing, I had been warned by a friend who had been robbed about 10 days prior about this infamous border. Feeling clever and well informed I figured I could avoid this madness by taking a more reputable option. It ended up being the worst experience of my entire time in South America as I was taken to a back door warehouse ´mafia style´ demanded to hand over the equivalent of $50 USD. Luckily, I was not harmed physically or had my valuables stolen. The thieves dropped me off in no-man’s-land and I had to figure out the border crossing on foot, across the most seedy looking illegal market one could ever imagine.
COMFORT COMES AT A PRICE
Bolivia is known for its horrific road conditions. Cities and towns only a few hundred kilometers apart can take up to half a day or even a full 24 hours to reach by bus. Part of this is natural given the impossibly difficult terrain which is compounded immensely by the fact the government itself has invested next to nothing to ensure quality and safety are paramount in any way, shape or form. Anyhow, after enduring the worst of road conditions on my initial northbound route, I decided to ride in style going south from La Paz (current capital) to Sucre (former capital) of Bolivia. Paying nearly three times as much as a regular bus, I purchased a Cama ticket, the most posh coach available. Spacious reclining seats, a toilet graced by Mr. Clean himself and food and beverages were all part of the promised deal. Things start off well. I meet a traveler who I haven´t seen in a few weeks. A well traveled lady from Wales in her mid 30´s who has traveled extensively to over 60 countries. Everything is dandy as I have good company and my seat comfortably reclines although I notice it is without a seatbelt. However, the shenanigans begin when I feel the urge to go to the bathroom. The door is locked. Why? I ask the bus driver and he informs me that the toilet is broken which immediately sets off my internal bs detector, a well oiled machine, time tested and true in South America. We finally stop at some dusty roadside shanty town., a place the bowels of the earth may have rejected. A group of us with screaming bladders dart off the bus with the vehemence of a prowling cheetah to relieve ourselves on the side of the road, hardly the comfort we supposedly paid for. Time progresses and we also come to the effectuation we´re not going to get even a crumb for dinner. We´re now down two of the luxuries we´ve supposedly paid for with our relatively expensive tickets. However, we´ve got positive plucky attitudes and with just 5 hours left on our journey we can make it without grumbling too severely. Well, not exactly. The bus comes to a screeching halt in the wee hours just past midnight. We look outside and notice nothing but mountains 360 degrees around us. We´re in the middle of nowhere, the temperature is subzero as it´s officially winter in the southern hemisphere. We´re up in the high altitude region of the Andes some thousands of kilometers above sea level. The bus has broken down. We have no idea what is going on. A clever young lad who speaks English well enough informs us that the gear box is totalled and we´re stranded. With only meager blankets provided we´re FREEZING cold and shivering. Trying our best to focus on anything but the bleak conditions, we desperately attempt to catch some shuteye but are awaken every 10 to 15 minutes by our shivering bodies feverishly trying to warm up. Instead of keeping the bus turned on to provide some minimal warmth, the asinine driver shut turns off the ignition locking us inside with the bathroom still locked! The mob begins to grumble and suddenly I notice somebody hammering on the door of the bus driver demanding intensely that the washroom be opened immediately irregardless of its condition. Initially the request is denied, but others join in and finally the bus driver driven by surmounting pressure is forced to open it. Low and behold not a single thing is wrong with the toilet other than the fact it likely HAS NOT been cleaned in months. Finally in service, the filth pit was so unbelievably disgusting it probably would have been more sanitary soiling our pants than daring to set foot inside. Others decide to bear the elements and force the driver to open up the door of the bus. The desperate passengers, benumb all the while, squat on the side of the road, nearly freezing off vital appendages, a daunting task for anyone. We somehow hope that after a few hours we will be rescued but our reprieve does not come until a full 8 hours later. We bare the sub zero conditions in darkness. Our new bus finally arrives to the sound of roaring cheers. Desperately exhausted, yet relieved we reload our bags and we´re finally on our way to our final destination. However, during this period of instability, over half of the passengers have jumped aboard vehicles offering hitchhiking services. By the time we board our salvation bus it is literally half empty. You would think the bus company might be in a hurry to get us to our final destination given the circumstances. You would be totally wrong. The driver with an uncharacteriscally empty bus decides to pick up passengers randomly along the way. We stop in every which direction as a loud mouth assistant shouts out of the window trying to fill every seat on the bus. It´s clear that 100% of the proceeds are going directly in the bus driver´s pockets as these are unofficial passengers. The toilet on the new bus has also been locked and we have not eaten or drank anything for close to 20 hours. Upon fierce demand the bus driver finally stops at a corner store. Realizing there are no potential passengers at this station, he gives us literally two minutes to purchase sodas and junk food and or relieve ourselves. Finally we arrive in Sucre. The trip was a scheduled 12 hours but ends up being 24. We ask for some kind of compensation or refund given the whole ordeal but the man behind the counter smiles and starts laughing uncontrollably. It takes every once of restriction not to run my fist all over his face. He most comfortably explains, we got you here, what´s the problem?
SAFE BORDER CROSSING
Crossing the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border is a horror gong-show. Even in my guidebook the warning is simple and well stated: the worst border in all of South America – truly quite a feat because the competition is damn fierce. Warned in a advance by a friend, I figure I´ll be okay with a company claiming to take me across directly. Well, can you guess what happened? I´m dropped off several kilometers from either border post. I´m now faced with the same situation my friend encountered. Deciding to take a taxi finally I´m dropped off at the Peruvian side for my exit stamp. Things appears to be going well until we get into no-man’s-land where I´m taken to a warehouse mafia style and demanded to pay a hefty $50 fee. Completely outnumbered I feel beyond lucky that I have not been physically harmed and that my belongings have not been confiscated. I reluctantly oblige and they dump me outside somewhere not even close to the Ecuadorian border. I meet up with another stranded traveler and we finally find our way to the crossing on foot first passing the seedy looking unofficial markets (think contraband) I´ve ever seen in my whole life. Check out what this person has to say about it all:
CONCLUSIONS: FINAL THOUGHTS
Taking a bus in South America is an experience for better or worse. It´s how most travel, since flying often means paying through the teeth for a ticket that costs nearly as much as flight to your country of origin. Although Chile and Argentina offer generally high standards of service making your way through the Andean countries is well, WOW! The memories I have from these bus journeys I´ll keep with me an entire lifetime, but during the most intense moments the heinous conditions were prostrating. I guess having survived it all I can laugh about it now knowing full well the ¨joy rides¨ are firmly in the rearview mirror 🙂
Sammy J 😛