Escaping Bolivia or Busses, Busses, Busses

It seems it has become my job to write posts about busses. I have written about busses in China, Thailand, Turkey, and now South America. As you probably know if you have read our previous posts, the Devil’s bus company, Todo Turismo, chucked us in the middle of Bolivia at 3:00 in the morning with no immediate way out. After our fight with them, which got us absolutely nowhere, we decided that we would skip La Paz entirely and hop a couple busses through Chile to Peru, a task much easier said than done. Joining us on our excursion were Simon and Bluesy, a couple of Oxford guys doing a South American tour and a Frenchman who we think is named Stephan but aren’t quite sure because he rarely if ever talked. Our plan consisted of hopping a bus from Oruro to Iquique, Chile then getting another to Arica, Chile, another to Tacna, Peru, another to Arequipa, Peru, and finally a last to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Our first task would be to find a way out of the dreary mining town of Oruro, so a contingent headed over to the bus station as the sun was rising around 7:00 am. Unfortunately for us the first bus out of Oruro wasn’t until 11:30. We managed to stage a sit-in in the Todo Turismo office until this time. The employees were not happy since they had planned on forcing us all into cabs and leaving at 3:00, but Simon and Dad made it clear we weren’t going anywhere. The employees just played cards while we hatched our escape plan, ate the Oreos we were supposed to receive on the bus, did internet research on their computer, and continued to question why they had abandoned us in this unseemly town.

The town of OruruHanging out in the Todo tourism officeThe bus that couldn't get us there

When the appointed hour arrived, we hopped on the bus to Iquique and bade a bitter and not so sweet farewell to the challenged country of Bolivia. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t the most pleasant of busses. (Bolivian busses are not known for their comfort.) It had little leg room, and I swear the bus driver must have been drunk or just out of Bolivian driver’s ed. He dodged and weaved on the mostly unpaved roads and we struggled to keep our Oreos down. Four hours later in the middle of the desert, we made yet another unpleasant border crossing, which took quite some time due to Chile’s super strict customs restrictions.

We finally arrived in our first stop, Iquique, at 9 pm. We immediately booked a bus to Arica and went out to find some food. The best place we found was a pizza parlor that was open late. The rest of the town was already closed for the night. We ate heartily due to the fact we had eaten nothing earlier in the day, watched some of the Copa America Cup, and waited for our 1:00 am departure.

Getting on the second of 4 buses, already tired

We left the pizza place around 12:30 and started to make our way to the pickup point…not the actual bus station but a hole in the wall across from the central market. A street sweeper warned the us the way we had chosen to walk was “peligro” so we changed our route. It was eerie wandering through the silent, graffitti-ridden, Chilean streets, but we had little choice in the matter and figured if nothing else, there was safety in numbers. Our motley crew arrived early with high hopes for our first real Chilean bus. When we boarded, however, we were utterly disappointed. We had heard Chile had some of the world’s best busses, but this one was more like a Greyhound from the 50’s that had at one time or another been abandoned in the middle of the desert only to be found again and put back into service. Fortunately we managed to sleep through the majority of this bus ride and awoke around 6:00 am to another sunrise and the sight of the Arica bus station. From here we attempted to find a ticket to Tacna across the Peruvian border, a difficult task. Everyone had a different story. One misguided desk worker trying to sell us a ticket all the way through even told us that the ride from Arequipa to Puno was only one hour (it turned out to be closer to seven).

We found a nice tourist information guy who hooked us up with some cars to take us to the Chile-Peru border. These colectivos cost $6 for each of us (more expensive than a lot of bus tickets) and were mostly old 1980’s Chrysler K cars, something I never knew existed but my vintage ’80’s parents found funny. Our driver was really nice and guided us through one of the oddest border crossings we’ve encountered. It involved being dropped off by the colectivo on one side, waiting in a long line and then getting stamped out of Chile, getting back in the taxi and waiting in another line and getting stamped into Peru. Once in Tacna, yet another dreary desert town, we split up with Stephan, who had booked the expensive bus from Arica, and took a local bus with Simon and Bluesy to Arequipa.

As soon as we got on the bus, we noticed something strange. There was a woman spreading clothes all over the bus and spraying them with some liquid from a bottle. An old man sitting in the back started placing bags on the overhead shelves in the front and middle of the bus, creating a perimeter around us. We started moving his bags back towards the back of the bus where he was sitting. As soon as we were finished doing this he moved them right back. Suspecting a thieving scheme in the works, we confronted him and asked “Why are you putting your bags here?” He responded, “My wife!” We then moved the bags once again, and this time he didn’t try and move them back.

This bus, although brand new and equipped with TVs, was full of locals doing weird things. We decided we would be better off to keep our eyes open and stay awake the entire ride just to be sure none of our bags walked away. This turned out to be a good strategy because every 10 minutes or so the bus would stop and a long line of salespeople would board. They would walk up and down the aisle displaying their goods, usually bizarre food items and warm drinks. The steward showed three movies–Benchwarmers, Firewall, and Assault on Precinct 13–which helped us stay awake during the 6 hour ride. We arrived in Arequipa with all our possessions in tact but were tired and sick of busses (we had been on them for almost 2 whole days). Here we split up with Simon and Bluesy; they continued on to Puno while we decided to take a rest and stop over in Arequipa for the night (don’t worry…we would run into them again in Cusco). We were finished with busses for the moment, but our plagued relationship with these giant pieces of steel would all too soon resume.

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2 thoughts on “Escaping Bolivia or Busses, Busses, Busses

  1. So, Andruss family. If you had to do it all over again, though this time starting in South America….would you have flown home and said forget the rest?! haha. Oh but you saw some beautiful things even with all the headaches.

    Glad to hear the trip is over in just a few more hours really. I hope you have a safe flight and a wonderful first night back in your own beds!! I’ve so enjoyed reading all your stories and seeing all the pictures. I still have to go back and read the posts pre-Oprah though!

    Safe travels, Carolyn

  2. I’ve been with you for the entire journey and hate to see it end! I admire each of you for your stamina and resilience. I will soon welcome you home to the US, proud to have been part of your travels, albeit vicariously.

    Be safe and Thanks for all the fun!

    Jean the VB family

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