Bolivian bus tips

Someone recently asked me for tips about overnight buses in Bolivia. Try to get firsthand information as much as possible. By this, I mean ask other people you meet what their experiences have been. There are tons of horror stories out there, and I’ve had some pretty bad rides myself, but I’ve also had good journeys too (and no-one ever tells stories about those). Buses vary greatly between routes and companies (even within companies sometimes), so take the chance to get detailed information when you can.

GENERAL TIPS

Buy bus tickets at the bus station. You’ll be able to checkout the different companies and maybe save a little commission by not going through an agency. Often, companies won’t sell tickets in advance (the night before the day of travel is usually the earliest, but I have managed a week in advance once). A very general rule is that every hour of the journey costs 10Bs (e.g. La Paz to Sucre cost 120Bs and takes about 12 hours). Of course, you might get stuck in a blockade or diversion in which case your journey could be much longer.

Splurge for cama. Like other countries in South America, Bolivia has different levels of comfort and price. I’ve been on a cama bus that was as good as any in Argentina, but I’ve also been on a cama that most definitely wasn’t. However, if you can afford it (which you probably can in Bolivia) then go for the best quality you can. If it doesn’t turn out to be so great, just think of how awful it could have been if you’d gone for the cheaper seat.

Bring snacks. Sometimes buses stop where you can buy food, sometimes they don’t. Most of the time people get on the buses to sell you food (sandwiches, bread, dried snacks, jelly etc.), but it’s not always the most appetizing or hygienic. Plus, if your journey gets delayed (see above) you’ll be stuck on the bus getting hungrier and hungrier if you didn’t bring anything. Better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

Go to the bathroom when you can. I’ve yet to see a bus that has a bathroom, or, if it does have one, that passengers aren’t allowed to use it. Buses do stop for toilet breaks, but not regularly. They might be at a service station where you have to pay to use the (usually poor) facilities, or they might just be in the middle of nowhere with a few bushes for cover. In this latter case, I recommend not straying too far (despite the desire for privacy) because once the driver decides to leave, he won’t wait for you.

Dress for all temperatures. Some buses have heating, some don’t and the nights in Bolivia can get very cold. If you’re travelling in the altiplano, take a blanket or sleeping bag with you. I’ve even worn scarf, hat, gloves and multiple socks before! Likewise with air conditioning, it’s not guaranteed so wear layers that you can strip off if it gets too hot.

Carry all valuables on your person. I’ve never heard stories of crime on Bolivian buses (unlike in Argentina), but it’s better not to risk anything. Have them easily accessible because there are occasionally police checks (though mostly only during the day time). Don’t leave anything on the bus if you disembark during a rest stop.

Take medicine with you. I class medicine as valuables. Once you get sick in Bolivia, you’ll understand why. Especially with the lack of toilets on buses, you’ll need loperamide and motion sickness pills if you do get sick. Throw in some aspirin for good measure too.

Don’t travel during holiday periods. Not only is this a busier time, but drivers are more likely to be drunk or hungover. Note that Bolivians tend to start their partying a day or two before the official holiday and continue a few days later too.

SPECIFIC JOURNEYS

Uyuni to La Paz:
100Bs, about 12 hours. I don’t remember the name of the company but it was one of several similar ones in Uyuni.
I have never been so cold in my life. They said there was heating, but there wasn’t, although they did give us blankets. I remember seeing frost on the inside of the window at one point. My legs were numb from the knees down, partly from cold and partly because there was no space to stretch (and my legs are not even that long). The road was incredibly bumpy in some parts (I kept dreaming of earthquakes) and we made detours to go and deliver some sacks to farms in the middle of nowhere. The only other option was a tourist bus that was almost three times the price. If I was doing it again, I think I might go for that.

La Paz to Sucre:
120Bs, 12 hours, El Dorado.
I bought cama, but when I got on I realised it was cama ejecutivo. It was a super new bus with really comfy seats that reclined almost totally horizontal. Plus heating! I didn’t even need a blanket. The road seemed to be in good condition as I don’t remember any uncomfortable patches.

La Paz to Santa Cruz:
175Bs, 17 hours, El Dorado & Bolívar.
Both were cama but El Dorado was a much newer, cleaner bus. The heating was on very low so I was cold until we reached lower altitude. When I returned from Santa Cruz, I saw at least two cockroaches on the Bolívar bus. The seat was also less comfortable despite it also being a cama, and it was a colder journey. I might have just had bad luck, because I saw other Bolívar buses which looked nice. The road is very curvy in parts (this time I dreamed about being on a roller-coaster) as it needs to make switchbacks between the high and low altitude areas.

Sucre to Tarija:
80Bs, 12 hours. There were only two companies running this route and they both looked the same in terms of quality.
They insisted it was cama, but it was more like semi-cama. It wasn’t the worst bus, but not the nicest either. The departure was at 4pm and arrived inconveniently at 4am in Tarija. I think if you’re not travelling between major cities, the schedules aren’t made to suit passengers. This journey included a bathroom stop ‘in nature’.

Tarija to Potosí:
80Bs, 10 hours. Don’t remember the company name.
Again, there was no choice about schedules so it arrived at an inconvenient time of around midnight. There were lots of companies running the route, mostly semi-cama. Nothing stands out about this journey; neither bad nor good.

Potosí to La Paz:
100Bs, about 9 hours, El Dorado.
I’ve used El Dorado quite often, and they’ve always been good. They were also the only company in Potosí who would sell us a ticket the day before rather than the day of travel. You have to go to the new bus station on the outskirts of town, not the old bus station where many buses will drop you off. It’s a cold overnight journey on the altiplano.

La Paz to Rurrenabaque:
I haven’t done this route. It’s an extension of the Death Road, except after Coroico it hasn’t been rebuilt yet. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has travelled there has returned by plane, even if they originally intended to take the bus.

What’s your experience with Bolivian buses? Are there any routes you would avoid? Any particular companies you would recommend? Leave a comment and help add to this list.

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Vinapho

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Yes, that’s pho. Yes, you can get it in La Paz. And yes, it’s good. Really good.

We discovered Vinapho shortly before Christmas. The sign for a Vietnamese restaurant had been up for ages, but since the premises showed no sign of life we assumed it was old and had been closed down a while. After a Game of Thrones marathon, we needed sustenance and headed out in search of food. And there it was, Vinapho, open and waiting to feed us delicious noodle soup.

The menu has changed a little since they opened. They now offer two sizes of pho as well as fried rice noodles, spring rolls and hotpot. They no longer give you a small dish in which to mix your soy sauce and chili. I’m guessing it’s because the waitress had to constantly explain to unenlightened Bolivians how to do it.

They also sell Korean beer and soju. I’m not sure why. The pho tastes better than at the Vietnamese chain restaurants I used to eat at in Seoul. It tastes almost as good as the home-made pho I used to buy from the tiny Vietnamese restaurant in Taiwan.

A word of warning: Since March, there was a sign in the window saying they were closed for two weeks for renovation. I’d been putting off publishing this post until they opened again, which has finally happened now that it’s June. Let’s hope they stay open now.

Address: Sanchez Lima (next to Hipermaxi supermarket) just off Plaza Avaroa.

Try more Asian food in La Paz at Corea Town and Chifa Dragon.

A boat ride in Valdivia

I loved Valdivia. Not in spite of, but because of the damp, misty weather. I loved the fish market we stumbled upon and the sea lions that surprised us. I loved the historical museum with the attendant who let us dry our shoes on the hot radiators (and this after her finding we had sneakily placed them there without asking. I am ashamed of this – really! – but my feet were just so wet).

One afternoon we took a tour boat. With a cold beer in hand and damp air around us, we rode slowly for a couple of hours through a hazy landscape of autumn foliage and mirror-like water. We got to an island somewhere, with an abandoned house that had been damaged first by earthquake and then by fire. We drank some homemade herb-flavored alcohol and then got back on the boat and stopped at a tiny village where we went into a wooden church. It was almost dark by this time and an old lady was selling miniature marzipan fruit outside as we left.

I could say that I don’t remember any concrete facts because it happened over a year ago. Or maybe it’s because of the dream-like landscape or the garbled Chilean Spanish.

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Catch a boat at the Feria Fluvial, 8,000 Chilean pesos per person for a four hour tour.

Horse-and-cart Waste Removal

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“It’s a social problem,” our homestay mother explained to us, as the horse-and-cart garbage collector picked the bags up from the curb.

I can’t speak to whether it’s a social problem or not, but it’s certainly a curiosity that in one of the most developed countries in Latin America, waste disposal is done in such an old fashioned way. I suppose it’s a reminder that outside of Montevideo and the glitzy and hippy beach towns, Uruguay is a very rural country.

Canarios del Chaco at Teatro Municipal

Whilst some things in Bolivia are relatively expensive, an evening out at the theatre isn’t. We paid 20Bs ($2.87) for a seat in the upper ring at the Teatro Municipal (the most expensive was 30Bs and the cheapest was 10Bs).

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The theatre itself was gorgeous – red velvet seats, painted ceilings and creaky wood floors – and worth the price alone considering we didn’t really know what the concert was going to be. The program said folk music, which we thought might be interesting so we went to buy tickets a few hours before the show (this being Bolivia, we got tickets numbered 1, 2 and 3 because we were the first people). They have a delightfully old-fashioned way of assigning seats; a wooden board with little holes arranged like the seating plan, with slips of paper curled up in the holes. Like some kind of carnival game, you choose where you want to sit and pull out the paper slips, which you need to keep safe for later finding your seats.

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The Canarios del Chaco are a group from Tarija, in southern Bolivia, so there were no charangos or zampoña. Instead the music used fiddles, guitars and drums. I recorded some songs with my iPod. Although the quality is not too great, you can still get an idea of the overall show.

It was a nice surprise to have some of the songs accompanied by dancers as we thought it was just going to be the musicians. This next video is my favourite; it not only has more twirling dancers, but also a religious icon carried on a litter, a guy in black costume and blackface, as well as some guys dressed in animal skins whipping each other with ropes. I wish I knew what it was all about!

This third video shows some very twirly skirts and some pretty awesome dance moves from the guys.

Incidentally, we saw a tiny boy in the audience dressed in the same costume as these guys. He later turned up on the side of the stage during the final song. I hoped he was going to dance, but he disappeared backstage so I can only guess he was a relative of one of the performers. You can see him briefly on the left in this final video. Be warned: it’s pretty long and they tried to get the audience to join in but I guess we weren’t prepared at first. However, by the end we’d got the hang of it and demanded an encore.