The Night Bus to Villazón

13 May

I had a rough experience with a night bus my first week in Ecuador, resulting in my insane fear of taking other buses at night throughout Latin America. Yet with great distances and little time, it can often be an unavoidable thing to do. In Peru I took a night bus and noticed that at least the service was better, with few stops and a smooth road. In Argentina my opinion changed greatly, with the quality of the buses so good that I didn’t even consider it a risk. In fact, I began my trip with a night bus up to the Bolivian border without a thought.

Yet once in Bolivia, it was another story. This place had me a bit worried about taking a night bus, yet it was really my only option to get from Potosí to Villazón and return to Argentina, so I had to swallow my fears and go for it. I left Sucre on the 9 am bus, which really didn’t leave until about 9:40, causing us to get into Potosi (3 hours away) late, causing me to miss out on the 1:30 pm mine tour, which I had begun to consider again. I only had a few bolivianos left and didn’t want to change more because I was leaving the country, so I ate a cheap enough lunch and walked around the center for a while. I couldn’t even go into the Casa de la Moneda, a museum on the Spanish mint, because I didn’t have enough cash. With four hours before my bus I went to the station and waited in the new and empty-feeling terminal.

Before getting on the bus I chatted with a guy who was visiting his grandmother in Potosí, but lived in Buenos Aires. This helped me feel that at least one person on the bus could help me out if I needed something. Night fell along with the temperature and we boarded the cold bus for an eight hour trip down to the southern border. Reluctantly I noticed that I was given the worst seat in the bus, on the top and in the far back corner next to a couple and their young child who they kept on their lap. I had to argue with them to move out of my seat and then when they didn’t even get up, had to climb over them.

Once in the seat, I had the child’s feat kicking my legs during the ride while the father leaned into me, taking up all of the space. Normally it would be worth complaining about, but his body actually provided a little bit more heat on my right side, so I didn’t say anything. Every once in a while he would ask where we were and comment on the cold, but apart from that, they didn’t say anything to me, which was fine with me really. About 20 minutes after leaving the terminal every light in the bus was turned off, forcing us to try to go to bed at 8:30 pm.

Surprisingly, because I was so tired and felt secure in that no one would come up from behind me, I was able to sleep a bit, though always woke up periodically throughout the night. And with a bit of luck, there were no hijackings or rollings off of cliffs. By 5 am we pulled into Villazón, stepping down into the freezing night and shivering uncontrollably. If anyone ever tells you that you can wait in the bus until the border opens, it’s a lie. You get tossed out as soon as the bus stops and have to wait in the cold.

I met up with two other Argentinians on the bus and together we walked down to the border, accidentally crossing illegally into Argentina before it opened. Once we realized it, we started talking to a border guard who didn’t really seem to care and told us we could wait at a gas station up the road. I chose to play it safe and cross back into Bolivia to stamp my passport, avoiding any potential trouble later on. There I waited alone for an hour and a half, freezing and unable to feel my feet at 11,000 feet above sea level. Finally a Bolivian guard let me wait inside where at least it was slightly less cold. I had to take out the pair of alpaca socks I bought in Sucre and use them as gloves, having forgotten mine in Buenos Aires.

Even after the border opened, we had to wait another 30 minutes for the guy with the stamp to show up. It was Labor Day, May 1st, and no one really felt like working. But all things considered, I was the first person stamped out and feeling tired and more glad than ever to return to Argentina, I saw the “Bienvenidos a Argentina” sign and crossed in, rushing up to the bus terminal to catch the first bus to Tilcara, a small village in the northern province of Jujuy.

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