Tags: backpacking, bolivia, cementerio de los trenes, high altitude, latin america, salar de uyuni, south america, southwestern bolivia, sucre, train cemetery, travel videography, travel writing, uyuni
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.
The ride from Uyuni to Sucre was long but nevertheless rewarding. The first 45 minutes to an hour were rough, with bumpy dirt road causing the old bus to sway back and forth. Considering that it was five hours to Potosí, it felt like we were going to have sore bodies by the time we arrived to the world’s highest city. Yet by the one hour mark we turned on to what must have been a main road, any by comparison it was suddenly smooth and enjoyable. From then on we were treated to the stereotypical scene of Bolivia—high mountain peaks, deserts and valleys of intense color and depth.
Originally I had wanted to spent a night or two in Potosí and visit the mines, known the world over for their miserable conditions. Yet talking it over with Alex and Faye made me realize that it was kind of patronizing to come to a miner’s work place and gawk, taking photos as if they were in a zoo. I don’t approve of slum tours either, because in my opinion they demonstrate just how separated we let ourselves feel from people who have to live in poor conditions, rather than trying to help. So I scrubbed the mines from my plans and went with the girls to Sucre. Just as well, because in passing through Potosí I could see that it wasn’t a particularly attractive destination and had an odd feel to it.
From Potosí it was another three hours to Sucre, this time descending a bit and going through green valleys which, with the right lighting during sunset, somehow reminded us of Tuscany. By nightfall we were in the disputed capital of Bolivia, and adding on a Slovenian girl named Ana to our group, I haggled with a taxi driver who laughed as I bargained him down to slightly above the going rate to the center. Along the way he gave me a good run down of city life in Sucre, explaining the traditional food, local activities and what sureños like to do.
Even though it was night, I could already tell that I liked this city. With colonial influence in the center, it reminded me of Cusco and Cuenca, which are both also located in the south of their respective countries. We walked around looking for a restaurant to please the vegetarian needs of Ana, and once we found an extremely touristy resto-bar, I made a grave mistake. I thought because it was a place for tourists that I could eat anything, and I naively ordered the chilli con carne. This would prove to make me quite sick for the next few days.
Our first day got off to a late start because we really needed some extra time to recuperate, especially after days of waking up before dawn on the Salar tour. Previously I had considered spending the night in Sucre and then in the afternoon heading back to Potosí, but after the long and tiring trip to Sucre (which had always been too far away to visit in my plans), I decided to make the most of it and spent two nights. After all, it was a nice place anyway, so why not enjoy myself? Thus, we leisurely headed to the central plaza by noon, but not before stopping in at Para Tí, one of the most well known chocolate shops in Sucre. An unlikely destination for chocolate, Para Tí actually has an excellent selection, as well as coffee and other caffeinated beverages which run for close to $1.50 or so. There are two locations in the center, and we wound up going to both that day.
Our goal was to visit the Dinopark, which houses fossils and dinosaur tracks lodged into the side of a hill. They used to be flat, but as the Andes Mountains are the youngest mountain chain in the world, they have over time been elevated and now make it appear as though dinosaurs could defy gravity and walk up cliffs.
The park itself is nothing special, and the guided tour is 30 minutes long in one small room, though the guide tells you about the fossils and how they were probably formed. The cost of $30 bs is debatably worth it, and the extra $5 bs you have to pay if you want to take pictures is definitely not worthwhile. Especially when you consider that, if you’re a sneaky ninja like Alex, you can simply take out your camera when no one is watching and take a picture. I wasn’t so clever.
Apart from that activity up in the hills, our day was spent walking around the center’s blindingly white architecture and perusing the hundreds of stalls set up with the traditional alpaca sweaters, socks, hats, and millions of knick knacks. I splurged on a necklace and a pair of alpaca socks, anticipating a cold winter back in BA. If I could have winged it, another day in Sucre might have been nice to visit another part of the city, but I was concerned with the timing and left for Potosí the next morning, where I would have to wait around all day with nothing to do and feeling ill. This was the only day on the trip that was “wasted,” even though I’m glad to have seen Potosí. Anyway, the good times had in Sucre made up for a lazy day in the middle of a long adventure.