This post for the 16 hour overnight bus ride from 6th to 7th October, 2010
We got onto the bus and looked around to ascertain what we’d managed to book for £10. The bus was full, and each row was two seats, isle, one seat. We were on the left with two seats, which was good. Bonus, it had a toilet, but no tv – not that we would need it if sleeping. Each seat came with a heavy blanket, which seemed superfluous as the one high tech thing the bus did have was a digital readout of the temperature, and it was already 24 inside. We were also the only ‘gringos’ on board as far as we could tell – this was certainly one of the ‘local’ buses we had heard about.
We settled down and the bus spluttered into life, and headed out of the bus station and up the hills behind Iquique. The view down onto the lights of the sea-side town was quite nice, and then all too soon we were back in the desert and on a bumpy road.
The next thing we noticed was that the seats were small. I’m not a big guy by any measure, but I couldn’t do my usual turn-and-tuck into the seat to try and nap. I could barely angle my legs. I was amazed that the larger chap across the isle had already passed out, happily snoring away.
As I tried to find a comfy position, I began to notice another problem – the temperature. The driver had the heater on, and it was getting steadily hotter. Uncomfortably hot. I removed my jersey and dropped it on the floor along with the blanket I certainly had no desire to use.
As the bus trundled around the north of Chile towards Arica, it occured to me that this was the very road Blair was on when everything was going wrong in Bolivia just over two months earlier. We would meet up in La Paz that next day. I wondered what bus he’d been on.
After several hours the bus slowly pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I wasn’t too alarmed by this as it’s fairly common for drivers to do this in South America to have a nap – our ride from Buenos Aires to Salta was meant to be 18 hours but a ‘nap’ pushed it out to 25!
As the bus sat there, it soon became apparent why the temperature had been pushed up so much. Slowly it was falling, jackets started going on, and after a while it was absolutely freezing. The blankets became a necessity, and it was a long cold night sitting there.
Finally around dawn, as the first bit of light started to come through the windows, some of the passengers started going outside to use ‘the facilities’. I was intrigued by that, as there was certainly a bathroom onboard, but a glance down the aisle showed a passenger asleep on the floor in front of the door!
Andrew and I decided to join the passengers outside, strech the legs and such, and were greeted by one of the most amazing views I’ve seen in South America. I’ll certainly give photo credit to Andrew for the best of these shots – I was too tired to have the presence of mind to take these photos. We also found the altitude was having an effect, merely getting on and off the bus caused a shortness of breath!
Looking down the road in both directions, one could see a long, long queue of trucks, buses and cars. We were apparently at the Bolivian border crossing, waiting for it to open. Ah the joys of non-24 hour borders!
Finally the queue started moving, and everyone hopped back onto the bus and inched forwards. We reached the border post and what followed were a few confusing minutes as I was having a ‘bad Spanish Day’ and failing to follow many of the directions. We both could notice the altitude, but Andrew was more annoyed about the smell – our bags now stank of gasoline from under the bus. The last to go through, being the gringos, we ventured outside to find our bus gone. Hmm. Normally I’d be keeping my eye on others from the group to make sure I was going the right way, but this had slipped my mind for once. Eventually a guard pointed down the road and sort of responded positively to our ‘bus’ questions, so we followed the track to a group of buildings about half a km away, where several buses were standing. Thankfully ours was there too, and we had a few minutes to look around shops and cafes, although not having any Bolivianos (actual currency name, awesome) didn’t help, and the exchange rates were a bit crazy, for obvious reasons at that location.
The bus continued on through amazing scenery, volcanos, huge fields, llams and alpacas, ruins and finally through into familiar territory as I started recognising streets in El Alto, the high slum area just above La Paz, our next stop…
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