Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tupiza Expreso

After anticipating a difficult entry into Bolivia and going to embassies in our last three cities of Argentina to obtain a visa, we had a very easy crossing into the country that only required a fourth of the documentation we had brought. We walked across the border and immediately realized we were in Bolivia when we saw indigenous people selling coca leaves. We walked ten blocks to the train station and only knew we were close when we saw tracks and walked along a wall where we found a nice old lady selling candies who told us "No hay tren hoy." There is no train today. Around the corner, a man at a garage door confirmed, "no hay tren hoy, no manana, tal vez lunes." There is no train today or tomorrow, maybe Monday. It was Wednesday, we decided to take a bus. The bus station was a dark room filled with different company´s booths. All the vendors scream out names of desitinations in Bolivia: La Paz! Potosi! Uyuni! We followed the scream of Uyuni coming from the back of the room. The ticket lady couldn´t sell us tickets all the way to Uyuni but told us we have to go to Tupiza where there´s a bus that will take us on to Uyuni. We bought the tickets for the two thirty bus to Tupiza. We killed the next four hours eating delicious street empanadas from a mean lady, taking out a huge wad of bolivianos from an ATM that turned out to be very little money, walking through un mercado, and eating tasty pollo dorado. As two approached we returned to the bus station.

Most of the buses going to Bolivian destinations leave at the same time so the place was packed. But at 2:30 only one bus to Tupiza had arrived and it wasn´t ours. But hey, this is Bolivia, we were prepared to wait. Then we noticed that the ticket lady for our bus was running across the street to the telecabinas. When she returned we asked her how much longer, "un poco mas" she said. A few British kids who were on our bus the night before told us she said 30 minutes to them. After 30 minutes more had passed Temple asked again and again, her answer was still the vague 30 minutes.

In the meantime another bus called the Tupiza Expreso had pulled up. We asked the woman standing next to the door if there was space for two more people. She said yes and sold us two tickets for only 4 bolivianos, about 50 cents. We got on the bus surprised by the good deal we got and happy to be getting out of Villazón. We sat down in seats 11 and 12. Then we waited for the bus to fill up. We had read that in Bolivia buses wait until they are full to leave. After a few minutes, the bus began to fill up and we figured we´d be moving shortly. A woman got on and told a father and son sitting across from us that they were in her seats. How did she know? We checked our tickets for seat numbers but found none. Then two travelers from Israel told us we were in their seats, showing us a blue ticket stub we were never given. By now the bus was nearly full when we found oursleves seatless. We realized why we´d gotten such a cheap deal on the tickets and we thought we should get off and wait for our original bus. Just then, the bus moved in reverse. We were stuck.

We headed to the back where we found one free seat. Temple sat down with my backpack. I would be standing for this ride along with three Bolivians. Luckily, it was only 2 hours to Tupiza. When the man came back to check the tickets, we showed him what the lady had given us. He said it was not a ticket and we had to pay an additional 15 Bolivianos. We are still not sure what our worthless pieces of paper were or why we were allowed to get on a completely full bus but at least we were on our way.

We set out on the dusty, unpaved road which passed steep hills of freshly moved dirt. It only took me a few minutes to get an idea of how bumpy this ride was going to be. Being in the back of the bus, right over the wheels, we got the worst of every pothole/crater that we hit. Not only were the potholes huge, we were hitting them at about 50-60 mph. I only had 2 inches of clearance between by head and the ceiling so each time we hit a hole I had to duck. The guys in the last row all laughed with me each time we hit a really big one. Temple and other seated people would start to doze for a minute then were suddenly airborne with their head hitting the seat in front of them. Temple offered many times to stand but being a gentleman, I refused. Soon we saw bigger mounds of dirt but this time with some vegetation, mainly cactus. We started to pass small mud-thatched homes that looked abandoned but for one or two mules. We passed a lot of heavy machinery along the way, maybe there was a mine nearby or hopefully they were building on a new road.

As we got closer to Tupiza we began to climb in elevation, meaning we were getting higher on narrow roads with no guardrails. On the way up the mountain we flew through blasted out tunnels that were pitch black and barely wide enough for a bus to pass through. When we emerged, we saw a river valley 500 feet straight down from the edge of our curvy dirt road. It was unnerving to say the least. Temple had to look away but then looked back at the absolute worst moment and saw a rusting, overturned bus at the bottom of the gorge that looked a lot like ours.

Riding on the cliff´s edge didn´t last much longer thankfully. Soon we were passing through small villages and then pulling into Tupiza´s bus station. Stepping off the bus onto solid ground, my legs felt like jelly. We decided that that bus ride was enough travel for one day. More people were screaming city names. We walked towards "Uyuni!" We asked when the first bus left tomorrow. "Hay un problema" the ticket lady said. Turns out that all the bus and train workers in Uyuni were on strike demanding higher wages. No one was sure when it would end but it was already long by Bolivian standards. We were told that most strikes are resloved in one or two days and this one was entering its fourth.

We found a nice hostel and it turned out they also run salt flat tours like the one we wanted to do out of Uyuni. Its the same tour except you do it in reverse. So we´ll end with the Salar de Uyuni instead of starting with it, and it makes sense that it would be the grand finale. We booked it. Things were looking up. As luck would have it, we arrived in Tupiza on the eve of its anniversary. There would be a parade in 30 minutes and a full day of festivities tomorrow. Turns out, there is a method to Bolivia´s madness.


foster said...

Wow! Marvelous description and i'm so glad for the happy ending!

Noelle Hallman said...

I think I said WOW at least 20 times during that wonderful story!

Addie said...

This is Pele saying what's up you guys glad to see all is well love the dancing, bike riding, and especially the soccer game. Miss you two a lot watch out for those fake tickets.Lol B Eazy!

Addie said...

Clay you are such a gentleman...I am sure you made your mama proud. Did your head hurt after the ride? Buses sound like a stressful way to travel in Boliva...Great entry on the blog

Hadley said...


This is great to see! Dad sent it to me over the weekend, adn I have been happily ignoring Monday morning work to catch up. Great pictures, funny stories and the first ever stirrings of a desire to check out South America.Please put me on the list at to get more distractions...

Take care!


The Moore People said...

I love it when things like that work out when traveling!!!!!!