Buses in Bolivia have now become something of a joke for me. Through fourteen weeks of travel in this country, I've caught more buses than I care to count, and feared for my life more times than I want to remember.
For the vast majority of travellers, the only way to get around Bolivia is by bus. There are opportunities for flights, of course, but due to the landlocked state of the country those plane fares can cost extortionate amounts – and so we turn to the infamously bad roads and dodgy drivers to transport us from place to place.
The reputation of Bolivia's buses precedes itself. Before I arrived in the country, I'd been warned about researching companies and taking heed of bad reviews, checking out what the bus looked like before boarding (I'm talking tyre treads and condition of the undercarriage), and most importantly – though perhaps most trickily – ascertaining whether or not the driver was drunk.
But there's nothing quite like firsthand experience to really get to grips with something. Luckily I've successfully navigated the entire Bolivian bus process so many times – from buying a ticket through to arriving at my chosen destination – that I feel I know how it all works.
So here's a step-by-step analysis of a Bolivian bus journey. Hopefully it comes in actual use to some people, and doesn't just serve to terrify. That's not my main objective at all…
Buying a ticket
The first thing you'll want to do is head to the bus station. Whether you planned to go there or not, conflicting information about bus times, prices, comfort level and whether buses even go to your destination or not will lead you to the station eventually.
There are usually lots of companies sending buses to the same destination. If you've had recommendations for specific companies, head straight there. If not, do the rounds of each desk while trying not to be deafened by the women who shout their destinations at the same volume, regardless of whether you're beside them or not.
Once you spot your destination on a bus company's door, go and ask questions. There are never too many. Popular examples include:
- How much is a seat? No, how much is the cheapest seat? Do you have cama or semi cama? Sellers will often try and flog you the seats at the front, with more leg room and a better view – but they're not actually worth it in my opinion. Choosing a company with semi cama (semi reclined) or cama (fully reclined) seats, however, is always a good idea.
- When does the bus leave? How long does the journey take? When does it arrive? This information will often differ so it's good to be explicit.
- Is there a toilet on board? Does it work? Self explanatory, really. No toilet equals a much more stressful journey.
Don't be afraid to ask a ton of questions and then leave that desk. These women are often very good at guilt tripping you into buying a ticket, even if you don't feel ready to yet.
Once you hand over the cash, make sure you get a ticket with your name, the date, time and seat number written on it. Check that the bus leaves from the same station you bought your ticket at, and not some random place in town. It's more likely than you think.
NB: Although it's usually not necessary to buy bus tickets ahead of time, I often ended up doing so. Call it being over-prepared, but I liked to know that lugging all my possessions to the bus station would result in being able to board a bus.
On the other hand, you can be too prepared in Bolivia. Most companies won't let you reserve or pay for bus tickets more than one or two days in advance. Even if you explain that you'll be on a tour/trek and can't turn up at the station on the day you need to in order to reserve – in which case, scrap being prepared and just turn up when you want to catch a bus. And don't worry about not having asked multiple questions: despite wishing for the contrary, much of the info you get is likely to be wrong anyway.
Dressing the part
Bus temperatures are an absolute gamble. Travellers will always hear the rumour that a Bolivian bus journey will be freezing – and judging on the huge blankets passengers carry on board with them (sold at every bus terminal if you ever fancy being curled up under a giant multicoloured whale/panda/kitten for ten hours), this rumour could well be true.
However, on the six or seven long-haul overnight bus journeys I took through Bolivia, I was never chilly enough to warrant a blanket. Often I was overly hot, and looked incredulously at the wrapped up Bolivians snoring softly around me.
By now, I've adapted to a system that works for me. I dress in leggings and a standard top plus cardigan, then carry my coat and pack a scarf, extra socks, and sometimes a hat in my bag. There have only been two night buses where I was actively cold enough to not be able to sleep; the rest I've usually been too hot!
Boarding at the bus station
You'll arrive at the bus station to probable carnage; the later your bus, the busier the station will be. Crowds of elderly women with giant striped bags on their backs, children running riot, and numerous pet puppies and stray dogs sniffing at absolutely everything. If you've already bought your ticket then it's just a matter of having your bags checked, weighed and ticketed at a specific counter somewhere in the bus station, before then joining a different queue for the actual bus.
Oh, and don't forget to buy a departure ticket before you start queuing. It's some kind of bus station departure tax (which of course can't be included in the ticket price, that would be too easy) and if you don't have it when you attempt to board your bus, you'll be forced to go get one.
When you've deposited your main backpack in the hold of the bus (without any valuables inside – you never know), you can get on board. If you've paid for a specific seat, by all means sit in it. If not, however, there's a series of checks you can do to make your journey a bit more comfortable.
- Window: does it open/close? Often windows are bolted shut or stuck on open, which can either be hell on a hot journey, or an equal nightmare when it's raining and you can't avoid getting soaked.
- Seat: does it recline, or is it stuck? I've dealt with both: seats that are permanently upright and ones over-encroaching on the personal space of the seat behind. If you want to risk the wrath of the guy whose lap you'll be lying in, go ahead. Otherwise attempt to switch seats.
- Bag security: is there somewhere safe to store it? I never put possessions in the overhead section unless there's absolutely no room around my feet, and even then it's only clothes or water. Usually I sit with my little leather bag around my shoulder/waist, with an iPod and wallet inside, then padlock my day bag and put it between my feet, with one strap wrapped securely around a foot. If there's something you can actually padlock your bag to, all the better. I also tend to have a quick glance at the passengers around me; if someone nearby looks dodgy, I end up with my day bag on my lap instead.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Buses usually leave late in Bolivia. Partly to do with passengers arriving after their bus is supposed to have departed; partly, I think, to do with the guy carrying a ukelele, who starts wandering the aisle and playing pretty atrociously for about 20 minutes, until the bus has started to drive out of the station. He'll then give a heartfelt speech about why you should give him a donation, and will follow up with how glad he is to be Bolivian and to have the opportunity to play for you all.
By this point you may have started looking out the window, yawning, stretching, and generally pretending to be asleep. This is good practice for later.
Within minutes of leaving, the snorers will make themselves known. Without exception, there is always a resident snorer on board – it's just a matter of judging the decibel level of their snore, the specific type of snore emitted, and their distance from you.
There are also often crying babies on board, but remember the golden rule: babies don't know better, and shouldn't be muttered darkly about as much as the snorers, who most certainly should know better, and are clearly doing it just to annoy you. Damn them.
The only way around a particularly bad snorer/baby is to crack out the Bolivian Bus Supply Kit: components are listed below, in order of importance. For me, at least.
The Bolivian Bus Supply Kit
Ear plugs: in my opinion, absolutely crucial. The line between an average night's sleep and being close to lunacy from sleep deprivation.
Eye mask: similarly crucial, due to the strange times of night the bus driver decides to turn the lights on. Sometimes there's a stop (that nobody ever told you about) for passengers to get on or off the bus, usually at 3am. Sometimes the driver just likes having the lights on for a bit.
Layers, sleeping bag, water, snacks, music player, e-reader: some or all of these are what will make your bus ride range from 'terminally boring' to 'actually pretty alright'. I tend to opt for a fully charged iPod, eye mask on, coat as a blanket, and hope the journey goes quickly.
Toothbrush, toothpaste & deodorant: only crucial for those very lengthly or overly hot rides. But I can guarantee its a great feeling to brush your teeth in a moving bus and spit toothpaste out of the sliding window.
Hand sanitizer and toilet paper: again, only crucial for those more concerned with their hygiene – but I always carry some kind of toilet paper when travelling, and after experiencing Bolivian bus toilets, I'd be hard pushed not to count hand sanitizer as integral…
Bolivian bus toilets: a neverending drama
If you've managed to score a toilet on your bus, then you're very lucky – although it could easily be locked for no reason halfway through the journey (when passengers would presumably need it the most), or be so filled up with urine that you suddenly don't need to go anymore. In which case, problem solved!
Guys have a great alternative to the toilet dramas, if they're willing to go to the effort of cutting the top off an empty water bottle. Hey presto, DIY pee bottle! Although you'll need the window seat and a stretch of road that's not too rocky/bumpy/swervy. And a window that actually opens, of course, otherwise things will get messy.
For the ladies, it's more straightforward, although no less problematic. Asking the driver to pull over for a bathroom stop will eventually yield the right result, but it'll take a good twenty or thirty minutes for him to do so – which means you need to make sure you're not at desperation levels when you first ask.
Also, don't ever hold out hope that a Bolivian will ask the question for you; they are unbelievably good at holding out for a toilet break that presumably never comes if there isn't a Westerner on board. I get the feeling they're willing to risk a bladder infection just for the sake of not being disruptive…
Of course, the bus does make its totally random stops along the way. Often it's for a troop of teenage girls or elderly women to parade up and down the aisle, proclaiming that they're selling plastic bags filled with potato and chicken, or chips and frankfurter slices, or even occasionally a bit of trout. Usually a number of hands go up for these food bags: I've rarely ever bought one though, due to the uncomfortable awareness that there's a likelihood of needing the on board toilet about ten minutes after eating one.
Once all the food selling stops and toilet emergencies are over and done with, it's time to settle down to what passes for sleep. This is when you really notice the presence of the people sitting in the aisles. I'm still not sure if these guys have bought cheaper tickets or they just had some bad luck, but that doesn't change the fact that laying your baby down to sleep on a blanket in the middle of the aisle of a pitch black bus is a ridiculously bad idea.
One night bus that actually a toilet on board also had a woman and her two children laying claim to the top three steps all night. Very bad Bolivian bus etiquette, in my humble opinion.
Around 3am is when the bus starts to rock alarmingly. The driver – maybe to keep himself awake – has begun to attack each twist and turn in the road as if it's a personal demon. Speed is clearly his friend.
This is around the time where you start to wish train travel had actually caught on in South America.
The eventual arrival
At some point, either before dawn or after, you'll be awoken somewhat unnaturally by the sound of someone's phone. Not ringing, but simply playing songs that the owner really likes, and has decided that every one of his fellow passengers will also really enjoy listening to at 5am. Because nobody complains, this will probably continue until the bus reaches the bus station.
If you did your research at the bus station before buying a ticket, you'll hopefully be disembarking at a relatively reasonable hour of 6am or later – i.e. when it's daylight. If not… Well, you could easily find yourself outside a dark and chilly station building in the middle of the night.
Because Bolivia seems hell bent on having their buses depart at a time that means their arrival is woefully antisocial – such as a five hour bus which only leaves at 8pm, 9pm and 10pm – you have to be very careful when choosing your buses.
Also don't try and explain the ridiculousness of the bus times to the saleswoman. She won't appreciate your efforts.
Reaching your destination. Finally!
You've stumbled off the bus and reached fresh air. Oh, the joys.
You might catch a taxi to your hostel, or simply walk. Although if you're unsure, remember that you could end up in a taxi like this one.
Get through check in, heave your bags upstairs into a dorm and vaguely congratulate yourself as you fall into the hostel bed you hopefully pre-booked before arriving in this umpteenth new Bolivian city. Otherwise, good luck wandering the streets under the weight of your backpack and with seriously drooping eyelids.
And whatever you do, don't think heading back to the bus station to catch another bus is a good idea. You've had enough of those things for one day.
Bolivian Bus Breakdown
Here's a breakdown of the buses I caught during my time in Bolivia.
- La Paz to Sucre: 100 Bs for 10 hours, semi cama seat
- Sucre to Potosi: 15 Bs for 3 hours, normal seat
- Potosi to Tarija: 80 Bs for 10 hours, semi cama seat
- Tarija to Tupiza: 80 Bs for 7 hours, semi cama seat
- Tupiza to Villazon (Argentinian border): 20 Bs for 2 hours, normal seat
- Uyuni to Potosi: 30 Bs for 5 hours, normal seat
- Potosi to Cochabamba: 60 Bs for 7 hours, semi cama seat
- Cochabamba to Torotoro National Park: 25 Bs for 5 hours, normal seat
- Cochabamba to La Paz: 70 Bs for 9 hours, semi cama seat
- La Paz to Lake Titicaca: 40 Bs for 3/4 hours, normal seat
Have you ever caught buses in Bolivia, or in South America? Did your experiences differ to mine? Any more bus tips will be very welcome!