The train is supposed to depart at 00:05, 9 March ’14. It is not even here yet..it is 00:04. We have been waiting calmly for a few hours. It gets very cold in Uyuni at night, way below 0 degrees at times. We are layered in hoodies, jackets and hiking boots and make the best of our wait by crawling underneath the stair case to shield from the icy wind ripping through the small train station out here in the desert. We probably look like homeless people..homeless people with a lot of bags.
Finally the train arrives! It’s quite modern and rather luxurious by Bolivian Standards. I’m exhausted and so ready to sleep the entire way to Oruro. I have read a lot about trains derailing in Bolivia, and this makes me very nervous. That kind of “Final Destination”-nervous that my mind may get carried away with..but I drift off to sleep almost immediately as my head hits the seat.
At various intervals during the night I am awoken by the screeches and bumps of the train. And once or twice by a noise that I am sure is the sound of a fatal crash beginning. Trains at night make me very nervous I’ve realized..
After an extremely bumpy ride we make it to Oruro, Bolivia at about 8am on Sunday 9 March ’14. We take a taxi for Bs10 from the train station to the bus station where we will catch the first bus to Arica in Chile. That’s the plan anyway.. A few days ago, during a parade in this town of Oruro, a set of scaffolding filled with viewers crashed into pieces and a few people died tragically. We passed the site of this accident (due to human error) on our way and it was filled with flowers, streamers, balloons and other decoration like only Bolivians can.
Lonely Planet, Footprint, the internet in general states that there are many busses heading to the coastal town of Arica, near the border with Peru, in Chile from Oruro daily, so we shouldn’t have a problem.
PROBLEM! – Only 3 bus companies have one bus each to Arica that departs around 10:30..and they aren’t direct. You either have to go to La Paz first or you have to get off in the middle of nowhere on the side of a stretch of highway in rural Bolivia in the hopes that the bus coming from La Paz hasn’t already passed and picked up the few, if any, waiting passengers from the side of the road. After taking a moment and mentally prepared ourselves for this mission that should take about 8 hours, we decide it can’t be that difficult, even if we are the only two from this side to do it. SHIT! Seats sold out while we discussed. Sometimes it’s just better to do! What now??!!
There are loads of buses that go to Iquiqui in Chile from Oruro, and this may be our best chance. Iquiqui is about 5 hours south of Arica. Taking an 8 hour bus to Iquiqui and then another 5 hour bus to Arica and we may still make our accommodation booking in the beach town. But I’m not getting my hopes up.. We will, at the very least, be in the near-ish vicinity of where we want to be. Sort of.
We board the Busfer bus and ride towards the border. These types of buses in Bolivia are definitely less accommodating than what we are used to. Bolivians are generally short so leg space is limited, luggage doesn’t get tagged, no security check.. But it doesn’t matter, I’m just happy we’re on a bus heading in the right direction, even if it has no ventilation and smells like feet. We’re the only gringas on the bus, of course. Here we go!
A short while into the trip we stop suddenly in a small town for no apparent reason. Bolivians have a very strong feeling of solidarity among them and it doesn’t take long for the passengers to start screaming at the driver to go! “Vamos, Vamos!”, they shout, so that everyone can get where they are going.
After what feels like 50 hours we finally hit the security check 1km from the Bolivia/Chile border. 4 hours into our journey and screaming babies, heavy air and being a sticky hot mess forces me to grab some much needed fresh air. At this checkpoint there are many stalls. Most sell all kinds of foodstuffs like biscuits, chips, box milk, chocolates and even yogurt out here in the heat. I don’t really know why because you can’t take any food into Chile. There are also many little tables serving as black market cambios (cash exchanges) at ridiculous rates.
According to our schedule of arriving in Arica at 6pm local time this can’t take more than an hour. We move through a boomed checkpoint and the bus come s to a shuddering standstill. This should be quick.
The old lady next to T asks her to help with the completion of her visa entry form. She can’t see, you see. She also says that this can’t take more than an hour. I trust her, she’s done this crossing here many times before, for business, she says.
An hour later and we haven’t moved an inch. I get paranoid and start thinking we should’ve had our Bolivian exit stamps before the checkpoint. I jump out into the fresh air, what a relief, and frantically ask the driver what is happening. “No, No!” he says and points ahead to the Chilean border. Just then I see there are about 10 buses ahead of ours. 10!
We’ve already been here for a while and with that amount of buses filled with people in front of us, who knows how long this will still take. I suddenly understand the purpose of all those food stalls. Apparently it’s quite common for the border to close overnight for busses to just be stranded from dusk till dawn when it opens again. Perfect, just perfect!
Another hour passes and we are now number 9 in the queue. By now we are starving and exhausted. We walk back to the food stalls and buy a balanced meal of chocolate milk, crackers and sugary preserved peaches. It is really as balanced as it is going to get for the selection that we had.
We sit in the shade of the bus, that hasn’t moved, and enjoy our lunch. As time ticks on I take a nap, finish reading my book, stare out the window, contemplate the future, chat to the old lady next to us, take another nap.
Finally, after about 5 hours we get to the front, passports stamped, luggage checked, back in Chile! Relief.. although we will never make it to our booking for the night at Arica Unite. Darkness is already setting in and we are about 3 hours from Iquiqui. And we are just hoping there is an immediate bus from there north to Arica.
We near Iquiqui, around a bend and the city lights lie below us. Our bus takes us down into town, and close to the port we get out to the familiar freedom of being let go from the confines of a long haul bus. The place smell like fish, a lot of old fish. It’s 11pm and we are tired, hungry and we smell like feet, I’m sure. There are a lot of people at this bus station for this time of night, and I find out that the next bus to Arica will be collecting passengers here at 3am. So now we have to make a decision – either we try and find a place to shower and sleep for a few hours and catch a bus to Arica in the morning, knowing we already have a bus booked that we need to get to OR we wait for the 3am bus. Tired and hungry T is feeling very fragile. We’ve lost so much time already and I push for the 3am bus. And there, all of a sudden, my beautiful wife bursts into tears sitting on a wooden bench in a smelly bus station in Chile in the middle of the night. “I’m so tired! And I smell funny..” she cries exhausted. “My love, you don’t smell funny!”. If we take the 3am bus we would be in Arica by 7am if we’re lucky and we could shower and take a morning nap at the hostel we were supposed to be asleep at right now.
I buy 2 tickets at 7000 Chilean pesos each for the 3am Horizonte bus to Arica – and now we wait some more, on our 2nd night of bedlessness.
3:00 – Bus not here
3:30 – Still not here, but it’s common for busses to be late in South America
4:00 – Not common to be this late.
4:30 – This is ridiculous!
I meet Italian Antonio whose Spanish is much better than mine and he is gracious enough to ask the attendant on duty about our scheduled bus’s whereabouts, who, with no real clarity decides that they must’ve just forgotten. Our bus didn’t show up! Completely missed this stop. Skipped it. At about 5am, with the morning air already on my skin, there is an empty bus that has to make its way to the Busfer lot in Arica. Technically they aren’t allowed to take on passengers, but everyone is out to make an extra buck and we’re in a pickle so we pay another 7000 pesos each because we desperately need some sleep. With 2 others we get on this off the record ghost bus and hope we make it to Arica, extremely happy to be sitting comfortably in this fancy, empty, Executivo Bus – think first class type seats on a plane.
After a quiet ride, awaking occasionally to make sure we are still heading in the right direction, desert sands to the east where the sun is rising from the earth and high cliffs and ocean to the west, we arrive in the seaside town of Arica, near the Peruvian Border with Tacna, at about 10am. We smell…peculiar. Not even to mention that I could probably eat an entire buffet all by myself I’m so hungry. Inside the bus station I am on a mission to find the Horizonte office to give them a piece of my mind in my best Spanish. I have to express my anger at being left forgotten in Iquiqui in the middle of the night because their driver just decided to skip his scheduled pick up. And more importantly to get our 14 000 Chilean pesos back for the bus ride we never took. After the vent of frustration to the Horizonte attendant I suddenly can’t compose myself anymore and burst into tears of desperation. Never has a Chilean man seen a South African lady in such a state of exhaustion. In his confusion he tells me to wait, runs to the nearest little restaurant and gets me my money back without any troubles. I think he was just terrified of the sobbing foreigner in front of his window. Money back in hand we sit at the first available table and order 2 completo steak rolls for breakfast. The best EVER!
Knowing we are so close to a hot shower and possibly a soft couch I am even in more of a rush to just get there already. Almost barely able to stand in one place for too long before keeling over and falling asleep, we walk the short distance from the bus station to Arica Unite Hostel where we shower, drink tea and coffee, use the internet and relax for 3000 pesos each. (You can see their facebook page here)
By this point we are over tired that we sit on their couch like refreshed zombies, now smelling like flowers, deciding what to do for the next few hours before we need to make our way back to the bus terminal.
We get to know our hosts, a couple from France who decided to settle in Arica after a holiday here. They are still putting the place together along with her parents, a pair of true old school hippies who are all too glad to share their grass with the first South Africans they’ve ever met.
We go for a walk on the beach, again on a mission to find some sustenance, when we come across a Peruvian restaurant and try the first of many favourite Peruvian dishes. % hours after arriving at Arica Unite we grab our bags, say our goodbyes and take the walk back to the bus terminal, clean and fresh for the first time in a while. It’s amazing what a hot shower can do for your attitude towards the world when you are deathly tired.
The way to get across the border to Tacna, Peru from Arica, Chile – The local terminal and the international terminal are right next to each other. At the international terminal there are little buses that charge about 2500 Chilean pesos per person to take you and your luggage across the border. There will be at least 8 other people with you.
Another way is to catch a collective from the same spot – this is a car that charges between 3000 and 4000 pesos per person, depending on their mood. They go when they’re full, and we filled the last 2 spaces in an old school wide set Ford along with 3 others. This way is much faster as you don’t have to wait in the buses lane at the border, or wait for 8 other people to get stamped before moving along. Price wise it also worked for us as our driver was in good spirits and charged us 3000 pesos each.
The collective will drop you off on the front steps of the main entrance of the bus terminal in the Peruvian border town of Tacna. From Tacna, which is 2 hours behind Arica – so technically we went back in time, gained two hours and are now living a 26 hour day – we booked the 6pm bus to Nazca where our next adventure awaits. We booked with Crus del Sur via their website, and this is definitely the bus company to take when travelling in Peru. All boxes checked with them – security, safety, entertainment, food, service. It feels like boarding a plane when boarding a Cruz del Sur bus in Peru. We take our seats, upstairs at the very front of the bus, with the panoramic window wide in front of us, mentally preparing for the overnight journey – and finally we can try to relax a bit – on our 3rd night in a row without a bed. Will we survive the extreme exhaustion and make it to Nazca sane and unscathed? Keep reading..