The worst bus ride in South America, 24 hours of hell, a must-avoid trip – all things that I’d heard to describe the journey I was about to take from Asunción to Bolivia. To be fair, I got off about 4 hours before it made it to Santa Cruz, but even with the bus breaking down in the middle of the night and being so tall I’ve had far worse experiences on buses.
My final day in Asunción had gone well, getting things organised for myself (a bus ticket, and my replacement tent parts) as well as going bike hunting for Hayley who was going to join Phil and Jonny on their trip. Having spent so much time hanging out with Joffre, my wonderful host, I’d not got through as much of my to-do list as I’d wanted and so was in a bit of a rush getting the blog updated, things packed, snacks prepared and everything else I wanted to do before the 8pm bus. Looking back it’s impressive that I only forgot my washcloth, although it’s a fantastic thing and I’ll definitely miss it. It dried so quickly, and worked so well for washing with minimal water as frequently happens here. It even worked well for cleaning my bike.
The bus was about 80% full, the front half being a large group of sisters all travelling together to a gathering. The rest were mainly men travelling for work, including a Peruvian called Cliff who was doing the first of three legs on his way back to Lima that’d take 3 days – if he were lucky. He was sat across the aisle in the row behind me, and we spoke the most. He had lived and worked in Korea, and so we shared stories of soju-infused dinners that we’d been to and our fondness for Korean food. He even helped with my greatest worry, the lack of leg space on the bus. When Juan, the diminutive Bolivian in his 50s sat front of me, started reclining his chair all the way back, Cliff spoke him into setting his seat a bit more upright. His time overseas gave him a different perspective, and he was the person getting most frustrated with the bus driver when we broke down.
We had been bouncing through the Gran Chaco, a lowland plain that extends from southern Bolivia through Paraguay to northern Argentina, and making steady progress when at about 2:30am we stopped. The smoker on the bus, an English guy called David sat directly across the aisle from me, was the first to make the most of the situation to stretch his legs and light up. After a while, about half of the men on the bus and a few of the sisters got off to get fresh air and watch what was happening. We’d got a puncture, and so needed to swap tyres out. That’d have been no problem, other than the fact that one of the nuts had seized on and was definitely not coming off. What followed was 2 hours of the drivers taking turns to hammer a chisel at the nut to break it, mainly interrupted by hammering their hands every few minutes as tiredness set in. After hitting his hand, the larger built driver turned around to the gawking mass behind him and told them to stop staring. I was impressed it had taken that long, as I remember back in Honduras when I’d had a couple of young boys staring at me while I repaired a flat and got annoyed enough with that after 30 minutes that I lost my cool and shouted at them. The gawking mass didn’t seem to pay any attention to the bus driver, and in fact Cliff defended their right to be there having an argument with the driver about how it shouldn’t take so long and the bus should have been better maintained. Not long after, the nut finally broke, to a light cheer from those sat around, and we were back along the way to the border.
The breakdown meant we got to the border almost 3 hours later than planned. It hadn’t been helped by a long stretch where the bus hadn’t been able to get at more than 20km/h due to some impressively deep potholes. We wove around most of them, but some were as wide as the road and so had to almost stop to go into them. As the sun came up, I saw the thorny scrub that lined the road, the whole way. It would not have been an enjoyable bike ride, especially when the heat picked up during the day as there was no shade and little by the way of water. The border procedures were spread out over several stops, the first being getting stamped out at the last Paraguayan settlement, about 150km before the actual border, then getting our bags thoroughly examined twice in quick succession, and finally being stamped into Bolivia. I was near the front of the line, and got stamped through relatively effortlessly, but Cliff had much bigger issues.
Even having gone through two baggage inspection points – one where we had to line all the bags up as a sniffer dog walked up mainly ignoring the bags much to the embarrassment of his handler who was being watched disdainfully by the other officials – the immigration officials seemed certain that he must be smuggling drugs, or involved in the business. Peruvians get treated the same way that Mexicans and Colombians do further up the continent. He thinks that they were after a bribe, as they forced him to strip down showing that he wasn’t hiding cash in his socks, underpants or anywhere else.
On the Bolivian side, things went a bit more smoothly. The initial road had a 30km sandy stretch but other than that it was mainly well paved. At 5:30pm we received our lunch, having been given a breakfast of 2 biscuits and a juice when we crossed the border. If I’d not brought snacks with me then the minimal food – a piece of chicken, a bit of rice and some chips – would have seemed even more like a joke. I got off at the town of Camiri, about 4 hours before the final destination of Santa Cruz. It was the largest town on the way, and so I figured I’d have the best chance of being able to get some cash out.
As I unloaded my dust-covered things from the luggage compartment of the bus at around 9pm, the burly bus driver stood next to me. When we’d been loading the bus, he’d tried to mention a fee for my bike, but I’d turned that idea down. He had then optimistically suggested a tip, which had sounded more likely, at least he was calling it what it was. I had saved some of my remaining Guarani to give him, but seeing a guy selling snacks just before the border had used them all up. I put all my bags on my bike, with the attention of a group of kids, and the driver stood there. I thanked him, but he turned back to the bus empty-handed.
I’d been dropped off at the bus terminal, and the banks were 3km up a hill in the centre of town, so it was no money for me that night. The terminal had a transport police checkpoint attached to it, and the police officer kindly said I could stay. To my delight, one of my options was in the cell, and I took it up. It had been on my bucket list for a while, and seeing how clean it was I happily accepted. It was infrequently used, mainly for those who had got in fights during a bus ride or got obnoxiously drunk.