Stranded at the Bolivian Border
Our alarms went off at 6:00 a.m. and the power was still out in our lovely boutique hotel. We had no choice but to put on our headlamps and start packing. I think we were both glad to be leaving San Pedro de Atacama. We enjoyed our visit, but the five days that we had scheduled was too long when so much was closed due to the rain. I still can’t believe that it rained everyday in the only location I didn't check the weather before I planned our visit. In my defense, it was supposed to be the driest place on earth!
I had a little bounce in my step as we packed, we were headed to Carnival in Oruro Bolivia, a Unesco World Heritage cultural event! But, before we left, we were determined to see a beautiful sunrise. It wouldn’t be over the geysers as we had originally planned, but hopefully it would still be stunning.
We arrived at the Valley of the Moon overlook just as the sun was just starting to rise. It was not the sunrise of my dreams because the clouds were not cooperating. But, at least it wasn’t raining. The valley was still beautiful. I was feeling at peace, but that could just be the lithium in the air.
Thirty minutes later we were on our way to the airport to turn in the rental car and get breakfast. After that we headed to the bus station. Unfortunately, flying was not an option for us. Our destination was only accessible by bus.
Our first bus was a five hour ride to Iquique a small city on the pacific ocean in northern Chile. It is famous for it’s surfing, beaches and huge sand dunes looming over the city. We wouldn’t get to explore it, because we would only be there for a little over an hour to change buses.
I hesitate to write this, because I don’t want to worry our families. But, taking a bus in Bolivia has been my biggest fear in regards to our entire journey in South America. Not earthquakes, pumas, jaguars, venomous snakes, spiders, insects, or other things like that. Bolivian buses are my greatest fear. Just google "buses in Bolivia" to understand why. The death rates are crazy scary.
Bolivian bus drivers are notorious for drunk driving. The country tried to pass drunk driving laws to address the problem and all of the bus drivers went on strike. The laws were never passed. Many travel bloggers have a Bolivian bus nightmare story. One agency noted on their website that breathalyzers are available for passengers who can request that the driver to blow at anytime they feel unsafe!
I told Ol that we would mainly fly in Bolivia and if we have to take a bus, it would be from the few reputable companies that operate tourist buses. So, imagine my discomfort when I only found one company with available seats to take us to Oruro.
We have taken a few buses in Chile, and they have all been very nice. The Chilean busses were large and modern, with big leather seats. They provide entertainment, wifi, and some even have attendants that pass out meals, blankets, and pillows.
I was not sure what a public Bolivian bus would be like, but I reasoned with myself that I purchased the tickets on line from a reputable ticket agency. Surely they wouldn’t do business with a bad company.
Within five minutes of arriving in Iquique things were not going so well. It took us five minutes before we realized that we weren’t dropped off at the bus terminal. I really should have been working on my Spanish these past few months, because for the first time on our journey, no one spoke English and I couldn't understand where we were supposed to be.
We finally figured out that we were not at the main bus terminal but instead at a single bus company's office. We flagged down a taxi and he brought us to the terminal.
We made our way through the terminal and discovered that our Bolivian bus company did not have an office. The entire station was rather chaotic. We proceeded to a bus company window to ask if we were in the right place. We were again having trouble communicating. However, we were lucky to meet an amazing woman who was waiting for a bus to arrive. She overheard our conversation and offered to help. She introduced us to her children and then explained to us that she had lived in England and worked as a singer on cruise ships. She took our tickets and found an agent who could help us.
She explained that our company had no office and that we would have to just be on the lookout for our bus about five minutes before our departure time. She also warned us that Bolivian buses are notoriously late and to just be patient. Soon, our guardian angel had at least three bus station employees looking out for us. We laughed as they occasionally came by to check on the helpless Americans. I told Ol that it takes a village to care for us.
Our new friend even insisted that we take her phone number and if we had any problems we could stay in her home. She said that she would love to show us her city!
The bus station employees were right, the Bolivian bus was late. In fact, it was about two hours late when it pulled into the station. The passengers exited and then the driver announced that the bus would be back shortly. He said that the bus needed to be cleaned before leaving the station. We settled in for another long wait. The thought crossed my mind that the drivers might actually be going to a local Happy Hour.
We used the time to watch interesting people coming and going. We noticed that Chileans are passionate people and their tearful goodbyes are long and drawn out. It was sweet to see entire families waving goodbye to a family member until the bus is completely out of site. I can't say that I have ever seen an entire American family take someone to an airport, let alone hang out until they leave.
It was also fun to watch the welcome receptions from the arriving buses. These are also tearful and very passionate, especially among lovers of all ages. Young and old Chileans have no problem with public displays of affection. There are passionate kisses and physical touching that would be socially unacceptable back home.
I also found myself envying the passengers on better busses than the Bolivian bus. I noticed all of the double decker buses with their professional drivers, dressed in ties and matching uniforms. They looked as official as any airline pilot. Our drivers looked exhausted and had no uniform. They looked like they could easily blend in with the local bar patrons.
After a long wait, our bus finally returned. It didn't look like it had been cleaned. Ol checked our bags, but it was the first time in South America that we weren’t given a baggage receipt, they simply tossed the bags into the belly of the bus. We noticed a mattress and bedding in the luggage compartment. Was that where the extra driver slept?
As we made our way to our seats, I noticed that the bus was very basic and had a distinctive smell. The seat numbers on our tickets didn’t correspond to any on the bus. We simply picked a couple of seats and tried to settle in. I just kept thinking to myself that this would all be worth it when we were enjoying the revelry of Carnival in the morning.
The bus pulled out of the station, and within five minutes it pulled around the corner and the empty seats quickly filled up. Ol and I looked at one another with disbelief. We hadn’t seen this since our Columbian bus trips. We have learned that bus drivers can supplement their income by picking up passengers who pay money directly to the driver.
I don’t know when I finally fell asleep, but thanks to Tylenol PM I did. The next thing I remember is Ol shaking me awake. It was midnight and we were at the border. By the time I was able to wake up and gather my things, the bus had emptied out.
I walked off the bus and was stunned by the cold air. I could see my breath. This border crossing was at the top of a mountain plateau in the Andes. I was amazed to see that the people who had boarded the bus after we left the station were all running around the border fence with their bags and their children clutched to their chest. They were not going through customs.
We asked the driver what the procedure for crossing the border would be. He didn't speak English and didn't understand what I was saying. A young Chilean passenger explained to us that the border was closed and that it wouldn’t open until 8:00 a.m. He told us that the driver said that we could sleep on the bus if we didn't have a place to stay. Of course we didn't have a place to stay! We didn't know that we would be parked at the border for eight hours!
Before Ol and I could decide what to do, the bus drivers had turned off the bus and disappeared. Our bags were locked under the bus. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs.
We got back on the bus. After about thirty minutes the temperature inside the bus began to plummet. Ol gave me his sweater to put on my legs and we snuggled up in the uncomfortable seats to share body heat.
We were at a high altitude, surrounded by the snow capped Andean mountains in a metal bus that was acting like a refrigerator. Fortunately, we had our down jackets, but we had no warm clothing. Our sleeping bags would have been perfect for an occasion like this but they were stored in our backpacks and locked under the bus.
At 4:00 a.m. I gave up all hope of getting any sleep. My teeth were chattering and I decided to get up and do exercises in order to fight off the cold. Ol was sound asleep, so I took the opportunity to break into our stash of chocolate. I knew that I could argue that it was literally life or death, I needed the calories for warmth.
At 7:00 a.m. it was finally light enough to see where we were. I noticed small houses and businesses with people setting up tables with coffee. They were also starting small fires for warmth. I could see the border facilities and the gate clearly closed. I exited the bus and was shocked to see a line of buses and cars behind us. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones to spend the night at the border. I was glad that we were the first in line.
I made my way over to a fire by one of the buildings. I wanted to buy a warm drink and an empanada but I didn't have any money. I regretted giving away our last Chilean Pesos at the bus station. I didn't think we would need any since we were leaving Chile. I thought we would simply get cash from an ATM when we reached the bus station.
I had to watch as others purchased warm empanadas and hot coffee. The fire warmed me, but my stomach was growling. I asked the entreprenuer if she would take Argentinian pesos, but she refused. I had a small fortune in Argentinian money, but no dollars or Chilean pesos.
At 8:00 a.m. the bus driver returned and started the bus. We thanked our hostess for the fire and made our way back to the bus. There was no apology or explanation from the driver. When the border gate opened, we drove through, disembarked, gathered our bags, and made our way to customs.
Our driver had a clipboard and circled our names as we got exit stamps in our passports from Chile. Ol and I were first in line to receive our visa from Bolivia. We handed them our eight page Visa applications that were preapproved by the embassy in Quito. The border guards looked perplexed. They asked us to please sit down and wait.
We watched as our bus driver walked to the Bolivian window and got the other passengers stamped into Bolivia. We were the only Americans onboard the bus and it was taking us longer because we needed visas to enter Bolivia. Ol and I were ushered into a private office and asked for $160 USD each. We pulled out our crisp U.S. bills and the agent was quickly gone.
We were given more forms to fill out. The forms appeared to be duplications of our already approved visa application. After another inspection, our visa was granted and pasted into our passports. We were officially in Bolivia!
We gathered our belongings and followed the guard across the parking lot to a small metal shed. He had our visa applications and was getting them copied. He said that he wanted us to pay for the copies but we explained that we didn't have any money at all. He was annoyed but finally gave up. I told the guard that I didn’t see our bus. He assured me that they were just down the road in a holding area. He then escorted us to the holding area.
Our bus was nowhere in sight. The guard got on the radio and confirmed that our bus had left without us. We had our luggage but we had no money. There were no ATM’s and no bus companies operating from the border. Tears began to well in my eyes. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We were stranded at the Bolivian border.