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The Longest Ride Across Bolivia

Inca to inuit

After our first border crossing from Peru to Bolivia via a relatively easy 3-hour bus journey, 1 hour 30 mins queue at border control and a further 3-hour bus the other side, we arrived in La Paz. The highest city in the world.

Bolivian Border Crossing

When most think of La Paz they think of mountains, buzzing South American culture, great coffee. When Lyndsay Broughton thought of La Paz, she immediately thought of the highest McDonalds in the world! Unfortunately, after discovering that the highest McDonalds in the world was no longer in La Paz as it had closed down, we instead went to a much better option call Chez Moustache. A French-Bolivian culinary masterpiece where we had one of the best meals we’ve had on our journey so far.

The plan for the following day was to journey from La Paz to Uyuni. Uyuni is a town in the middle of the Bolivian desert where we would kick off a three-day tour of the salt flats and volcano covered southern desert. We had booked a bus the day before with a company that had come recommended as a reliable national firm. National they might have been, but reliable they were not as it transpired.

Jake Saltflats Inca to Inuit

The bus was due to leave La Paz at 6:30 pm and arrive in Uyuni at 5:30 am the following morning so we had booked full cama (bed) seats that would allow us to lie down so we could get some sleep.

The journey started ok. The bus left late, but only by thirty minutes or so (normal in Bolivia). After an hour or two, a film and a few snacks we had brought with us for a light dinner, we settled down to get some sleep. This relative bliss lasted only until 3:30 am, at which point the bus ground to a halt in the darkness.

We could hear voices, but had no clue what was happening. Thinking this was one of many random unscheduled stops South American bus drivers seem to make (to pick up fruit, go to the loo, offer hot women lifts, to have a chat to their mates) we tried to get back to sleep. After half an hour, one of our drivers came into the bus, pointed a flashlight directly in our faces and asked us to lift our seats. He then proceeded to open a hatch behind the chairs and use a hammer to smash the living daylight out of a metal cog under the hatch.

It was like listening to the hammer of Thor delivering lightning to the mortal world. Every 20 or so bangs he would yell through the window glass to his co-driver to see if his racket had made any difference… It hadn’t. It was clear this wasn’t a standard unscheduled South American bus driver stop. We had broken down.

After three very long hours with the drivers trying varying approaches to get the bus going, it has gotten light. I ventured out of the bus to find four greased-up Bolivian men peering into a very broken engine. It was like a bad version of ‘The Full Monty’… Except without music, or dancing, or women, or a stage, or being set in Sheffield.

The company we had chosen, Tour Tourismo, had two buses travelling in convoy and the second bus had stopped to help try and fix our bus. After another half an hour, the driver of the second bus had come to the conclusion that our bus was unfixable and hit the road. Leaving us stranded in the middle of the Bolivian desert.

Bolivian Desert

Another two hours passed without moving. By this time the whole bus had woken up and with a cloudless desert sky it was getting hot. As the planned arrival time of the bus was 5:30 am we had only budgeted enough food and water for this period, so water supplies were very low and we had only a few sweets to eat. We were also still none-the-wiser to what had actually happened, whether we had an eta on when we would get back on the road, whether another bus was being sent to collect us, or whether we would die in the middle of the desert with some greased-up Bolivian men.

It turned out another bus was on its way. It finally arrived at 11:30 am, 8 hours after we had originally broken down. Relieved, we piled into the second bus in good spirits. Sure, we had no water left, sure we were all hungry and tired but we only had 4 hours of our journey left… so we thought.

The second bus pulled off and as it did the whole bus erupted in applause, relieved our ordeal was over. Unfortunately, as the applause died away so did the buses engine! The second bus had got just 300 metres down the road when it too gave up! At first we thought it was a joke, but then we saw the smoke coming from the engine.

This breakdown lasted another painful hour before the driver and mechanic managed to get us back on the road. After a nervy first 10 minutes of driving with the entire bus, driver included, gritting their teeth with every gear change, we relaxed.

I’m afraid to say that this was newfound relaxation was also short lived. A further 20 minutes down the road we pulled over again for the repairs to recommence. A 15-minute fixer-upper that included jamming a rock into BACK into place in the engine, (because it was holding something in place, obviously) and we were up and running.

I would like to tell you that was the end of it, but I’m afraid not. Half an hour down the road the cursed bus broke down yet again. For 3 hours.

lynds bus breakdown

By this point it was 5:15 pm, we were famished, and so thirsty we had resorted to cutting a water bottle in half and leaving it outside to collect rain. Annoyed with my earlier simile about the hammering, Thor had sent a huge electrical storm to smite us. At first it was a good distraction to watch the lightning bolts strike from afar, but when it started hailing and huge bolts hitting less than a mile away it wasn’t so great.

No communication from the driver meat we were none the wiser to whether a third bus was on its way or not. Deciding enough was enough I tried in vain to thumb a lift with the very irregular passing cars.

At 5:35 pm, over 12 hours after we were due to arrive at our destination, a third and mercifully more reliable bus arrived to collect us. Finally, after three long and thirsty hours later, we arrived in Uyuni. Only 15 hours late.

First port of call was water, a family sized pizza and a large beer. Second was to go to the tour company for compensation. After initially saying they would not reimburse any of the journey, the staff changed their minds when I said that I would take the office TV as recompense.

Moral of the story… buy a car.

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