“I have never seen such utter disregard for human life”. This was the first thing we read when trying to prepare ourselves for bus rides in Bolivia. That remark was followed by pages of examples of (severe) accidents, speeding or flat out drunk drivers and not to mention the poor state of the busses. Since we didn’t budget on flying our way through Bolivia, we tried to come prepared. Don’t rely on chance or even the lucky charms in the picture to get from A to B.
Some background information
To get to the best places in Bolivia, you will have to travel. We had a little over a month in Bolivia and in total we spent about 95 hours in a bus of some shape or form. We tried them all: Micro’s (American and Japanese), day time buses and night buses and even the well organized Bolivia Hop.
The state of the road in Bolivia is variable at best and companies don’t want to ruin good buses on bad roads. In order to travel as comfortable as possible, a little research and thorough prepping go a long way.
Things that delay your journey are plentyful here. Since nature is a force to reckon with, repairs or even landslides can occur when you make your way through this awesome country. It is also likely that you arrive a lot higher above sea level than you departed. And if that isn’t enough, strikes are a pretty common hold-up as well.
Before you depart
Try to go to the bus station to buy your tickets one day before you wish to leave. If you go earlier they might not want to sell you tickets, or have no clue if, when and what kind of bus will service your desired route. Later will give a chance of a full bus, especially when there are holidays.
Don’t get scared when you enter the bus station, people will yell destinations at you, multiple times, and very loudly. They mean well and just want to fill up their bus. To avoid having to decide who to follow when you enter the station, it is wise to do some googling and have a bus company in mind. To help you: El Dorado, Flota Bolivar and Trans Copacabana are usually safe bets.
Now you need to start asking questions. Is your desired seat still available? You can usually choose between a normal seat, semi cama (reclining seat) and cama leito (wide reclining seat). Legend has it that there are also full cama buses (bed-like fully recling seats) but we’ve never seen them in Bolivia.
Also don’t forget to check if there is a toilet on board AND if it is working and accessible (yes, these are valid questions). Sometimes drivers lock the door of the toilet when they feel you can hold it until the next stop. When that happens, get mad and get that key! Remember that all are “solo urinario”. If you need a loo for number two, tell the driver it’s an emergency. If you are lucky, there is a toilet somewhere near. If not, there is plenty of nature. Or as our guide used to say: “Baño Inca”.
On the day itself, make sure you don’t forget to pay the terminal tax or “uso de terminal”. Some terminals make you weigh and hand in your luggage, don’t wait ’till the last moment because speed is not the main goal of people in Bolivia (unless they are behind the wheel). We try to wait outside untill we see our bags in the belly of the bus and the door safely closed. This also gives you the chance at judging the state of the driver (fit, tired, sober or drunk) and take action accordingly.
During the ride
Now you are almost ready to roll. Because climate controll is not really something you can count on, it is wise to dress in layers. On Bolivian buses, it can be either very hot or extremely cold, depending on the drivers preference or state of the bus. We usually even carry a sleeping bag, just in case the bus breaks down, the road gives out or a strike occurs and you have to stay in your seat. We usually even carry a sleeping bag, just in case the bus breaks down, the road gives out or a strike occurs and you have to stay in your seat. The more expensive buses have airconditioning that may or may not work and the cheaper ones have windows that can actually open. Take your pick.
When you have tackled temperature, move on to snacks and water. Bring plenty, for boredom and emergencies alike. Also, don’t forget to try Bolivian bus cuisine. People will come on the bus to sell anything from gum to Cuñapes, a delicious warm cheese bread. This is also a time of some commotion on the bus and it is a good idea to keep an eye on your belongings during the sales rush.
Well fed and comfortable? Time to get some well deserved rest. We advise you to bring music, earplugs and a sleeping mask. We usually abuse our Buff (very handy!) as a sleeping mask, one less item to bring. When you have had your first encounter with a Cumbia enthousiast (on speaker at full volume) or have had to suffer through a Spanish dubbed Chinese movie about mermaids, you’ll know what we’re talking about. Yes, really.
If you are one a day bus and go from a low place to a high one, break out the coca leaves and drink plenty of water!
At your destination
You made it! That wasn’t so bad, was it? We actually quite enjoyed the buses here. But then again, we have had a very good run. No major annoyances and plenty of fun along the way. If you have made an altitude jump, take it easy and make use of the wonderfull coca.
If you had a nightbus, take it easy too. You’ll never sleep as well as in a bed and taking a good rest will help you take in all the wonders of Bolivia. And if you liked your company, write it down for future reference.
Special mention: Bolivia hop
In Bolivia as well as in Peru, you can choose for the Hop bus. This is a Hop on, Hop off bus that takes you across the border and helps you with some of the burocracy involved. It is a very effective and safe way of traveling but it is also a bit boring and you feel like a lot of foreign sheep in a very organized herd. If you want authentic, it’s not for you. If you want efficient: Hop on!
Help a fellow traveler out
We have now entered Peru and will embark on our fair share of bus travels over here as well. If you have any tips or tricks, please let us know. Same goes for when you have any questions: We are here to help. By the grace of wifi ;).