Where old buses go to die
Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
27Trip End Nov 09, 2010
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Where I stayed
A beat up old bus
Jeff's recant of a long 24 hours across the eastern half of Bolivia into Brazil.
The Santa Cruz to San Matias, Bolivia route. Our lucky night/day trip was March 30. We had planned in advance and this time asked all the right questions we could think of (we missed some on previous trips, but were learning). Santa Cruz is in the middle of Bolivia, a fairly large city still (with pavement!), but San Matias is far to the east on the Brazil border. No pavement has found its way there yet.
Two days before our departure we went to the Santa Cruz bus terminal to book our trip east. There were a few bus companies to choose from that do this route, but in general the selection was extremely limited
Game day arrived and we got to the bus terminal an hour early as requested, so they could get all luggage packed into the bus on schedule. This was a first for being so early, so maybe it was a Bolivia thing. You should see some of the stuff the locals transport on these buses! We’d see some of their stuff at the border crossing at the end of the trip, but there were things like new car tires, microwaves, room fans, crates of fruits and vegetables and more
So that everyone gets a piece of the traveler action, there were other fees we had to pay before we were even allowed into the bus area (through the gates so to speak) as well as before we could use the toilets in the bus terminal. The first fee was 3 Bolivianos (about 45 US cents) for what they called “general usage fee”. For these 45 cents, they had an entire ticket office that required each traveler to go to separately from the individual bus ticket offices. I know there are inefficiencies everywhere (are you listening corporate world?) but this was just a bit laughable when the amount of the fee was considered
The terminal usage fee may have been laughable, but the next to be learned toilet fee and “requirement” was hysterical. There is a sign in the terminal that proclaims “it is forbidden to use the toilets without credentials” (see the pictures; we can‘t make this stuff up). We did not see this entertaining sign until we had already gone, but you can’t go without passing the toilet guard and paying the 1 Boliviano “right to use the toilet” fee (about 15 US cents) - and getting a receipt and a handful of shrink wrapped toilet paper! Maybe this was all part of the entertainment for having to be at the terminal an hour before departure, but we were now fully paid up, fully credentialed and pee free - so were ready to go get on the bus.
This is where the humor ended, at least for some time. We walked through the gate hallway to the hallowed bus grounds. We had sugar plum images of a big fancy, clean, modern bus waiting to take us across eastern Bolivia to the border. Apparently the Bolivian bus company had another image in their minds. As soon as we saw our bus our hearts sank - and we went immediately into full intentional dehydration mode. The bus had to be at least 10 years old, looked every bit its age and perhaps more, had all the windows wide open (clearly no a/c) and absolutely no sign of a toilet anywhere on the bus
The bus loading area was packed with buses, passengers waiting to board, vendors trying to sell food and drinks and of course drivers and luggage handlers probably standing around chuckling at the gringo backpackers they were about to get on their bus. We were a bit dumbfounded and stood there staring at our bus in disbelief. Ours was in station #11, but there were two buses there, parked one in front of the other. Maybe our bus was really the nice looking bus and not the bus that looked like it needed some duct tape in places? The handlers were busy loading luggage and at this point we could see one of our backpacks in the luggage compartment - of the crappy bus. I don’t speak Spanish, but I got Tamara to ask the driver standing nearby about the lack of a toilet on the bus and the “plan” for making stops along the way. Remember, this is a 16 HOUR ride. For even a ride around the block, there rises a certain fear when you realize you don’t have the option to go. That fear grows exponentially when the duration is not just around the block but rather halfway across a country! The downhill direction of things was about to continue and we had not yet boarded the bus
8PM - Resigned to our fate, we boarded the bus and took our assigned seats in the middle of the bus. The one surprisingly positive thing about nearly all these South American buses is their very decent punctuality. The other passengers, none of whom sounded as if they spoke any English, all found their seats and we got ready for departure. Another apparent trend on these buses is that there is always one or two street vendors that get on last and stand in the aisle and try to sell videos, food, drinks, sunglasses or on this night a variety of chicklet-like bracelets that depict Jesus in different scenes. Tamara actually bought one - I think for the novelty as well as the superstition that it might help our bus get to San Matias in one piece. All sales completed, we start rolling toward the road. Then we’re stopped at the gate of the terminal. This time two armed police officers board the bus and start looking at most of the carry-on bags people have
10PM - Traffic comes to a halt amidst traffic congestion at some construction. Like bees to honey, all of a sudden we hear a loud chorus of “pollo, pollo, agua, coke!” Looking out the window into the dark, there are dozens of street vendors walking up to all the windows of the bumper to bumper stopped traffic trying to sell food and drinks. Maybe Boliviano’s have multiple bladders, for several of our passengers actually reach out the windows and buy some of this stuff! Along the side of the road on both sides we’re clearly in some kind of small town as the street is lined with small restaurants/cafés/kiosks selling anything they can. We creep along at less than a walking pace for some time. There are even some guys that walk up and get off the bus, pee on the side of the road and jump back on before we’ve even gone 20 feet. I was tempted to join them, but it had only been two hours and in full dehydration mode now for several hours I had nothing to offer the side of the road then.
12AM (midnight) - The less than perfect pavement ends and we hit the dirt road - for the rest of the way
2AM - Falling in and out of sleep mode with each big bump or speed change, we wake to find the bus pulling into a gas station. A PEE BREAK! Everyone piles off the bus and runs to the toilets in the dark behind the Alfred Hitchcock like facility. As is typical, all the guys get things done in short order and are all back on the bus in no time. This is no place to be left, and as we’re about to learn our drivers seem to not care if someone is left. To watch our things on the bus, Tamara stayed behind until I returned. This put her nearly dead last in the still long female line. She wasn’t in line for a minute when the bus creeps forward and honks the horn to indicate he’s ready to roll on. There were several women still in line and Tamara came running back to the front of the bus, which had the door still open and yelled at the driver to stop and wait for them. All he replied with was “hurry up”. Tamara ran back to the line which had suddenly moved into high gear as the girls started using the men’s room as well as theirs
8AM - We arrive and stop in some small town called San Vicente, deeper in the middle of nowhere. Still just the one damp red dirt road we came down as far as you could see behind us and stretching as far as you could see in the direction we were headed. There was a near full moon overnight, and we could see the terrain change from city to lush greenery over time. With the onset of daylight now, we could see we were in the humid tropical jungle of the Pantanal. Again, everyone got off the bus for another pee break. This time, with the morning, the drivers congregated at a table in the café of the bus stop. It was time for their breakfast, as well as dropping off some passengers (someone’s gotta live in this town!), so the sense of urgency for NASCAR like pit stop was averted. We even had about five minutes to stand next to the bus and stretch our legs. We stayed close to the bus though, now knowing the kindness of our driver. Several passengers also grabbed a bite to eat or a drink, but having no idea where we were or how much longer we had to go, we maintained our food/drink abstinence! When the drivers got up from their tables and closed the luggage doors on the bus, we quickly jumped back on board, for what was to be the home stretch
12PM (noon) - Shortly before noon, one of the luggage guys that was traveling with the bus came through and collected tickets. Kind of strange to check tickets moments from the destination, but it afforded us the opportunity to ask how much further until we landed in San Matias. The response was just 20 minutes. Almost 16 hours to the minute after we left Santa Cruz, we pass through an armed military (border?) checkpoint and pull into the bus terminal of San Matias. Still only the red dirt roads, the terminal looks almost like nothing more than a large gas station. There is nothing else around, in any direction. We get off the bus and start looking for our luggage in the open compartments. The one backpack we had seen in boarding was quickly found, but the other was not in sight and it appeared that most of the compartments were already empty. Tamara and I looked at each other and we both had a look of fear about not getting both bags into the bus. Thankfully our fear was short lived, as the second bag was on the ground on the other side of the bus, caked in the red dirt. We grabbed all our stuff and went to the other side of the “terminal”, thinking it would be easy to get the next leg of our trip lined up and started. We were planning to survive and arrive here, turn around and catch another bus across the border to Caceras, Brazil (just a couple of hours away we heard); and then catch yet another bus from there over to Cuiaba (few more final hours) for our final destination
We’re still on the Bolivian side of the border but our driver spoke mostly Portuguese from the Brazil side - which we didn’t. The ride share girl spoke some Spanish, so Tamara was able to communicate that we wanted to cross over to Caceras. Between them we heard that the Bolivian side passport office was closed. At first we thought it was for the day and started to panic a bit (looking around we saw nothing!), due in part for the imminent Easter weekend. Then Tamara heard the ride share girl telling the driver to “just go to his house”. The office was not fully closed; “the” passport guy in this town had gone home for lunch! So we started driving through this very small very muggy town and the girl told Tamara where we were headed. Moments later we pull up to a dirt driveway next to a small house with chickens running around the yard. The driver motions that this is the place and the four of us get out and walk up to the half open doorway. It’s one of those doors that opens in halves, so the bottom half is still closed but the top half is open. Some guy in shorts and no shirt comes groggily to the door and the taxi driver says something to him about us. Almost silently the guy in the house motions for our passports, which we pass through the door to him
1PM - No longer in a big bus that absorbed much of the dirt road undulations, the small taxi bounces its way across the washboard for another ten minutes. There is no town anywhere, the trees and brush are jungle-like thick on either side of the road and the humidity is at least 100%. Still no a/c either. We round a corner, cross a very small bridge over a ditch and we see the “welcome to Brazil” sign and the crossing just ahead. There are half a dozen cars lined up in front of us and we take our place in line. The taxi driver shuts off his engine and opens the door for air circulation so we all follow that lead and do the same. Based on the way we see the armed military guards searching through every single bag, it appears this may be a while. We finally shuffle our way to the front and pull our backpacks up onto the table in front of the guards
2PM - We may be in Brazil now, but we’re still in the middle of nowhere and this is where our Bolivian taxi leaves us and returns back across the bridge
3PM - The bus is actually a beat up looking minivan, and as we’re waiting for it to unload those it came with Tamara points out that “it is a Mercedes”
4PM - Back in what feels like a real city, with people all around the bus terminal, we gringos are quickly spotted by two Moto Taxi drivers (as in motorcycle) who ask if we need Brazil entry stamps for our passports - which we do, since for some strange inefficiency reason they don’t seem to provide at the actual border inspection
4:30PM - Passports stamped, back at the bus terminal we retrieve our backpacks from storage and check schedules for buses going to Cuiaba, our desired final stop. Karma still flowing, there will be a bus in just 30 minutes, at 5PM. After momentarily wondering if we should compare prices with other buses, we get our tickets and walk across the street for something quick to eat and drink. We’re no longer restricted from toilet access, so we’re free to start eating again! The first place we went in had some kind of meat empanadas and beer, but the relative that runs the place right next door had the yummy Brazilian cheese bread we’d discovered previously - but no beer. With a little encouragement from the two owners, we merge our meal between the two cafes
5PM - Our big, shiny, double decker bus pulls up. One, it looks like it was built this decade. Two, it very clearly has a toilet. This ride is only to be 3.5 hours, but it feels good knowing its there. Three, as we’re boarding, it looks as good and comfy on the inside too - and has A/C blasting. Go karma! Right before boarding I said something to Tamara about seat assignments and a young girl hears us, confirms what we thought and says she speaks English and will help us navigate the Portuguese language barrier. Karma now had a name, Anna, who was 23 and had spent two years in San Francisco on a student exchange program. Once seated on the bus together she used her phone to call a place to stay which we did not yet have and made a reservation for us. The bus pulls out of the station nearly right on time, the road is paved and smooth, the A/C is blowing and we comfortably fall asleep for the final three hours to Cuiaba.
8:30PM - Upon arrival, our new friend Anna escorts us to the taxi stand and helps us navigate the language barrier and procedure to obtain and prepay for a taxi. Once confirmed, Anna says goodbye and walks away and we follow our taxi driver to his car.
It was almost exactly a 24 hour journey, but we made it. Three different taxis, a minivan, two buses and a pair of Moto Taxis. Not all we had hoped for, but it gave us some laughs along the way and a fun story to tell.