Loco-motion: A Tale of Bolivian Travel

A Guest Post by Geordon Omand & Elise Palmer

Bolivia is renowned to travelers as being home to the World’s Most Dangerous Road. Unfortunately, this leads one to believe that the remainder of the country’s roadways are relatively safe, which is anything but true. In fact, this little-known Andean nation – colloquially referred to as the Ceiling of the World – is positively replete with vehicular vagabondry, transportative terror, and mobile mayhem. This was made particularly apparent to your two humble authors during our recent foray into the central South American state.

We arrive by air to the city of La Paz, at 13,000 feet. As the joke goes, upon approaching the Bolivian de facto capital city, pilots announce that they are ready to begin their ascent to the airport. In La Paz, we file quietly off the plane and make our way slowly towards customs and immigrations, pausing frequently for breaks to breath deeply of the oxygen-poor air. Such are the joys of landing nearly three miles above sea level.

Our first introduction to Bolivian transportation is a night bus from La Paz to Sucre. Roughly 600km, we were informed the bus takes 12 hours on a good day. Hardly surprising, given the condition of the roads in the country. Later we would find out that during Incan times, runners travelled the distance between the two cities in 24 hours. How’s that for progress?

Boarding a bus is always a game of chance in this country. With no washroom on board, and no stops, your only recourse is to dehydrate yourself during the day and pray you don’t come down with a case of Montezuma’a Revenge. Don’t forget to bring Immodium.

Bus terminals ring with the cries of callers, shouting the various destinations of imminent departures. Sucre! Potosi! La Paz! Santa Cruz! Curiously, virtually all the time, they are each shouting the exact same destination, forecast for an identical departure time, and sold at indistinguishable prices. One can hardly help stifling the suggestion that they all save their collective breath and perhaps take the calling in turn. Needless to say, innovation is not a keyword in the Bolivian business community’s lexicon.

Once settled in Sucre, we are treated to camion rides, the quintessential means of Bolivian transportation. Travel takes place in the expanded bed of a truck, typically painted a light shade of blue. Passengers make the journey cheek-to-jowl, standing up, even occasionally perched on one leg in the confined space, rather like a Bolivian flamingo. Cholitas, sporting a traditional dress paired with an iconic fedora – are the only people permitted to sit down, where they inevitably fall asleep. Wizened old men gaze expressionlessly at the passing countryside, chewing coca leaves with stained teeth. The ground is haphazardly strewn with colourful shawls holding all manners of goods and care must be taken to avoid the feces of the livestock also making the trip. On any standard voyage we bounce violently down roads reminiscent of the llama-trodden tracks of Incan times. The experience has broken grown men. Once, we were joined by a Frenchman who was reduced to jumping from the moving vehicle, shrieking “I can’t do it anymore!”

Perhaps our most memorable ordeal on a camion is returning from a remote hiking excursion. We arrive at a partially completed concrete bridge spanning 300 meters over a coursing river. Passengers immediately pour off the truck and race towards the water, jostling each other for position. Reaching the riverside, everyone begins en masse to scale the rebar latticework of the still under construction bridge, their colourful shawls flashing brilliantly in the high altitude sun. A mob mentality, typical of Bolivian transportation ventures, takes over. Precarious 2×4’s are leaned against the 20ft concrete wall and everyone begins to scramble up, refusing to wait their turn, as the wood creaks and bends ominously under their weight. Despite being caught up in the the dog-eat-dog ordeal, the camion waits patiently for us on the opposite side of the river as we scurry across the uncompleted bridge like nothing more than a colourful line of marching ants..

Even modes of transportation more conventional than the idiosyncratic camion is typified by the chaotic Bolivian travel trait. Miniature microbuses – or micros – are no exception.

On one such instance we find ourselves snaking by micro up nearly 1,000 vertical meters of switchbacks. Our chauffeur proceeds as recklessly as possible. Ever the responsible one, he lets out a honk or two while accelerating around each blind corner, two wheels all but suspended over the precipitous cliff edge. Confidence is hardly inspired as he crosses himself in the Christian tradition before every one of these heart-stopping turns.

Every few minutes during the three hour ride he places his elbows on the steering wheel as he unrolls several squares of toilet paper. To our distress, he proceeds to spit blood into them. Internal hemorrhaging is never a positive sign. Noticing our concern, he explains nonchalantly that he had undergone dental surgery the day before. Although his dentist has expressly forbid him from working, there was unfortunately no one available to cover that day’s shift. Asi es la vida, no? Such is life, eh?

One day we think to escape the perils of Bolivian transportation by resorting to the comparable luxury of a private taxi. To no avail: we come to an abrupt halt when the taxi’s rear right wheel goes careening off down the road, oblivious to its deserted load. Blocking the flow of traffic in both directions, cars immediately begins to pile up. But instead of raging against uncontrollable circumstances, as might happen in the Western world, here drivers and passengers alike emerge unperturbed from their vehicles and proceed to picnic, listen to radios, and play along the roadside.

From our homes in the developed world, it is sometimes the case that nothing works and everyone is unhappy. To their everlasting credit, Bolivians seem to have overcome this predicament: here, nothing works but everyone is still happy.

This post was co-written by Elise Palmer

Elise Palmer
Elise Palmer

After growing up in a household where B.C. politics was a regular dinner-time conversation topic, Elise vowed to explore the rest of the country. Following brief stints in Quebec, France, England, Ontario and Vancouver, British Columbia’s wacky world of politics sucked her back. When she isn’t pacing the halls of the provincial legislature, her favourite place to be is the great outdoors. Elise is now indulging in what must surely be one of the best pastimes: travelling the world, and writing about it. Next, she is headed to King’s College in Halifax for a degree in journalism, after which she hopes to pursue her dream career – covering politics.

Geordon Omand

At the age of four, Geordon Omand was unequivocal about becoming a palaeontologist. The best laid plans – two decades later, he is unapologetic about his destinal deviation, despite his career path’s particular paucity of plesiosaurs. When not frolicking in the outdoors, Geordon enjoys satisfying his penchant for global gallivanting and recreational writing, even combining the two on occasion. He exchanged four years and some loose change for a degree in political science from the University of Victoria, B.C., and now intends to make his way in the tumultuous world of professional journalism. How exactly he proposes to do so is, as with all life’s most worthwhile endeavours, a work in progress.

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  1. Being from Asia, I never realized how similar South America and Asia were before I went to Chile and Bolivia. The infrastructure, transportation, people were very similar – as was the infectious energy all these countries had!

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