You know when there is no other option but to laugh? The bus in front of me was about as far away from luxury as I could have hoped for and I was going to be on it for the next 22 hours. At least. Oh joy. Would I even make it to Bolivia?
The previous night I’d left Foz do Iguaçu at midnight on board the amazing comfort and space of a Sol del Paraguay bus destined for Asunción in Paraguay. Although I’m now pretty hardened to long distance bus travel, when unexpected luxury enters the mix, it’s a wonderful surprise.
Just across the border into Paraguay there was a visible return to South American poverty. Tens of makeshift tents lined the roadside leading up to the bus terminal of Ciudad del Este, little hives of activity, some adults and lots of kids spilling out onto the pavement. Blankets and bodies and unforgiving concrete. Such a contrast to the comfort that I was privileged to be experiencing.
The bus drove on into the night, a smooth service that allowed me to sleep for a few hours. I almost wished the journey to be longer. But come 06:00am, I was back to a chaotic reality of cramped shops and money exchange stalls within Asunción bus station.
It would be unfair of me to comment on Asunción (or Paraguay as a whole) because my time there consisted of bus terminals, taxi rides, border crossings and a daytime sleep in a hostel with an unusually old clientele. I was battling infection, sore throat and a high temperature. The real threat of Dengue fever (discussed on the news the very night I was there) was enough to make me want to push on to a more trodden path where my poor Spanish and ill health would be less problematic.
So Paraguay, I am sorry for not stopping by and giving you a chance. Another time.
Having bought Bolivia bus tickets for that same night, I split a taxi with two English girls. The ride right across town cost 40,000₲. It sounded a small fortune but in reality Paraguay is South America´s second poorest economy and 40,000₲ is just US$9.32 or £5.92. We passed by some NSA buses. We’d booked through NSA. Their buses looked great. We were in for another nice journey.
So back to the start where I’m boarding the bus for Bolivia in Asunción bus station. Although I laughed when I saw the actual bus, I also felt that little trapdoor of gloom pull open and frustration start to bubble out of its depths. Despite a snatch of sleep in a hostel during the day, I still physically felt like absolute crap. Disgusting toilets (avoid use), limited stops with bush hideouts, 03:00am border crossings and military checks and a man who nicked my window seat were all things I had to look forward to. All I really wanted were crisp, cool sheets on a comfy, bug free bed in a Westernised country. And I wanted a cuddle from my mum. Or someone nice.
The bus was pretty full. Although close to the front, I couldn’t see out: not only had the co-driver shut and locked the door to the front section but heavy curtains blocked any view. In my experience, this is pretty standard for buses in South America.
Across the aisle was sitting a thick set, broad bottomed woman with long, glossy hair. She took out a cup and flask from her bag and started to make up some mate. Sipping slowly on the straw, she eventually finished, put everything away and reclined her seat. She turned on her side, had a bit of a wriggle around and was finally comfortable, cushioned by the chair and a good dose of curves.
Raul, the guy who had taken my seat, received a call shortly after we set off. He smiled down the phone. ‘I’m on the bus’, he said, ‘it’s great. Air conditioned, food, reclining bed seats’.
And I thought, hell yeah, who cares about a seriously shabby appearance, about a looped Bruce Willis movie where the sound is screwed, about dry bread and chicken nugget dinners, about the many stops and bumpy, dire roads I was due to encounter over the next day. It really could be worse.
Buses leave regularly from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay for the five to six hour journey to Asunción. If you want to leave from Foz do Iguaçu, as I did, then Sol has a service leaving at midnight that costs R$40 (£14.55). Buses for Santa Cruz, Bolivia leave Asunción at 20:00pm most nights (not Thursday and possibly not Sunday). A number of offices on the top floor of the terminal sell tickets but the most reputable seems to be the official NSA office where tickets cost 250,000₲ (£37.02) (cash/card) or US$60 (£37.73) (cash only). The journey takes 22 hours and includes many military stops and border checks including stamps in and out of Paraguay and Bolivia. It feels like an extended process where the first check point is in the middle of the night, the last some time around midday. There are basic meals on board but I would recommend bringing some water, at the very least.