Stories of a rough night ride linking Uyuni to La Paz by bus didn’t get me particularly excited about my leaving date. ‘I’m thinking of taking the train’, said my friend Nathalie, so I thought about it too. As did Carl and Patrick and Moritz and Blair. We thought and thought and talked. And then we went to the train station to book. Enough thinking.
‘You’ll have to go first class’, said the ticket man. I wondered whether tourists always got fed that line. At 112Bs. (£10.49/US$16.33) it was double that of a standard ticket. But, if we wanted to leave that night? Come on! Stop over thinking. Buy the goddam ticket.
At the last-minute Blair bailed and bought a ticket to go the opposite way. As happens whilst on the road, my Uyuni tour crew had started to break apart. Would we catch up again with Blair? With Lance? With Gemma? Maybe. All part of the randomness of travel. Move on, let them go. No time to get sentimental.
At just gone midnight the train rolled in. To be fair to the ticket guy, all carriages were stuffed full. People pushed on board, squishing in. Martin, a 6ft6” blonde dreadlocked Swede had got one of the last standard tickets. I imagined him trying to crush himself in there. Quite a mission. Would he get any sleep?
Our carriage, first class, didn’t exist. Like a scene from Harry Potter, we were sent down to the end of the platform to wait in the dark for a special, additional carriage to be brought in. I felt such a tourist. It was a little elitist and embarrassing. And somewhat mystical too.
Choo, choo. It turned up. We climbed on board, but my friend Carl got stopped. ‘Breathe on me’, instructed the conductor. Carl sucked in and exhaled. I held my breath. The boys had been on the beers all night.
Somehow, who knows how, the train crew were satisfied that Carl wasn’t drunk. If they’d witnessed his cheery, loud address taking centre stage at the front of the carriage as we chugged away from Uyuni, they may well have gone for a second opinion.
The carriage was empty, save for me and my four travel buddies and a handful of others. We each moved on to a double seat. Bedding, hot, super sweet tea and a ham and cheese roll were handed out to each of us. The perks of first class. Not really that fantastic, but a gesture, a nod towards the double cost.
I ended up drinking unwanted teas, cup-loads of sickly sweetness passed forward for me to finish. I started to feel a little nauseous and stopped. ‘Drink your own’, I finally told them, ‘I’m sugared out’.
The train started its 312km journey, moving smoothly towards Oruro. I tried to sleep. The blanket was a bit funky. At first I thought it might be the sleeping bag that I’d borrowed from one of the guys. Nah, it was definitely the blanket, so I pushed its mustiness away from my face and pulled the cords in tightly on my hoodie.
I mustn’t judge guys so harshly, I thought as I started to doze off, because many smell pretty damn good. Some even know how to wash and not just cover travel funkiness with smelly sprays. And with the gentle sway of the train and the warmth of a million layers and the thoughts of guys and good smells, I drifted off into a light sleep.
Six hours later we arrived into Oruro, took a short taxi ride to the bus terminal, bought tickets to La Paz for a group discount rate of 15Bs. each and grabbed some api and buñelo breakfast at a roadside stall.
Fed and watered, we nearly missed the bus. French Nathalie did an action hero jump onto the moving vehicle, trying to hold the doors open for me to follow suite. It didn’t happen. I waved her goodbye. We’d meet again. At least she was on board with everyone’s bags.
Not quite ready to totally give up, the rest of us ran behind the bus, flapping and shouting.
Fifty metres along the road, the bus stopped. It suddenly all made sense. In order to get into the bus terminal, one had to pay an entry fee – a terminal tax – of 15 centavos. The locals didn’t want to spend out so they gathered around the corner and waited for free access to the bus. Smart move.
I clambered onboard and collapsed into the seat next to Nathalie.
Three hours of girlie chat about life and love and everything in between and suddenly there she was spread out below us: the mass of La Paz, beautiful and scary all in one. I felt claustrophobic panic and tingly excitement and every emotion in between. I’m not a fan of cities but wow! – if you’re going to do cities , then this is quite the place.
And it felt so lovely, so different to arrive into the hectic belly of a city with a small group of friends. I’m used to fending for myself on arrival or otherwise sharing the fun with one other travel buddy. In a group, it was easier and enjoyable, if a little more awkward to organise.
Even the prospect of staying in the most full-on gringo haunt in town didn’t horrify me as much as it might usually. With these guys, anywhere could be fun. I had to keep an open mind and see whether the Loki hostel would eat me alive and spit me out, or just full on disagree with me.
Or maybe, just maybe, it could surprise me and I’d love the place. Time to find out.
So in terms of travelling to La Paz in style, I guess we’re not talking helicopters or private jets, we’re not dreaming up visions of horse-drawn carriages full of sumptuous cushions and throws, and we’re steering somewhat clear of the luxury of speed and smoothness. But! – in terms of public transport travel in Bolivia, going first class on the train from Uyuni to Oruro is really quite spacious and comfortable whilst the bus ride for the next few hours is no big drama at all.
Train timetable available here. The train from Uyuni and arriving into Oruro only leaves on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and tickets sell out fairly quickly (unless you’re happy to go first class).