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Bus travel in Bolivia that I’d really recommend

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Leaving Pucara

MAYBE I WAS JUST GLAD to be getting out of Pucara and away from the prospect of a marriage of convenience that would have seen me living small, Bolivian village life, running three rental houses and caring for an old husband who would surely be well on his way to incontinence. Maybe my favourable account of the bus journey from Pucara to Villa Serrano and then on to Sucre was therefore skewed.

But hang on. The landscape was beautiful and the variation in terrain as we descended from high altitudes to the warmer climate of Villa Serrano was well worth noting.

Steep, winding mountain roads wound down past cacti the size of trees along rubbly ground where a sparse covering of shrubs with exposed roots clung on to dry, stony earth.

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Rocky landscapes on the way from Pucara to Villa Serrano

Cacti bushes and trees along the way to Villa Serrano

The crowded bus continued on through dusty canyons and alongside wide, dry rivers. Dust swirled through the bus, coating everything. The teenager in the seat in front of me sat hugging an old school ghetto blaster whilst he puked out and down the side of the bus, the warm, sweet fumes filtering back in through my open window.

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Herding by the river

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Dry river at dusk

At parts, the road was really terrible, huge chunks missing. The bus momentarily crawled alongside browny-orange landslides and inched across and around gaping cavities whilst I held my breath. We always made it. Skilled drivers, aided by the sign up front that stated seguir a Cristo. As on most South American public transport, we were being looked after by the total trust in religious iconography. All good.

As dusk set in, mountains silhouetted against a clear sky. The guy next to me got off the bus, no houses in sight, the middle of a dark nothingness. I wondered how far he had to walk still. It was gone 20:00pm.

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Night arrives on the way from Pucara to Villa Serrano

A little boy jumped into his seat. I dozed a little, waking only when he started to blow raspberries at his friend and screech and clamber over me to look at the moon. ‘¡La luna es aqui!’ he babbled, and his friend joined him by the window, which was also my seat and my lap. Two unknown three year old kids with knees and elbows digging into me? At least I had somewhere to sit.

A little later, having reclaimed some space, I woke up to my hair being stroked. The little boy next to me was now singing gently and playing with my hair, no inhibitions.

Within another hour we arrived into Villa Serrano and I wandered through dark streets with my head torch trying to find somewhere to stay.

Electricity in the town was down. My little venture away from the modern, English speaking world with all its comforts and trappings was set to continue for at least another day, and I certainly wasn’t about to complain.

After a short night’s sleep and a chilly shower, I was back on a bus headed from Villa Serrano to Sucre through a landscape of hills covered in grasses and trees.

It was an early morning start. Wisps of mist hung in the valleys and mountain peaks stayed hidden in the clouds, shadows streaking across their green, grey bodies. The sun shone out gentle, light rays onto little mud brick buildings with grass roofs and red tiles, waking up the folk in the farmsteads that we passed.

It was flatter and greener in the valleys, dry rockiness visible every now and then alongside corn fields. Yellow sunburst flowers on long, leafy stalks sat next to short, fluffy tufts of plants, delicately blowing in the fresh morning breeze.

On board, women sporting plaits and wearing warm, woolly hats carried small children bundled up in blankets. I played peek-a-boo with a little girl in front of me whilst a young boy looked on shyly, smiling when I caught his eye. Again, the only gringo on board. The elders were politer but the children were curious. I tried to remember being that young, but all I could really recall were my mum’s stories about how I chatted away to everyone.

The rest of this journey took us past more cacti; some small and spindly, others still the size of trees. Amazing towers of red rock rose up on the roadside just over an hour into the trip before we finally arrived at flatter farm land and paved, concrete roads. The bus sped up, onwards to Sucre.

So what was so special about this journey?

Predominantly, this was about the amazing, varied scenery but also the experience of being in amongst the locals with not a tourist in sight. It was also a much more interesting way to get to Sucre, and a cheap way to cover some substantial ground.

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Pucara to Villa Serrano cost 30Bs. (£2.70/US$4.34) for a six hour journey and Villa Serrano to Sucre cost 25Bs. (£2.25/US$3.62) for a four and a half hour journey. Villa Serrano to Sucre was a much smoother journey with better roads and a comfier bus, although the scenery wasn’t quite as impressive. Apologies for lack of photos for the second day – my camera battery died! Disappointed. From Villa Serrano to Sucre I travelled with Trans Turismo Señor “La Mision”. Buy tickets in the office on the square, which opens at 06:30am. The bus leaves 07:00am.

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Shall I stay? Finding love in Pucara

HOW CAN I GET TO Pucara?’ I asked a guy sitting outside his shop after I’d hidden my room payment under the candlestick in the alojamiento. I didn’t know what else to do. ‘Ten minutes’, he said, along with some other stuff that I just didn’t understand. I sat down with my backpack and waited.

I looked around. The village of La Higuera was deserted and I wasn’t sure whether I’d get a ride, whether there were buses from Pucara to Villa Serrano, whether I’d be stuck in these tiny villages for weeks and weeks. It certainly wasn’t the worst prospect. I’d had such a pleasant, peaceful and welcoming stay in La Higuera that a few days longer actually seemed quite appealing.

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Morning in La Higuera, Bolivia, and barely a soul in sight

But the car did turn up and an hour and a half later I arrived into the little mud hut maze of Pucara having done an hour detour through Villa Victoria and by the taxi driver’s house. Things to pick up there, stuff to do. You don’t mind, do you? he asked.

Of course not: the beauty of not being in a rush for once in my life. And the bonus? A sightseeing tour that took me really high into the mountains on the most precarious roads I’d seen yet in Bolivia.

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High up in the mountains near La Higuera

In Pucara, the village drunk took a shine to me. Okay, that’s probably unfair, but he was definitely on the wrong side of tipsy and it was barely gone 10:30am. He gripped my arm and started pressuring me to drink some beer that he’d just poured whilst his team of merry men laughed on.

It’s not too early’, he protested when I tried to make my excuses, ‘and it’s not too much’. I realised what I had to do. After a polite sip I removed myself from the party, bought some snacks and started the long wait for the mid-afternoon bus.

The plaza in Pucara is an odd little place, a mix of stone pillars, mini metal railings, a water fountain that doesn’t work and some yellow concrete archways.

Men in wide brimmed hats sat around in doorways surrounding the plaza, and the chatter and laughter of children playing lassoo chase filled the air.

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Kids playing in the plaza in Pucara

It was a couple of hours before what appeared to be the only restaurant in town opened but finally I heard some singing, a grace I guessed, and I made my way over to join a family for al muerzo. I’d already met Dolly outside, a girl in her late teens with a somewhat stern nature.

Whilst Dolly stared and ate silently, her family chatted away to me, and it really was mostly to me, although I did manage to tell them a little about my travels. They were curious about me travelling alone, about what I did back home. We talked about the Channel tunnel, about the economy in the UK and Europe compared to Bolivia. A random mix of conversation, part of an educated and better-to-do Bolivian family reunion.

Before I left and paid for my 15Bs. soup and chicken, potato and rice main, I made a quick visit to the loo, into the back of the house, dodging a huge hunk of meat hanging from the ceiling outside the bathroom door. The chewy contents of my soup, I assumed. My stomach had already threatened to go all South American on me and I hoped all would be well for my bus journey.

I passed the rest of the afternoon in Pucara sitting in the plaza, taking some photos of the town, writing and chatting to locals.

Two small boys noticed my camera and started to pose, falling over themselves with laughter when they saw their faces on the screen. ‘Again’, they said, giggling, ‘again’.

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A serious pose before the silly ones

People dressed in Sunday best were gathering at the church with plaited palm leaves and flowers. I asked an old woman what was being celebrated. ‘La Misa del Señora’, she told me, ‘a religious festival’. The church bells chimed. Two men stood waiting with a donkey on which was mounted what looked like a male doll dressed up as a woman. I was a little confused, but then I hadn’t really managed to grasp the concept of the festival.

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Donkeys and dressed up dolls

Gradually, the crowds gathered in the shade of the plaza. Three girls in flowing white gowns joined the group. There was a sense that something was about to happen.

You want to come along?’ asked the old woman, before muttering something about Santana when a guy drove past on a motorbike. I declined. I didn’t want to go off on a procession and miss the bus.

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The procession in Pucara sets off

And the last hour wait was maybe the most significant in that it could have changed my entire life, had I been a little more open minded and more attracted to older guys.

Germán, a relaxed, somewhat rounded man in his late 70s came and sat next to me. We chatted a bit. In previous lives we’d both been teachers. He loved that we had some similarities.

It wasn’t long before he told me that he wanted to come and travel with me to Villa Serrano and on to Sucre. He took my hand and held it for a while. He playfully nicked my pen lid, then my pen. He gave my leg a cheeky stroke.

I looked out for the bus. Surely it must be on its way? And if the bus didn’t show? The alternative was for me to stay here and marry Germán and inherit a donkey and his three houses. He’d made a point of telling me about the houses, sure that they would seal the deal. If only I didn’t believe in true love.

A little girl with whom I’d been engaged in a face pulling contest for a few minutes left to find her mum who ran the village shop, leaving me fully alone with my would-be suitor. I started to write.

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My new friend in Pucara before the face pulling and hand hiding started

Germán was fascinated by my pen. ‘How much did it cost?’ he asked. I told him 8Bs, embarrassingly expensive, I realised, for most Bolivians. I told him that a good pen for me was more important than a good meal. He laughed and asked if he could write something. He moved in closer. He wrote me a note in my book, a love letter of sorts.

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A love letter of sorts

And then he tried to stroke my bum. ‘Pare, por favour’, I said. Enough was enough. I stood up. ‘We could get a room together in Villa Serrano’, he said quickly. ‘No. It wouldn’t be nice to mi novio’, I said, trying to think of excuses and a gentle let-down. Germán put his fingers to his mouth. ‘Sssshhhh.

No’, I told him, ‘I’m going to Villa Serrano alone’.

A strong handshake, a strange little finger stroke on my palm and he left. Love affair over.

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Maybe I should I have waited for an English speaking guide

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Let sleeping dogs lie outside of my room in La Higuera, Bolivia

IT SOUNDED AS THOUGH THE entire village had gathered outside of my window for an early morning chat. I checked my watch. 6:25am. Surely it couldn’t be morning already? I was having such a delicious night’s sleep after a few days on La Ruta del Che that had thus far led me to La Higuera, a hamlet five hours from Samaipata, Bolivia.

I dozed a little while longer, laughter and chatter mixed in with half-cooked dreams.

By the time I got up, the old school house was deserted save for a few stray dogs who wondered around Che’s room and sat guard in front of his mural.

I spent an hour walking back and forth through La Higuera looking for my alojamiento hostess and the woman with the key to the museum, but both were elusive. I guessed that, like the trip to Che’s execution site, this was another of those things that wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe I should have waited around a few days in Vallegrande for an English speaking guide to be available? Maybe I would have actually got to experience something a little less hit and miss?

But no, this was actually far more fun, more random, more adventurous. The experience of being in places and close to places where Che and his men had hidden and hung out was good enough to get me into a reflective headspace.

I still felt close enough to the story.

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