​Transport experiences in Bolivia: La Paz to Uyuni

So finally I’m starting to write about my Bolivia experiences! I started writing this post while on a local bus in Sucre, Bolivia and was feeling a bit inspired – I’ll definitely try to write about my experiences in Bolivia in a more place-specific way when I am back or have time, but honestly even within just a couple of days it became clear this topic merits its own post! Also, now I am travelling alone I find I am often meeting people in the hostels when I’m relaxing so end up doing something social, so am having less time to write. But in this case I think a themed overview actually kind of gives a good idea of the crazy hectic vibe I experienced in Bolivia!

The public transport in Bolivia is intimidating to a Westerner at first. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious system or even a way to tell what’s official and what’s not – because it doesn’t matter, since anything goes! The first experience I had with this was transferring from my last G Adventures hotel in La Paz to a hostel, in a taxi (from La Paz onwards I’ve been going it alone). Since I had my heavy rucksack I thought it might keep things simple. Oh how I was wrong!

The traffic in La Paz is unbelievable, as in you actually have to see it to believe it. Of course there’s reckless driving and banged up cars crawling nose-to-tail – that you’d expect – but you also have to consider that every other vehicle seems to be a random minivan adorned in proclamations of the love of Christ and even the names of the driver’s loved ones, and these take up a lot of space.

These are the kind of ‘private’ buses I.e. one day the owner woke up, decided to buy an ancient VW, and voila just flag it down and hope he’s going your way. For some reason these almost always seem to have teenage kids hanging out of the doors too, shouting about what they’re selling?! Oh yes, forgot to mention, the doors are permanently open (if there was one to start with)! Further to these there are also the actual public buses, which would look familiar to anyone who grew up in the US in the 80s and 90s – that’s right, they’re repurposed old American school buses -crazy pimped out school buses! Therefore, to say the traffic is slow moving is an understatement. 

After 25 minutes in that first taxi (but not before?) the driver told me I should just get out and walk. Not before charging me the full fare which was frustrating but I was too tired to argue and then you do remember that it’s only about 75p! Bolivia is enjoyably cheap, I found. Anyway, I somehow found myself outside the notorious San Pedro prison with no idea where to go – would definitely have been better to just try and work out a route from the hotel and walk 25 mins. Luckily I’d grabbed a tourist map from the front desk so after a few attempts made it okay; although feeling rather uneasy and like a target with my massive rucksack, daypack on the front, and handbag, which I hadn’t had time to find space for when being chucked out of the taxi. Actually, I later learnt to feel a lot more confident and safe in La Paz, which is really very nice, but it’s always intimidating the first time alone.

Indeed, at that moment if someone had told me I’d end up hailing and riding the crazy local buses during my short time in Bolivia I’d have laughed – but I did! The following day I took a local guided tour which ended up being just me for 4 hours. Wasn’t too happy at first but ended up being a really fun way to see the city in a lot of detail. We went all over and even into El Alto City, the hectic and high city which up until 20ish years ago was part of La Paz but is now is its less tourist-friendly adjoining counterpart. How did we get there? By bus! When the guide stopped and waved his arm seemingly in the middle of the road I had no idea what was going on, until he herded me in and told me to hold on (yes, even while sitting down). You just hail any bus anywhere, and always give 1.5 Bolivianos. 

If you can get your head round it, I’d say this actually a really good way to see some city life. La Paz is hilly to say the least, so getting a bus entails winding up and up and you get a really good view of both what’s going on in the street as well as a general panoramic. Obviously you need to always keep an eye on your belongings and surroundings but overall I would say that was actually a highlight of sightseeing LP for me.

However, if you’re more of a bird’s eye view kind of person (or get motion sick at all) then you’ll be pleased to know the funiculars in La Paz are also an incredibly economical and fun way to get an overview. They’re really modern and were actually built in recent years to alleviate the said traffic problem, so they’re not a horrendous tourist price – just 3 Bolivianos (and remember it’s 20 Bs to £1!). Since the soil is so soft and it’s so hilly there’s no way they could build a metro – so they built up instead, which is really smart to be honest. It’s also a lot less stressful as there’s no traffic and no faff – although of course you could argue that’s part of the charm of the street level. I took the Red line up to the adjoining Blue and then went for about 20 minutes along that one, which actually goes into El Alto too. Well worth a go but I must say the stations aren’t very well signposted – but that’s the general rule in Bolivia in any case.

Back to the local buses – I was so glad my guide told me about how to get yourself on one, as I ended up using one (the number 4) in Sucre too and saving myself a decent amount getting to the Parque Creatico, which as a major attraction had a special tourist bus that only went at specific times and cost more. I have so many great things to write about Sucre and this park in the future, I promise! Once again the bus turned out to be a highlight of seeing the town for me, winding through colourful markets with locals in Ayamaran and Quechuan dress doing their weekly shop – all in parts of town I never would have ventured into otherwise. 

Much better than my taxi experience in Sucre, where I got mildly ripped off and also had my first experience of the taxi sharing which is habitual there. Fresh out of the bus station from a nice and long nightbus from La Paz, I approached the taxi rank address in hand, and was offered a taxi with a woman already sat inside for 5 Bs. I was feeling tired and had no idea where she wanted to go, so being keen to get to my hostel I politely declined, preferring to go direct but alone – agreed for 10 Bs. Imagine my surprise when the taxi driver (whose car was reminiscent to a 1950s Mustang and emitting an extremely worrying roar the whole ride) suddenly pulls up to a man hailing for a cab and lets him hop in, then the same for another woman 5 minutes later! Since I’d literally just been offered a shared taxi I didn’t worry too much, correctly guessing it was a ‘thing’ they do: However, when I tried to give the shared 5 Bs price I was told no, you agreed 10, rubia (blonde girl) so you pay 10. Sensing a theme here with the taxis and being white?! Again, since the difference amounts to about 20p you feel silly quibbling it, but it gets annoying when it happns every time of course. 

I mentioned in passing my nightbus to Sucre – that was quite standard really, with comfy enough seats (company was El Dorado). Not as nice as in Peru and no TV for example but good enough! However my next intercity bus experiences were Sucre – Potosi and Potosi – Uyuni, which I did in the same day in order to just have an afternoon looking round Potosí (as it is a very small town mostly known for its incredibly unsafe mines with bad working conditions, which I felt was a little too voyeuristic for me to visit, but I wanted to see the town). By the end of that day I never wanted to sit on a coach again!

The Sucre – Potosi route was just bizarre, with people cramming their goods to sell (eggs included) in the hand luggage racks overhead, and the bus stopping to let vendors on with candy, bread etc. One lady even leant over me to shout out of the window for someone selling fries to come on board! Strangest of all was the slick-haired salesman standing at the front of the bus with an hour long spiel where he cursed the evils of Coca Cola and Pepsi (apparently solely responsible for the downfall of Bolivia’s youth and dental healthcare). Honestly his voice was the most grating and overly-rehearsed thing I’ve ever heard, but you had to laugh when it emerged he was selling a powdered drink as a healthy detox alternative to these evil sugary drinks. Well, one quick glance at the Spanish ingredients revealed a huge quantity of sugar and also a laxative property! You wouldn’t get the chance to buy one of those on a UK Megabus now would you? The bus then eventually dropped us off on completely the wrong side of town and I had yet another fun shared taxi experience getting where I needed to be. 

A few hours later I found myself on a similar style of bus in the evening, heading to Uyuni after having wandered in Potosi. No annoying vendors since it was now evening and dark, instead just the small matter of a driver who seemed to think his fortunes were misdirected and that his real calling was F1 racing. I don’t usually ever get travel sick, but speeding down winding mountain roads in the dark, in a bus making ticking sounds as we strained round every corner….. Well, I just thanked my lucky stars that this was my last public transport experience in Bolivia and that the entire crossing into Chile (and next 4 days of my trip) would be in a secure 4×4 vehicle along a long and flat expanse. 😆 Of course I’m talking about the salt flats, which I think signals the end of this post! 

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