Where old buses go to die

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
Trip End Nov 09, 2010

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A beat up old bus

Flag of Bolivia  , Santa Cruz,
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Jeff's recant of a long 24 hours across the eastern half of Bolivia into Brazil.

The Santa Cruz to San Matias, Bolivia route. Our lucky night/day trip was March 30. We had planned in advance and this time asked all the right questions we could think of (we missed some on previous trips, but were learning). Santa Cruz is in the middle of Bolivia, a fairly large city still (with pavement!), but San Matias is far to the east on the Brazil border. No pavement has found its way there yet.

Two days before our departure we went to the Santa Cruz bus terminal to book our trip east. There were a few bus companies to choose from that do this route, but in general the selection was extremely limited. We knew it was about a 16 hour ride, so our first question was for full cama (180 degree reclining seat/beds) seats. Like pavement in San Matias, full cama is not something we were able to find for this route. We had to settle for semi-cama, which we had taken before and was not really that bad (it goes about 120 degrees). We didn’t really have a choice so were in. We asked about a bus with a/c and a toilet. This is where things started downhill, still two days before our trip. No solid (or even remote as it would turn out) truth could be had for either of these precious travel items. Having narrowed our choices to the lesser of the evils, the bus company we chose said they did have toilets but were not always certain of the buses they had from day to day so could not promise a/c. We knew it was an overnight ride and figured the possible lack of a/c could not be too bad. We paid our $30 for two tickets (yep, just $15/person for a 16 hour bus ride) and began the waiting discussion of wondering just what we were going to get for this leg of transportation to Brazil.

Game day arrived and we got to the bus terminal an hour early as requested, so they could get all luggage packed into the bus on schedule. This was a first for being so early, so maybe it was a Bolivia thing. You should see some of the stuff the locals transport on these buses! We’d see some of their stuff at the border crossing at the end of the trip, but there were things like new car tires, microwaves, room fans, crates of fruits and vegetables and more. Even the size of our backpacks made the baggage check girl proclaim, “what is this?” when she saw our two large bags we dropped in front of her. She did in fact say we were to leave them with her, which was mildly scary at first. For all the other buses we personally took our luggage directly to the open compartment door of the bus for loading. Now we were to leave everything we had with her, in the crowded bus terminal, easily 50 yards from where the buses were even parked, down some stairs and through a maze of hallway and people before the bag would find its way onto the bus. We were optimistic, but stood nearby to watch the bags make that journey. We did not follow them all the way to the bus though because there was a previously untold terminal fee we had to go pay in another section of the bus terminal.

So that everyone gets a piece of the traveler action, there were other fees we had to pay before we were even allowed into the bus area (through the gates so to speak) as well as before we could use the toilets in the bus terminal. The first fee was 3 Bolivianos (about 45 US cents) for what they called “general usage fee”. For these 45 cents, they had an entire ticket office that required each traveler to go to separately from the individual bus ticket offices. I know there are inefficiencies everywhere (are you listening corporate world?) but this was just a bit laughable when the amount of the fee was considered.

The terminal usage fee may have been laughable, but the next to be learned toilet fee and “requirement” was hysterical. There is a sign in the terminal that proclaims “it is forbidden to use the toilets without credentials” (see the pictures; we can‘t make this stuff up). We did not see this entertaining sign until we had already gone, but you can’t go without passing the toilet guard and paying the 1 Boliviano “right to use the toilet” fee (about 15 US cents) - and getting a receipt and a handful of shrink wrapped toilet paper! Maybe this was all part of the entertainment for having to be at the terminal an hour before departure, but we were now fully paid up, fully credentialed and pee free - so were ready to go get on the bus.

This is where the humor ended, at least for some time. We walked through the gate hallway to the hallowed bus grounds. We had sugar plum images of a big fancy, clean, modern bus waiting to take us across eastern Bolivia to the border. Apparently the Bolivian bus company had another image in their minds. As soon as we saw our bus our hearts sank - and we went immediately into full intentional dehydration mode. The bus had to be at least 10 years old, looked every bit its age and perhaps more, had all the windows wide open (clearly no a/c) and absolutely no sign of a toilet anywhere on the bus. Maybe that’s why the driver was standing between our bus and another bus in front of it peeing on the street (honestly)? That was the moment we realized the ticket office lady was straight up lying to us about the bus we’d be riding.

The bus loading area was packed with buses, passengers waiting to board, vendors trying to sell food and drinks and of course drivers and luggage handlers probably standing around chuckling at the gringo backpackers they were about to get on their bus. We were a bit dumbfounded and stood there staring at our bus in disbelief. Ours was in station #11, but there were two buses there, parked one in front of the other. Maybe our bus was really the nice looking bus and not the bus that looked like it needed some duct tape in places? The handlers were busy loading luggage and at this point we could see one of our backpacks in the luggage compartment - of the crappy bus. I don’t speak Spanish, but I got Tamara to ask the driver standing nearby about the lack of a toilet on the bus and the “plan” for making stops along the way. Remember, this is a 16 HOUR ride. For even a ride around the block, there rises a certain fear when you realize you don’t have the option to go. That fear grows exponentially when the duration is not just around the block but rather halfway across a country! The downhill direction of things was about to continue and we had not yet boarded the bus. When Tamara politely approached and asked the driver about said “plan”, he literally never changed his fairly grumpy looking expression and at first didn’t even say anything. He looked at her with a “you’re not really asking me this question are you?” look and said something like, “there is no plan for stops, we’ll stop when I feel like it- maybe every 4-5 hours”. That was when we really stop considering drinking or consuming anything for the next 16 hours!

8PM - Resigned to our fate, we boarded the bus and took our assigned seats in the middle of the bus. The one surprisingly positive thing about nearly all these South American buses is their very decent punctuality. The other passengers, none of whom sounded as if they spoke any English, all found their seats and we got ready for departure. Another apparent trend on these buses is that there is always one or two street vendors that get on last and stand in the aisle and try to sell videos, food, drinks, sunglasses or on this night a variety of chicklet-like bracelets that depict Jesus in different scenes. Tamara actually bought one - I think for the novelty as well as the superstition that it might help our bus get to San Matias in one piece. All sales completed, we start rolling toward the road. Then we’re stopped at the gate of the terminal. This time two armed police officers board the bus and start looking at most of the carry-on bags people have. They skipped over us (we’re so innocent!), but spent several minutes with a couple of bags near the back of the bus behind us. Nothing seemed to come from any of this and the officers left - and then so did our bus. Finally, the journey begins.

10PM - Traffic comes to a halt amidst traffic congestion at some construction. Like bees to honey, all of a sudden we hear a loud chorus of “pollo, pollo, agua, coke!” Looking out the window into the dark, there are dozens of street vendors walking up to all the windows of the bumper to bumper stopped traffic trying to sell food and drinks. Maybe Boliviano’s have multiple bladders, for several of our passengers actually reach out the windows and buy some of this stuff! Along the side of the road on both sides we’re clearly in some kind of small town as the street is lined with small restaurants/cafés/kiosks selling anything they can. We creep along at less than a walking pace for some time. There are even some guys that walk up and get off the bus, pee on the side of the road and jump back on before we’ve even gone 20 feet. I was tempted to join them, but it had only been two hours and in full dehydration mode now for several hours I had nothing to offer the side of the road then.

12AM (midnight) - The less than perfect pavement ends and we hit the dirt road - for the rest of the way. As in the next 12 hours. Bumpy, washboard, swerving around holes and noisy (with most windows open for air). We’ve been on the bus some four hours now and we learn the sounds of our bus. It’s like some kind of dragon when it accelerates, almost hissing with each gear shift up or down. When they use the brakes, its clear any real brake lubricant has not found its way to this part of Bolivia. This bus has a definite personality.

2AM - Falling in and out of sleep mode with each big bump or speed change, we wake to find the bus pulling into a gas station. A PEE BREAK! Everyone piles off the bus and runs to the toilets in the dark behind the Alfred Hitchcock like facility. As is typical, all the guys get things done in short order and are all back on the bus in no time. This is no place to be left, and as we’re about to learn our drivers seem to not care if someone is left. To watch our things on the bus, Tamara stayed behind until I returned. This put her nearly dead last in the still long female line. She wasn’t in line for a minute when the bus creeps forward and honks the horn to indicate he’s ready to roll on. There were several women still in line and Tamara came running back to the front of the bus, which had the door still open and yelled at the driver to stop and wait for them. All he replied with was “hurry up”. Tamara ran back to the line which had suddenly moved into high gear as the girls started using the men’s room as well as theirs. Everyone got their business done and got back on the bus that quickly pulled back onto the road before everyone was even seated. The rest of the night passed fairly quickly, in and out of sleep to the various sounds of the dragon bus.

8AM - We arrive and stop in some small town called San Vicente, deeper in the middle of nowhere. Still just the one damp red dirt road we came down as far as you could see behind us and stretching as far as you could see in the direction we were headed. There was a near full moon overnight, and we could see the terrain change from city to lush greenery over time. With the onset of daylight now, we could see we were in the humid tropical jungle of the Pantanal. Again, everyone got off the bus for another pee break. This time, with the morning, the drivers congregated at a table in the café of the bus stop. It was time for their breakfast, as well as dropping off some passengers (someone’s gotta live in this town!), so the sense of urgency for NASCAR like pit stop was averted. We even had about five minutes to stand next to the bus and stretch our legs. We stayed close to the bus though, now knowing the kindness of our driver. Several passengers also grabbed a bite to eat or a drink, but having no idea where we were or how much longer we had to go, we maintained our food/drink abstinence! When the drivers got up from their tables and closed the luggage doors on the bus, we quickly jumped back on board, for what was to be the home stretch.

12PM (noon) - Shortly before noon, one of the luggage guys that was traveling with the bus came through and collected tickets. Kind of strange to check tickets moments from the destination, but it afforded us the opportunity to ask how much further until we landed in San Matias. The response was just 20 minutes. Almost 16 hours to the minute after we left Santa Cruz, we pass through an armed military (border?) checkpoint and pull into the bus terminal of San Matias. Still only the red dirt roads, the terminal looks almost like nothing more than a large gas station. There is nothing else around, in any direction. We get off the bus and start looking for our luggage in the open compartments. The one backpack we had seen in boarding was quickly found, but the other was not in sight and it appeared that most of the compartments were already empty. Tamara and I looked at each other and we both had a look of fear about not getting both bags into the bus. Thankfully our fear was short lived, as the second bag was on the ground on the other side of the bus, caked in the red dirt. We grabbed all our stuff and went to the other side of the “terminal”, thinking it would be easy to get the next leg of our trip lined up and started. We were planning to survive and arrive here, turn around and catch another bus across the border to Caceras, Brazil (just a couple of hours away we heard); and then catch yet another bus from there over to Cuiaba (few more final hours) for our final destination. While watching over our bags, Tamara came hurriedly back saying we had to hustle out front to find a taxi. While this was the local terminal, there were no other buses passing through here today and there were no more taxis when the few that were here left. We successfully got one of the taxis, which then paused to pickup another last standing passenger. Sharing taxis is not recommended in these parts, but our share was a safe enough looking girl and we were desperate for the ride, so we all jumped in and drove off. Thankfully we had this girl with us!

We’re still on the Bolivian side of the border but our driver spoke mostly Portuguese from the Brazil side - which we didn’t. The ride share girl spoke some Spanish, so Tamara was able to communicate that we wanted to cross over to Caceras. Between them we heard that the Bolivian side passport office was closed. At first we thought it was for the day and started to panic a bit (looking around we saw nothing!), due in part for the imminent Easter weekend. Then Tamara heard the ride share girl telling the driver to “just go to his house”. The office was not fully closed; “the” passport guy in this town had gone home for lunch! So we started driving through this very small very muggy town and the girl told Tamara where we were headed. Moments later we pull up to a dirt driveway next to a small house with chickens running around the yard. The driver motions that this is the place and the four of us get out and walk up to the half open doorway. It’s one of those doors that opens in halves, so the bottom half is still closed but the top half is open. Some guy in shorts and no shirt comes groggily to the door and the taxi driver says something to him about us. Almost silently the guy in the house motions for our passports, which we pass through the door to him. He flips through them, walks back into the house and returns with his hand stamp for passports and stamps our exist visa next to the lunch he’s eating on the table! He passes the passports back to the two of us, we thank him as much as we can and the four of us return to the taxi in the street. We got our Bolivian exit visa stamped in some guys front yard while he was eating lunch half dressed, aided by a taxi driver and a kind translator that got us there (oh how I would have loved a photo of all this)!! We drive back to the main dirt road and head to the border crossing.

1PM - No longer in a big bus that absorbed much of the dirt road undulations, the small taxi bounces its way across the washboard for another ten minutes. There is no town anywhere, the trees and brush are jungle-like thick on either side of the road and the humidity is at least 100%. Still no a/c either. We round a corner, cross a very small bridge over a ditch and we see the “welcome to Brazil” sign and the crossing just ahead. There are half a dozen cars lined up in front of us and we take our place in line. The taxi driver shuts off his engine and opens the door for air circulation so we all follow that lead and do the same. Based on the way we see the armed military guards searching through every single bag, it appears this may be a while. We finally shuffle our way to the front and pull our backpacks up onto the table in front of the guards. They all just speak Portuguese as well, so there is mostly just hand gesturing, but it certainly meant for us to open everything. They did not pull everything out of our packs thankfully, but it was certainly the most detailed and lengthy inspection we’ve seen. I had a half eaten block of cheese still in my small bag, which they pulled out. It had been intended to be our dinner over night on the long bus, but we never consumed anything then so it was still packed. One guard took it into their small building and returned with it and a piece of paper for Tamara to sign. It was a “permission to destroy” form, which Tamara dutifully signed. With that, the guard took the cheese to the side of the building and tossed it into a shallow hole in the ground, sort of looking like a burn pile. They never said anything about the apple that was with the cheese. They were not stone faced grumpy like nearly all US agents and manage to ask where we are from and all seemed to get a laugh when we tell them USA. One guy manages to ask Tamara what we are doing and they settle on the word “trekking” with a smile. They fold our things back together and motion for us to go on. We are now in Brazil, and the road is paved again!

2PM - We may be in Brazil now, but we’re still in the middle of nowhere and this is where our Bolivian taxi leaves us and returns back across the bridge. Still with our ride share girl from the taxi, we learn that there will be a bus coming “in a while” that will return to Caceras, which we wanted and will now wait for under the tree where the taxi dropped us. Aside from the small border office and guards 50 yards behind us, the only thing around is a small shack and a pool table. A handful of guys are playing pool and one is selling sodas from the shack. We get what they had (no choices), but it was at least in a cooler and so cold. One Fanta orange and one Fanta-like orange drink. We’re standing around wondering where we are and how long it may be until we see civilization again. It’s still hot as hell, and the clouds start to rumble with thunder in the distance while we stand under the trees. One of the guys from the pool table walks over and asks if we want a taxi ride to Caceras instead of waiting for the bus. He says the bus won’t arrive for a couple more hours. Just as Tamara manages to decipher what he was charging (twice the price of the pending bus), the “bus” rounds the corner and pulls up under our tree. The wannabe taxi driver sees it, motions toward it as it approaches and walks back to his buddies at the pool table.

3PM - The bus is actually a beat up looking minivan, and as we’re waiting for it to unload those it came with Tamara points out that “it is a Mercedes”. I joke that at least the logo is. We manage to communicate our destination and desire for a ride and start to lug our backpacks into the back of the van and climb in. Before any sign of departure, the driver starts banging with a hammer on the stick shift and has it completely taken off and raised in his hand. It’s going to be a while before we leave, but we eventually do after all the banging stops. We drive just five minutes down the (paved!) road and stop to pick up some more passengers. Since we’ve stopped for their boarding, whatever ailment was affecting the stick shift returned, as did the pause for additional hammering on the gear box. Again, the driver gets things running and off we go. For another ten minutes. This time we come to another armed border crossing station, at which we all have to get out with everything and do the full bag search all over again! Didn’t the previous guys phone ahead to say they already secured our cheese and we were good??? This time there is no line of cars in front of us and get through fairly quickly. For some reason, this time the driver just starts up the van and we drive off, into the storm. When the rain starts coming down hard, the hole in the roof next to my head starts to let water pour in. The rain comes and goes and we finally pull into the Caceras bus terminal an hour later. On what feels like the last legs of the Mercedes van.

4PM - Back in what feels like a real city, with people all around the bus terminal, we gringos are quickly spotted by two Moto Taxi drivers (as in motorcycle) who ask if we need Brazil entry stamps for our passports - which we do, since for some strange inefficiency reason they don’t seem to provide at the actual border inspection. Before we know it, we’ve stored our big backpacks at the bus terminal and we each strap on a helmet and climb onto the back of these two motorcycles that speed off in tandem to the passport office, in the light falling rain. Do we really know what is happening? The now good karma trend continues. One, we survive the motorcycle ride to the unknown passport office after about a five minute ride. Two, this passport office is open and there is no line so we fairly quickly obtain our needed Brazil entry stamps. Three, our personal Moto Taxis are still waiting outside for us (as they promised) to take us back to the bus terminal, which they quickly and safely do.

4:30PM - Passports stamped, back at the bus terminal we retrieve our backpacks from storage and check schedules for buses going to Cuiaba, our desired final stop. Karma still flowing, there will be a bus in just 30 minutes, at 5PM. After momentarily wondering if we should compare prices with other buses, we get our tickets and walk across the street for something quick to eat and drink. We’re no longer restricted from toilet access, so we’re free to start eating again! The first place we went in had some kind of meat empanadas and beer, but the relative that runs the place right next door had the yummy Brazilian cheese bread we’d discovered previously - but no beer. With a little encouragement from the two owners, we merge our meal between the two cafes. They even share a microwave between them. We get the warmed up cheese bread from one and two big ice cold beers from the other. Now fed for the first time since lunch the previous day we just walk across the street to wait for our bus.

5PM - Our big, shiny, double decker bus pulls up. One, it looks like it was built this decade. Two, it very clearly has a toilet. This ride is only to be 3.5 hours, but it feels good knowing its there. Three, as we’re boarding, it looks as good and comfy on the inside too - and has A/C blasting. Go karma! Right before boarding I said something to Tamara about seat assignments and a young girl hears us, confirms what we thought and says she speaks English and will help us navigate the Portuguese language barrier. Karma now had a name, Anna, who was 23 and had spent two years in San Francisco on a student exchange program. Once seated on the bus together she used her phone to call a place to stay which we did not yet have and made a reservation for us. The bus pulls out of the station nearly right on time, the road is paved and smooth, the A/C is blowing and we comfortably fall asleep for the final three hours to Cuiaba.

8:30PM - Upon arrival, our new friend Anna escorts us to the taxi stand and helps us navigate the language barrier and procedure to obtain and prepay for a taxi. Once confirmed, Anna says goodbye and walks away and we follow our taxi driver to his car.

It was almost exactly a 24 hour journey, but we made it. Three different taxis, a minivan, two buses and a pair of Moto Taxis. Not all we had hoped for, but it gave us some laughs along the way and a fun story to tell.
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Irene on

Amazing story! Glad you lived through it! Whew!

Janice on

I think I held my breath through most of this tale....phew, so glad you made it in one piece!

KO on

I agree with the others. Glad to know there is a happy ending....sounded like what "Hell" would be. I have Crohn's Disease and never would have managed to step on that bus with no bathroom in the first place. The reason I will never step foot in India, though I'd love to see that country. I swear that Jerry Seinfeld episode of George Costanza not eating while in India, was me!

rnriggins on

I've enjoyed all of your posts as you evolve into an experienced world traveller! You're discovering that your fellow travellers are one of your best resources. Most locals are probably honest but between different expectations, languages and customs it's difficult to feel confident in any information you receive. Plus, there are scumbags in every country to be avoided. Keep sharing your experiences with travellers you encounter and you'll be amazed at how helpful they can be! Those of us left behind in a comfortable, materialistic world will continue to broaden our horizons through your insightful posts. We miss you and stay safe (as best you can!).

Hair on Fire on

All I can say is - I am grateful for the good Karma - Tam has always seemed to attract it - AND I will be happy when you are on the plane to Portugal!

Great writing Jeff!

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