Ho. Lee. Sheet!
Daina and I have joked a couple times about “Amazing Race” moments in our trip, most notably the first 48 hours where we were missing planes left and right. However, today took just about every kind of cake.
We were up at 4:15 this morning to wake up, clean up and get to the bus station for our 6 am bus. Now, please keep in mind that we were heading in blind. No idea about blockades, delays, anything and, as is usually the case in Bolivia, the locals aren’t always the best informed. So there’s how we start.
We get to the station at about 5:20 and it is COLD. La Paz runs all these commercials about their new, upgraded bus terminal but the only improvements I see are a lot more security (important), some new paint and a fountain which shows up in every shot of the commercial. The place is basically a barn in terms of warmth.
So we sit and wait for check in, get on the bus okay, 6:00 am rolls around and… we wait. Other buses from other companies with 6 am departure times are leaving, some even going to Arica, where we needed to catch our flight to Santiago, but we’re there waiting. Twenty minutes later, we end up moving. No big chunk out of the day and, since the bus is supposed to arrive in Arica at 2 pm, not a big deal.
First bit of the ride is uneventful and we end up driving long enough that I’m convinced blockades are not a problem. Obstacle one, done. Obstacle two rears its head in the form of THREE overturned trucks in the middle of the highway – there had been some sort of collision – but the driver calmly made his way around. No problems to be had.
Immigration cards are handed out, as are some snacks and drinks. The King Kong remake with Jack Black, Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody is put on the TV, in Spanish. Not a great movie, but it’s long, so it kills some time. The landscape starts to change into some beautiful desert with mountains in the background and, soon enough, we see the sign that says “Welcome to Chile.”
Then, the bus dies.
I mean literally dies. Lights go out, movie turns off, engine sputters out and we pull to the side of the road. Dead. Something went wrong with the engine and the driver and one of the bus employees take turns fiddling with the engine to get everything working again. Nothing.
At this point, actually being in Chile means nothing. We might as well be stuck in La Paz.
I will say this: the border crossing on the La Paz – Arica route is one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. Mountains, lakes, vicunya (southern llamas, but more deer-like and less sheepish), desert. Real pretty. I left the bus for a few minutes to take a shot but then, utterly frustrated with how things have been going on our Escape From Bolivia mission, I get back on to the bus to see if there’s another airport close to Arica that we can switch our flight to.
See, if we can’t take the flight from Arica, then we can’t take any flight from Arica to Santiago with Sky Airlines until Tuesday. Everything is sold out and, unless we want to drop a grand with Lan or take a 28 hour bus ride, we’re stuck in Arica.
This is where stuff picks up.
Daina is hanging around outside the bus and, to his credit, he’s picking up some Spanish. A bunch of people go to the bus driver to ask questions/start complaining and Daina overhears the words “other bus” and “La Paz” and he figures out that the driver can’t do anything to fix the engine. Still, not knowing the language, he needs confirmation.
Enter an angel in a tight black sweatsuit named Kata.
Daina goes up to Kata, asks her if she speaks English (she does, though she’s modest about how good she is) and gets confirmation. The plan is to either get another bus for La Paz for everybody (which would take four hours to get there) or put some people on a different bus from a different company already on the way from La Paz (though there wouldn’t be enough seats for everybody to get on). Nobody seems to know for sure. I come out at this point, get the story from Daina and Kata and, just a few minutes later, a different bus from a different company pulls up behind us, stops and opens its doors.
As they clue in, those who were off the bus QUICKLY start to move towards the new bus.
This is when it gets crazier.
Daina gives the prerequisite “What do you want to do?” and I say get in line, save two seats, I’ll get the bags. I charge onto the bus and get our day packs from our seats, trying not to talk to the guy who was sitting in front of me who was a habitual Fast Leaner (one of the A-holes who throws all of his body weight into his seat when he leans back, sending it crashing into your knees). I get outside, run to the other bus and give the day packs to Daina, who is in line with Kata. Kata’s boyfriend and I then run back to our bus to get our luggage.
The poor bus driver from our first bus is trying to get luggage out orderly as Bolivian and Chilean women are literally crawling into the luggage compartment to get their bags. I see ours revealed, reach in, yank, hand over the luggage tickets and run back to the other bus. Kata’s boyfriend is right behind me.
The new bus starts to roll away.
I catch the conductor at the door as it is closing and, in near perfect Spanish (brain does crazy things), tell him my friend is on the bus, this is his bag, he’s saved two seats. He’s the tall blonde guy (el rubio grande).
Just as I’m doing this, Kata storms up to the front of the bus to yell at the bus driver for almost leaving without her boyfriend and bags. The driver starts to say something about the bus being too heavy for more bags (crock of shit, that) but after much “negotiation”, he opens up the compartment with the wrenches and spare tires and lets Kata’s boyfriend and me throw our bags there.
On the bus we go, off we roll.
Now, talk about your momentum killer, the Chilean border post is less than a three minute drive away and we’re back off the bus, but I’m literally shaking from the whole experience. Daina’s doing better, as I guess his job has prepared him for those crazy situations more than mine has.
Customs was fine, the Canadian passport seems to get you everywhere nice and easy. As Kata said, Chilean customs will give you a hard time if you’re Bolivian or Peruvian, but everybody else gets a pass if you say you don’t have produce. I did get to check out some more excellent scenery. I also got to talk to the bus driver with Kata’s boyfriend (he only spoke Spanish) and get some timeframe information. According to the bus driver, it would take four hours to get into Arica.
At that time, it was 12:30 pm. Our flight was going to leave at 5 pm. I asked the driver if it was possible to catch that flight and he shrugged and said “Hm, es possible”.
So, a glimmer of hope, but with NO idea of how he was going to pull it off.
We get back on the bus and we’re driving through Lauca National Park which, unknown to me, was having some major roadwork done. So major, in fact, that there were several stops in the park where construction workers were making one way streets for ten minutes at a time.
After we hit the first one, I turned to Daina and said “I think this might be the nail (in the coffin)”. He tried to stay positive, but I was getting into a pretty nasty funk. A missed flight today would mean either a reschedule to Iquique airport and a five hour bus ride there tomorrow or completely missing Santiago so we could get to Easter Island on Wednesday. Neither of those were options we wanted to consider. Add to that the fact that we had already lost our trip to San Pedro de Atacama, which included the highest glacier fields in the world, the salt flats and their Valley of the Moon which actually goes multi-coloured, and I was getting pretty bummed out.
The bus company put on “Supercop” starring Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, which let me escape from the potential suck of the situation. The movie ended at four and the driver’s assistant (I don’t know what you call the guy, bus manage, tour guide, who knows) came out to do a ticket collection.
This is when the Chileans really came through for us.
First off, Kata asks how long it’s going to take to get to Arica. The guy says 45 minutes – meaning we’d have 15 minutes to find a cab and get to the airport and catch a flight. Not likely to happen. However, the bus guy then says there’s a roundabout that is close to the airport that he can drop us off at. We could try to catch a taxi there and the roundabout is only 30 minutes away. Plus, it’s only 10 minutes away from the airport as opposed to 20 minutes away from the Arica terminal.
So, a better option has opened up. Daina and I mull it over and Kata asks what we want to do. We say “Let’s go for it” and she goes to tell the bus crew.
Now, while we were talking about this two different Chilenas (Chilean women) overheard us and one of them came up to me and said something in Chilean Spanish. Now, Rosetta Stone has me understanding Spanish better than speaking it, but Chilean Spanish is to Spanish as Creole is to Quebecois – there are some similarities, but there is a big learning curve. I was able to decipher “roundabout” and “taxi” just as Kata was coming back from the cab. Daina says “Is she calling us a cab” and Kata figures out that, yes, this random Chilean woman and her friend heard that we are getting off at the roundabout, want to get off with us and will get us a cab so we can get to the airport on time.
Within ten minutes, we’re at the roundabout. We say a huge thank you to Kata and her guy and, to our regret, we did not get her contact info. She’s just one of those Travel Angels you run in to on vacation, like the Louage driver who kept me from being stranded in a random Tunisian city. We get off the bus, the lady gets the cab, we jump in it and I explain the need for speed to our cab driver. We end up paying for our own ride and for the ladies, who are going somewhere else, but that’s fine by us.
Into the airport, check our bags, board the plane and now I’m writing you from the beautiful Hotel Vegas in the Paris-Londres district of Santiago!
I’ve tried to wrap up just how crazy today was with whatever words I could put forward, but the emotional and physical exhaustion of the day can’t really be expressed. When I was planning this trip, I put the itinerary up on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum and asked “Is this reasonable?” I got “yes” as the answer but with the caveat of “barring protests, construction, bus breakdowns or weather.”
Protests = La Paz being blockaded
Construction = Lauca Park
Bus Breakdowns = See Above
Weather = The whole reason we couldn’t cross to Chile from Uyuni in the first place.
All four of these things seemed to converge around Bolivia, which is a place I really do like but seems to be a bit of a centre for things that can go wrong in your trip.
If I could make a recommendation to anybody going to Bolivia – or South America in general – is always be ready with backup plans. If we didn’t have them, we’d either be stranded or broke.
Oh, and even more important, make friends with the locals.
Thanks, Kata, two ladies and bus driver, wherever you are!!!