Transport strikes in Bolivia are common practice, it’s how the people make themselves heard. It’s not unusual for tax discussions or fair wage negotiations to hold the entire country to ransom for days or weeks at a time. Therefore it’s not a proper Bolivian experience without being stuck behind a blockade and working out how to bypass it.
We happened to be in Sucre, we’d already been in the Bolivian capital for over a week and were more than ready to move on. We had heard a rumour on the Saturday night there was going to be a strike starting Monday but didn’t take it all too seriously. Well by Monday morning all main roads out of Sucre, as well as La Paz, Santa Cruz and Potosí, had been blocked by 1000’s of trucks with stones and bits of wood. We waited for the news on Tuesday but with negotiations not due to take place until Thursday night it looked as though we were staying put.
That morning we heard about the Ferrobus, a VW bus that had been modified to run on the old train lines from Sucre to Potosí. It runs everyday, but because it is so slow and meanders through the mountains it alternates between routes. Sucre to Potosí Monday, Wednesday, Friday departing 8am or Potosí to Sucre Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Options to buy tickets were either, wait at the station from 5.30am when it opened and grab a ticket for 25bob, or the Beehive Hostel acts as an agent. Prices shoot up to 50bob from the hostel but they pick you up from where you’re staying and take you to the station before it leaves at 8am.
Sure enough at 7.15 the bus arrived at our apartment, there were 10 of us gringos who’d all had the same idea and when we arrived at the station it looked as though we weren’t alone.
The platform was bustling with locals, the conductor loading a mixture of brightly wrapped bundles and 30 litre backpacks onto the roof. As we loaded on it was evident there were more people than the 22 seats but most of the locals were quite happy squeezed into the isle.
The tracks wind around the mountains through tiny little villages not accessible by road. Exchanging a lady in a wide brimmed hat and all the skirts at one place for a man with a wad of coca leaves in his cheek at another. The bus sounded as though it was unhappy about running on train lines, screeching and wheezing as we slowly rolled closer to Potosí. The scenery out the window was ever-changing high altiplano desert and mountains which made the journey more interesting. Although, about 4 hours in the bus made a rather loud and concerning sound as we took a corner and the bus came completely off the tracks!
We all had to pile out so the driver and his track-man could inspect the situation. The front wheels had come off about a metre to the left of the tracks.
With two 5Ton cylinder jacks, some rocks and a metal pole they went to work. Lifting and levering, about 30cms at a time. We were impressed, within 40 minutes we were back on track, this must happen a lot!
The rest of the journey was pretty smooth and 8 hours after leaving sucre we could see Potosí coming into view around the corner. Just when we thought we were home free, the bus stopped again and the track-man jumped out with a shovel. Apparently the anarchists maintaining the blockades had dumped dirt on the tracks where the road runs into Potosí.
Well nice try but within 10 minutes we were back on the move and pulled into the station at 4pm. It was a bloody long day and what could’ve taken 3 hours in a colectivo took almost 3 times as long, but if you are looking for a scenic experience passing through unique Bolivian countryside this is a train passage not to be missed.