What should have been a nine-hour bus trip from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, to Uyuni, Bolivia, turned into a miserable 20-hour journey across the border.
I said goodbye to my friend Giovanni on Wednesday night jumped on an evening bus back to Calama. Twice a week transport (bus or train on Wednesday and Sunday night) departs from Calama, Chile, bound for Bolivia. The bus back to Calama was oversold, which meant I had to enjoy the weight of my backpack on my groin for two hours; although a beautiful desert sunset and my displeasure for a loud, annoying child seated behind me kept me preoccupied for a portion of this time.
This was what I thought was going to happen that evening, based on the information that I pulled out of the Buses Atacama 2000 ticketing agent:
A bus leaves from Uyuni for the border about the same time as the bus departs from Calama. The cities are nearly equidistant in travel time. Arriving at the border around 2:00 in the morning, passengers from both buses would pass through immigration formalities, swap transport, and arrive at their destination in the early morning. What everyone failed to mention to me was that the border crossing at Ollagüe, Chile is only open from 08:00–20:00.
I was painfully unprepared for surprise that awaited me when the bus pulled up to what appeared to be a train depot near the border, and stopped. I heard someone say something about 8AM, and in a blink of an eye the driver and his sidekicks grabbed a sleeping bag from an overhead storage compartment, turned off the interior and exterior lights, and disappeared. The temperature outside was at freezing, and the warmth of the air inside was plummeting.
I looked around in disbelief—no, they weren't actually doing this—the bus was going to camp at this point for over six hours—idling—until what I assumed was the immigration office would open. Everyone in sight had thick, heavy wool blankets. I had noticed the driver passing out the few he had to some folks in the back of the bus several hours earlier in (warmer) Calama—before I knew I'd be needing one.
I wasn't particularly happy. I think the lack of information presented to me by each and every person I talked to about the transit time line was bothering me the most… but this was before the cold really set in. Imagine the scene you've read or been taught about the winter battle on the Russian front during World War II—I began to feel like one of those soldiers. I could feel their frozen suffering reincarnated in me, over half a century later.
My body convulsed with spasms from the cold for hours on end. A vent from an unidentifiable location was blowing icy air from the outside onto me. The plump woman next to me, sleeping comfortably under her blanket, offered no warmth (or blanket). I was too cold to sleep. The flesh of my face was so numb that I had to wrap my bandanna around it. I contemplated turning off the bus to stop the vent, but was unsure if the engine would turn into a block of ice. All that was left to do was sit, stew in my anger, tell myself that the pain would eventually subside and be but a memory, and mentally will with all my might for time to pass and the sun to rise.
Sometime around 07:30 the driver returned from his hidden sleeping compartment—maybe he was in with the luggage—and moved the bus closer to a gate blocking the path across the border (now visible in the daylight). Visibly distressed from a night of pain, I approached the driver and unloaded on him as best as I could in Spanish about the (my) blanket situation.
He laughed at me, and it took everything I had in me not to slap him across the face.
Sometime after 08:00 someone relinquished their blanket to take a walk outside in the frigid, morning air. I quickly snatched it up, and didn't unwrap myself for anyone or anything (not even the immigration officer) until it was time to change buses.
We made it to the second bus, but my big concern was that the Bolivian bus that we were boarding appeared to have fewer seats than the bus we had just left—trying to enter the bus was chaos the likes of which I haven't seen since a hoard of gringos tried to board the roof of a train in Ecuador. All luggage and people eventually were squeezed into the new transport.
Well, as chance would have it, it turns out that Bolivia charges the first immigration processing fee that I've come across in South America (an all too common and sometimes expensive penalty in Central America—I'm glaring at you, El Salvador). Again, an annoying lack of money changers prevented me from changing my only remaining Chilean pesos (a very large bill that's equal to about US$20) into Bolivian bolivianos. I tried paying the P$1,500 fee (about US$3) to the Bolivian immigration official, but he offered a ghastly exchange rate for my remaining currency that was less than 2/3 the going rate. Basically it would be like handing someone a US$20 bill and getting less than US$8 in return.
Not carrying smaller bills was my fault, but all I had left of my Chilean currency was the large note that I kept for sticky situations. I ended up having to borrow a P$1,000 bill from a man traveling from Chile to Bolivia for dental work.
No bolivianos also meant that when the sweltering afternoon bus pulled into a random town for a 30-minute layover, three hours away from the border, I couldn't buy a thing. Thankfully a very sweet Australian girl (the only other gringo on the bus) was more than happy to offer to pick up a few cheap snacks.
The third currency strike came when I couldn't pay for the B$30 (US$3.75) bus ride from the border into Uyuni, but promised to take care of it at their ticketing office when we arrived (which I did).
Phew—all is well in the world again after a hot shower, but the memories for the border crossing will linger for some time. I'm now on the hunt for a blanket in the Bolivian market that I can take with me onto the buses—I won't let that type of incident happen again any time soon.