A Busman's Holiday | South America By Road



I arrive at the small bus station in the tiny city of Asunción, Paraguay. Hailing a taxi, it only takes a mere ten minutes to El Jardin Hostal, ran by the most gracious, welcoming hostel owner I have ever encountered, either that or he's a psycho, at this point I can't be sure either way. After proudly boasting of his pride and joy that are the showers in the hostel, Tom leads me to my dorm room. As it turns out, this place holds the accolade of the continent's best shower, Tom was not lying about that part. It must be said that it isn't that difficult to beat the majority of showers in South America.


Asunción was only supposed to be a fleeting stop, an onward bus to Santa Cruz in Bolivia was planned for the next day if we had any chance of reaching Cusco in time for a Machu Picchu trek. A journey that many have described as the bus ride from hell, due to the sheer vast stretch of unpaved roads which make up the majority of the journey, as well as the old, beaten-up buses without heating or air conditioning used for the route. Not to mention the route being infamous for drug mules which meant countless checkpoints and bribes from the driver to let us keep moving. Not having much choice, the tickets were booked and after a strong recommendation to bring a warm blanket, a mix up due to poor Spanish skills, I somehow ended up buying six, custom made fleece blankets, cut from a giant spool, from a local textiles shop. I guess seis is easily confused with dos.


Preparing for the worst, I step on the modest bus, stocked with countless crackers and water. After over four hours of concrete civilisation, we hit the desolate and barren desert landscape, a sight that didn't relent for the remaining 26 hours, and obviously not a paved road to offer any sort of reprieve. The driver would have to stop regularly and assess his next move on the rugged terrain, which was was definitely not suited for a run-down, ex-school bus. One false move and it would probably result in a toppled bus or at least a stuck wheel in the middle of nowhere. Not having a single clue as to where we were, how long we had left to go, or if we'd even crossed the border yet, the journey felt by far the longest. Eventually reaching the border checkpoint to Bolivia, we were finally able to step out of the stifling, cramped bus and into the stifling, cramped desert air and collect one more stamp in the passport. Thinking there couldn't be much longer left, thoughts had drifted to reaching Santa Cruz and more importantly, a shower. But that wasn't the case, we hadn't even reached the border yet, the stop we had made was still far from Bolivia as there is no life between that point and the actual border.




Arriving in Santa Cruz a good nine hours later than expected, myself and the rest of the run-down and haggard passengers were dropped off at the closed bus station with no local currency and no hostel. Deciding to join the only other tourists from the bus; 3 German guys, we all ventured out in the sketchy downtown area at 1am in a futile attempt to at least find a working ATM. Bus stations in South America tend to follow a similar trend; always built in sketchy areas. Retiro bus station is built inside a favela, and Montevideo is right next to the waterfront slums, a popular stabbing and mugging venue. Maybe it serves as a peace offering to the long-forgotten and marginalised by society, a beacon towards the easy pickings of the lost and confused, (relatively) rich tourists. Across the street and down the road we found an ATM and a simple hotel, perfect. But the hotel owner clearly couldn't be bothered with checking anyone in at 1am, so flat out refused us all so we caught a cab to the nearest hostel and that long-awaited shower.


After the eventful bus ride to Santa Cruz, the short stay in Bolivia's largest city was pretty uneventful. One night in the hostel and a particularly shit shower, it was time to catch another bus in the race across South America, to the world's highest city; La Paz. The plan was to catch a shared taxi with 'Steve', the German guy who also took the slow bus from Asunción, but he was never to be seen again after a trip to an Indian restaurant.


The dizzying heights of La Paz, a good 3650m above sea level, leaves many dizzy, sick and out of breath when they first arrive. Luckily as we arrived by road, the gradual climb up into the clouds meant our bodies were slowly adjusting rather than the majority arriving by plane who once out of the pressurised cabin, are suddenly treated to being 3650 metres higher than they should be.



After the depressingly dull landscape for the entire trip to Santa Cruz from Paraguay, the journey to La Paz more than made up for it. Climbing higher up the never-ending mountains in an air-conditioned bus made the trip more than comfortable. One thing that was apparent, the warnings about climbing this high above sea level is going to leave you short-breathed and probably quite ill. Common advice for anyone travelling here was to stay and relax for at least a few days to acclimatise yourself, but I had no such luxury, I had less than two days to spend in the capital before heading off to Peru.


Arriving at the bus station, and not wanting to repeat past mistakes, I planned ahead and picked up a one-way ticket to Cuzco, leaving the next morning at 8:30. Checking into the hostel, I was faced with a cruel joke; the room was on the fifth floor. Anywhere else in the world, it wouldn't be that much of a problem, or at least there would be an elevator. Of course there wouldn't be an elevator so the trek began, but with the crippling lack of oxygen at this altitude, the walk felt like a ten mile run. The exhaustion hit so bad, it felt like I hadn't walked in months, by the time the fifth floor was reached, that was it, exploring the city could wait.


Venturing out into La Paz a good few hours later, I was confronted by the contrasting population of the city; colourfully-dressed locals with traditional clothes and then pretty much everyone else decked out in North Face gear. Every other shop is stocked high with camping and outdoor gear, catering towards the millions of tourists who make the ascent to La Paz. After only spending a day and a night in La Paz, it was time to make the long journey onwards to the last country in South America; Peru.