Finishing up my tour to Salar de Uyuni, I had a big problem. The jeep driver told me if I went back to Uyuni, I would be stuck by the roadblock for possibly several days. There was no solution in sight and I was going to miss my scheduled trip to Sucre. He suggested I go through Chile to get back to La Paz and finally to Cusco. Lasting over 2 1/2 days, it ended up being the longest bus trip of my life.
Leg 1: Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
After going through passport control at the border in Bolivia, I boarded a bus to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. It cost 70bs. It took a good hour to finally make it to San Pedro. We descended several hundred meters and I could immediately feel the effects on my lungs from the drop in altitude. I went through customs in San Pedro and headed into town.
Total Bus Time: 1 hour
Leg 2: San Pedro de Atacama to Calama
In San Pedro de Atacama, I walked to the bus station to see if I could get on the next bus to Iquique or Arica. Nothing was available until the next day. I was determined to find a way out, so I walked around town trying other bus companies. They suggested I go to Calama and try my luck there. It is a bigger city and there are more connections. I bought a ticket to Calama, had lunch, and got on the bus. There are hourly buses from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama. Side note: San Pedro is a nice little town and I would love to go back and visit the Atacama Desert.
Total Bus Time: 3 hours
Leg 3: Calama to Iquique
Once in Calama, I asked when the next bus to Iquique or Arica would be. There was nothing until the next day. It was there that I met Felipe and his girlfriend Marta. They were from Santiago, also headed to La Paz, and needed to get the next available bus. The ticket agent suggested we walk around town and try other bus companies because in Calama there isn’t a central bus station – all buses stop at their own bus offices. After about five different offices, we finally found one with overnight service to Iquique. We bought our tickets and walked around town. There wasn’t much to see.
Calama is a dirty mining town. It’s famous for strip clubs, drugs, and bars. We stopped at a miner’s bar and had a few beers. After that, we stopped for dinner. Apparently, Calama is also famous for great sandwiches. I had a chacarero. It was amazing! I’ve had several in Santiago but none were nearly as good as this one.
We headed back to the bus office, jumped on the bus, and I immediately fell asleep. It was a long ride to Iquique but I slept through the whole thing.
Total Bus Time: 10 hours
Leg 4: Iquique to Oruro
We arrived at the Iquique bus station an hour ahead of schedule at 4am. After getting off the bus, we met two other Chileans on their way to La Paz. We all piled into a taxi and headed to the ticket office for a bus company offering trips to Oruro and Cochabamba, Bolivia. The ticket office at the Iquique bus terminal wouldn’t open until 6am so we wanted to make sure we got a seat. On Trans Salvador, we were very lucky to find a ticket for just CLP$4500!!! After buying the ticket it was back to the bus station for a two and a half hour wait. Unfortunately, all I saw of Iquique was the bus station.
The bus ride from Iquique to Oruro was fine inside Chile. We passed through a very organized passport control at Pisiga, a Bolivian border town. Chilean and Bolivian customs agents sat near each other at the same counter. We then had to take our bags through an x-ray machine before boarding the bus to continue on our way. The driver made a 15 minute stop at Pisiga for people to change money and buy snacks. Pisiga is nothing special – just a bunch of tents set up on the side of the road with a small, dusty village nearby.
The rest of the ride within Bolivia was horrible. We traveled for several hours on a dirt road in the middle of a desert with no air conditioning. I never get travel sickness but this time I was very queasy. It was agonizing and once we reached Oruro, I was never happier to get off a bus.
Total Bus Time: 20 hours
Leg 5: Oruro to La Paz
At Oruro, we were able to find a colectívo outside of the bus station for 50bs each to take eight of us to La Paz (we acquired more Chileans). I sat in the front seat and was mortified by the way the driver was passing trucks. The road was in terrible condition with several construction detours and potholes. I wanted to sleep but I couldn’t. I feared for my life the entire way to La Paz.
Total Bus Time: 24 hours
Leg 6: La Paz to Cusco
In La Paz, I said goodbye to the Chileans and I checked into the Sajama Hotel for the night. I went next door to Mozzarella for my favorite pizza in South America. After dinner, I came back to the hotel and took my first shower in five days. That night, I slept very well and left for the bus terminal at 6am.
I settled into my full cama seat on the Nuevo Continente bus and woke up at the border. I passed through Bolivian and Peruvian passport control without any problems, had a salteña, and went back to sleep as soon as I got back on the bus. It was a long ride to Cusco and I arrived shortly after 9pm.
Total Bus Time: 36 hours
Once in Cusco, I had dinner at a Mexican restaurant and tried to get into my room I had rented, but nobody was home. I ended up wandering for about an hour before finding a hotel at 11pm. It was a rough trip and a rough welcome back to Cusco, but I made it.