When I tried to google information about the bus to Rurrenabaque, the first page of results consisted exclusively of DO NOT TAKE THIS BUS, THIS IS THE WORST BUS IN THE WORLD and ACTUAL BUS? OR CHARIOT TO HELL?
To the average person, I suspect this would suggest that maybe they shouldn’t take this bus. But to me, it sounded a lot like “Take this bus… I dare you!”
I embarrassed myself all the way through the collectivo ride from the hostel to the bus station with my incompetence and confusion, narrowly escaped being sold a taxi ride for double the price of the bus, had someone ask me if I was Argentinian (not sure why, but I’m taking that as a good sign), bought my ticket, strategically did not ask for the estimated time of arrival, and got on board. The bus was only half an hour late to leave and the only empty seat was next to me. It was an excellent start, and I felt great, except for a sore throat and a runny nose.
I hadn’t had a solid bowel movement in weeks, so I was in a state of mind where I really couldn’t take the little uncomfortable things my body did that seriously, so I wasn’t thinking too much of those symptoms. However, 10 minutes into the ride, they exploded into a full-on feverish delirium. Still, it wasn’t too bad. I had plenty of water and it was easier to sleep than I think it would have been otherwise. As we drove north into the humid air, my sore throat felt a lot better than it had in the incredibly dry mountain air of La Paz.
As we travelled, I couldn’t help but look for reasons why people hated this bus so much. I think I identified them, but I honestly enjoyed them. All it took was an open mind, seeing things as roadside entertainment, rather than setbacks. Like when two cars get caught in a near-collision on a section of road that’s almost too narrow for one car to pass at a time, and then suddenly the drivers get out, yell at each other, and throw a few punches for 15 minutes before one of them pulls over… that’s not annoying, it’s funny. Sure there were more screaming children, potholes, and elongated bathroom breaks in the middle of nowhere than I’d ideally like, but there were also beautiful waterfalls around every corner, cliffs so close I could touch the vegetation from the bus window, and brilliant stars after the sun went down. Also, I’m really not sure when I’ll ever get a chance to pop a squat and pee in the middle of a road with a dozen cholitas as company ever again. You’ve got to appreciate that kind of experience.
It was all fine and dandy until we reached a town called Reyes early in the morning. Throughout the night, I’d established a routine of whenever we stopped, asking someone “Dondé estamos?”, finding out that we weren’t in Rurrenabaque, and going back to sleep. So after finding out we were in Reyes, I went back to sleep. However, the next time I woke up, we hadn’t moved at all. I was the only person left on the bus, it was really hot, I had to pee, and I was locked inside. I climbed out a window and got someone’s attention.
The driver returned to let me off the bus, and before I could ask when we were leaving again, he was handing me my backpack from the luggage compartment. I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t at my destination yet.
“No, yo voy a Rurre.”
“Rurre?” replied the driver, “Nosotros no vamos a Rurre hoy.”
My Spanish skills could be considered kindergarten arts-and-crafts at best, but I’m pretty sure that means “We’re not going to Rurre today.” Basically the last thing I wanted to hear.
It took me a second to process. I was still very feverish and had just woken up, but I had no idea where I was and highly doubted that there was anyone who spoke English anywhere around for miles and miles. I knew if there was ever a kind of situation that I’d need to argue with someone in Spanish and win, it was this kind.
I pulled out my ticket, showed him where it said Rurrenabaque and demanded to know why I’d paid for the ticket and had been led directly to the bus if it wasn’t going to where I wanted to go. His excuse was, over and over again, that he hadn’t lied to me, the guy working at the station had lied to me. Gotta love Bolivia. I was trying to get him to refund me enough money to pay for a collectivo the rest of the way. That was apparently not happening, though. Eventually, he agreed to bring me to Rurre that day, but not until 5pm, which was about 8 hours later. Exhausted, I took it and asked him if there was anything fun to do nearby.
He told me I could take a motorcycle taxi into the centre of town. I felt a little uneasy about riding on the back of a motorcycle with my giant backpack, but there didn’t seem to be any actual cars in this town and I watched other people get on to motorcycles with everything from giant boxes of produce to an entourage of toddlers. And so that’s how I rode a motorcycle for the first time ever. It was actually a lot of fun, but that was all the fun I was destined to have in Reyes.
The “centre” that the driver took me to was the saddest looking market I’ve seen in all my travels. It featured absolutely nowhere to sit and absolutely nobody who looked like they might talk to me, even if I was trying to buy something from them, so I wandered aimlessly. I asked a few people if there was a park or a plaza where I could take a nap, but everybody just said no, there’s nothing here. It was a miserable place— hot and sticky, with a strong wind that blew dust all over town. In half an hour, I was coated in the stuff. I gave up on walking and picked a random shady street corner to lie down on top of my backpack and sleep.
I slept, or at least tried to, all day, but figured that I should get up and have something to eat around lunch time. As I roamed the streets, I found it impossible to tell what was a restaurant and what was a gathering of friends I was not invited to. Eventually, I spotted a tiny “Almuerzo” sign flapping the wind next to a hole in the wall on an empty street. Not believing I could do any better, I walked right in and asked for whatever they were serving. The people inside were very happy to see me, but I noticed that one of the things they cleared off the table for me was a gun. Where the hell was I?
Finally, it was time to return to the station and I made it to Rurre with no further drama— about 28 hours after leaving La Paz. I got off the bus and just started walking, with no idea which direction the centre of town even was. Everyone says don’t stay in the hostels near the bus terminal, but after that grand misadventure, I just wanted to be able to say I’d arrived somewhere, so I walked into the first place I saw. For a bad decision, it turned out really really well.
I was greeted by a happy father and 3 little kids. They seemed surprised to see me, like they didn’t often have guests. I was given a private room for only 40 bolivianos— the cheapest I’d paid for a bed in Bolivia. With much enthusiasm, they explained to me how to turn on the lights (with a switch) and how to change between the 3 channels on the television (with a button). Later, after I’d been out for a short walk and returned, they knocked on my door and got me to try some sort of fruit that looked like a giant string bean and that they opened with a machete. They watched me closely, waiting to see if I’d like it, and I did. It tasted kind of like bananas and somehow didn’t get my hands sticky, even though you have to pry the fruit out of the skin with your fingers. They gave me the rest of it to finish and urged me to close the door quickly, or else the mosquitos would get in.
I would’ve stayed there the whole time if I could have, but I had to go into town and find myself a way into the jungle. On the map I’d grabbed at the bus station, it didn’t look so far away, so I decided to walk, expecting it to be maybe 20 minutes. I don’t have anything that tells the time with me other than my laptop these days, so I don’t know how long it was, but I do know that I got to walk with horses for a while, I met a lot of really cute kids who gave me directions, and I was completely exhausted and drenched in sweat by the time I finally arrived in town.
After about an hour of searching, I finally found the only hostel around that remotely fit my budget— El Lobo. Although the place wasn’t too pricey, at only 55 bolivianos for the night, it was way more than I ever wanted from a hostel. It was right on the river, featuring palm trees, parrots, hammocks, a pool, super soft beds, and was just generally gorgeous. I thought to myself, this is my family’s Maui vacation on my budget.
I still wasn’t feeling 100%, but I figured I only needed another good night’s sleep to feel great, so I went and booked myself a trip into the Amazon rainforest for the next day. However, the next day just so happened to be the day that I got big bad Bolivia sick. This apparently happens to everyone who tries to travel through Bolivia on a budget, and we don’t need to go into the details of what my body was doing, but I’d like to give a big shoutout to my butt for literally “holding its shit together” until appropriate times and places. Just imagine me completely out of it, wandering around the rainforest, feeling like I’m about to fall over for hours and hours. But there were monkeys, so I didn’t really care.
I didn’t make it out on all the jungle treks, though. Sometimes, I just couldn’t get out of bed. My high fever was back with vengeance, the only thing that felt good was sleep, and I was stuck in camp under my mosquito net all day. I did get to have the very cool experience of being fed teas and rubbed with balms made from medicinal jungle plants by my guide. I asked him what they were called, but he told me it was a secret. I guess he doesn’t want pharmaceutical companies coming in and stealing all his plants.
It would have been a way better story if the plants had worked, though. Although some of them definitely made me feel better for a little while, when I returned to Rurrebanaque and El Lobo Hostel (not directly to the bus, as I’d planned), I was still a feverish wreck. The girl who worked at the front desk convinced me that I should let her call a doctor for me.
The doctor came, took my temperature, asked me some questions, then looked at me like, “You’re an idiot. How did you let this go on for so long?” Apparently I had gotten food poisoning about 2 weeks earlier, and instead of taking the pills I’d been given for that at the Vancouver travel clinic or taking it easy with the street food, I’d just acted like it wasn’t happening, in the interest of having a good time and saving money. I’d assumed that I would feel better eventually, but instead, my food poisoning had gotten infected and my intestines were pretty much blocked, and had been for days. No wonder I felt so shitty. I was really, really brave and let the doctor poke me with a needle, then adopted a regimen of 6 pills per day and rehydration salts. Now I feel great and can actually eat a lot of food.
While the lovely front desk girl was catering to my pathetic request that she hold my hand and distract me from the needle, I was talking to her about the bus. She told me, “Yeah, it really sucks. It’s 12 hours, even if nothing goes wrong.” Literally less than half the time it had taken me to get there. The next day, I left the hostel, feeling really hopeful about that bus. And it was true! I made sure to ask if it was a direct bus to La Paz and I made it in something like only 14 hours. The only downside was that the person sitting behind me had some sort of severe mental handicap that inspired him to rest his knees on the back of my seat the whole time, and to fling the window open (straight into the side of my head) every 2 minutes to yell “Viva la vida!” into the night. No hard feelings towards him, though, because that’s obviously just hilarious now that I’m not on that bus anymore.
And so, that’s how I survived my “hellish” round trip to the Amazon. I’m not just putting the rose tint on this story in hindsight, though. I really did manage to stay positive through almost the whole thing. It’s all a part of the grand adventure.