Bolivian transport in any form is challenging. Taking the flight from Sucre to Santa Cruz de La Sierra, then another to Trinidad, for the crazy onward bus to Rurrenabaque, is an experience that you’ll never forget…
Dedicating this post to the travel between these four destinations with a little info on the towns, as the travelling really is quite memorable.
Decided to forgo the 15 to 20-hour bus trip from Sucre to Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Santa Cruz) – mainly, to give the old bones a rest from bumpy unpaved and rocky dirt tracks…whoops Bolivian roads.
This route is known to be notoriously bad and bone shattering, so understandably, bus companies also use older buses.
Instead, taking a flight of around thirty minutes is a much more enticing option.
Sucre’s Juana Azurduy de Padilla International Airport sits at around 2,900 metres above see level. It is not uncommon for the sole runway to suffer from heavy fog and bad weather, which sees flights cancelled regularly.
Today is a clear day and arrival to Santa Cruz is without any issues – I could get used to this…
Santa Cruz de la Sierra
As it poured heavily last night and today, but also leaving for Trinidad tomorrow, there isn’t much time for sight-seeing in this sprawling city, which is off the beaten track. Not surprising really as Santa Cruz sits in eastern Bolivia’s hot tropical lowlands at only 416 metres above sea level, and is more of a transport hub to other Bolivian destinations and Brazil.
‘Founded’ by the Spanish conquistadores in the mid-1500s with the intention of ‘settling the region’, local tribes already inhabited the area, with resulting numerous attacks on the Spanish.
Santa Cruz is becoming a tourism destination. Monseñor Rivero is a flashier street where you find upper-market restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and cafes, offering a wider variety of food.
Not wanting to face the rough and bone shattering Bolivian roads yet, instead, booked the flight to Trinidad with FAB – Fuerza Aérea Boliviana (Bolivian Air Force).
Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Trinidad
Around a 30-minute drive from Santa Cruz city centre and you arrive at the airport.
Today, we are flying on a Convair CV-580 plane. I discovered Convair stopped manufacturing these planes in 1954.
The plane looks aged.
A clear day, although the flight is delayed by forty-minutes for our one-hour flight.
Quite strange and always a worry when your flight is not listed on the board. Finally, our names are called. Day packs are placed straight onto the scanner, our tickets checked, we walk across the tarmac, and board the plane.
Is there no one else?
Strangely enough, we find ourselves as the only two passengers on board this flight.
To describe this as an eerily odd feeling, is an understatement. Can you ever remember flying on a 46-seater military plane, of which you are one of only two passengers?
The flight attendant is pleasant enough as he hands out our snacks – we take off.
After just under an hour’s flight we start to descend to our destination. Looking out the window expecting to see thick lush jungle as Trinidad is in the Amazon Basin, only dry dusty hills are visible. Confusion.
Starting to unbuckle, the flight attendant hurries down the isle and advises we haven’t arrived in Santa Cruz. This is Cochabamba. Although not a scheduled stop, ‘we need to pick up more passengers’. What?
The plane’s door flies open but we must remain on the plane.
About ten minutes’ later, passengers start piling on with massive TV screens, huge shopping bags, and all sorts of weighty luggage.
We are in the wrong seats and told to move to the very front of the plane.
More and more passengers pile on.
The flight attendant checks his passenger sheet, recounting numbers out-aloud, several times.
There is a problem.
Only 46 seats but 49 passengers. What to do with the 3 extra passengers?
No problem. They’re waved down the isle into the open cargo hold covered with military netting. This is their spot for the onward journey – I don’t see seats.
I’m not an aviation engineer, but I start to wonder whether it is safe for the plane to be so overweight.
The door shuts once more. I look out of the window, concerned.
The plane struggles to take off under the added load. The lady in the opposing seat nervously looks at us and makes the sign of the cross over her body several times. I nervously glance back.
You can actually feel the weight difference from take-off in Santa Cruz to now – this plane is too heavy.
Miraculously though, we arrive in Trinidad – late, but glad to be on terra firma once more.
Later I read that this plane is built to carry only 40 passengers. Today the plane holds 46 seats, 49 passengers, and too much cargo.
The oppressive wall of humidity hits you on leaving the airport and stepping on to the footpath – it’s very hot.
Probably, more noticeable as we’ve spent the last few months, criss-crossing the high altitudes of the Andes.
Love the feel of Trinidad’s central plaza with cars whizzing crazily by, although for a city of over 100,000, Trinidad feels more like a big town and quite laid back.
Even the Sloths in the city are pretty laid back – they move in dreamlike slow motion.
This one was on a kamikaze death mission trying to cross the main road. Locals kept pushing the Sloth back onto the footpath, but it insisted. Finally, a local managed to lift the Sloth back into a neighbouring tree.
Hiring motorbikes to check out a little of the surrounding city but also to try and book a 4-day boat trip on the Amazon, proved to be a great time, whilst dodging traffic.
Cars and scooters come at you from everywhere and swerve right in front of you.
Then there are the dirt and sandy tracks, once leaving the city centre.
If you think navigating your way around on foot is challenging, try a motorbike – much more fun!
Scenery and local life can be both confronting and fascinating.
Now for the bus journey to Rurrenabaque…
Trinidad to Rurrenabaque
After reading much traveller woes about this bus trip, decided to bite the bullet anyway and take the chance…could it be that bad?
One word? Yes!
This 14-hour bus trip from Trinidad to Rurrenabaque (Rurre) is one of the worse bus journey’s I’ve ever experienced.
Positives? It’s a dry day, a bus arrived, and it’s not a flat-bed open lorry (camione) with bench seats.
I hear that when it rains, this road turns to mud and almost impassable, easily becoming a 24-hour journey.
Bus from hell – enduring the inevitable
The bus is old. Suspension is non-existent. Seats are small. Air-conditioning is non-existent. There is no on-board toilet.
We move to the very back of the bus with a family squashed in on one side, but also to avoid chickens and luggage in the aisle of the over-crammed bus.
The bus swerves erratically whilst you hang on tightly, white-knuckled with clenching teeth. Occasionally, the bus flies over a ditch and your head hits the roof. Each hour is nothing short of spine crushing.
Of course being in the Amazon, there’s a stretch of river to cross.
Everyone gets off whilst the bus is driven on to a barely floating wooden barge. Don’t want to be stuck inside a bus, should the barge sink. Sitting on the rustic timbers, we’re pushed around with a small outboard that I would only use on my dingy (tender) back home.
Still, the barge makes it across and the bus is in one piece to continue the journey.
Endless kilometres of corrugated road vibrate through every inch of your body. Bones feel as if they’re dislocating from their sockets, until the bus travels back on smoother, but still a gravel and rough terrain.
The only respite is later in the journey as night falls, in a small village – a food stop.
Although you’ve stopped, your body still reverberates from the previous hours of torture. I liken this bus trip to enduring the roughest roller-coaster ride of your life. Exaggerating? Take the trip and let me know.
The nightmare continues under the cover of darkness until the bus cannot go any further – I don’t know why.
From bus to taxi
Passengers have to find their own way to Rurre for the last few hours of the journey.
We share a cab with another two travellers.
The driver is on a death mission. Can this day get any worse? He loves to play chicken with oncoming traffic, especially lorry drivers.
We scream at the driver to stop, but he delights in the thrill. Not sure if he’s trying to scare us or just loves playing with death. I’m not religious in any way, but seriously start to think about praying to something or someone!
Will we get out of here alive?
Someone must be looking over me as the answer is, yes.
Dropped off with much relief at the bus station on the outskirts of Rurre, we gladly walk the last kilometre to the hotel with all our gear, and collapse.
You quickly learn that sweating profusely is a ‘favourite’ pass time in the Amazon, as is being a sacrificial lamb for biting insects.
As we’re staying in Rurre to specifically organise a couple of treks, both of these amazing trips warrant separate posts. You must experience the trek to the Madidi National Park jungle and the other to the Pampas – find yourself inside each wildlife documentary.
The Hotel Oriental offers good-sized rooms with private bathrooms, breakfast is included, and welcoming friendly staff – home away from home.
Just for fun
A quick video from 2016 by Escapadons Nous on a good stretch of road – buses and roads haven’t improved since 2011.
Also from Escapadons Nous from 2016 in Rurre – lucky this didn’t happen to our bus. Nothing has changed.
So long Rurrenabaque, it’s been swell…
After a wonderful respite from back-breaking buses and not ready for another arduous 20-hour (or longer) bus journey, decided instead on a flight to La Paz – Bolivia’s city of dizzying heights.