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  Weekly Feature (January 25, 2009)


The Train of Death
Helen's Weekly Feature


Our trip to South America this past summer culminated in Peru at the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu (as described in my previous feature). However, the adventure of arriving there is itself a tale and in particular, our twenty hour expedition through Southern Bolivia aboard El Tren de la Muerte is but one small part.

The name itself conjures up images and we were rather hesitant when my friend first gave us the itinerary for the trip from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Machu Picchu – Sunday: board El Tren de la Muerte, from Puerto Quijarro to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. We imagined the worst: steep cliffs, winding passageways, or sheer drop offs where many a train had derailed, plunging all aboard to their deaths. Upon further research our fears were eased as we learned The Train of Death or El Tren de la Muerte  was simply a nickname, the explanation of which varies.

We learned of three possibilities as to how this unassuming train got such a name. The first relates to the outbreak of yellow fever which occurred in Bolivia early last century. The train was used to transport the dead bodies from Santa Cruz to outlying quarantined areas. The second possibility is a result of the many people who died while riding the train in an unconventional manner. Bolivia has suffered through economic hard times and many people wishing to travel were unable to pay so they would ride on top of the train. Unfortunately many did not make it to their ultimate destination, rolling off the train top in their sleep. The last explanation is perhaps due to the many tourists now using it as a means of transportation. The scenery is unspectacular, the train moves at a very slow pace and it is said that one could die of boredom over the twenty hour trip. I still don’t know which possibility is true.

We first attempted to purchase tickets for the journey on a Sunday morning but were unable to enter Bolivia – the country was closed. The following day we tried again but were informed that it was sold out. However, a small, toothless man, Giovanni approached us, offering us tickets for that day’s train at only a small amount above face value. We needed to be on our way; we didn’t want another day in Corumba, so we agreed.

We were told to get our passports stamped at the Bolivian border although no one officially stopped us. We entered a small structure beside the dirt road and our Brazilian travelling companions went first, without a hitch, and left us. There were three guards, three desks and one typewriter. I presented our passports to one guard who flipped through them and then handed them back. I tried a second guard. He too flipped through them and kindly returned them to me, unaltered. I was running out of ideas (and guards). Finally, we were able to determine that we were unable to get an entry stamp into Bolivia without an exit stamp from Brazil. This, of course, could not be done at the border but instead required another taxi trip back into Corumba, back to the bus station.

Armed with updated passports, luggage and lunch we arrived back at Puerto Quijarro train station to meet up with Giovanni, our ticket scalper. We stood waiting for quite a while (Giovanni’s big mistake) and it was during this time that we decided not to place our confidence (and our lives) in the hands of this stranger. We had images of being tossed off the train somewhere in the middle of Bolivia when our ‘false’ tickets were discovered. Instead, we headed in search of a hotel.

The following day we finally boarded O Trem da Morte. We had little food left as we had already eaten most of what we had bought the previous day and we hadn’t purchased more because rumor had it that there was in fact a dining car. I believe I started that rumor as I had seen a picture in the train station. Oops – wrong train.

We set off at 4 in the afternoon, purchasing simply a large bottle of coke. Only after we were on our way did we realize that the only food available was that offered by the individuals boarding temporarily at each stop, selling their wares from large questionable looking pots. Not sure of the contents or the condition of the cooking facilities, we declined. We ate our cookies and drank our coke.

It was not long into the journey when we discovered another facility or lack there of – washrooms. Without going into great detail, I simply wish to state that both my niece and I made the twenty hour journey without personally discovering the state of the washrooms. What we heard from the others was enough to make us strong.

The trip was well worth every cent and every moment. It was a unique experience that I can now cross off my list (the one containing all the things I want to do in my life). We laughed about it at the time and we laugh about it still, fondly remembering Giovanni, whose assurance of the validity of the tickets he tried to sell us “La garantia soy yo” became our motto whenever we were faced with a further dilemma during the rest of our South American adventure.


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