Train of Death
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
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.
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
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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