It started as a joke, this idea of doing 5000km and going from Bogota all the way to La Paz by bus. But then, as the airfares continued to defy our budget week after week and month after month, we decided it was our best option and made an adventure out of it (how could we not!).
We found out the hard way, albeit with minimal consequences, that any information about bus schedules and prices that can be found online are unreliable and should be used as a very general gist of what might be an approximation of what was once the truth. The only way to make plans was to show up at the bus terminal of the city we were in and ask around, hoping the departure options would be reasonably priced and frequent enough not to throw a wrench in our very tentative itinerary.
On the plus side, most long-haul buses were “VIP” if you were willing to pay a few extra dollars (well worth it and still not even comparable to airfares), with seats that reclined to almost 180 degrees, personal televisions with a selection of movies (most dubbed in Spanish), and occasionally even a meal served. Luxurious!
Our journey, as per Google Maps, was as follows (times rounded to the nearest half hour):
- Bogota – Quito: 1088km (20h30min)
- Quito – Guayaquil: 436km (7h30min)
- Guayaquil – Lima: 1510km (22h30min)
- Lima – Cuzco: 1108km (19h)
- Cuzco – La Paz: 651km (11h)
Rest assured, we did not attempt this in a single mega marathon bus trip. We took the opportunity to catch up with friends along the way, which gave us an excuse to rest our bums in the hopes they would not be flat by the time we made it to Bolivia, and to hang out with some amazing humans we don’t get to see as often as we’d like. Win.
Still fresh, we were full of optimism that we would indeed make it to Quito by mid-afternoon the day after we left, in good time to have dinner with our friend Patti with whom we were staying. From Bogota to the border, everything went smoothly. At the border, the Colombian exit took a minute and a half per person, and then we had to cross the bridge to the Ecuadorian side where the line went halfway around the building. Not good.
It turns out the Ecuadorian side of the border processes everyone coming in and going out from the same line, with a mere five or so tellers open: inefficiency at its best. The line took us almost two hours to get through, and then we had to wait for everyone else from our bus to get through it too. Right when we thought we were set to go, we all had to disembark again so customs could do a random check of our luggage (which therefore had to be taken out of the hold and then put back in). Excruciating, all the more so because even when Mr. Customs Officer found a suspicious number of perfume bottles in one young man’s suitcase, he let it slide! What.Was.The.Point.
Finally, we were off… for about 90 seconds, before we pulled over again. This time, it was the Anti-Narcotrafficking force who asked for our papers and did a random bag check (luckily that did not require pulling all the bags out and disembarking everyone). Some six hours after we first got to the border, we were on our merry way at last. Hungry, hangry, and frustrated to realize there would be no dinner in Quito as we were set to arrive closer to 10pm – but relieved to finally be on our way again.
That’s where having an amazeballs host makes a world of difference. We let ourselves into Patti’s apartment (she was staying at her boyfriend’s during our visit) and found fresh bread, a chocolate cake, and a bottle of wine waiting – along with the wifi password, of course. The post-it note read “Welcome! Enjoy & rest up, because tomorrow we ride!”.
We stayed in Quito for two nights and one and a half days. During our full day, we went on an epic trail ride with Quito Ecuestre. It lasted a few hours and took us into national parks, near a landfill (not the best 5min of the ride, I’ll admit), cantering up hills at and winding our way down before coming back to where we started. It was a little wild but the horses were incredibly well behaved so both Francois and I had a blast.
At night we went downtown for a taste of Quito’s history, and had a gourmet dinner at La Purisima – a culinary feast inspired by Ecuadorian tradition, local, seasonal ingredients, and the brilliance of Chef Carlos Fuentes. Perfect cherry on the proverbial cake.
When it came time to make our way onward, we were aiming for Lima but found no buses to take us there – so we went to Guayaquil instead! No big deal (NBD).
I remember nothing of the trip from Quito to Guayaquil (thank you, transport narcolepsy), except two overturned trucks we saw on the side of the road. We arrived in a dark and rainy city where the humidity made it clear we were in the tropics. The bus station was surprisingly modern and felt like a mall, except of course for the mild feeling of chaos stemming from so many people trying to get somewhere but unable to defy the laws of physics and therefore bound to go through transit centers such as bus terminals.
Wet, we managed to find my friend Pam who took us to her place where wine and snacks awaited (there’s a reason we are friends!) and where we got to meet adorable little Inca – possibly the cutest Pincher you’ve ever come across, and that coming from yours truly who does not like minis (unless we’re talking about horses but that’s a whole other ballgame). Dinner was at Tasca de Carlos, where every tapas dish was so good we wanted more – including the one with morcilla (blood sausage), an item I usually avoid but which was so delicious with its surprise ingredient of rice mixed in, that I went back for seconds.
Our stay was too short but worth it just to catch up with Pam and her roommate Kate, who are both working for the number two cocoa producer and exporter in the country and have fascinating insights around sustainable certifications, how to work with communities, and the ins and outs of an export company.
To make sure we did not find the 22h bus ride too quick for our liking, the bus company integrated a 6h stop-over in Chiclayo for a bus change. Taking it in stride, we planned to go to the nearby beach for a few hours, until we got there and realized that the rain clouds didn’t want to miss the party. The town was flooded, so much so that hotels and businesses on the main street had sand bag water barricades at their doors. So much for going to the beach. Instead, we sought refuge in a hotel near the bus terminal, trying the local brand of beer, playing UNO, and passing time until we could board our next bus.
In Lima, one plan fell through and another one materialized out of thin air as my friend Jose, whom I thought based out of Madrid, invited us over for a shower and lunch between buses. So we went to Miraflores, a great neighborhood with the telltale smell of the ocean in the air, showered, and walked to lunch – by the cliffs and with a detour to the water so we could dip our toes into the Pacific ocean. Lunch was in Barranca, a hole in the wall cevicheria, Canta Rana, the causa de pulpo which I have since dreamed about.
Lima to Cusco was an overnight affair which started mellow but soon had us rolling around our fancy 180-degree reclining bed seats as the bus made its way up through the mountains without ever easing off the breaks. I almost managed to convince myself I was at sea and in a storm, except for the occasional honking that brought me back to my tumultuous reality.
We made it in one piece and reconnected with Kevin, a friend of Francois living in Cusco with his girlfriend and teaching English. I stayed for two nights, long enough to indulge in a mega home-made raclette and revisit parts of Cusco. Then I took an overnight bus to La Paz while Francois stayed on a few more days to go visit the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu (I had done them a decade earlier and was eager to get to my beloved city of La Paz).
This was the first time we were apart since May 20th! That must be some kind of record.
The bus to La Paz was, I am afraid to say, Bolivian style and therefore not quite up to the standards we had gotten used to. It looked like it had lived a few lives already, but at least I was in the front row with no one to recline onto my lap and I got a blanket, so I had no major complaints. The process at the Bolivian Desaguadero border was easy enough if initially unclear, and the line took an hour or so to get through. I didn’t care though, because I was on cloud 9 at being back in Bolivia!
Almost 5000km over the course of a short week, across four countries and catching up with friends every step of the way. We did it! No flat bums to report, but a trip that by far outshone the experience we would have had by plane. It turns out efficiency and adventure don’t always go hand in hand.