San Pedro de Atacama to Tupiza - The Hard Way
What is the easiest way to get from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Tupiza in Bolivia? Actually a quite short two and a half hour ride with a 4x4 will do the trick. But I had other plans, keep reading in order to hear about the whole, slightly stupid story of the grand detour I took in order to fulfill my plan.
The plan you ask? If I get into my head to do something I'm very strict in fulfilling it. And the plan was to see Arica (in the very North of Chile) and to go on a train ride from Oruro to Tupiza in Bolivia. With this plan in mind the aforementioned two and half hours turned into four days.
The first stage (A to B) was from San Pedro de Atacama to Arica. I took the overnight bus, which in total was about twelve hours. But it was the worst overnight bus I had so far on this trip. I sat in the very back, in front of the engine and next to the toilet. It was very loud throughout the whole night and so I wasn't really able to sleep. An aching back pain later I was in beautiful sunny Arica. Sightseeing in Arica took only half a day because the city isn't that big. I originally planned to stay a night, but it turned out that there is only an overnight bus to Bolivia, so thanks to the nice hostel owner I took a shower and did a siesta and left on the same day for the second stage (B to C), the overnight bus to Oruro. I guess the chances of having two bad overnight bus rides in a row are very thin, but I had them. The bus to Bolivia departed more than one hour late and arrived way too early (in the middle of the night) at the border crossing from Chile to Bolivia. The border was still closed for five hours, so the bus driver switched off the engine and everyone was forced to take a nap at 4.500 meters above sea level at freezing temperatures. Another six hours, customs at the Chilean side, customs at the Bolivian side, a colectivo and a taxi later I finally arrived in Oruro. The city is definitely not a tourist place, but the market was nice. I went immediately to the train station to buy the train tickets for the third stage (C to D). In the evening I tried to find some decent food and a cold beer (I agree with the Lonely Planet author, it's impossible¹). What followed was another overnight journey, but this time by train, and it was worth it! Traveling by train in Bolivia sends you back at most thirty years. The cars are comfortable, the staff is excellent, the atmosphere is amazing and the landscape which passes on the way through the altiplano is simply breathtaking. Sure, the train travels with an average speed of 50 kilometers per hour, it's bumpy, shaky and dark², but speed and the uttermost comfort are not the primary goals of taking this trip (if so, I might as well have taken the 4x4 from San Pedro de Atacama to Tupiza). And this way I had a lot of time to read³, listen⁴ and eat⁵.
¹: Quote from the Lonely Planet "South America on a shoestring": "Oruro is dirty and crowded, the food sucks and there's not much to do outside of Carnaval season."
²: Yes, dark! The first power outage hit me when I was on my way to the restaurant car (pretty spooky to stand between two cars without any light). The following power outages (I already sat in the restaurant by that time) were applauded by the guests.
³: Fun fact of my Wikipedia bash: Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple lay beside him when he died, but it was not tested and his death was filed as suicide. Some say it inspired Apple's once-bitten logo. There is also proof on the web that Steve Jobs replied the following on the question if this story is true: "God we wish it were. It's just a coincidence."
⁴: It's definitely possible to listen to the whole Against Me! discography on the way from Oruro to Tupiza, start with White Crosses, it's the most accessible from my point of view (and the video to "Teenage Anarchist" is the best one shot Punk Rock video I now)
⁵: The restaurant car had pretty nice and cheap food and the Bolivian waiter looked pretty staggered when I ordered a 0,65l bottle of cerveza Huari (20 Bolivianos), his follow up question: "¿Sólo para ti?".