Long-term readers are already aware of it: the railroad is my favorite means of transport.
So you can imagine my excitement when I read that Bolivia has an Orient Express: the Expreso Oriental from Santa Cruz to Quijarro on the border with Brazil. The excitement grew as I read that the train offers a Super-Pullman class. Usually, I travel as cheaply as possible, but as a train fanatic I couldn’t resist, went on a splurge and bought that luxury ticket.
The engine trudges slowly out of the station, so slowly that one could draw portraits of the people who stand at the railway crossings and admire this marvel of technology. The landscape is not particularly spectacular, but wins me over by being increasingly devoid of people. Dry and dusty at times, green and overgrown at other times, but always with a sun glowing so hot that I want to keep my hat on even inside the air-conditioned train. I would also like some protection against the TV in my carriage which shows concerts with Brazilian pop music. There ain’t no worse music in the world. After an hour or so, the movie program starts: not quite current Hollywood productions with subtitles in Spanish, very practical for language learners like myself. The ringing of a mobile phone is subtitled with triin triiin triiin, an aircraft’s jet engine with fuuiiiii!
I focus on the scenery instead.
We are moving through the outskirts of Gran Chaco National Park, one of the last large areas of untouched scrubland and dry tropical forest. On a protected area larger than Belgium (and elsewhere farmers complain when 20 acres are to be declared a conservation area) there live jaguars, pumas, tapirs, pekaris, ocelots and a whole lot of other animals which as a European without degrees in biology or zoology I have never heard of. From the train, I only spot grey herons with fishes in their long beaks.
Within the national park, there live the Izoceño, Chiquitano and Ayorea peoples, but from the train I only catch glimpses of another interesting ethnic group: the Mennonites, originally emigrants from Germany, all of them wearing the same farmers’ bib overalls and still speaking German. But – as I will find out a few days later – Low German, listening to which I get the same feeling as when I listen to Dutch or Afrikaans. I recognize the common roots, but I don’t understand more than 5% of it. So if I, as a German in Bolivia, meet a tall man with blonde hair, blue eyes and a family name like Giesbrecht or Schellenberg, then I will – to the amusement of the Bolivians around us – smatter with him in broken Spanish. And I purposefully mention only men, because it’s almost impossible to strike up a conversation with the Mennonite fräuleins. German immigrants in South America are not exactly world champions in integration.
But this shall be the subject of another story once I manage to infiltrate that community. Today you want to hear about the famous Orient Express. Well, the way to San José de Chiquitos was quite nice. For the return to Santa Cruz a few days later, I choose the night train. Actually, the verb “choose” implies a selection between several options which I don’t really have. Because it takes the train 17 hours to cover the roughly 640 km from Santa Cruz to Quijarro (making it slightly faster than trains in Romania, but still oddly slow for a completely straight and flat track) and because there is only one train, mathematics dictates that the train can’t come to every town every day. From San José de Chiquitos you can return to Santa Cruz on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every Sunday, at 23:04 hours respectively. I am looking forward to a relaxing, comfortable night in a Pullman sleeper wagon.
But somebody must have removed an essential part of the train. The carriage is shaking from left to right more ferociously than the ship with which I crossed the Atlantic Ocean to reach South America. At the same time, it bucks and jerks back and forth so crazily that my head hits the seat in front of me several times. And the wagon moves up and down as if we were crossing the epicenter of an earthquake. All of this at a speed of no more than 30 km/h. I can’t understand how a train can cause so much havoc at such a low speed on a straight track.
When I recorded this video, I really tried to hold still:
And the noise! The subtitles to the movie would read something like kkkrrrhhhhccchzz kkkkrrrccchhhzzz gghhhrrrtttt. The Bolivian and Mennonite passengers pretend that they are able to sleep in this apocalypse on wheels.
What should I do? Well, luckily I am on the Orient Express. There must be a dining car where I can ask for a steak, have a bourbon and smoke a cigar. So I get up, looking for the carriage which I imagine to look like this:
Between the cars, there are these old transitions with two sheets of metal sliding above each other, without any guardrail to the left or the right. The train is still shaking so wildly that I almost fall down.
And indeed, at the center of the long train, I find the dining car. The view is sobering for heart and stomach.
The restaurant is empty. The bar is empty. The kitchen is empty, except for a plastic bottle with yellow washing-up liquid. There is no fridge. The side doors look like this was the mail car which has been haphazardly turned into a dining car. I sit down at the bar and decide to wait for Hercule Poirot, Dr Constantine or Princess Dragomiroff. But they all seem to have missed the train.
Now if you are wondering how you are supposed to survive such a long train journey without food and beverages, I can tell you: Don’t despair! Bolivia is a service paradise and the well-being of guests is the paramount concern everywhere and at all times. During the day an employee of the railroad company serves snacks and drinks. On the night train, children have assumed this responsibility, unfortunately without a valid ticket, so they are thrown off the train after a few stops. I don’t know if they sit there for two days, waiting for the next train, or if they walk back home through the jaguar- and puma-infested swamps. (At the station in Santa Cruz, there are about 60 posters with photos of missing people, most of them children and teenagers, and these are only the ones who have been reported as lost in the last three months.)
- As I didn’t experience any problems on the outward journey, I hope that the bumpy ride was an exception. Still, I would not recommend to travel the whole 640 km in one go. San José de Chiquitos and Roboré are the towns along the route that offer the best infrastructure.
- Here you find the timetable and the prices. There are more stops at little outposts in between, but I couldn’t find a list with their names.
- Besides the Expreso Oriental there is a Ferrobus traveling on the same route. Because iron bus doesn’t sound as good as Orient Express, I made the choice described above. The Ferrobus costs more than twice though, so it may be (even) more comfortable. On the other hand, this may just be a marketing gag, which I am far too clever and stingy to fall for.
- On the Expreso Oriental the ride for the whole distance of 640 km costs only 100 bolivianos, that’s around 13 euros or 15 dollars.
- You can pre-order tickets online, but I bought mine the same day at the respective station and there were enough seats available. No reason to worry about this. If the train arrives at a station in the middle of the night, that ticket counter will open around an hour before arrival time. (I wish train companies in other countries would replicate this excellent service!)
- When departing in Santa Cruz, you will need a platform ticket in addition to your train ticket. It only costs 3 bolivianos, but of course you need to go to a different counter for that. And of course nobody tells you about it when you buy your train ticket.
- Oddly, when you leave Santa Cruz, you undergo a passport check and a luggage check with sniffer dogs, but when you return to Santa Cruz, no such checks are carried out. Apparently, Bolivia is the only country where drugs are produced in the city and then smuggled to the farmers in the countryside. Or no police officer wants to work in the villages.
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What a wild bumpy ride you experienced. Not quite what you envisaged I imagine. Still, lovely scenery along the way and quite an adventure. Shame about the lack of food and drink! You could have brought your own had you known.
Actually, the way the train was shaking, I was happy I hadn’t had dinner before.
When you arrive at San José de Chiquitos in the evening, there are lots of barbecues around the train station. Very yummy!
That sounds good! You would have been ready to eat by then.
Re: your last point, I think it is more likely that drugs are produced in the villages and smuggled to the city, so by searching just the passengers departing from the city, the city police can draw a salary from their job and another from the smugglers.
I can’t imagine that the police would be corrupt.
Who says “corrupt”? No, they’re just working twice as hard (by doing half the job) working for two employers.
Like an example of efficiency? Wow, we can learn a lot from Bolivian police.
Exceptional adventure writing.
Oh, thank you very much!
To hear that is motivating me to put more of my thoughts on paper.
You actually encouraged my own writing, with a sparked creative idea from your piece, which was what about like a superhero-type story, where the heroes are basically normal, except they got a good dose of Don Quixote and chivalry and all that, and then like yourself and that potentially dangerous Orient Express, one of them could be a courageous world traveller, who defended Truth and Justice, etc, whenever they were assaulted on the road. The kicker would be though in their hunger for idealism, things could get brutal, and extralegal shall we say, so maybe the character would need to study international law….wait a minute…
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‘it’s almost impossible to strike up a conversation with the Mennonite fräuleins.” Except the ones picked up by Defensoria de la Ninez for working at brothels in Santa Cruz while still underage…
What? I am learning shocking things from you!
I did, however, enjoy your article very much and definitely it was VERY helpful, since for some odd reason I would have been expecting the Pullman dining room you have in the picture :o It was better to be shocked in my condo, close to my food, and while not hungry in the train
Reminds me of the local women in the Middle East, with or without the face covering: steer well clear unless they approach you.
Great article, Andreas. The track condition is abysmal. Presumably it’s easier and cheaper to re-rail the odd train that goes in the dirt than maintain it to a better standard. We had the same approach with outback grain lines when I worked on the railways in Australia, but they were routes where you ran a couple of trains a year to empty grain silos, not something in daily use like the line to Puerto Quijarro.
Thank you, Robert! And I was even more shocked because on the map, the track looks like one straight and flat line. That’s why I was expecting a smooth ride, like on an ICE or TGV train.