Oruro to Uyuni – Taking The Night Train.

Arriving in Uyuni at 3am with a motorcycle and more than a few handfuls of luggage was slightly problematic for me. First, while all the backpackers aboard the train claimed their luggage from the concrete platform at the Uyuni station, I had to wait for Doc to be unloaded from the cargo car. I had split of my luggage somewhat strategically. The two Jesse bags and the BMW top case joined Doc in the cargo car while my two small dry-bag duffels and the large black duffel with my riding gear were checked with normal baggage. So with a pile of duffel bags I waited for Doc.

It was just about 20 hours earlier I awoke early to head to the station in Oruro so I could secure space for me and Doc on the 7pm train to Uyuni and south. According to the sign at the station I saw yesterday, availability for the Sunday train to Uyuni was limited. There were no more executive class tickets and only 9 tickets left for Salon class and none for the bottom of the barrel cattle car. I figured getting to the ticket office just before it opened at 8:15am would be a good plan and ensure I get a ticket.

You can imagine the surprise and disappointment when I found more than 75 people and standing room only in the ticket office. The security police handed me a number: 23. I stood in the back of the room and waiting my turn. The next number called: 62. Good god. Nervously tapping my foot I tried to hear which tickets were sold, fearing the train to Uyuni would sell out. Fortunately, an hour and a half later I was able to purchase an executive class ticket but I would have to bring Doc to the cargo “office” in order to secure space for my motorcycle. Apparently, most of the people in the station were locals purchasing tickets for Navidad — the upcoming holiday season.

So I had to do it. Exactly two weeks since the date of my accident, it was time to don my helmet and riding gear and make the long 7 block ride to the train station. My ankle still bothered me and I still walked with a nagging limp. Rubbing analgesic cream on it a few times a day numbed the pain while I had forgone the hassle of wrapping the ankle and promised myself to mobilize very carefully. I wasn’t so much afraid of riding the bike, nor climbing the 30 degree incline to exit the garage. But a barely three foot landing platform that rolled onto the street presented a slightly different problem. You see the street was in disrepair. A huge exposed ditch created a foot and a half long chasm from garage to street. It was Sunday and there was no one who could bridge the gap. Under normal circumstances this would be easy. But I am unable to plant my feet flatly on the ground. So the only way to take tackle this small hurdle would be simply to climb the ramp and at speed simply roll onto the street. My fear was not riding but the unfortunate possibility I might have to dab my foot and thus injure it further. But suffice to say it was not as much of challenge as it was to get the bike weighed at the train station’s cargo office.

And what a scene at the cargo office. A line of about 10 people, 2 taxis, a car and a truck queued up with the wildest collection of cargo I’d seen: mattresses, chairs, an entertainment center, several tables, sacks of grain, hundreds of feet of hose and tubing, countless colorful woven bags with who knows what, about 12 bicycles, a couple small 125cc motorcycles, a refrigerator and more. Nothing was boxed, crated or otherwise packaged. The foreman waved Doc and I in front of the line as another worker grabbed a 12 foot 2 by 4 and laid it down the 3 steps into the office. Normally it could be easy to simply ride down these steps. But a huge scale blocked the path. First we’d the bike part way down the steps, then jockey the scale around a bit and position the 2 by 4 up onto the scale. This took 3 of us. Then we slid the 2 x 4 with bike parlously balanced a few more inches onto the scale. Then two men lifted the 2 by 4 from the rear while another held the handlebars so they could get a somewhat accurate reading of the weight: 230 kilos. This is without any of my luggage. At one point they asked me to drain the gas tank, but somehow I forgot.

I paid the 275 Bs ($34.36) for the bike and combined with the 86 Bs ($10.75) the journey would cost me about $46. Later when I returned with my Jesse bags and top case, I simply was escorted to the cargo train and handed the luggage to Jose who secured them near the motorcycle. I was slightly miffed that they didn’t wait for me to load Doc on the train. Earlier Jose told me to get to the station by 4pm if I wanted to assist in loading and securing Doc on the car. Earlier I had examined the empty cargo train and discovered there was no place to secure tie-downs. The inside of the car was paneled with 2 x 6 boards or simply exposed sheet metal and framework. But nowhere to tie down. One of the 2 x 6’s had rotted and I figured I could thread a tie down through the gap and thus secure Doc against the wall of the train. I explained this plan to Jose and promised to be there with tie towns to help. But when I arrived and found the train half-loaded with doc wedged between various cargo and a stack of styrofoam blocks sitting on its seat, I was frustrated and concerned. Jose told me not to worry and grabbed doc by the handlebars and tried to rock it back and forth. It was secure. Though I’d heard about the rough tracks and worried things could break loose. Again, Jose asked me to trust him. What else could I do?

Fca Cargo Passtrains

The cargo car in foreground and the passenger cars in the background in Oruro.

Doc Loaded Uyuni Train

Jose assured me my bike would be okay. I guess he didn’t give the styrofoam client the same assurance.

So I had hours to wait until boarding. A quick check at the internet cafe and a few messages from jeremiah. Seems after he left me in Santa Cruz he had a string of bad luck. First, breaking down in the middle of nowhere and second getting ripped off in Sucre. He had spent days in Sucre trying to track down his stolen items but now was in Uyuni. There was a chance we’d meet there.

By the time Doc was off the train more than 7 hours later small granules of styrofoam littered the seat and many statically stuck to the plastic “tank” covers. Oh well. All else appeared okay. I fired up the bike and road it down the train platform. It was now 3:30am. The station was deserted except for a few lone passengers and cargo still loading the 3:30am train to Calama Chile. Otherwise the station was a ghost town. The parking lot was void of taxis. My plan was to load all my gear in a taxi and ride the bike to the Totino Hotel. Where do you find a taxi at 3:30am in Uyuni – a desolate altiplano desert town the thrives due to its proximity to the Salar de Uyuni – the largest salt flat in the world? Thankfully the two police officers came to my aid. After explaining my inability to move quickly due to my ankle, one of the officers jetted on foot into town and 15 minutes later showed up with a pathetic excuse for a taxi.

We loaded all my gear into the rotting vehicle, which stalled at least 3 times on the way to the hotel — the third in which he stopped. Yes. This driver had me riding Doc through the simple and small grid of Uyuni’s cobblestone and dusty dirt streets. Even after the police told the driver how to get to my hotel, the driver had to stop two aimless 4am street wanderers until he found the hotel — only 3 blocks from the station! I was snug between the covers with Doc securely parked behind locked doors by 4:30am.

Unloading Doc Uyuni Doc Uyuni Station-1

Unloading Doc at the Uyuni train station; sitting on the platform waiting for a taxi.

All was good until about 8am when I was awaken and asked to move the bike. I guess sleep would have to be relegated to walking (limping) around town.

I spent the day considering my options. My priority was to get out on the Salar and ride the salt flat and camp under the stars. But I wanted to see the altiplano lakes of Laguna Verde, Laguna Colorado and the amazing volcanoes and geologic wonders of the desolate route southwest of the Salar. I had considered riding this on my bike before the accident. With safety, comfort and security as my beacons, I decided to simply join the others who make the pilgrimage to Uyuni and take a 3 day jeep tour only to return on Thanksgiving and gear up Doc for a weekend ride and camping trip onto the Salar.

4 replies
  1. tjlinzy
    tjlinzy says:

    Hi,
    I’m sorry to hear about the problems you’ve been having of late, but keep your head up and enjoy that great S.A. air. Those of us stuck in rainy, autumnal England are following vicariously.
    Enjoy,
    Battlefield Biker

    Reply
  2. horatibus
    horatibus says:

    Hi Allan!
    Congratulations for your idea and mission!. Its an amazing trip!. I only saw you and your bike in a plaza terrace, in Salta, on a sunday. I was very curious, because I love the bikes (I had a Kawazaki 1000 MKII, in my former times, 1981). Maybe, somethey, I will do the same!. I wish you all the luck. I will be watching your page. If you have more time here, I will be glad to contact you!. Good luck!. Horacio

    Reply
  3. Mikedefieslife
    Mikedefieslife says:

    I wonder if it’s still possible to put motorcycles on trains in Bolivia these days. The post above was in 2006.

    It would be a good way to get past the worst of the roads, and make for a more pleasant journey from Uyuni to Oruro

    Reply
    • allan
      allan says:

      Yes, true. I think the road from Potosi to Uyuni is one of the most spectacular rides in Bolivia—-not sure about putting a bike on the train. In life, anything is possible. But it would be best to ride that journey. Perhaps from Oruro a bit longer, than from Potosi. I would have tried had I not sprained my leg. Guess I’ll just have to go back again and see!

      Reply

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