Cochabamba – Lessons learned from overnight buses in Bolivia and tasty eats at Dumbo, the elephant restaurant

Our group that had travelled together for a week in Bolivia split ways after La Paz.  Only four of us continued together – myself, Jelena, Johanna, and Eyal, an Israeli backpacker who we had met at Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz.

Our plan was to go to Parque Toro Toro, a national park in Bolivia famous for its fossilized dinosaur footprints.  Our journey started with an overnight bus from La Paz to Cochabamba, a necessary stepping stone on the path to Parque Toro Toro.

As I mentioned in a previous post, because of the mammoth size of South America and most countries making up the continent, overnight buses are often your only option to get from city to city. For many routes a “day bus” does not exist – you must take a night bus.

Overnight buses in Bolivia are the cheapest overnight buses I have taken in the world, though I imagine India might have some routes that compete with the “least expensive overnight bus rides” title.  The night bus from La Paz to Cochabamba was my first experience with overnight buses in Bolivia and it was a good indicator what the rest of them would be like – unpleasant.

The comfort of this specific bus ride was actually the best I experienced of night buses in Bolivia – the seats reclined comfortably in “true semi-cama” fashion and the air conditioning worked.  On my next Bolivian night bus the seats would not recline and the air conditioner would not work, meaning I would sweat through the night in an uncomfortable 32 degree Celsius (roughly 90 degrees Fahrenheit) without sleep.

But the eight hour overnight bus ride from La Paz to Cochabamba had one glaring negative attribute that all night buses I rode in Bolivia shared, the lack of a functioning bathroom.  Three of the four overnight bus rides I took in Bolivia had bathrooms, but nadaone of them actually worked. All three bathrooms were kept locked during the duration of the eight, ten, and twelve hour rides, respectively.

To add insult to injury Bolivia night buses generally don’t stop for bathroom breaks.  Not only is it cruel and unusual punishment to keep a bathroom within arm’s reach locked during a twelve hour bus ride that doesn’t stop, it also doesn’t make senseThese buses already have bathrooms so why not just pay a plumber or bus mechanic to fix them?!  But I guess the “savings” from not paying someone to fix the bus toilets in Bolivia are passed on to the customers in the form of really cheap bus rides.  I would have gladly paid more for a working toilet but as it were, I was on a bus without a toilet.

So when at 3:30 in the morning nature called and I found the bathroom to be locked, I went into a bit of a panic.  When I began to sweat from trying to hold it while weighing my options, I knew I had to take action. I went to the bus driver’s “cockpit” – all night buses have lower level cockpit-style cabins for the driver and his aid – and asked “Tienes la llave para el baño?”  (“Do you have the key for the bathroom?”)  The driver’s aid replied “No functiona.” (“It doesn’t work.”)

On realizing that going to the bathroom on the bus would not be an option I made a plea to the driver to stop the bus.  Thankfully he obliged and I got my bathroom break.  The driver stopped the bus on the side of a major highway (the highway was basically deserted at night) and let me step outside in bare feet, in the pouring rain, to relieve myself.  I don’t think anyone woke up or realized why the bus had stopped but for me it was both a liberating and amusing moment.  As I stood barefoot peeing on the side of a highway in a downpour I had to smile – only in Bolivia.

I learned six valuable lessons about night bus rides from the ones I took in Bolivia, lessons I have used in subsequent night bus rides in Eastern Europe and Turkey.

#1.  Ask if the seats are fully-reclined, partially-reclined, or regular bus seats. In Spanish, this would be “Cama”, “semi-cama”, or “regular”? Cama means fully-reclined (comfy, get 6-7 hours of sleep), semi-cama means partially-reclined (somewhat comfortable, get 4-5 hours of sleep), and regular, regular bus seat (if you’re lucky, get 2-3 hours of bad sleep).

#2.  Ask if the bus has a bathroom. In spanish, “Tiene un baño?”

#3.  Ask if the bathroom works. In spanish, “El baño functiona?”

#4.  Dehydrate yourself (somewhat) before the trip starts. Don’t drink any liquids, especially caffeine, for six hours prior to your overnight bus departure time.  Of course, bring a bottle of water and drink that whenever you get thirsty on the bus but don’t try to “hydrate” yourself before the ride.

#5. Try to sit in the middle of the bus – spots towards the front or backed will feel more of the “rocking” motion, especially if its a rough ride.

#6. Window seats for the win.

Unfortunately in Bolivia there are some overnight bus routes where the only option is a bus company that answers “no” to questions 2 or 3, or their answer is “yes” and they are simply lying.  The old adage “you get what you pay for”, which has been reinforced time and time again in my travels, could not be more true with night buses in Bolivia.

We arrived early in Cochabamba and hoped to catch a bus that day to Parque Toro Toro.  We did not want to stay in Cochabamba, a medium sized city with not too much going on.  We found that the next bus to Toro Toro would not be leaving until 6 that evening, meaning we had a day to kill in Cochabamba.  We made the most of it, starting by storing our heavy luggage in the bus station’s depósito de equipaje (luggage storage).

From the bus station we headed towards Laguna Alalay, the biggest lake in Cochabamba on the east side of town.  We wanted to relax and throw the Frisbee to kill some time.

The first park we walked by was somewhat unsettling – it seemed like they really wanted to prevent people from exercising.

If you and your buddies want to play a game of futbol, all you have to do is climb the fence and cut through the barbed wire.

If you and your buddies want to play a game of futbol, all you have to do is climb the fence and cut through the barbed wire.

After a break for breakfast I had a chance to wander into a local Cochabamba hospital’s emergency department.

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It was not a busy morning in the emergency room and though it looked more rudimentary than emergency rooms I’ve seen in the United States, it was getting the job done.

From the hospital we  took a cab to the lake and again encountered problems with accessing playable green space.  We found a nice futbol field but the owner said we couldn’t play on it.  He did let us play with his baby chicks though, just two days old, eyes barely open.

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Johanna held one chick as it opened its eyes and chirped.  It went back to sleep shortly after.

We finally found a baseball field that we could relax and play on, thanks to Cochabamba’s recreational sports league.

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I’m not sure how recently it had been used – the field and the dugouts were in serious need of reparative maintenance.

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My impression of Cochabamba’s playable green space was pretty low by this point but a dodgy baseball field made a more than adequate spot to throw Frisbee.

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After tossing the disc and relaxing in the dugout for a couple hours we decided to head downtown.

In Cochabamba’s main square, Plaza 14 de Septiembre, we found a humorous orator who had an audience of about fifty laughing when we arrived.

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Nearby there was a political protest going on.

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We were getting pretty hungry so we went to one of Cochabamba’s most popular restaurants, whose name and image you probably recognize.

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In addition to Dumbo’s greasy burgers the restaurant is famous for its delicious desserts.  It is rare that you see a general restaurant with more than one page of desserts but Dumbo has six, and the restaurant knows what its doing.

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After we had polished off our meals we all got some cake and ice cream to share.  It was the least healthy and most delicious lunch I had had in a while.

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We stayed for another hour in the restaurant just to nap off the food coma we had put ourselves into.  An hour later we headed to the bus stop where the corny-looking bus to Parque Toro Toro was waiting.

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As I will describe in my next blog post Parque Toro Toro was a great mix of activities, including dinosaur footprints, waterfall canyons, and (allegedly) the biggest cave in South America.

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One thought on “Cochabamba – Lessons learned from overnight buses in Bolivia and tasty eats at Dumbo, the elephant restaurant

  1. Hello Matt! I love reading about your travels in Bolivia. I was there last year and stayed for two months. The country has some of the most beautiful and memorable places I’ve been to.

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