Bus Safety in Bolivia

Bolivia’s road safety record is appalling. The country of 10 million people has only about 500,000 cars, yet around 40,000 traffic accidents are recorded every year. Over 3,000 people died between 2008 and 2012, an average of more than one per day which is a huge amount for a country of this size. Many of those fatalities were from bus accidents.

In the month of January 2010 (when I first visited Bolivia), bus accidents claimed 82 lives and 196 injuries. Because many of the crashes were due to drunk drivers, in March 2010 El Presidente, Evo Morales, decided Bolivian bus drivers should lose their license indefinitely for drink driving offenses.

The Strike of the Drunks

How did bus drivers react to this news? By hosting a nationwide strike of course. Angry bus drivers across Bolivia blocked off roads and caused general mayhem to protest for their right to be drunk while driving a 20 tonne piece of steel containing 50 or more terrified humans. The strikes went on for days and were given the moniker the Paro de los Borrachos (the strike of the drunks) in the media. Nevertheless, Evo’s new policy proved effective as the next quarterly statistics showed bus related fatalities had dropped by 30%.

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photo: gringoinbolivia

Fast forward a few years and fatal bus accidents are still alarmingly common. In late August 2014, the worst accident involving tourists in recent years happened between Uyuni and La Paz. A bus operated by Trans Tourismo Omar veered off the highway at speed and rolled several times, killing 10 foreign tourists including a guy from my hometown. Despite the accident making international headlines for the number of foreigners killed, very little was done and Bolivia’s roads remain as dangerous as ever.

First Hand Experience

A traveler touring the country can see the results of this nonchalant attitude towards safety firsthand. Indeed, I’ve witnessed a few worrying events myself.

On a journey on the notoriously dangerous La Paz – Chulamani road, I spotted a burnt out bus a few hundred meters down a cliff, just as emergency services where winching up the bodies. I later read in the paper that the accident happened just half a day before we passed. The driver was fatigued from a 16 hour shift and fell asleep at the wheel, veering off the sheer cliff and claiming the lives of some 20 people.

On different trip to Sorata, our minibus driver casually pointed out a mangled minibus down the bottom of a ravine. “That was two days ago” he said, “Eight people died”.

Another time while travelling to Rurrenebeque I got off my bus to buy some snacks and water about 1:00 a.m. Getting back on I noticed the driver and co-driver were boisterously singing karaoke at the top of their lungs, probably not an activity a typically sober Bolivian would be doing. Worse still, that route passes through narrow mountainous roads and is infamously treacherous. In hindsight, I should have taken my bags off the bus and waited for the next one, but being half asleep I shrugged it off and thankfully woke up alive the next morning.

How to survive a Bolivian bus

So now that you are probably scared shitless about bus travel in Bolivia (sorry mum and dad), I should point out that millions of Bolivians travel long distances every year without incident. More importantly, there are some steps a traveler can take to minimize risk.

1.  If you are travelling on a Flota (big bus), opt for a well known company as they tend to be more concerned with safety and reputation. Some respected companies include El Dorado, Trans Copacabana, Bolivar and Todo Tourismo.

2.  On shorter routes, particularly through poorly developed, narrow and mountainous roads, you are probably better off getting on a minibus or minivan. The smaller vehicles have better traction and handling so are theoretically a better option. But ultimately, it all comes down to the bravado and sobriety of your driver.

3.  Choose a seat at the back of the bus. In a head on collision your chances of survival are much greater.

4.  If your driver is taking unnecessary risks, let him know. You’re well within your rights to give him an earful.

5.  Travel by day whenever possible. Drivers are less likely to be fatigued which is a major cause of accidents.

6.  Spill some beer for Pachamama and hope for the best (an actual ceremony drivers perform for good luck on the roads).

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9 Responses to Bus Safety in Bolivia

  1. and…travel by day if you can!

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  3. KDS says:

    Hi!

    Thank you for this very relevant post.

    We just came back from a trip Peru-Bolivia, and would like to mention certainly “NOT TO TAKE THE FLOTA BOLIVAR” bus company (although I think many other bus Bolivian companies are as bad, and in general require very high alertness and assertiveness). We took this company for the night trip Sucre – Samaipatha (on the way to Santa Cruz), after hesitating with taking a flight because we knew it’s a long and bad road, but the flight prices had risen, and we thought we would just ask the bus driver to slow down if not carefull enough. Before getting on the bus we had said several times to the people of the company at the Sucre bus terminal that we had to get off in Samaipatha, not in Santa Cruz. We would then arrive there around 4 am, but we booked a hostel in advance so that wouldn’t be a problem. They assured us it was communicated to the driver and he would let us off in Samaipatha. To be absolutely sure we said it again to the bus driver ourselves when getting on the bus. We found the bus driving way too fast, given the road conditions and the sharp turns in the mountains and the steep sides. The bus passed every other vehicle (trucks and other buses), even right in front of sharp turns (and why??!!! tot get there earlier? At what expense?!). At a stop (around 10pm) I went to ask the bus driver to drive slower, and said that if he wouldn’t, we wanted to stay in the village and get our luggage. He said he would drive slower (although obviously annoyed). He went to buy something in the store along the road, and I went to look what he bought (as I also had read about drunken drivers). He had bought a bottle of coca cola and a smaller bottle with liquor, which he placed at the “front desk” of the bus. I got on the bus and grabbed the bottle, and asked him what he was thinking, and why he bought it at 10 pm, with a whole night of driving ahead. He aggressively grabbed the bottle from my hands and put it in a cabin above his head. Later he went out of the bus to do something else, and me and my boyfriend took the liquor and placed it with us in the “passengers compartiment”. We would later give it back but weren’t going to take the risk that he would drink during the night while driving (there is no sane reason that a bus driver should be buying alcohol along the road). He kept driving way to fast (all tourists should really complain when their bus/taxi drivers are driving too fast or not carefull, they just don’t seem to care so much about lives, and it’s a country with a very high accident rate, so tourists should be really assertive (we also thought afterwards we should have been even more assertive), you pay them and you should demand they take responsibilty for your safetiness. It’s not because local people on the bus are used to the way of driving it’s not very dangerous).

    At around 4:30 am we went to the bus driver to ask if we were almost in Samaipatha, and he said that we drove past it but they didn’t want to wake us up (we weren’t even sleeping!!) and that it might have been dangerous to be there so early!!! It was infuriating. Anything was safer then staying on that bus, and we had asked/informed about 10 times that we wanted to get off at Samaipatha. We had booked a hostel and planned a whole day trip. It was not clear to us if it was intentional, forgetfullness, indifference, he just seemd apathically to our bewilderment. They then let us off somewhere in between Samaipatha and Santa Cruz, where we could try to take a collectivo back to Samaipatha (more then an hour back). We only arrived around 10:30 in Samaipatha, which was too late to start our trip that day, although we would probably have been also too tired from a very scary night ride.

    Later in Santa Cruz we went to the bus terminal to the Flota Bolivar bus company, to inform them on the terrible and much to fast driving, the alcohol (with that they at least seemed a little concerned, and said it was a police matter), and the not stopping in Samaipatha after repeatadly asking. Again they were quite passive, which made us again believe that they just don’t care so much (about many things it seems).

    We have to say, although we met unbelievably nice Bolivians too, we have been during our trip very often suprised with their rudeness, apathic attitude, ignorance or indifference (and it’s often not clear which it is). We have travelled a lot, and have nowhere experienced this like here.

    We did have other good bus rides in Bolivia, where the buses drove much slower and we did feel safe.

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    • Sounds awful. I reckon he missed your stop on purpose because he was angry you (rightfully) confiscated his booze. Good on you for standing up and make a complaint to the company. This sort of behaviour is unfortunately too common across Bolivia. I don’t think it’s specific to Bolivar as they actually have the best reputation. I’ve only had pleasant experiences with them myself.

      Customer service and professionalism are seriously lacking across the country. Many Bolivians just see this as normal and don’t realise it’s a problem until they travel overseas and come back. Unfortunately as a tourist almost all local interactions are customer service based so I can understand you getting a negative impression.

      Glad to hear you made it out alive and keep on travelling!

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