Since the 1860s, Bolivia has lost land to all its surrounding countries, leaving it land locked and without vital access to coastal ports. As compensation, both Chile and Brazil agreed to build railways from Bolivia to their coasts, but they haven’t received proper investment since. Zay Harding travels along these railways from the Brazilian Pantanal to the Chilean coast.
Zay’s journey starts near Corumba in the Brazilian Pantanal wetlands area, a stretch of land that was once part of Bolivia. In a deal with Brazil, Bolivia gave the land away in exchange for transportation rights through Brazil’s waterways. Unfortunately, the railway era was about to begin and Brazil’s newly constructed railroads were soon a faster alternative to river. It was time for Bolivia to build its own eastern train line. Zay travels on this new network, from Corumba to Bolivia’s agricultural heartland of Santa Cruz. Once known as the ‘death train’ Zay is more than happy to discover that this passenger train no longer holds the same disastrous safety record.
Ever since the agricultural boom in the ‘80s, people have flocked to Santa Cruz from the poorer highlands to find work but Zay’s journey takes him in the opposite direction as he heads to the constitutional capital of Sucre.
Rail travel through Bolivia should be simple. After all, there are only two railway networks, with a total of 3685 kilometres of track. The problem is that they are not actually connected to one another. A bigger issue is that many of the tracks that were built are no longer in use. Capital or not, Sucre is one of the country’s cities whose once busy rail transport has failed the local population.
The nearest station, El Tejar, does still provide a rail service to the mining town of Potosi, which is vital for the people who live between these two cities. Without a main road running directly between them, people often walk for days just to reach the railway.
In Potosi, Zay turns his hand to being a miner for a day – not a job he’s keen to repeat after experiencing the claustrophobic conditions the miners live with daily. The miners’ spoils are transported to the Pacific coast by freight train and Zay hitches a ride only to be stopped just 3 hours into the journey because of a derailment up ahead.
After finally making it to Uyuni, albeit by road again rather than rail, Zay visits the old silver mining town of Pulacayo. It was so lucrative back in the late nineteenth century that the owner, soon-to-be-President Aniceto Arce, decided to build Bolivia’s first railway line from here to the coast to export the minerals. The very first train is still in Pulacayo – carefully restored by the proud inhabitants of the town. Pulacayo may be nothing more than an extinct mine now, but Uyuni is still mining minerals for exportation and Zay visits the Salar de Uyuni – a salt flat rich in both salt and lithium.
Most passenger trains leave Uyuni in the middle of the night and the one Zay takes north is no exception. At 2am he embarks on his journey to La Paz, coming to the end of the line at Oruro – still 3 hours away by road.
La Paz is Bolivia’s administrative capital and, like Sucre, it’s once important railway sees no action anymore. It does, however, boast what will become the world’s longest cable car network. Sadly, the nearest working railway is 22km away in Viacha and Zay takes the only train running to the Chilean border: a bus-train.
As no passenger trains run between the border and the coast, he manages to grab a ride with a freight train, carrying railway maintenance materials. Travelling from 4000m to sea level takes its toll on Zay though and it’s only after a stint with the oxygen mask that he finally makes it to his journey’s end – the Pacific coast.
Places Mentioned - BoliviaShare the series
View Destination Guide
View Destination Guide