It seemed like a simple question: “Where is the El Alto train station?”
I had my FerroViaria Andina train tickets for the newly reestablished route linking El Alto (La Paz’s high-altitude sister city) to Oruro, where I would catch a second train on to the popular salt flats of Salar de Uyuni. But not one of the usually helpful Bolivians I spoke with could give me directions to the train station in El Alto.
“There is no train station in El Alto,” each simply replied.
Finally, a radio taxi dispatcher assured me he knew where the train stops, and that one of his drivers could take me there.
That’s how I found myself standing in a dirt parking lot, standing next to a tower of monster-sized tires, watching a whistling train slowly cut across four lanes of traffic. The engineer waded the train across a a double-highway of cars, bicycles, and micros (some with llamas strapped to the roof) in order to reach the El Alto “station”, where only a handful of us passengers were waiting.
For the record? The station is the unassuming spot across the street from the Bolivian cavalry base. An odd setting, but all the better for embarking on a little-known (and, as far as I can tell, currently discontinued) train trip through Bolivia’s isolated plains.
We traveled for about four hours along straight, narrow tracks, slowly rocking to and fro while catching quiet glimpses of daily Bolivian life. The herds of llamas and alpacas. The crumbing building in a dry, cold land. A man in a motorcycle helmet standing on the ruins of a house to watch the train go by. Lean, elegant vicuña scattering over ploughed plains. Dogs picking up chase as our strange, creaking 1977 Ferrobus passed through the very occasional urban hubs.
Our schedule was so purely our own, that mid-route the engineer offered to stop the train for an impromptu photo-op while he and the conductor inspected something on the tracks.
It was also a clash of urban density and vast rural desolation. Being that we were traveling on a little used train route, we arrived in more than one "station" to find the tracks colonized by vehicles, locals—or in the case of Oruro—a bustling market.
In Oruro, as we inched forward along the tracks, one by one the vendors move plastic chairs, tarps, umbrella, tables, baskets, bags, and more so the train could pass. Many seemed to wait until the last second to move, and our train's windshield even collided with one wooden rib of an umbrella.
At the Oruro train station (which is a marbled contrast to El Alto's), we board the Expreso del Sur with hundreds of other travellers headed for the Salar de Uyuni.
Although Uyuni is inhabited by ever so many tourists, a visit to the Salar far outweighs the over-run vibe.
The Salar is a massive bed of salt that exceeds the size of Jasper National Park and is flanked on all-sides by semi-desolate villages, salt hotels, coloured lagoons, volcanos, and cacti.
It's somewhere between discovering a desert oasis and moon walking. But I loved it so much more because of our trip to the El Alto train station.