The journey begins from the small town of Aiquile, on the road from Sucre towards Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Today it is the terminus of the line, however the line was supposed to be extended to Santa Cruz to enable a connection between the East and West networks of Bolivia. This never happened, and the line that connects Cochabamba and Oruro is no longer used due to frequent flooding. This has left the Aiquile to Cochabamba line with its very small train lost in time.
Back in 1996, the Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, known as "Goni" decided to privatize the National Rail Network. Shortly afterwards these went bankrupt and since then the railways of Bolivia have remained a mysterious ghost-like mode of transport that only the few locals that use it, know anything about it. If you ask a taxi driver or hotel receptionist about the train service between Aiquile and Cochabamba or Sucre and Potosi, the best you will get is a blank look and told it doesn't exist. Well, the train between Aiquile and Cochabamba certainly does exist and with a new bus-carril recently purchased, the service looks set to remain for some time yet.
The train passes through several villages: Tin Tin, Vila Vila, Sivingani, Cliza, Tarata before circling around Lake Angostura just before reaching the outskirts of Cochabamba. Some of the villages have no road access and this train service provides their only means of transporting their goods to Cochabamba. The journey is supposed to take 8 hours 20 minutes, but a two hour delay can easily be expected.
The bus from Sucre dropped us off in the centre of town on the main through road – also the road which our booked hotel was located on. It was the first time I’d seen rain in weeks, and without any form of map I took a guess at which way we should walk to find the hotel. The hotel’s address was “5 Aiquile” but unsurprisingly none of the buildings had numbers on them. I was in luck that evening, as we had walked about 20 meters along the dark unlit road before finding the hotel entrance.
A lesson I learnt nine years ago on my first trip to Bolivia which resulted in me missing the Sucre to Potosi train service was to never trust a taxi driver to get you to a railway station in Bolivia. They don’t have a clue and neither do hotel receptionists that odd little quirky trains actually operate out of their home town. With this in mind, I set out to find the exact location of the train station on foot ready for the morning’s adventure.
In the morning, we set out at around 7.20 am stopping off to buy snacks for the journey – restaurants in Aiquile are almost non-existent. I remember asking an old man with a truck of oranges and bananas for the price of each fruit. He said four Bolivianos (that’s about 0.50 US$) which I knew was a bit too much but still reasonable considering there where no other options. So after picking up six oranges and two bananas, I offered him a 20 Boliviano note. I was surprised when I received 16 Bolivianos in change leaving me to assume he told me the price per kilo.
The train, or locally known as the Bus Carril was parked up at the station. It was basically a Mercedes minibus that had been converted to run on railway tracks. The bus body, painted in blue and yellow with the FCA logo was mounted on train wheels. The drivers’ cab was even fully kitted out with a steering wheel and gear stick just like a bus. The Bus Carril was manned with a driver and conductor. The driver, visibly more senior of the two was wearing pressed brown trousers, clean leather shoes and a dark blue beanie hat. He generally just watched as the conductor hoisted the baggage and goods onto the roof. There were all sorts of items - our backpacks, a bundle of wicker baskets, bags of vegetables and plenty of heavy looking colourful cloth bags.
The Bus Carril departed more or less on time and began its journey towards Cochabamba. The first stop was to allow two female passengers to disembark. It wasn't a station in the slightest, and the girls were dropped off just after the Bus Carril had crossed a road. There was some commotion about how much their fare should be, with the conductor being adamant that it cannot be less than the fare to the next station from Aiquile (3 Bs). The Bus Carril continued, stopping every now and again to allow passengers off and on. Along the way it became noticeable that not everyone waiting for the train alongside the tracks wanted to have a ride themselves. Some people would be waiting just so they could give their luggage to the conductor, pay some sort of fee, have their bag marked with a destination before they turned around and walked off into the distance.
At the main stops, such as Vila Vila, the station sprang into life, with baggage and goods being passed down from the roof by the conductor, and replaced by more goods and baggage by the waiting passengers. At Sivingani two women had prepared home cooked vegetarian food - potatoes mixed in a tomatoes sauce, with a green chili dip on the side just in case it was too bland. I am still trying to figure out when, but at some point the train lost an hour in time without any real explanation. At Tin Tin we were on-time, at Sivingani we were an hour late and I cannot remember any prolonged stops along the way, just the occasional rock on the tracks which the conductor removed.
As the Bus Carril approached Cochabamba, the tracks became busier with items that did not belong on it. The first obstacle was a market. The train slowly passed through, with vendors folding their tents away from the tracks. The second obstacle was a jeep, inconveniently parked across the tracks with no owner in sight. After some weaker attempts at pushing the jeep, enough people joined in and managed to push the jeep two meters backwards with the handbrake on.
From Aiquile at 8am on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday
From Cochabamba at 8am on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
How much does the journey cost?
20 Bs (3 US$) for a trip from end to end, but for shorter trips the fare starts from 1 Bs
How to find out more information?
The official website of the Ferroviaria Andina S.A. Railway, www.fca.com.bo (opens in new tab) shows the passenger services they operate between Oruro - Uyuni - Villazon, Uyuni - Avaroa, Sucre - Potosi and Aiquile - Cochabamba. The only service displayed with a full timetable is the commonly used train between Oruro - Uyuni - Villazon. The other services just shows days of departure.
Hot to get to Aiquile?
From Sucre, several buses leave to Aiquile between 4 pm and 6.30 pm. The journey takes around 4 hours with the buses continuing to either Cochabamba or Santa Cruz.