I was at the touristic information booth next to Oruro’s bus terminal. Bad news had just been communicated to me. The nearest train museum was at Machacamarca, some 30 kilometers away from town. Moreover, minivans leading there departed only from Avenida del Ejercito corner Tacna, a spot that was in other part of the downtown area. That meant I won’t be able to reach the museum in this trip due to time constrains.
Yet, I knew there were some old roosters in display here. I asked again and this time I was told that if speaking with the clerks at the railway station, I may be granted access. Thanking hurriedly, I left the place and rushed to the station; it was getting late.
The Railway Station
After all, I expected a worthy sight. South American railways barely exist today; buses have conquered most of the routes there, as it happened in most of the world. Maybe because the Bolivian railways system was never extensive, it did manage to survive the crisis and is still connecting several towns. The system is divided into the highlands railway and the lowlands one; two networks that are not connected between them and provide also specialized transport services.
On the highlands, Empresa Ferroviaria Andina provides mainly transport for travelers from Villazon to Oruro; the railroad crosses Uyuni and Tupiza. Some of its lines serve only merchandise, especially to and from the ports in Chile. The railway is used by Expreso Del Sur and Wara Wara Del Sur cars; the first company is slightly more expensive. "Wara Wara" means "star" in Aymara; thus "Wara Wara del Sur" means "Southern Star," in a mix of Aymara and Spanish. In the recent and wildly misinformed revival of Aymara, many people call their daughters "wara," unknowing this is not the singular of "wara wara." Instead of giving the name "star," they have called their daughters after a garment.
Expreso Del Sur leaves from Oruro on Tuesdays and Fridays, and returns on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Villazon. The Wara Wara Del Sur departs on Sundays and Wednesdays from Oruro, and Mondays and Thursdays from Villazon. All trains leave from Villazon and Oruro at 3:30 PM; arrival times are 7 AM at Oruro and 7:55 AM at Villazon. The difference in the arrival time despite the distances being the same is the result of altitude changes along the way. One international connection to Chile also exists; it leaves on Mondays and returns on Thursdays. In the past the line reached La Paz, parts of the unused old railway can still be seen in the country’s most important city. Parts of it had even been used there for the sewage drains, which look unusually solid and well constructed.
Trains have fame of being one of the few punctual transportation methods in Bolivia, except for the short rainy season – roughly between January and March – when floods may cause unexpected, but short, delays.
In Oruro, the terminal is placed almost at the town centre. Once there I entered the tickets counter, surprised to find a counter selling Argentinean bus tickets at the structure entrance. Many choose to arrive to the Argentinean border by train and to advance from there by bus. Argentinean railways were inactive for decades and are not fully active.
"Maybe they’ll let you see the old trains," I was told. "But they are not here, they are at the railways yard, which is almost twenty blocks away. You can walk along the railway in the way there."
The Rail Yard
I did that and found the train travels along one of the town main avenues. No separation exists between the railway and the roads on both sides of it, thus the trains travel slowly and noisily along this stretch of the way. Soon, a walled yard appeared. The railway disappeared within it.
I began surrounding the large structure. All gates were closed and the placed seemed empty. On its other side, the yard became very narrow and ended in an open gate. Nobody was in sight. Taking out my camera I entered and found plenty of train cars. Being of the narrow gauge type, Bolivian train cars are rather small and sturdy; about half a dozen of them are attached to the locomotive. I was beginning to enjoy this unexpected finding when I found a reminder of being in Bolivia.
Wild dogs appeared nearby. They were not openly hostile, but that can change in no time here. Making sure they won’t be able to see my hands – seeing the last is interpreted by them as "a flying stone is in my way" and may lead to a savage attack – I left the railway yard and returned to the nearby bus terminal. It was time to return – by bus – to La Paz.