Riding The Death Train to Bolivia-Brazil Border

We are about to embark on an overnight journey riding the Death Train!

Now before you freak out, it is important to know that times have changed since the original naming of the Death Train.

The Death Train earned its iconic and famous name many years ago and there are many stories as to why.

death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – The Death Train – waiting to leave – death train

There are a few rumors as to why it is called the Death Train.

Here are some of the reasons people give for the name:

  1. Folks rode on the roof to avoid paying train fare. They later fell asleep and often fell to their death.
  2. It was used to carry dead passengers to the border when the yellow fever plague was at its peak.
  3. The mosquitoes are so bad during the rainy season, you’ll get ‘eaten alive’ throughout the entire journey.
  4. Because many railway workers died while building this railroad.
  5. Your kidneys shake out as the railway line is not laid straight or evenly, and so you shake side to side the during whole trip.

We found these five to be the most likely of the reasons that it is called the Death Train. Although the line is not that bumpy these days. However, it is like being on an amusement ride but not being able to get off. To be honest, the entire trip made me quite nauseous, so maybe number 5 is true?

Tickets on the Death Train

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©Exploramum and Explorason – The Death Train – the exit to the train line on the main station at Santa Cruz

We had booked tickets on the same day we arrived in Santa Cruz. Many people told us we had to get there by 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. on the morning of departure. This was completely inaccurate and in fact, we discover it is later in the day that we need to arrive.

Taking a while, but we eventually communicated with the seller for our desire for ‘cama’ (bed) seats on the ‘Ferrobus‘ as the deluxe train section is called.

Our train is going from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Puerto Quijarro, on the Bolivian and Brazilian border – the route that takes you to the wetlands or the Pantanal. We are told some of these trains that ride this and other rail lines are converted Mercedes and VW buses!

Not A Sleeper Train As We Thought

death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – The Death Train is only 2 carriages long

Well, he assured us that there were blankets and pillows. Wrong! They are actually semi-camas, not camas and I think we have been ‘ duped’! There are no blankets and pillows and we are not comfortable at all for an entire night’s journey.

The air conditioning was maxed out and quite cold – in fact, the coldest we have yet found on our travels so far. But we did get an evening meal, and a tiny breakfast so thank goodness for that.

We sit and we wait for the Death Train to leave but it leaves much later than expected. Night has crept in and darkness is all around us.

Keep Your Loose Change

death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – this is the highest class seating available – there is no sleeper car so do not book a ‘cama’

So when we arrive at the railway station initially, we are told to pay a luggage fee. However, there is no receipt and me kind of felt it went into someone’s pocket. Next came a terminal tax which we had encountered with buses.  Sometimes this includes the use of the toilet, other times not.

My drama was we had a few left over Bolivianos before we arrived – thinking we were changing currencies at the Brazil border so we spent it on water and chocolate. My big mistake as I then had to crack a USA note and I’m left with change once more!

Handicrafts

With pockets of coins once more we head off to try and spend it.  There isn’t a lot, but the local indigenous ladies are selling handicrafts. Fabulous pots and bags made of strings are sold for $1 – $5. In the photo below you can see one of the ladies working on a pot using her toes below. The lady behind her was selling a bag I wanted. It was $5 USD but I had the equivalent of $4.50, and I really wanted it.

I tried to sweeten her and get a price reduction by adding in a bar of chocolate as otherwise, we were out of coins again. But she refused which is fair enough as it probably took her hours to make. I tried everything as I was out of small money, but alas, no way. In the end, I crack another note and buy two pots and the bag, and I still have more loose change! So we end up giving them extra as our random act of kindness for the day.

What surprised us about the Ferrobus is that it was a tiny train. 2 Carriages – and they were not full.

Meals on the Death Train

death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – mals on the Death train are quite good

The seats are plush velvet and were super comfortable, but a solid armrest was quite a pain. Dinner was served on the Death Train by an attendant are they were lovely and hot. It was quite an alright meal and we both ate ours. However there are no choices if you are vegetarian or have fussy eaters,  but its a good size serving, with a cool drink.

Beware The M and R Rated Movies

Alas, they put on (to entertain the passengers) a violent ‘M or R rated’ movie on. It was not suitable for children. Blood and guts were all over the place and my son as getting quite upset, so we moved out to the rest area near the restroom (Banos). This is not the quietest place as far as train noises go, nor is the least smelly zone either, but we had it to ourselves, and that was nice.

We brought the laptop out and watched our own movie. Unfortunately, this area of the Death Train is very noisy and we could hardly hear the movie either!

Skinny Seats and Smelly Air

The seat out by the toilet is super skinny, so rest did not come easy whilst the movie was on. But I did nod off for a few minutes.

Stops And Starts

This Death Train did have quite a few stops – not that you can exit but it is nice to see the stations.

Passing By

Bolivia

©Exploramum and Explorason – looking out over the towns

Towns and buildings flash by, but the train is not going so fast that you don’t get to see them clearly. So that helps when you can’t sleep in the night.

Mosquito Alert

death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – fun hanging out the window at the station until we realize the mosquitoes are coming in

When we stop at train stations my son really enjoyed putting his head out the window. This was all good until we discovered it was letting the mosquitoes in.

As we are heading towards the wetlands, the mosquitoes are ever increasing, and in fact, are the worse we ever encounter in the world.  Never have I seen so many mosquitoes, which makes me wonder if theory three about the train name might be right?

Moving Back to Our Seats

death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – The Death Train – Explorason sleeps peacefully

As the Death Train is half empty there are now quite a few vacancies. I find a spare double seat behind my son, so I moved there and gave him our seats for him to spread out on.

Thankfully, I discovered that when you put up the table trays the seats get a bit leveled. So with the seats semi-reclined, I was able to get some sleep albeit somewhat lumpy.

Scenery

death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – passing a cattle ranch

One thing I was disappointed about was that the Death Train had departed so late. This meant we left in the dark and as I do love sightseeing we had missed out. Therefore I was up very early the next day with my head out the common area window to snap some photos.

Moving The Tracks

Everything is done manually, so we discovered that the Death Train stopped on different occasions. When this happened, a worker jumped out and would move the track handle to allow us to change tracks. Because we would then wait for another train or worker vehicle to pass.

The Borders

Bolivia-Brazil Border

death train Bolivia

©Exploramum and Explorason – beautiful scenery

We finally arrive at the border at Corumba/Puerto Quijarro. On this Death Train, there is no announcement at any stations, but at this one, everyone gets off so we figure this is the end of the line. We ask the lady in front as she speaks a little English. She tells us to get a taxi to the border from here, so we gather our bags and off we go.

Taxi Scam

Bolivia death train

©Exploramum and Explorason – Time to take a taxi to the border

When we get to the border, the driver tries to charge us $20 US but we haven’t gone that far. I get my son to run to the lady from the train who is ahead in the line. He asks her how much the fare should be. $3 US is the correct answer so needless to say he doesn’t get a tip!

Border Line at Bolivia

Bolivia Border

©Exploramum and Explorason – The Bolivia Border

Next, we wait in line. The sun is bearing down on us and we still have warm clothes for the train on since the air-conditioning was freezing, but now we are sweltering and there is no shade in sight for the most part, until we get to a tree near to the front. I get my son to go ‘relieve’ himself behind a car (where I can still see him) as I can’t leave the line to go to the toilet.  Going bright red, I then strip him off and get him changed to summer clothes again.

I Fall Out Of The Toilet Cubicle

Thankfully, I go ask a lady if I can use her bathroom to change. I am ‘over’ paying for bathrooms, especially when I just have to change and here I do not have to. She agrees I can use the cubicle, but as I enter, I have no idea the wooden room door is resting, not attached and it – and I completely fall out with a thud!!!

I am changing! Luckily I already have the lady from the train watching my son.  I am trying to be fast! No, I AM fast! So, I pick myself up, pull up the door and on I go with lightning speed.

The Queue

One must feel really sorry for pregnant ladies and old people but no one allows them to go in front.

We wait for over 1 hour and the line has hardly moved. Then the ‘train lady’ (our English speaking lady from the train) moves and goes and talks to someone. Next, her and her husband are at the front of the line!

I watch this in fascination, so I go talk to her. She instructs me on how to basically ‘bribe’ the guy she spoke to so he gets us to the front of the line with her.

It is 50 Bolivianos – about $7 USD.  I realize also that if I do not pay him we are going to be quite sunburnt and standing in this line for many hours.

So I go pay him – he puts my bags in the shade and we are moved to the front. A couple of people are upset about this and they go and talk to him too. We wait for about around ten minutes and are through the border with no problems.  There are rarely problems when leaving a country I find at border crossings, though I do detest them so.

Brazil Border

We then have to walk about 300 meters wheeling and dragging all our luggage to the Brazil border after we have passed the Bolivia border check.

Now let me tell you, this is a border you can just walk into the country and no-one would care as far as we saw. Complete honesty on your part is required, but then don’t get a stamp and who knows what happens to you!

At this border, all your immunization certificate are checked and must be up to date.  If they are not, you are required to go into the next town to the clinic (honesty again) and return with the certificate to be stamped into Brazil.

Our Guide

We are still at the Brazil border where next thing we know we are met by a guide from a tour agency for the Pantanal I had enquired with. He expects us to do the tour but I tell him I have read bad reviews and we are not sure.

After a while, the price comes down. Then, after the 3rd price drop, I agree.

Wait

He puts our luggage in his car – and we wait.

We wait, and wait, and wait.

There is no toilet, water, food or any place to sit.

Finally – we wait for 3 hours! He is hanging around and then finally he talks to a few people and we seem to be ushered toward the office.

YAY – Finally, we get in. Their internet at this border office is super slow so maybe that is the problem, but they have only had two border staff and about 200 people waiting. Each person is manually entered into the computer. Our legal documents are scanned here. Missing person lists are checked, especially as I am traveling with a child.

Onward We Go

We eventually get through border control and we are hungry and tired.

Welcome to Brazil! Exciting times ahead – we hope.

But guess what?

Our guide takes us to an open area where there are tour desks, and you guessed it – we wait again!

I ask if we have time to go and eat and he says “yes” so we find a restaurant opposite and eat quickly.

We return, and – we wait again!

We do finally climb in the car and drive off, so make sure to read our Pantanal Wetlands Tour articles, and we do have a great tour too!

Questions and Comments

  • Have you ever had a border crossing where you waited for hours?
  • We had one later in our travels between Singapore and Malaysia?
  • What did you do and do you have any tips for our readers?

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