Iquitos Travel Guide

The Night Bus To Coca

By Dave Burns  

Bus to Coca, Ecuador


hen you board a bus in many countries in the third world, you never know exactly what to expect. The one certainty is that anything could happen. Iíll never forget my first bus ride in South America. It was a trial by fire experience which took me from the bustling city of Barranquilla along the oppressively steamy Caribbean coast of Colombia. It was the bus ride weíve all seen in movies: noisy, chaotic, complete with chickens, pigs and just way too many people in one vehicle. Every time we stopped along the five hour journey to Santa Marta, street vendors would swarm the bus, hawking everything from soft drinks in plastics bags to roasted parts of animals long believed to be extinct. That was, for me, just the first of many, many bus rides in South America. Iíve frozen my butt off on pre-dawn rides through the Andes. Iíve roasted under the equatorial Sun, huddled on the roof of a bus with two pigs and a goat. Itís always an adventure.

And now, here I was in the jungle town of Tena, Ecuador, having survived yet another heart-stopping ride on narrow, winding mountain roads. I guess the driver had done the run so many times that the thought of plunging over the side of the mountain didnít provide the rush he was looking for. So, just to spice it up a touch, he drag raced another bus pedal-to-the-metal all the way into town. We arrived unscathed at the terminal and I was pleased to learn that I had a four-hour wait until the departure of my next bus. A little decompression time would be good and Tena is really a very pleasant town, resting comfortably on the bank of the Rio Tena. A foot bridge spans the river, and after stashing my pack at the terminal, I strolled across the bridge and went exploring. A curandero, a healer and vendor of natural cures peeked out from his thatched roof stall where he was hiding from the afternoon Sun. Along with bundles of dried herbs and potions, several ocelot skins were displayed inside. By the time I was heading back towards the bus station, the Sun had begun to set. Folks were coming out for their evening walks and vendors sold individual cigarettes and Chiclets at small candlelit kiosks. The air was cooler now and I made my way to the terminal where I spent the next hour watching the almost ceremonial loading of the bus. This alone is worth the price of the ticket. In this part of the world almost everyone and everything they own travel by bus. As I sat, leaning against my pack, I smoked a small cigar and wondered if I looked as cool as I hoped I did. The station crew was loading up the roof of the bus with luggage, boxes of every description, furniture, plastic drums of "who-knows-what" and even sacks of concrete. A woman had come to Tena to buy a very x-rated bed of chrome and red velvet. It was carefully wrapped and loaded on top. Some guy was in for a big night, but not this night. Finally, the whole load was covered with a giant rubber tarp to protect it from the tropical rains. It was almost time to depart on the next leg of my journey which would take eight hours, arriving in the town of Puerto de Francisco Orellana, more commonly known as Coca. We were scheduled to arrive around four in the morning. I donít like to arrive anywhere at four in the morning, especially a place like Coca, but what the hellÖ.I was traveling alone, hade no schedule to keep, and it was going to be just another bus ride, right? As I said, Iíd been to this rodeo before. So I stepped right up and presented the driver with my ticket for....The Night Bus To Coca.

I claimed my seat which was the first seat on the right hand side, right behind the door. I always try to get that seat because I donít do well in crowds, and being by the door, helps to keep my claustrophobia in check. I know now that if I had gotten stuck in the back of this bus that I would surely be institutionalized by now, drooling Thorazine-flavored Jello down the front of my bathrobe. When it appeared that everybody had boarded, I turned in my seat, pleased to see that we were full but not crowded. Promptly, at eight-thirty the driver fired up the engine, let it warm up for a couple of minutes and then we pulled out of the terminal just as nice as you please. We went exactly one block and stopped at the corner. Ten more guys got on the bus. One had a huge cardboard box tied up with scraps of rope. He managed to get up the stairs, about halfway into the aisle, and thatís where he and the box stayed. Again, I looked behind me and thought, ďJeez weíre really packed in here now.Ē Wrong. I just thought we were packed in. I didnít know it, but we had just started. As we made our way through the dark streets of Tena, folks kept materializing out of the darkness and getting on the bus. I wondered how long this would go on before the driver would start passing people by. Silly me; we were the last thing rolling out of town and nobody was going to get left behind. Someone had hauled a fifty-kilo sack of rice aboard and it was flopped over the big cardboard box in the aisle. Some folks were sitting on the sack and others were sitting on the floor, leaning against the box. By then, it seemed everybody else was leaning on me. In the pitch blackness, I had anonymous body parts resting on the arm, my left leg, and my head. But what the hell, I figured, these people arenít going far. They probably live across town or on the outskirts. Ten, fifteen minutes and theyíll all be history. We left Tena behind us and no one got off the bus. It was beginning to look like all hundred and nineteen gazillion of us were going to Coca. Iím pretty sure it was one of the guys leaning on my head who was alternately babbling, singing, and bursting into hysterical giggles. He was very drunk and as he laughed, I just knew that his cane liquor euphoria was going to change, as it so quickly can, and that he would certainly then puke down my neck. As luck would have it, a shack came into view and somehow the driver knew to stop. The drunk lurched forward, climbed or fell over the half dozen or so people between him and the door, tripped over the box and slid down the rice bag into the waiting arms of two other guys who the got on the bus. We rolled on like a giant sardine can rumbling down this fairly new dirt road which was subject to washouts, derrumbes, landslides; and as I was shoved, poked and nudged from every direction, I got to thinking that I wished the Pope was on this bus. I figured it would take him about ten minutes to rethink his views on population control. As we bumped and ground our way through the night, I slowly became aware that the lady who was standing in front of me, hugging the stanchion and straddling my legs was experiencing a bladder management problem. Poor baby, she was fighting the good fight, but the forces of nature were just about to win when, as if by divine intervention, the driver pulled off to the side of the road. I peered out into the dark and saw what looked like several trucks parked side by side. The desperate woman jumped over the box, cleared the rice bag like a hurdler, and disappeared between two trucks. Then almost everybody got off the bus and found a quiet spot where they could express themselves. As we reboarded the bus, the mood was understandably more relaxed and although tired, almost everyone, even the folks who had been standing for the last four hours, appeared to be in pretty good spirits. I, on the other hand, was feeling beat up, exhausted, and generally over it. And I had a seat! Such as it was, the last of the springs was poking me where nobody should ever get poked with a spring. But Iíd found a way to squirm around it and anyway, I had resolved myself to accept that this ride was what it was and there was no way I could change it. I had come to this realization a while ago, when I thought I couldnít take being squished any more and no matter what, I had to get off the bus. But the fact is, all your stuff is up on the roof of the bus, buried under the tarp, and you canít go anywhere without it. And even if you could, where you gonna go, man? Thereís nothing out there but jungle and when the bus gets out of sight, it would be dark as the inside of a coal mine. I was in this for the duration.

I know I finally dozed off, because the next time I opened my eyes, I saw that we were stopped at the bank of a river. I thought I must be dreaming. I got out to take a better look. Sure enough, we were at the edge of the water, and somewhere in the distance I heard a generator fire off. In a couple of minutes, a ferry barge slowly floated across the river to get us, pulled by a thick, steel cable. The driver pulled onto the barge and with more clanking of gears and revving of the generator, we started towards the opposite bank, most of us choosing to make the trip standing around the edges of the barge. When we were about half way across, I saw what I thought was the loom from Coca. An hour or so later, when we approached the town, I realized that the lights werenít from the streets of Coca, but from the gigantic support facilities of the oil companies. There were pipe yards with what looked like a million miles of pipe, and floodlighted, chain-linked compounds with elevated guard towers and shotgun-toting security men. Finally, after eight and a half grueling hours, we pulled into an empty lot behind what they said was a hotel. The driver killed the engine. It was over! The bus emptied out very quickly. Everyone seemed to have a place to go and scurried off into the night. I hoisted my pack and found a four dollar room for what was left of the night. Any hopes I might have had to sleep late were dashed by the din of heavy machinery, truck backfires, and men shouting outside my window. I tried the shower down the hall, but not water came out so I went to scope out the neighborhood. Coca will never make the cover of Travel & Leisure Magazine. Coca is an oil town and like all oil towns it is dirty. Itís one of those places that the travel books would say, ďhas little to offer the traveler.Ē The streets are either muddy or dusty, depending on the weather. They are sometimes sprayed down with waste oil to keep the dust down. The result of this well thought solution to the dust problem is a nice oily mud thatís impossible to get off your boots and therefore, gets tracked everywhere. The air will choke you by day with the stench of oil and exhaust fumes. At night you get all that plus the sweet bouquet of the cheap perfumes worn by the Colombian prostitutes who flock to Coca to make a few petrobucks on their own. Itís said that armies travel on their stomachs, but it seems the oil business travels on its crotch. The truth is, without the comfort that these women provide, the oil companies could never get guys to work in such a dismal place so far from home. So I feel that these ladies are, in their own special way very much an integral part of the ďawl bidness.Ē

The good new is this: You are not real likely to find yourself in Coca. Itís not on the grand tour of South America. In fact, itís so far off the beaten track that unless youíre a ďgood olí boyĒ from Texas or Louisiana, or maybe a missionary, you will never have to go to Coca. But if you do, just remember this. Fly from Quito. Take a boat from upriver. And if you absolutely must go overland, try to hitch a ride on a truck. But never, and please trust me on this, never takeÖ.The Night Bus To Coca.


Amazonian Natives

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© Copyright 2007 Dave Burns, Night Bus to Coca, all rights reserved.