Thursday, February 28, 2013

Transportation impressions though Peru and Bolivia

I have been thinking about the interesting progression/deterioration of our overland bus travel over the last seven weeks and felt it was worth a blog post to document the evolution. It has kind of crept up on us with each new bus reservation. And even as I write this post, we are heading off to yet another bus station to reserve yet another bus trip, which will undoubtedly be another notch down in class, comfort and cleanliness.

I will start with a little background (which I am simply making up from my observations). There are hundreds of bus companies in Peru and Bolivia. It seems that if you can buy a bus, come up with a name for it, and decide a route you would like to take, you have a business plan. In every bus terminal there are at least 30 stalls selling tickets to three or four destinations each. All have photos of beautiful new buses, claiming their bus looks just like the photos. As you enter the station, you hear voices calling out city names, like auctioneers, beckoning you to their booths for the next departure.

If you take a look in the parking lot of any bus station, there are dozens of busses that all look similar. They are all painted in bright colours, with “Tourist Class” or something similar on them, and the name of the bus company. Most of them have two levels with more expensive seats on the bottom floor that recline and are more comfortable and upstairs seating for a reduced price. They all claim to have movies, music, air and even some with wifi. The sales people gloat endlessly about the features as if they actually exist.

Our first bus ride with Cruz del Sur, from Arequipa to Cuscu in Peru, was absolutely luxurious and I think we got completely spoiled as they delivered everything they promised, including leaving and arriving on time. But each ride since then has been a steadily declining experience. But somehow, the fact that it has been so slow, it is only now that I have realized just how low we have actually come!

Here is my theory: All of these buses (except Cruz Del Sur) must have had another life somewhere else in the world where there were standards of cleanliness and there were technicians that could fix all of the basic workings of the bus (like the ventilation system, televisions and toilets). When they were deemed unfit for use in their country of origin, they were shipped to Peru and Bolivia. They arrived here with broken windshields, TV screens that no longer work, unusable toilets and upholstery that had not seen a shampoo since Inca times. In other words, in perfect condition to begin service here!

On our first bus ride with a cracked windshield (we were in seats 1 and 2 to be able to see the view), we both wondered if the cracks were due to an external cause (rock or another bus hitting the windshield) or an internal cause (heads hitting the windshield from inside the bus). We tightened our seat belts and hoped for the best. Every bus we have travelled on so far has had cracked windshields!

If you recall, I raved about Cruz del Sur providing meals and drink service on our bus from Arequipa to Cusco. Well, in subsequent trips, and especially now that we are in Bolivia, the tides have changed dramatically. There is definitely food onboard, but not the kind that is served to you by a steward. You have seen the photos I have posted of the women here in their wide skirts and shawls full of babies or huge amounts of goods they are carrying from one place or another. Just imagine how much cooked chicken or ham, and other greasy packages of food can be hidden there? Once the bus leaves the station, the food appears, with everyone eating with his or her hands and using the upholstery for napkins.

And then there are the entrepreneurs boarding the bus at each stop, selling potato chips, jello in plastic cups with whipped topping, pop, plastic bags of white cheese in brine and assorted other messy snacks. Let your imagination go wild. The reality is much messier than you can imagine!

Initially each bus ride was booked with pre-selected seats, and baggage tags neatly stapled to them. At this point it is a free for all, with people standing in the aisles, bags thrown in the storage or wherever they will fit.

Which brings me to our bus ride from Copacabana to La Paz — the inspiration for this post.

When we got off the boat after our trip to Isla del Sol, we stopped in two bus company booths along the main drag. They were both bidding for our business calling out the special features of their sparkling tourist level buses to La Paz. The one that promised wifi got our business, even though we were quite sure that was not going to pan out. She quickly filled in our ticket voucher and sent us on our way with no seat selection and barely any idea of where we were to find the bus. Copacabana does not have a bus station, just lines of buses on the road out of town.

When the time came to find our bus, we did find an office with our bus company’s name on it and a growing number of people waiting for our bus. We managed to get seats together near the front of the (not nearly as sparkling as the photos) bus. The ticket taker even gave us a password for the wifi(that worked for about 15 minutes). So far so good.

But the fun began about an hour later. Traffic came to a halt in the middle of a town we had just entered. Was this a lunch break? Was there a police incident? For what seemed like ages, no one knew what was going on. Eventually, the driver and his wife who was travelling up front with him (This is a normal state of affairs. There are any number of passengers in the driver’s section of the bus sitting on the steps or the floor.) said a few sentences in Spanish (which we did not understand) and everyone filed out of the bus.

We could see our bus being ferried across.

What we could see once off the bus was that we were at the edge of a raging body of water and, one by one, the vehicles were being loaded on barges (no larger than the size of the bus) to cross it — but no passengers were allowed. So how do we get across and how to we meet up with our bus on the other side? We saw some of the passengers buying tickets at a ticket booth and were getting on small boats to get to the other side. There was a lot of confusion and consternation from all of the tourists on the bus. Finally, we too bought tickets and got on a small boat which took us to the other side.

All of us on a small ferry boat

The other side was a big place and we wandered around trying to remember what the people on our bus looked like so that we could figure out where to wait for our bus that was floating precariously on a barge half submerged halfway across the river. We could see it in the distance and could see where the dock was for the barges, but were not sure if we were to wait in the town or at the barge dock. A bit nerve wracking, but somehow, after so many months of travel, as unbelievable as it may sound, we were quite calm.

Our bus finally coming down the street for us!

Eventually as is always the case, it all worked out and the people gathering around us started to look more or less familiar. Our bus did finally appear and we all got back on and eventually arrived at our destination — La Paz where a rowdy festival was in full swing. And the adventure was not over yet.

The bus stopped at the side of the road, outside the bus station and reluctantly everyone filed off the bus. None of us really knew where we were. There were other South American tourists on the bus who had expected to be dropped off in the centre of town. The driver and his wife had no intention of driving to the centre of town, where we all wanted to be, so off we went to fetch our untagged bags.

Unbeknownst to us, the backpacking section of town where our hostel was located was the centre of the festival’s beer garden/street discoteque, and the first couple cabs we hailed were not interested in driving anywhere near the area. After a bit of panic, not understanding why no one would take us to where we needed to go, a lovely local women directed us to walk up the hill to a street going in the other direction where we would have a better chance of convincing a cab to stop for us.

This worked and the cab driver was able to drop us about two blocks from our final destination. The street in front of us was filled with costumed women, beer in one hand, dancing to blaring music. We wheeled our bags through confetti, spilled beer, and general street party grunge till we got to the door of the Hostal Milton where we would be spending the night.

It had been a very long day and it looked like it would be a long night of street noise, but we had made it to La Paz in one piece with all of our belongings…feeling thankful.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Adiós Peru, hola Bolivia

Crossing the border into Bolivia was simple. We boarded an international bus in Puno and a couple of hours later we were in the border town of Yunguyo. Our bus attendant explained very clearly, in Spanish and English, what the procedure was. Get off the bus, have the police review the exit paperwork to leave Peru, then have border personnel stamp your passport. Next step, walk across the border and have the Bolivian border control stamp your passport. He told us the bus would meet us on the other side. And miraculously, it happened exactly as described. Marc and I were the first to cross and the first to step on Bolivian soil. No one asked for our yellow fever inoculations (as per web published visit requirements) or for anything else for that matter. The only request when we arrived in Copacabana was a tax of 1 Boliviano each (that equaled about 15 cents for each of us!).

Twenty minutes later we were in the enchanting town of Copacabana. Copacabana is situated on the southern shores of the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. We were here to experience another excursion to an island on the lake, this time, Isla del Sol. But first we would view the beautiful lake from our very quirky accommodation, Hostal Las Olas. We read about this place in our guidebook, and had to try to get a reservation for at least one night. It is so special that booking months in advance is not unusual. I sent an email two days before our arrival and was very lucky to get unit #2 for one night.

The Hostal owner must have been inspired by Friedensreich Hundertwasser or Antoni Gaudí. Each apartment is a different shape and theme. All of the structures are very organic and very unique. Each boasts views of Lake Titicaca from every window. Quite a treat in an otherwise ordinary town from a hotel perspective. Our apartment was two stories, with a sitting room on the main floor with leaded glass windows floor to ceiling with a large boulder situated in the middle – half inside and half out. The bathroom was so organic, there were plants growing out of nooks in the shower and the floor. There was a full kitchen with a stove, pots and pans and a wonderful wooden sink. We had a fireplace and wood for our one night stay. Our bedroom was up a wooden staircase which complemented our view of the lake. But the apartments are just part of the complex. There are gardens throughout with hammocks to relax on while viewing the lake and the natural environment as well as a hot tub.

The only difficulty is walking up the hill to find the Hostal! But it is worth the climb.

Since Bolivia is considered an inexpensive travel destination, we found Copacabana full of young backpackers drinking cervesas in cafes on the main drag leading to the beach. The scene was pretty chill and it was easy to spend a couple of days here. There is a beautiful Moorish style Cathedral in the main square which is a beautiful centre piece to the town. There are many souvenir shops and endless restaurants serving fried or grilled freshwater fish from the lake.

Copacabana is very hilly and at a very high altitude (1380 meters), but that didn’t stop us from climbing two mountains while we were there! One climb, which was a bit tricky, was to view an Incan observatory. I let Marc climb the last bit on his own. The second hike, Cerro Calvario, north of town climbs past the 14 stations of the cross. Once at the top, we witnessed families making offerings to Pachamama.

Unlike our excursion to the islands on the Peru side of Lake Titicaca, the trip to Isla del Sol was a self-directed journey. Boats leave the dock in Copacabana early in the morning and drop people off at the North end of the Island. From there, you have the chance to view some very nice Pre-Incan ruins as you climb to the top of the ridge of the Island. It is about a four hour walk across the island, which we did, once again huffing and puffing. It is possible to do it all in one day, taking the last boat back to Copacabana, but part of the experience is to stay overnight in one of the villages on the south side of the Island. We saw many backpackers equipped for camping, but we chose instead to stay at a lovely spot called Palla Khasa Ecological Hotel. We were pooped by that time we got there and were ready for a hot meal, a hot shower and a cold beer. All were awaiting us at this picturesque hotel.

The next morning we walked the last 30 minutes through the village, which was full of restaurants and hostels and shops, down to the dock and our boat ride back to Copacabana.

We picked up our luggage, which we stored at our hostal, bought our bus tickets to La Paz and prepared for the next leg of the trip. That bus ride proved to be an adventure in itself! I will tell you all about it in the next post.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

On the shimmering waters of Lake Titicaca

We signed up for a 2 day/1 night excursion to visit the floating villages of Uros, experience a home stay on the Island of Amanthani, and learn about the male knitters on the Island of Taquille.

We boarded our boat at the dock in Puno with 8 other tourists, met our guide Hugo, and within an hour we docked on the edge of a floating Island. We learned from Hugo how these islands are constructed with a base of the thick root structure of the reeds native to these waters. Blocks of these root structures are actually sawed under water, grouped together with stakes and tied. An anchor system keeps the islands from floating away. The Island we visited was very small as you can see from the photos, yet it sustains several families. The small huts are home to 7 or 8 family members. Amazingly, the people of the floating Islands of Uros have been living this way since the 1400’s.

While we were there, we had the chance to ride in a boat also made completely out of reeds. The money from the boat rides helps them purchase the solar panels that give them electricity. We found this to be the only modern convenience on the ‘island’. A very primitive lifestyle indeed, but one they are content with. No taxes to pay, no worries. I think we all found the experience very eye opening, and we were all thankful our home stay was on a real island and not one of these floating ones!

We got back on our boat and two hours later we arrived at Amanthani, a stunning Island where women dressed in red puffy skirts, embroidered blouses and black embroidered shawls greeted us and escorted us up the steep hill to their homes where we would be billeted. Marc and I stayed with an amazing couple, Gladys and Adolfo who we liked immediately.

Gladys and her mother in law cooked us a traditional lunch on a wood fireplace in their small kitchen. Everyone on the island by the way is a vegetarian. First course was a thick quinoa and potato soup that was delicious. The main dish or segundo as they say here, was fried salty cheese (very similar to feta), white rice, steamed potatoes and a slice or two of tomato and cucumber for garnish. Simple and delicious. Over lunch we got to know them with a bit of English and a bit of Spanish and a lot of descriptive hand movements.

We got settled in our room upstairs and at 3:00 pm we all walked up to the top of the mountain where three times a year the local people have ceremonies for pachamama and patchatata (mother and father earth) It is not a long climb, but very steep. And we were over 4000 meters so it was a tough climb. The views were spectacular and it was a spiritual experience to be there. As the sun set, we walked back down to the local restaurant, where many of us had a hot drink, then we were hosted again by Gladys and Adolfo for a hot dinner.

The evening’s entertainment was a fiesta organized by the village for all of us tourists. Gladys dressed us all up in traditional dress (including Marc) and we joined about 30 other tourists and 30 locals for the party in the main hall. There was local music, dancing and beer, and soon Gladys pulled us to the dance floor with the other local people doing a folk dance something like the hora all around the room. The young tourists in the group were quite taken by the whole thing, but Marc and I were out of breath very quickly and ducked out as soon as it was reasonably safe to do so. It had been a long day and it was time to tuck ourselves in and get some sleep.

Early the next morning we had a farewell breakfast with our family with whom, by that time, we were completely in love with and so sad to leave behind. They were so kind and so welcoming. Our short visit with them affected us much more than we anticipated. Gladys walked us back to our boat where we said our final farewells.

Next stop Taquille! On this Island they are known for their knitting and weaving — and the unusual part is that the men are the ones knitting! You can see men and woman walking together, the woman spinning yarn and the man with three knitting needles in play working on a hat. The first hour of the visit entailed yet another uphill climb to the main square of the village where we visited the co-op where the men and women sell their wares. Hugo gave a detailed description of the customs of the people of this Island before we sat down to a trout lunch (not vegetarians on this Island, but almost). After lunch we walked the rest of the way around the island and back to our awaiting boat. We had a three hour ride back to Puno, so most of us had a nice long siesta dreaming about the people we had met, the traditions we had learned about and the food we had enjoyed on three of the hundreds of Islands dotting Lake Titicaca.

I found this on the internet, I was not brave enough to photograph the men myself.

We arrived back in Puno in late afternoon, knowing this would be our last night in Peru. What a way to end an amazing trip to an amazing country.

The next morning we boarded a bus that would take us across the border of Peru and into Bolivia. Next stop Copacabana!