The idea of a bus journey in South America fills me with a mix of dread and fear. Last year I was promised a luxury ride from Sucre to La Paz complete with TV, bathroom and heat. Instead the lights were turned off outside Sucre, the bathroom was locked all night and my abiding memory is of desperately pulling a warm cap down over my face as the windows froze on the outside and the inside. Time heals every wound, as they say, so I am persuaded to buy a bus ticket for an overnight bus from Arequipa to Cuzco. As I have been struggling with flu and fatigue ever since my trip to Colca Canyon, I have my doubts, but I allow myself to be convinced by the promise of a comfortable journey that would save the price of an airfare. What could possibly go wrong?
The Bus Journey Begins
It all starts so well, a bit like the stereotype of the cloudless day, even though we are scheduled to leave at 8:30 at night. We are made to go through airline-style security and we pass into a waiting area with comfortable chairs and plenty of space. After a short wait, we board the bus, which is far more impressive than economy class on an airline. Picture big leather chairs, a personal entertainment centre and a detachable table for eating or working. A security representative from Cruz del Sur gets on and takes a digital photo of every passenger, so it is clear that safety and security are taken seriously. After our departure we are served a hot meal with a choice of beverages, this really does feel like the perfect bus trip.
A few hours later people are sleeping around me (I never sleep on buses, planes or trains-EVER). A shadow appears at the door of our downstairs cabin, the main door opens and it closes again. The shadowy figure re-enters, the door bangs and there is silence. The bus advances slowly for a while and there is a distinct grinding feel as we move forward. I try to get a better idea of what is happening by looking out the window, but all I can see is total darkness all around us.
Things only get better. Not long after this we come to a stop again and everything is repeated exactly as before, but this time we do not start again. In fact, we do not move at all. Eventually, people awaken, noticing that we are stationary and we start to wonder what is happening. A voice comes over the intercom: ‘We are unable to move due to a snowstorm and we will inform you when we can get going again.’ A Scottish couple near me cannot understand Spanish, so I translate for them.
Hours later we are still in the same spot and we open our curtains to see a white winter wonderland all around us. It does not seem as if we will be moving anytime soon. The bus conductor comes in and explains that we have been stranded since early this morning. Most people at this point decide to get out and see the situation for themselves. All around us is completely white in the early dawn and there is a long line of vehicles ahead of us.
We walk around aimlessly, asking questions and wondering how much longer we will be stuck in the high Andes. As I speak a number of languages, I end up doing a bit of translating and it is at this point that I really get chatting to Euan and Maria from the Shetland Islands. People have a lot of questions, so I approach the conductor to ask about food and water. The answer is that there is none. Basically, this is supposed to be a ten-hour journey, an evening meal is provided, but nothing else.
In the Dark on a Bright Sunny Morning
After a long wait, we board the bus and finally start to move again. It seems that we are heading towards Juliaca, a border town near Lake Titicaca. This is not good news since it basically means that we are now hours behind schedule. In truth, by this stage, we should all be enjoying our breakfasts in Cuzco.
Maria wonders about those who might have other onward connections such as flights. I haven’t heard of anyone in that situation. We stop again and most of us disembark to see what has happened this time. It seems that we are now climbing a hill and there is a long line of traffic ahead of us. A young American from upstairs is irate. He and his companion have left their bags at a hostel in Cuzco and they have a flight to catch at 12 pm. Clearly, they are going to miss their flight and he wonders who is going to pay for all of this. I ask if they have travel insurance; negative.
We advance towards Juliaca and the Andean scenery, dominated by mountains and lakes, is indeed spectacular. It is, however, difficult to appreciate the scenery when we are hungry and exhausted. Juliaca, when we get there, does not appear like it will be on the list of South America’s Must Visit Places anytime soon. Mud streets. Crumbling or half-finished buildings.
My mind wanders back to Puerto Iguazú, a place I visited last summer. If Puerto Iguazú was a one horse town in search of its horse, then Juliaca might be said to be its even less glamorous country cousin. Reality strikes soon enough. The batteries have died on both my iPad and my iPhone. This is worrying…
We stop at a service station outside the town and we are given thirty minutes to eat. Despite its somewhat wild location in the middle of nowhere, they accept debit and credit cards. However, we are only one of at least four or five buses stopped here. There is a long line for the traditional Lake Titicaca burger and chips.
Getting food could hardly be easier… You order, go to another counter on the other side of the station to pay, come back and then collect your food. There is a separate coffee counter where things are thankfully much simpler. The line at the food counter is carnage, so I get my coffee before heading over to the store to stock up on healthy options for the bus- Pringles, Oreos, toffees and more water. At 2:15 or so we head off on the last leg to Cusco. We are also on our last legs as well.
Juliaca to Cuzco
It is quiet back on the bus. People sleep and watch movies as the day passes. I think back on the great Bolivian extravaganza from the year before and I realize how lucky we are that this happened on a heated bus. Although the scenery is inspiring, I have no camera nor phone to take photos and I am starting to panic because I can’t remember the name or the address of my hostel, which is stored on the long dead iPad.
The sky gradually darkens, covering the mountains and valleys in shadows until we are once again in darkness, but we still have to get to Cuzco. Every time I see lights I wonder if we are approaching Cuzco. There are many deceptions. The bus finally arrives at 7 pm and we are almost thirteen hours late. Our luggage is delivered to us airline-style, but with a bit more organization. I still fail to recollect the name of my hostel, but I do finally remember the address and the taxi driver knows exactly the place I am talking about.
I have survived yet another South American bus journey- 23 hours later, with 8 hours stranded in the Andes, we are on the road to the hostel, and I am sick and physically destroyed. Did I mention the American? I saw him in the complaints line as I left the bus station. I hope that he made it back to the States.