The Untold Travel Story: Buses

The route:
Vilcabamba, Ecuador-> Loja -> Piyura, Peru -> Trujillo (huanchaco) -> Lima -> Arequipa -> Tacna -> Arica, Chile-> San Pedro de Atacama

If you would have told me a month had gone by in the last week I would have believed it. Sense of hour, day, week, and country were lost. There were just more buses. More buses to a preconceived magical world filled with class and an endless amount of adventure in the famed Patagonia. Chile was getting closer with each stop. With each bus.

A bump and sharp turn broke me out of one of my usual light bus naps. My eyes were dry, it was dark, and I knew I should be asleep. With an uncomfortable sweat covering my body and my knees touching the seat in front of me, I quick shut my eyes again and willed myself back to sleep. This was only bus number two from Loja, Ecuador to Piyura, Peru. The first hour and a half bus from Vilcabamba to Loja was a breeze. Heather, my Canadian friend, was good company, and she had another friend from France join us. However, comfort in every aspect of the word escaped this nine plus hour ride. Wishing that sleep would capture me again was without success. The seat that rested against my knees was reclined all the way back by the family of three sharing two seats in front of me. A couple of nuns, one dressed in white and one in black, consistently talked and kicked my seat from behind.

It was 2:42AM according to the little red lightbulbs that made up the sign hanging over the aisle. Every detail of why I couldn’t go back to sleep rushed to the front of my thoughts. The lights came on with a flash: 3:20AM. 40 restless minutes had passed. In Spanish a direction was shouted, “everyone off the bus to customs to get a stamp.” The door opened and I stepped into the cool Ecuadorian air. It immediately relieved the sweat built up from the first four hours of sitting in the bus sealed with my 60 compadres breathing, snoring and well everything else. A queue immediately built. We were the only people, and it took over 45 minutes to exit Ecuador. For some, the five line form to leave the country proved to be a discussion point. These people were quickly added to my diagnosis of why I wasn’t asleep. Back on the bus, we drove ahead about half a mile. “Everyone off the bus to Peruvian customs!” That did it. The assistant was added to my diagnosis as well.

The same queue built back up, but this time I was at the front. A Peruvian woman in a green dress asked where I was from, and with a quick stamp I had a 60 day visa. Heather boarded the bus in front of me, and by the time I hit the seat I was out. Ah sleep felt amazing, or did it? Stiff neck, cramping legs, cramping legs, cramping legs! Wide awake again: 6:50AM. Thankfully, the seat next to me was occupied by someone who I didn’t have to fight the arm rest for and said good morning. Just after 8:00AM we pulled into the northern Peruvian town of Piyura. Off the bus I immediately suggested that we walk to the market to get breakfast food.

-Movement, I needed movement-

The three of us, Heather, her friend, and I, walked through the non-touristy town of Piyura. With looks questioning our presence along the way to the market, we decided to stop to find a bus ticket to the more well known town of Trujillo. The town did not have a central bus terminal, and finding a ticket was going to involve a bit of work. We went to four companies; three were sold out. Hunger had taken a hold, and I ate an egg sandwich from a woman with a street cart. “Un Sol,” about 33 cents. It felt great to be back in Peru. I bought another sandwich after quickly devouring the first.

The walk to the central market continued. As we approached the open air market, the hot smell of flesh and less sanitary conditions of small town Peruvian markets filled the air. A banana, mango, and pineapple juice later we were out of there. El Dorado bus company had us booked at 1:00pm which left us time. My suggestion was to find a park with playground equipment to get some exercise. Our nice morning outdoors exercising went by too quickly, and when I blinked we were back on the bus. Heather and I had the last two seats next to the toilet. The good news: a ton of leg room. The bad news: the toilet wasn’t “urinario only.” Heather handed me a bottle filled with lavender, and made a couple of veggie sandwiches for us. This wasn’t Heather’s first long travel, and she was fully prepared with all the little things that made life easy. A little girl spun around and intently watched the two different looking people occupying the seat behind her.

We pulled into Trujillo after six more hours on the bus. A 25 minute cab ride later, we were eating omelettes in the quiet surf town of Huanchaco preparing for a night of sleep in a bed. No longer was I taking lying flat for granted.

The sun was shining, and having the morning and afternoon to explore before taking our next bus to Lima was a gift of freedom from more hours spent in a metal cylinder. Huanchaco was a little surf town with straw boats propped up on the beach, guys walking around with straight billed hats, and a coastal walk filled with tourists. The central market was quaint with stalls of produce and prepared foods. After breakfast and a day of non-stop walking the town, we settled at the beach to do a quick beach workout, and watch the surfers catch the incoming tide at sunset. With another blink and a tamale from an old woman selling them on the street, I was back in a familiar place: the bus. The nine and a half hour ride would pull in at 8:00am. To my relief, there were no smells, the movie playing, Lion, finished by midnight, and I achieved the mythical night’s rest on the bus.

Bus four in three days, done. The loud, crowded city of Lima brought a familiar happiness walking out of the bus station. The country I started my travels in held a special place in my heart. I loved it all: the food, the markets, the diversity, and the culture. From here onward, I would return to my life as a lone traveler. Heather and I would be going our separate ways after Lima, but in the meantime we enjoyed eachother’s company and walked the bus out of our legs to the Hostel 1900. A converted mansion central Lima, this was a different experience than my previous stays in Peru’s capital. I loved it. We spent the afternoon, a Sunday, walking to the immense central market filled with everything imaginable from all corners of the country. The streets filled with more and more people the deeper into the afternoon time crept. As a staple, our lunch, complete with ceviche, was a great way to finish the day exploring the city’s grandiose buildings. With a traveler’s goodbye to my new friends, a “see you on the road when the world brings us together again,” I booked my bus out of Lima the following afternoon and fell asleep.

My last day in Lima was filled with food of course: papa con huevo (boiled potato with eggs and hot sauce), a slice of fresh pineapple, and my favorite market lunch stand yet. There were so many options to choose from, and the countertop surrounded by other eateries was packed with locals for lunch. My heaping scoop of ceviche with sweet potatoes and seaweed was limey and delicious. I watched the plates of potatoes with cream and stuffed meat, pesto pasta, steak, fish, and everything imaginable come hurling out of the kitchen by a group of women to their anxious customers. I had broccoli salad with oven roasted chicken and was thoroughly satisfied. The Michelin star restaurants Lima is known for are all the rave, but I loved eating my $3 lunches prepared by mothers, husbands, and grandparents at the market. With a full stomach, I bought vegetables and fruit on one last walk of the market for more bus rides ahead.

Fully prepared, I walked over 4 miles to the bus station for my last movement until the next stop, Arequipa. I loved seeing peoples’ heads turn when I walked through non-touristy areas. Several people stopped to talk with me at stop lights as I passed and asked where I was from. The bus to Arequipa was going to be 18 hours. Yes, 18 hours. This would be a long one; however, I decided to treat myself and took my first first class bus experience on Móvil Tours. What an experience it was!

I was woken up on my luxury bus, in my leather recliner with plenty of leg room,  and felt like a prince. After breakfast, I sat in amazement at how nice the bus was, but it wouldn’t last much longer. For the first time in my travels I was disappointed to be leaving a bus. We pulled into Arequipa at 10 after 10, and I found a bus company leaving for Tacna. That would be the last Peruvian city before the Chilean border. Of course, there would be no first class on this bus. On the contrary, the woman at the counter made sure to reiterate that my ticket was an economic one. A 2:00pm bus gave me a couple hours to re-explore some of the things that made Arequipa my favorite Peruvian city.

The three miles to the center of town, and to the San Rimon market was a nice way to get my blood moving after 18 hours of sitting. It was interesting being back here after being gone for 6 months. When I walked into the market, I remembered why it was my favorite. Not as grandiose as Lima’s market, it had everything, was organized logically, and the prepared food was incredible. I sat at a counter and had a rocotto relleno (stuffed pepper), scoop of delicious seafood ceviche, and vegetables. After lunch, I walked to Mercadero street where I stayed the first time I visited Arequipa and had an espresso. Full of energy, I walked back to the bus station happy with my final visit to Arequipa. It felt like I was performing a farewell tour of Peru. With a final stretch of the legs, I boarded the bus to Tacna. Based on the accents I heard from some of the riders I knew I was getting close to Chile.

Back to normal on the bus: packed with people, knee smashed into the seat in front of me and left leg in the aisle, broken middle arm rest, and sweltering heat. I kept opening the window, and the man next to me kept closing. We moved slowly on the winding roads, but the terrain was incredible. I imagined that the scenery was similar to the Sahara with bigger rocks. It was beautiful and scary at the same time with yellow as far as I could see and huge rolling dunes. Before  entering the southern region, we had to get rid of all fresh food at a control point. Unhappy, I tossed the remainder of my food and reboarded the bus. Too hot and with a seat in my lap, 24 of last 30 hours on busses was taking its toll with more to go. The kid next to me was screaming, and while the mom was able to ignore the toddler, I glared at her with frustration. Scheduled to get in at 8:00PM and now 8:15PM, every kilometer felt like an eternity. I switched between writing, reading, and staring at the screaming kid and his mom. I thought, “I need to climb a mountain to get away.”

10:00 PM and two hours late, we arrived at the Tacna bus station. I started a conversation with a hip looking Chilean named Caterina who was carrying three large rectangular black bags. I later found out they were traditional Peruvian instruments, and after talking a while I asked if she wanted to cross the border together. In addition to being interesting, she was cute and I figured she’d make a good guide for my first Chilean city. We walked to the back of the station and no buses were running as the clock struck 10:30 pm. Instead, a huge line followed the length of the station for colectivos (shared vans/cars) crossing into the Chilean city of Arica. For 45 minutes the two of us and a Peruvian teacher who lived in Santiago waited in line chatting.  The three of us, an older Peruvian woman, and a Colombian man piled into an old Crown Victoria and flew down the road towards the Chilean border. Spanish rap blasted into the night and I smiled at the uniqueness of the experience.

After about an hour, we pulled up to Chilean customs and parked. Multiple lines and giant spotlights broke the emptiness of the dark desolate countryside. The driver was an expert, and had some of us wait in the passport and police check, and others for the baggage check. Once one group got to the front we switched. A breeze compared to Ecuador customs we were across in about an hour, but there was still another 45 minutes to the Ariqa bus station. Something I hadn’t taken into account was the time change. Upon entering Chile, I lost two more hours, and by the time we pulled into Arica it was close to 3:00AM. The teacher went her separate way, and I looked into getting a hostel. They were extremely expensive, and we were planning to take the first bus out of town. Catarina and I agreed to skip the hostel and took a walk down to the beach instead. The large, almost full, moon was over the water and the smell of salt filled the air. A couple of dogs followed us and stayed with us standing guard as the night drew on. We sat on an elevated platform above a turtle reserve, and she smoked cigarettes while we discussed Chilean culture.

At 5:00 AM, after several hours talking on the beach, we walked back to the bus station. We stopped at two ATMs that didn’t work, and one dog stayed with me the whole time. As usual, I hated leaving him. The bus station didn’t open until 6:00 AM, and there were lines of close to a hundred Colombians and Venezuelans who had camped overnight waiting to get in. Everyone raced in when the doors opened but there were no buses. Everything was booked. The crisis of people fleeing their countries for better lives was immediately real. Luckily, my destination was not as popular amongst this group, and I found a bus to San Pedro de Atacama that night at 9:30PM. Caterina wasn’t as lucky and couldn’t find a bus back to her hometown. She had to be back for work by Thursday and had no choice except to leave for the airport. We had a great time together that night, and I was glad for the company. Right as I hugged her goodbye and watched her walk off into the sunrise, a Venezuelan man named Hendrick recognized me from Arequipa, and we ended up hanging out until my bus that evening.

Still functioning on no sleep, I stored my big backpack at the bus station, and fell asleep on the floor using my day bag as a pillow. When I woke up an hour later, Hendrick and I went to explore town. In the sun during the day, the city was charming. The previous night the town felt dark, damp, and desolate. Then again, where wouldn’t at 3:00AM. Today that sentiment was well out of mind and replaced with excitement. I wanted to start at the Central Market, and we walked a couple of miles that direction. The market was very different than any of the others I had been to and was chic. An adjective that has never entered my mind when describing anything about a market in South America. I bought some peaches, and as I passed an old man with a ceviche counter he started a great conversation. I loved this guy. He reminded me of an old Chicago guy, and told us about the shortest battle in history when “the Chileans kicked the Bolivian’s and Peruvian’s asses.”

Outside of the market, there was a pedestrian walkway, named the 21st de Mayo, filled with brunch restaurants, wine bars, sun, and a real scene with men and women dressed to impress. It felt like Europe with Latin flare. After a couple more hours walking, we went back and had lunch at the old man’s restaurant at the market. He made us a plate of 5 different kinds of ceviche; however, Peruvian style was still my favorite. After our ceviche lunch, we walked to a park and I wrote for hours in the hot Chilean sun. Hendrick headed back to the station, and once again I fell asleep. This time it was back in my park on a shaded bench for 30 min. With my bus departure approaching, I stopped to pick up a sandwich called a Chacerero, and headed back to the bus station. The sandwich was sliced filet, tomato, green beans, and mayo on a Kaiser bun. It was simple, but one of my favorite sandwiches I had tried in South America.

Back at the bus station I said bye to Hendrick and boarded the bus to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus was nice compared to most that I had taken in Peru, but like the cost of the food, the flaw of Chile so far were the prices. Compared with the other countries I visited, everything was expensive. As I calculated my route through Chile, I fell asleep. In a deep REM, all of the sudden I was woken up by the bus assistant jabbing me with my passport. My initial reaction was to jump up and tackle him, but I surpresed. We had to go through another customs stop. It took 45 minutes at 3am, and I was exhausted from the abnormal sleep schedule. I reboarded the bus, and fell asleep again. The next time I woke up was at 7:00AM. An hour before arriving at the bus station of the most arid place on the planet, I watched the sun rise out of my window over the desert.

Still in the middle of nowhere, and thousands of miles to go until Patagonia, I would spend the next couple days in one location. After nine buses, a break from straight travel, and a chance to explore somewhere new, sounded like paradise. Even if that paradise was the desert. When I stepped off the bus into the cool air and sun, it finally felt like I had arrived in Chile. With a smile I said, “hello Chile, show me an adventure.”


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