My girlfriend and I leaned in, weighing the advice coming from a local tour operator in Cusco city. We were in a tourist information office and he was helping me plan the next leg of my trip to La Paz, Bolivia.
“I suggest you take an airplane,” he said.
Maybe his advice was because we were women traveling alone. Maybe it was because that bus route had been plagued by protesters and blockades in Puno, Peru, for the past month and bus companies were cancelling trips on that road or rerouting them in order to avoid the blockades, adding four more hours to what was normally an 8 to ten hour ride. Maybe it was because overland border crossings tend to be a little rougher than the customs lines at airports. Or perhaps it was simply because I was in a tourist information office and tourists tend to seek the path of least resistance.
We considered other options: a 14-hour overnight bus ride or a one-hour flight. “I think I’ll hope that the blockades clear up and take the bus,” We said.
My girlfriend and I decided for a combination of reasons. We bought our bus tickets from one of the best reputable bus provider in the Route of The Sun Inka Express, from Cusco to La Paz in part because there was no online booking system for the one Bolivian airline offering flights. We also made our decision because, with La Paz around 12,000 feet above sea level – 1,000 feet higher than Cusco city, we figured the Inka Express bus trip would be better way to adjust to the difference. We made our choice because there was a price difference of about $90 and also because we had been thinking a lot about airplane travel: its heavy carbon emissions and its insulation from the local experience of place and journey in which we believe.
That night at 10pm, we boarded Inka Express/PeruHop buses for a trip that actually lasted over 20 hours. During the first stretch from Cusco to Puno, we got out our blackout eye mask and our travel pillow. Cold, we pulled out our travel towel and used that as a blanket. We were caught in a half-sleep delirium that lasted all the way to Puno, our first stop, at 5am, when we were all unloaded and instructed to wait at the terminal for an hour and a half for a different bus that would take us to the border.
A 90-minute layover at a bus terminal in Peru at 5am? Our tickets hadn’t said anything about that. Crankily, we made our way to the upstairs cafe and ordered a chamomile tea. We sat at a table with the woman who had been sitting next to us on the bus and we huddled by a little space heater. She was Peruvian, but had emigrated to Spain several years ago and now she was home on vacation to see her family and to take care of some paperwork. We shared experiences and pondered immigration laws. As we parted ways on different buses, she called out in Spanish, “The time passed so quickly. Take care!”
Our second bus took us to the border. At customs, we were all unloaded again and shuffled through the first line for an exit stamp from Peru. We walked under a brick arch that was the border and on to Bolivian Immigration, the office we had been dreading for months. In retaliation against the U.S. and its difficult visa policy toward Bolivians, Bolivia requires a number of documents and a large fee from Americans seeking tourist visas. We had assembled our passport, our letter of invitation, our yellow fever vaccination card, two passport-sized photos, a bank statement, our itinerary as proof of onward travel and the cash payment.
When we presented the folder to the official, he leered at us. “Nice photos,” he said. “Can I have one to keep?” We blinked, sleep-deprived and dazed. “Is all the paperwork okay?” we asked. He hardly glanced at all the requisite documents that we had collated so carefully. He took the dollar bills and examined them closely. “This one has a tear in it. So does this one. We can’t accept these. The bank will not take them from us.” Five out of six of my bills were unacceptable. Meanwhile, the bus driver was glaring at us for delaying the bus. Frantic, We rifled through our emergency cash reserves and found just enough bills that were acceptably new.
We made our way back to the bus and collapsed into the seats for a six-kilometers sprint into the nearby town of Copacabana, Bolivia. We stopped, unloaded everything again and waited for a different, smaller bus that would take us to La Paz. That left us with just 20 minutes to scramble down the main road in search of a food stand. We returned to the bus stop just in time to reload our luggage and take our seat.
On the bus, a Japanese woman (also travelling solo) and we shared a package of cookies and watched out the window as the blue landscapes of Lake Titicaca rolled by. Unfortunately just as we were finally feeling fed, warm and comfortable enough to try to nap, the bus stopped again and we were asked to unload.
What was it this time? We had reached the Strait of Tiquina. Here, we realized why we had had to change to a smaller bus back in Copacabana. Buses are transported across the stretch of lake on barges, while the passengers a ferried in lancha motor boats.
At around 6pm, we were finally in a taxi in La Paz on the way to our friend Raul’s house, where we would be visiting for a few days. His mom opened the door and Iwe staggered in with our luggage, dizzy from the journey and the altitude. “You look like you have the hangover of a lifetime,” she laughed. “Drop everything and sit down. I’ll make you some mate de coca (coca leaf tea).”
Raul joined us at the kitchen table and we relayed anecdotes from the 20-hour bus marathon we had just completed. “Do you wish you had taken a plane instead of the bus?” his mother asked. we paused, undecided. Then Raul spoke up: “I think you’ve had a more Bolivian experience taking the bus. Bus travel in South America – long bus rides – is a part of life for people in South America. The bus trip you’ve just made is standard for us. Some are much longer.”
Now, looking back, the answer is a definitive: No, we don’t wish we had taken a plane from Cusco to La Paz. The 20-hour bus-bus-bus-boat-bus-taxi ride was a rite of passage into the local experience of South American life. And the $90 savings meant we could buy more local alpaca goods here in Bolivia!