It’s not all amazing mountains, wild animals, raw nature and beautiful Pacific sunsets. If you’ve been following my activity on Facebook you probably only see my photos and rarely hear of the delays, long bus rides, being seated next to stinking toilets, people trying to scam you at borders, forgetting toilet paper (that’s breaking the number one rule :p ).
When I left Ecuador for Peru back in January, I said goodbye to one of my best mates, Jake, after a blinder new year and a lot of fun in Quito, Riobamba, Alausi, the coast. I got on a bus from Quito to Guayaquil at about 1pm. I plowed through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a few hours and listened to music, failing to drain out sellout Hollywood movies dubbed in Spanish and an Indian man who was singing loudly. I got to Guayaquil at about 10pm and had to take a taxi for two minutes to the terminal. The woman drove an absolute bomb of an 80s Charade or similar and tried to rip me off at $3. I had to do something between charm, beg and bargain with my poor Spanish to get her to lower the price. I got into the terminal and bought a ticket to my next bus off a suspicious character with a solid moustache. The bus was bound for Huaquillas, near the Peruvian border, where I would cross into Tumbes and then take another, long bus, to Lima. It was late, I was already tired, and had a long way to go. The bus was full of suss cunts, as we say in Sydney, or rather suspect people – all men, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, no woman. Lots of rats tails, mullets, men old and one, and young gringo. Me. There was an empty seat next to an old man with a crooked smile at the back of the bus, there was one more row behind, and an old man sat with his shirt covering his face to mask the shit and piss smell eeking out of the toilet. There were people standing, but the seat was vacant? I wondered if it was defective or covered in shit or something absurd. A young guy offered me the seat and I took it. Five hours next to a toilet. Nice. After some bullshitting about we left, I got some crappy sleep, clutching my backpack, hiking boots and other assorted items in another bag above me (I was carrying too much at this point). I was hugely suspect of the crossing and have heard some stories. Jake advised me of this route, but before I left his mate from Otavalo had turned up and was laughing saying it was no better at this time especially. Jake. Haha.
I woke confused and stumbled off the bus at between 4 and 5am glad to be in fresh air, but was presented with a small and mostly deserted border town. I was tired. I was fucked really. A fat Peruvian changed my USD for Soles (at a shitty rate, I was half asleep and my sensible was too), I had forgotten to get my Soles out of my large backpack and wasn’t going to attempt to do so here. His mate, another Peruvian character was being super friendly saying he could take me to immigration and across the border. The other people on the bus had disappeared, there were no connected buses to get to the border. What was going on? In a haze, I agreed, and he took me into a gated property into a nice, almost new Honda. Wait, what the fuck am I doing? Why did I agree to this? The guy was friendly but I was in semi panic mode and started to wonder where I would end up. We got to the border, I took all my bags into customs with me cause I was not giving him the chance to drive off with everything, he said I could leave, but I deflated the situation saying my passport was in my big backpack. He had been asking me all these questions about money, cards, how I travel etc on the way in, so I felt hugely stupid for the situation I put myself in and massively suspect of him.
The border was full of sleepy travellers and families, and immigration officers who did not give a fuck about anything and didn’t even say hello or thanks. A sharp contract from the reception in Colombia. Anyway whatever. Signed out of Ecuador and into Peru. Buses full of smart people that had taken one single bus turned up, filtered through customs and left. Why did I not do this?
The driver had agreed to take me to Tumbes, where I could get a colectivo to Mancora and then a bus to Lima. When we got to the car he wanted $20USD. I got into an argument with him, took him back to a tariff notice at customs where he tried to mask the price at $20 per colectivo meaning $5 per passenger, in front of a Peruvian cop, who I asked what the price was – he wanted nothing to do with me, didn’t say a word and perpetuated the rip the gringo show. Fuck these people.
To be fair the cabbie had waited a while, but that’s the way it goes at borders. We had the shits at each other, I wanted to get to Tumbes and leave, so I offered $10 and no more. He took me to Tumbes and we sat in silence. To be honest I was super pissed too, after months in Colombia where everyone was so honest, my patience for this was slim. We got to Tumbes, I took my bags and bailed. He added more USD to his ever growing stash of paper and took off. Not a word was spoken. Dickhead.
It was now between 5 and 6am and I was in a dive Peruvian border town. A man was mixing some kind of drink for people on the street. There were a lot of construction workers eating at a street-stall. It was all typically South American. I had a while to go. I paid for my next colectivo. A black woman with several kids vomited rapid Spanish in my face but I asked her to slow down as I was learning. She was from Tumbes. She said there were too many mal gente around, bad people, and that I should be careful. We took off to Mancora. I was retarded from lack of sleep. The sun had come up and was blazing. I was in a large van rammed with Peruvians. I love the road but this journey was just total ass.
I was woken by the family in the back, who told me we were at Mancora. What?! I got off and took my bags. This is Mancora? It’s a small, very small, mainly one street town on the northern coast of Peru, popular for surfing. The place seemed full of people who also did not give a flying fuck about anything, locals, and travellers too. All I saw were waster gringos, drifter hippies and surf types bumming about. There was nothing going on. I spent hours trying to get a bus ticket to Lima while everyone tried to rip me off. The power in the town had gone out and all the booking systems were down. Goddamnit. Never before had I wanted to leave a place like I had in Mancora. Hours passed, hours and hours, I bummed around town tired and frustrated. I decided I would not commit to staying here a night and had to get out. Eventually I got a ticket at a reasonable price and the owners let me bum out on their couch until the bus came at 5pm. Power came back on at about 3. I had killed about 7 hours here and finally got a bus. Never before had the road seemed so appealing…
Though, I had an 18 hour journey to Lima ahead of me, and once again, I was seated next to the toilet. 18 hours. Not 5. 18 hours of people pissing and shitting in this thing. Damn man. I sat next to a filthy but friendly construction worker from Lima who kept waffling about things beyond my Spanish comprehension at the time. This time I had remembered to bring my Valium on board, so I ate something like 3 or 4 tablets intending to hit a state of heavenly bliss before drugging out to sleep for hopefully a huge distance. Fucking buses. Toilets. The smell of urine. Mancora. Border hounds fixated with hoarding USD and shafting gringos.
I had no idea the desert was so huge in Peru. The coast is littered with tiny fishing towns and many smaller towns a little further in land with no electricity, very basic, basic, sometimes only stick-housing or stick and board housing. The things I saw on that bus ride were crazy. People living like that. Among all the crap, it was incredible to see. Jake had said it would blow my mind. The desert, and its inhabitants up there really did. The sunset was ace too. I had to leave the window open all night to help ease the toilet smell but late on the air was damn cold. And loud. But I’ll take that over 18 hours of toilet smell.
At some point I fell asleep, waking up like an utter cripple about ten hours later. Not bad, about 8 to go and this ridiculous journey would end (I had to get to Lima to get my flight to Easter Island and I had fucked about having the time of my life in Colombia and Ecuador for six months haha, this is why I was rushing). Eventually, we approached Lima. Insane poverty and shack housing on the fringed of this incredibly massive city, huge, huge, huge, on the coast, surrounded by red desert. Chaotic street scenes, mental South American traffic. What a buzz. Buildings got bigger and more dense and we came further into the centre.
Feeling like a new man I got off the bus, having now travelled about two full days and spent something like 36 hours in buses and colectivos. I played the rip the gringo game once more with a cabbie (I rarely take cabs, I usually walk or save money by using buses or whatever) as I was not getting on a packed Lima bus in a post-Valium haze and having to watch all my stuff when my guard was still so low. Finally I got to Che Lagarto. I was able to wash days of bus and scum and sweat off me and relax for a day before going to Easter Island. I met up with my friend Nicolle who showed me around Miraflores and took me to a see an excellent Afro Peruvian band play. Peruvians are a solid bunch. Lima was cool but my time was short.
Lesson? Get a bus that does all the crossing for you – not three or four buses and ridiculous AM border crossing when you’re a total zombie. That’s just stupid. I was lucky, sort of.
When I came back from Easter Island I took another lengthy journey – from Lima to Tacna on the Peruvian border with Chile, in order to cross to Arica and get to Atacama to meet Poliana from Colombia in the Atacama desert.
I didn’t have to sit next to the toilets but I almost missed my bus from Lima cause the girl at the hostel got the terminal wrong. I took a fucking wild, wild cab ride to the terminal with a cabbie wanted to hear about Colombia and especially its women. He drove like mad. But he got me there just in time. He tried to rip me but I laughed at him and told him I was not an ordinary gringo and paid him the normal fee plus a tip for his fine driving which got me onto my 20 (!!) hour bus to Arica. The woman I sat next to lived in Tacna, she was super nice, dug that I was learning Spanish and left me her number in case I needed anything. She said I could crash and eat with her family at the border but I wanted to move on and get to Atacama, get stoned and stare at the stars and not think of the smell of urine and of crossing borders, people trying to rip me, lengthy bus rides. At Tacna, she assisted me in getting a colective to the border. The drive was a woman who was also obsessed with USD. Fucking money.
I crossed into Chile. another full day behind me. From Arica I had to wait from about 11am to 8pm for my 8 hour bus to Calama. I spent the day trying as much Chilean beer as I could, remained on a bar stool for the entire time bottle after bottle talking to a bunch of friendly Chilean characters as best I could. The bar staff were awesome too. I’d heard Chilean empanadas were best and it was true. Anticipating another bus ride I hoarfed a Xanax before I got on. By the time I went to board I had a cigarette and was a floppy mess. I got on the bus and my head started spinning from all the beer. I almost yakked. Soon the Xanax kicked in and I blissed out and woke up at the freezing mining town of Calama in northern Chile. There were a lot of happy, friendly dogs at the terminal. After about 1.5 hours I got a two hour bus to Atacama and arrived at around 9am. It was quiet, cold, eerie. But I was finally in Atacama and could stay put for a while. More on Atacama later.
I am currently in Santiago, having come from Pucon (10 hours) yesterday, arriving at 8am, and having to wait to 9pm to get a bus back into Mendoza in Argentina (all this is actually cheaper than a bus from Bariloche to Mendoza). I crossed from Bariloche to Osorno (almost got caught with 5g of weed at customs – another story for another time) then took a bus to Pucon to get my USB and check in with my wonderful friend Anita for two days. Last night, after killing a day in Santiago I was told the border was closed due to snow. I checked into a hostel for the night. At 4pm I find out if the border is open.
In the end, none of this matters. I should have been a little more careful crossing into Peru, but it worked out. The road, as always, remains one of the most electric and exciting parts of the whole journey. Getting on a stinking bus full of crazies, Indians, even a chicken or whatever, and just going. All that really matters is that which is ahead. Whether I am on a bus, in a Kombie, hitched with a truckie in the south of Argentina or Chile, the road is always one of my favourite places. That point in-between destinations where I am taken back to my childhood, eagerly staring out the window and admiring everything around me, everything new, places I’ve never been before. Ten months in and I still love the transit phase. I always will.
I thought I would share a bit on the not so glamorous side of backpacking. The year thus far has been full of things like this. From the northern coast of Colombia to Punta Arenas in the far south of Chile, I traversed one entire side of the continent all by road. It’s been immense.