Peru | Strikes and Stones – A Terrible Journey to Bolivia

When it was time to leave Arequipa, we had a luxurious rooftop breakfast and headed eagerly to the bus station. Some hours later, we found ourselves in a sad little bus headed toward Puno (and thus Lake Titicaca). The journey had already taken ages and involved frequent/pointless stops, but things were about to get much, much worse.

Just as the darkness settled around us, our bus stopped in what looked to be an endless line of parked vehicles stretching up and over the mountains. Once the word had spread that the remaining road to Puno was completely impenetrable, bags were distributed and we got out and walked. We walked to Puno.

And it was several kilometers of uphill trekking in the pitch black while avoiding the rocks of various sizes scattered as obstacles in the road. After a long, stressful hike, we reached the source of the chaos: a protest. People were gathered around fires behind huge barriers of rocks, policing the barricade to make sure only uninvolved pedestrians crossed. So fascinating and extensive was the rock blockade that I reached for my camera to capture the moment.

Horror struck, I realized that I didn’t have it with me anymore. Josh volunteered to return to the bus and look for my dear Canon, leaving me in fire zone, armed only with a knife. The wait felt like hours and hours, it was so frightening and cold. If it wasn’t stray barking dogs or rebels shining light in my eyes, it was suspicious passersby that slowed near me that kept my heart racing. Once Josh returned empty-handed, we sullenly continued on to the outskirts of Puno, where roads were now coated in glass shards in addition to the ever-present rocks. There were more people gathering in the distance, beginning chants and lighting more fires – and the bus line was hopelessly long and fruitless. Though I saw not one moving car, one man was offering cheap rides into town, and with enough money, we convinced him to “vamos ahora” with just us and our bags. We sped along alleys that were certainly not roads until we magically emerged onto the clear road to Puno.

With a random choice in hotel and a successful food quest, the night turned out bearable, but I have had better days. We went to sleep in a freezing meat-locker of a room in a town we had no plans of stopping in, nowhere near the Bolivian border. To make up for lost time, we woke early and made our way to the Bolivian embassy, which was really just some guy in a room who only spoke Spanish and instructed us to get our visas at the border. Obviously an eventful embassy. Thus began yet another string of disastrous transportation episodes…

A nice cabby took us to a combi stand headed for the biggest border town (Yunguyo), and the combi was naturally empty. When traveling, this is a sure sign that you will not be going anywhere for quite some time. (Specifically, you won’t budge until the combi is so full of people and goods that you hardly have enough space to sneeze.) Once we got going, we could have made decent time, but the driver refused to pay a 4 sol toll (about $1.30) on a toll way and argued with authorities for at least 15 minutes. Everyone in the combi (save for us, with our lack of decent Spanish skills) started flipping out, brandishing objects and hurling insults at the driver with the panache of skilled politicians. One lad got out, right there in the middle of nowhere! The driver drove one of the passengers to fork up the payment and we finally got on our way, though the driver actually tried to pick up another person, as he’d “lost one.” Most people just yelled at him mercilessly. Strangely, all of the passengers were then asked to pay their fare before reaching the final destination. I almost screamed out loud. We pulled into Yunguyo, a dust bowl of a town, only to find that no combis were heading to the border, and I couldn’t find my treasured scarf. By this point, we were exasperated and just began throwing money at the situation, overpaying a man to take us there in his empty combi. The border crossing was not difficult, but involved a decent amount of backtracking and confusion. We had to get copies made of our visa applications next door to the immigration office, wait for all of the formalities (dozens of stamps and so on), then watch as the government agent counted the fee slower than imaginable. Finally, we paid much too much for a suspicious taxi to take us to Copacabana (they are known for fake taxis here, and we had to switch vehicles before we had even set off), where we settled in a grubby little hotel with a nice courtyard, in Bolivia at last. This may have been the most difficult border crossing in our travel history, so we are sure to enjoy the beach.

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