Monday, February 29, 2016

Traveling in Peru is Freaking HARD - when Frenetic Travel plans backfire

Travel within Peru is grueling.
The first thing that will wallop you are the high elevations of the Andes Mountains, where oxygen deprivation and altitude sickness are one and the same. Outside of the mountainous region, you still have to deal with roads which are not exactly of Autobahn quality, impassable jungle, frequent delays, and a lack of reliable infrastructure.
Merely attempting to plan your trip inside the country can be a stressful, headache inducing experience.

We (by which I mean me) have come to rely on the internet to make last minute lodging or transportation bookings, and WiFi here is about as reliable as telling a napping cat to go pick-up your pizza order. Even if you order a meat-lovers.
Of course, this challenge is usually easily overcome by connecting to a cellular network, and we have a T-Mobile subscription which let's us access data on any of the local networks! ... Except, there is no data to be had, it simply does not work. There is zero data available. Nunca!

When I arrive back in Cusco in the evening following a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu, it's been 48 hours since I was last able to access the web, this time due to a power outage from a fallen power-line (electricity was not expected to come back online in the area for several more days.) Thus preventing me from arranging the next leg of my trip, or even lodgings for the evening.
So your perpetual motion travel hero's first stop- any restaurant with internet; I successfully gain access to a working WiFi network on my 3rd attempt.
"Hello, what is the password?" type it in, "Not working." Walk out and find the next restaurant, repeat ... neither fun nor efficient.

So now I'm finally connected, sitting down at a table, looking up flights on my smartphone. An elderly Incan woman leans over my shoulder, warning me not to display my phone so publicly; always have to keep the proverbial "one eye open" I guess.
Attempting to heed her advice, I operate with the phone in my lap. She approaches me again, admonishing me for continuing the activity (you'd have thought I was breastfeeding a child at the Republican convention.)
I'm a little bewildered, I look around and see no one suspicious, so I go back to furtively gazing at the screen. I kid you not, she warned me a third and a fourth more time. You think she'd have given up and let me get robbed. Even today I'm not sure if she was a guardian angel or a demon of annoyance.

My furtive glances at my screen reveal no evening flights to Arequipa (Peru's second biggest city,) and the only direct flight in the morning is outrageously expensive. Inter-country airfare within South America is even more ridiculous, explaining why most tourists opt to travel by bus.
Speaking of the bus, it takes almost 13 hours to traverse the 300 miles between Cusco and Arequipa, Peru's second largest city, about the same amount of time it would take to fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Nevertheless, taking the overnight ride will be substantially cheaper, I'll arrive before the flight would, and hopefully I'll be able to sleep on the bus rather than find and pay for last minute lodgings at this hour.
Throw my bags over my shoulder, hail a cab, hurry to the bus station.

the loud chaotic bus station of Cusco, Peru

Predictably, the bus is packed; a father traveling with two young children, one on his lap, the other seated beside him literally repeats the words "Papi, Papi, Papi," for the first hour of the journey. The man is doing nothing to control his son, perhaps too worn out to even make an attempt.
The man next to me snores, our arms touching, the bus lurching to and fro.
My only goal is to get to sleep, which I manage only after "Papi, Papi, Papi," finally runs out of steam.
We're woken before sunrise by a bureaucratic mess; required to exit the bus and have our smaller carry on bags (not the larger ones in storage for whatever reason) X-rayed by some distant agricultural inspection outpost; the government workers not even bothering to look at the screen as our luggage passes through.
Climbing back on board, a man listens to music he has stored on his cell phone, no headphones of course. Apparently he's made the decision that everyone's done sleeping,
The bus has emptied along the way. I'll gather my stuff and find a place to sit with an empty seat next to me.
Oh God, where are my hiking shoes?! Took them off to sleep, now I can't find them! Not going to survive Peru without them. Hopefully they're under a nearby seat, rather than (gulp) stolen. Can't quite reach/see under the chairs so I get on the floor to look. Alas, I don't have enough room, the man beside me is awake, he can tell I'm avidly looking for something, it's obvious I'm lacking sufficient space. Nevertheless, he doesn't rise to give me room. I wait several beats.
"Excuse me, would it be possible if you stood-up?"
He hears me, but chooses to play deaf, rolling his eyes as a giveaway. I'm on a mission of quasi-survival. "Could you please sit over there for a second so I can search under the seats?"
He begrudgingly rises. I don't want him to feel offended, "Please excuse me," I state.
"No," he answers with a slight emphasis, as he takes the other seat.
'No?!' fucking 'no' ?? I'm shocked, but don't pursue discourse any further.

The ride from the outskirts of Arequipa into the center of town is excruciatingly slow, 180 second traffic lights plus being stuck behind slow moving freighters. At last, we pull into the station.
I find an AirBnb with a washing machine so I can send my dirty, dirty, dirty clothes on a spin cycle. There is a one dryer in all of Peru- it's called the sun.
the of the mountain- 4,910 meters- 16,108 feet
Two days later, having trekked the Colca Canyon, I'm at 16,000 feet of elevation. Walking around for a few minutes, I feel light-headed, my lungs seemingly breathing fire, letting me know they're not taking kindly to these extremes.
the view at 16,000 feet- no trees, too high

flying over the
Amazon basin
Having gone round trip via night bus to and from Arequipa, I opt for fly from Cusco to the Amazon and Puerto Maldonado. Buying a roundtrip ticket you won't use the return leg of on the Internet websites is often 30% cheaper than a one-way ticket; Einstein couldn't explain the logic.
I get to the airport an hour early, alas my plane takes off 3 hours late.
I'm not saying flights never depart on time in Peru (it happened once in 1998) but you'd be well advised to leave a large buffer zone in connection plans.

Now that we're in the Amazon, travel becomes water logged. Once you're off the one main road, you need a 4x4 truck to traverse the muddy dirt roads.
Below is a video of us using a heavy pick-axe and wooden boards to dig ourselves out of the mud.

                                                                         pick-up truck stuck in the mud on Amazon road

Peru has some of the most spectacular, diverse scenery of any country in the world, and its well well visiting. My only advice about traveling within boils down to this: EXPECT DELAYS. And if you're there and have a similar experience, don't bother sending me note to tell me I was right. You're unable to connect to the Internet anyways.


  1. Here's a good explanation of why Latin America is such a calamity:

    1. wow, that's a reeaaaadddd my friend. Thanks for your thoughts


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