A trip from Cusco to La Paz by bus.
It is time to leave the familiar environs of Cusco and the Sacred Valley and head off to Bolivia, a new country for us. Our bus leaves Terminal Terrestre at 10.00pm so we spend the evening at The SA Explorers Club before taking a taxi to the station.
Bus stations are never great places to hang out but this one is not too bad. We had booked “full Cama” seats on VIP bus with La Luis line, direct from Cusco to Copacabana. We board the bus more or less on time, only to discover that our seats 51 and 52, do not exist. Just as bad, the seats that are there are not full Cama but normal bus seats, not great for a 14 hour overnight journey. The bus guys don’t seem to give a toss and just point us and other passengers to any seat. They have effectively managed to p*** off an entire bus load of passengers at a stroke.
Given that it is now 10.30pm in a not very nice neighbourhood in Cusco, none of us have any real choice but to go with the flow. To add insult to injury, it turns out that it is not a “direct, non stop” service as it stops many times along the way and we have to wait 90 mins in Puno to get a connecting bus. For the entire journey te cabin heating is jammed on to FULL. 14 hours in a sauna at altitude is not a lot of fun!
After many years of travelling we had forgotten the essential rule when dealing with bus companies – TRUST NO ONE!
We arrived in Puno bus station just as dawn was breaking over Lake Titicaca ( yes, a bus station with a view!). After the horrendous journey in a cramped, uncomfortable and hot bus, surrounded by people snoring, coughing and farting all night, we were rewarded by one of the most beautiful sunrises we had ever seen ( and there have been quite a few!).
As soon as we entered the bus station we were immediately accosted by a guy from the Panamericano bus company who would take us on he next leg of the trip to Copacabana. He pointed us to the desk where we had to exchange our tickets and then we waited. This guy was terrific, he was buzzing around the station picking out his passengers and directing them to the right places and he even came on the bus with us to Copacabana, a journey of around 3 hours through some pretty desolate countryside, giving us instructions en route on how to get across the border, deal with immigration and the police on both sides etc., all in Spanish and English. We had heard many horror stories about crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia, but this one at Yunguyo was a piece of cake ( the one at Desequero is apparently a nightmare!). The immigration was cheerful, helpful and even gave us a 90 days visa when asked, the norm is 30 days.
When Carolyn went back to the bus for a few minutes, I got chatting to one of he border guards for a while in Spanish, when he realised I was English he asked if we could speak in English so he could practice. When he then went off to open the border gate, he thanked me, welcomed me to his country and shook my hand. I doubt I will get he same reception when returning to Heathrow!
Arriving in Copacabana was a very pleasant surprise. Set on a bay, right on the shores of Lake Titicaca it is a delightful place, a little like a quaint Cornish fishing village, if you ignore the snow capped mountains, the Bolivian women in their bowler hats etc…
Carolyn had booked us into to nice Hostal called Las Olas. Of course, it has to be one of the highest in the town. Despite the total lack of street signs we manage to find it after consulting a few locals. Turns out they don’t know either, but within minutes of asking a couple of people, a guy on a bike chases after us and points us in the right direction, up a very steep hill. Even though we have been at high altitude for quite a while, Titicaca is even higher than most places we have been at 3850m asl and we really notice he difference as we walk up the hill. Las Olas has been built in a sort of “Flintstones” style. We have a duplex suite with kitchen facilities, a wood burning stove and a bathroom built out of rock ( a little like showering in a cave), masses of really hot water (a real luxury after Peru) and, best of all, a double height picture window overlooking Copacabana bay and the Lake. All this for $42 per night, around double our normal expenditure, but a special treat and wonderful value for money.
We spend some time wandering the streets and markets just taking it all in and already we as beginning to love this country. We find our way, by accident, to the Cathedral which dominates the town with its colourful domes, tiled in the Portuguese style. Inside is equally impressive, in fact, although it is not the biggest, it is certainly one of the most beautiful churches I have seen anywhere in the world! Definitely worth a visit if passing through.
Having shopped for produce in the market for dinner tonight we book a boat trip on the lake out to Isla del Sol, which according to Inca legend/ religion was the birthplace of the sun. Because of the altitude, Titicaca gets clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine most of the time but this doesn’t stop it being really cold, especially out on the lake. As we sit on the top deck of the boat on our way out, I don’t think I have ever been so cold! The views however, more than compensate as we look out over the lake to the snow capped, high Andes peaks that surround the lake. Surely one of the most impressive sights anywhere in the planet?
Isla del Sol was to be frank, as expected, a bit of a tourist trap. We had the opportunity to walk up to the top of the island to have a look around the ruins, but having seen so many ruins over the last few weeks we were “ruined out” and, instead decided to just sit on the grass and watch the islanders unload the boats and load up their donkeys to cart their supplies up the very steep cobbled paths to the top of the island.
On the way back to Copacabana we get chatting to a couple of students from the USA who are working in La Paz as part of their masters degrees in community health. They are a mine of information on what to do, where to go and what to watch out for in the capital city. They recommend some places to stay which is really helpful as wifi is all but no existent here and we haven’t been able to book anything. This is not usually a problem for us as we are happy to find something on arrival but, prefer to at least have a vague idea of where we are going on arrival in a big city in the late afternoon.
All things considered and despite the awful bus service, we are glad we chose this route into Bolivia rather than stopping overnight in Puno which is not the most attractive of Peruvian cities ( although great for visiting the floating island of Uros etc.). We could easily stay a lot longer here but Bolivia is a big country and there is a huge amount to see.
Sunday morning and we make maximum use of our cooking facilities before leaving for La Paz. Carolyn cooks eggs tomatoes and chorizo which we eat whilst looking out over Lake Titicaca below. Sunday brunch doesn’t get much better than this!
The wifi in the hostal is not working so we head off to an Internet cafe before catching the bus as we haven’t anywhere booked in La Paz and we will not arrive until late afternoon. We fail in our quest to secure a bed for the night and will just have to find somewhere on arrival.
The bus trip from Copacabana to La Paz must surely be one of the most spectacular in the world. As we climb out of Copacabana back into the mountains we get a true idea of the size of this lake. It seems to go on forever. As we skirt around the lake we climb ever higher and get great views of the Cordillera Real. Titicaca is already at 3800m but these snow capped peaks soar even higher. Even as we drive through the barren and desolate altiplano, we see families scraping a living in this hostile, desolate but still beautiful environment. Amazingly, there are people tending herds of cattle, sheep and donkeys at what must be over 5000m above sea level, even though there is very little grass. After an hour or so, we descend once again to the shore of the lake where we disembark at a dock and get on to a very small boat for the 15 min crossing of the lake. The bus is taken separately across on a barge. On the other side we jump back on and continue our journey. The remainder of our journey takes us through a slightly less interesting landscape until eventually we hit the outskirts of La Paz.
Never before have I seen so many minibuses. They are everywhere jamming up the roads in and out of the city. Eventually we get through and continue on to the centre of La Paz and start to descend. Only then do we appreciate the spectacular setting of this city, set as is on the sides of mountains. I don’t think I have ever seen as impressive a cityscape, there actually audible gasps from the passengers on the bus.
Eventually we arrive at the bus station. Time to find somewhere to sleep tonight…