Wednesday, November 20, 2013

South American Travels

Travel in South America is GREAT.  That being said, it is also brown (at least at this time of the year).  It’s spring down here now, but the locals tell us the rain is coming.  Mind you, here in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, it’s not sunny either, although the temps have been pretty perfect.  Our “man on the ground” weather report calls for overcast skies, temperatures in the mid-70’s day and night, and if the sun DOES decide to come out, the breeze will too. 

We left our little boat haven after a week recovering from travel in Colombia, setting off once again in the beginning of September for all points south.  Although we try NEVER to have a schedule, we did need to be in Lima, Peru by September 10th to rendezvous with my folks who were joining us for a month-long “bucket-list” trip to Machu Picchu.  But first we needed to get to Lima.  

Things being what they are, I’ve never done much traveling by bus.  I’ve been fortunate to always have my own car, and enough money to fill up the tank.  What I never seemed to have much of, tho, was time, so my own personal car ferried me to all the destinations I wanted to get to.  Here, my personal car is a dinghy, so that wasn’t going to work. 

By now, Ron and I can safely call ourselves bus experts, having covered ½ the South American continent from the comfort of reclining, leather-bound seats that are ubiquitous on all BusCama (bus and bed) routes.   Wi-fi, meal service, attendants, seats that laydown with foot/leg rests enabling one to get a decent night’s sleep while someone else does the driving…..Greyhound in Canada and the states could learn a thing or two from these guys.  Oh, and they leave ON TIME, like, RIGHT ON TIME, LIKE, IF IT’S 10:01AM, AND THEIR DEPARTURE TIME IS 10AM, THEY CONSIDER IT LATE.  Consider this a forewarning for any of you travelers that tend to dawdle.  They don’t give a shit if you’re not there when it’s time to get on the road.  Oh, and they won’t call your name, go looking for you, or announce that they are ready to roll, they just GO.  

Of course, while we were away, there were a few reports of a couple of buses plunging off the road, taking 50 or so people with them for the flight.  But like anything else in life, it’s best just to keep your eye on the ball and cross your fingers.  If it’s your time, a BusCama is not going to be the deciding factor.

I mentioned the brown-ness of the landscape – we were only to discover this later on, but our first stop was in Cuenca, as we started to make our way south.  We had originally planned to stop in Guayaquil for the night, but as it was still fairly early in the afternoon, (and Guayaquil looked like just another large city) we made a transfer to another bus at the fantastically large and new terminal to continue onwards to Cuenca. It was like a mini-Switzerland, although the “chalets” were not quite so European.  Set amidst a stunning backdrop of 16,000+ foot peaks, we traversed the altiplano from Guayaquil to eventually begin the long descent into the valley where Cuenca lies.  The home (second only to Montecristo, Ecuador) of the Panama hat, this idyllic colonial town had me thinking …..”should we buy some land/house/business here?” again.  

Cuenca Cafe
We spent the night in a coldish, dubious hostel (which shall remain nameless) having significant hors de’ oevres and wine at a fantastic bodega called the Jazz Cafe, complete with roaring fire.  For the first time in over three years, we were rifling through our clothes to find long sleeves and pants, as we were definitely back in the mountains, and the fire we were sitting by was much appreciated.  

Once again, the helpfulness of the Ecuadorian people was showcased, when our hotel desk clerk gave us times to depart for another bus the next day to the Peru border.  And also, once again, the information was wrong, so after purchasing our tickets for 6 hours later, we dropped our bags with the bus company, and returned by taxi to the city centre.  We found a fantastic store selling those famous chapeaus, but we figured it was silly to buy something we were going to have to cart around for another 2 months.  We got a quick lesson on what distinguished one hat versus another, and why some were $20 while others were $320, (and still others being sold in the states were fetching upwards of $20,000!!!!). We left them behind, vowing to return. 
Our bus overnighted us across the border (I seem to have a much easier time going from one Latin American country than I do going from Canada to the states), and a 2am arrival at immigration was accomplished in 10 minutes and we were off again, bound for Piura, Peru.  The landscape, as discussed previously, had changed, significantly.  It was brown, with a bit more brown added.  Add to that the dust, and you get the picture.  A one-colour palette.  We opted to just stay on the bus, and continue onwards to Chiclayo.  No worries.  Another $4 each and we were able to travel another 6 hours south.  A good rule of thumb seems to be that for every $1 you spend (doing the exchange, of course) you get to travel an hour.  And no problem if you don’t have a ticket in hand, the guys on board will help you out.  

Tales from our friends Cindi and Adam on Bravo, had us clutching our bags while on the buses.  We slept with them under our heads, kept them on our laps, looped the straps around our legs, or rested our feet on them, ever mindful of any movement of the bag from unseen hands.  One would think that having your most valuable items near at hand would be the most secure; however a bus company employee in Colombia was adamant that I should put my camera bag in the luggage hold.  I opted not to, however a sign on the wall in their office, tales of David Copperfield-like fellow passengers making computers disappear, and seeing no other local passengers putting their bags overhead, convinced us to be ever mindful.  Fortunately, I can say that after all the bus trips we took, in 4 different South American countries, we never had anything filched.  For most of the longer trips we took, we were given luggage tags for our bags in the hold, and unlike in some North American airports, they are VERY serious about making sure your number matches the one on the bag you’ve checked.  Don’t lose your baggage claim tickets!

An aside for anyone reading this that has questions about bus travel in South America, do not be worried, but do be careful, as in everything.  You are traveling through VERY poor countries and sometimes the allure of a “rich gringo’s stuff” can be too much.  As my captain likes to say, “if a bad man wants something, he’s going to get it, but you can do what you can to keep the honest man honest.”  Bus travel is practically the ONLY way the locals can travel long distances, and the companies we have used have been nothing less than professional.  That being said, we did NOT purchase any of our tickets based on price, but rather on the quality of the bus.  Long distances are NO fun on a local chicken bus.  You can get your fill of all the culture you can handle in a ride lasting an hour within a city, but research which countries’ buses are considered the best, and use them.  We had a guideline based on hours….if we had to travel more than 6 hours, or overnight, we were going to pay top dollar.  Anything less and we considered it to be a sightseeing journey and would put up with a bit of discomfort.  

Welcome to Peru!

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