Skopje to Sarajevo – a terrible bus ride

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Our few days in Skopje were over, and our next steps were to bus over to Bosnia. We had read that there were fairly frequent busses running between the cities so it shouldn’t have been a problem. The first sign that maybe we chose the wrong method of transit was the friendly lady manning the ticket counter at the station explained that the only buses out were on Wednesday and Sunday at 8 pm and would take about 10 hours. We bought our tickets for the Wednesday bus. Overnights aren’t usually a problem, and we’ve done our fair share of them so far.

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The streetlight lit walk back to the station – mercifully short with all of our gear.

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It seemed like a normal economy bus line. We were early to try and get a decent seat for my legs – the buses in eastern Europe are a bit cramped.

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Our bags below and the bus full, we take off. A man in front of us to the left was very friendly and told us all about his adventures hiking in Bulgaria, the mountains he’d climbed, and the state of the local soccer clubs. He was on his way to Sarajevo for a match – something he said he does fairly frequently.

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They gather up our passports in anticipation of the border crossing.

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At about this time I tried to use the bathroom. It was locked. Maybe it was just for the border crossing I thought. Someone told me something in Macedonian and I missed the nuance. After the border I would try again. Same result though, the man was telling me the bathroom was out of service. The bathroom is probably always out of service.

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Shortly thereafter, the conductor comes back to us and asks us to move. This we learn in loud tones and with help from our soccer fan friend. It’s not entirely clear why, and since we weren’t told anything when we got on, we stay in our seats. An explanation comes out – the conductor, who is also the alternate bus driver, needs to sleep. Ok, somewhat reasonable. We agree to move and the conductor, realizing that we’re together, asks another lady to please move from her seat so that we can sit together instead of separately. We didn’t feel great about this, but it was nice to at least keep sitting together. The lady definitely did not feel great about this.

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The scene that played out afterward could have been from any Three Stooges film. As everyone did their best to sleep, a noise started. A squeak that came in and out, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, never quite on any particular beat. It drove the sleeping conductor mad. Panels were pushed and examined, seats were raised, bags were shifted. The attempt to find the source of the noise was in vain. Finally, after several passengers helped in the search, someone stuffed a blanket between two roof panels near the back seat. It didn’t solve the noise, but everyone involved felt like something had been done, so it was time to try sleeping again.

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Dawn came, and whatever kind of rest we can get on a bus was gotten. All told not too bad. 20171005_081949

Our conductor and football friend slept on.

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Outside, the Bosnian landscape went by. We had passed through Serbia in the middle of the night. Oddly I don’t remember crossing the border into Bosnia, but Natalie does. She remembers it as being very, very cold, at around 4am.

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Several hours of sunrise follow. The landscape and scenery is really quite pretty.

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Finally, sometime early in the morning, we get let off at a restaurant/bus stop.

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Bathrooms are first priority. After that I go to browse the snacks and food available. It turns out they only accept Bosnian currency, and only in cash. As a point of interest it’s nearly impossible to get Bosnian currency anywhere except inside the country, and there are no ATMs nearby. We dig in to what’s left of our travel snacks.

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The bus ride at this point continues on. We had been pretty firmly told that it would be 10 hours. Well, actually 12 hours corrected the driver mid way. Actually, the trip ran on for more than 15 hours. The internet confirms this is about the time it takes, but nobody on the ground was giving that number.

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It’s time to get off the bus!

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Natalie took this picture at the moment of her escape. We would later discover that sadly, her crocheted orange owl had stayed on the bus, its loop snapped off when the bag was jammed under the seat during our seat change.

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One last look at our bus..

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Sweet freedom! The station had an ATM, and a bakery. Bosnia has amazing baked goods, and extremely nice people. The lady at the bakery very kindly took my 50 mark to pay for a 3 mark piece of pie. It’s like buying a stick of gum with a hundred dollar bill. Change and food in hand, we got on the metro system and headed to our hostel!

Can we recommend visiting Skopje? Yes. Can we recommend visiting Sarajevo? Absolutely! Can we recommend the bus between them? No. Fifteen hours on a bus with no bathroom is not great. Unless you’re on a tight budget, take the flight. It’s supposed to be much easier.

On the way to Lake Baikal

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Our journey starts out of Ulan Ude, and like much of the rest of our trip, in involves a local bus. First of course, we annoyed the ticket seller lady by changing tickets not just once but twice, due to mistakes of language and Natalie’s illness.

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Loaded up and off we go!

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We got to see a bit more of Ulan Ude, the parts where most of the people lived. The public transit system is fairly extensive in the city.

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One of the grannies sitting next to us had taken a liking to us and started pointing things out along the path. This is a fairly famous women’s only monastery in the forests between Ulan Ude and our target, Goryachinsk.

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The bus stops at this rest stop on every trip. There’s a small restaurant, a bathroom (both free and paid, with differing qualities of smell). Otherwise there’s a little river that runs by there. Not really much to see but boy is it great to uncramp.

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The bus dropped us off pretty unceremoniously on the edge of Goryachinsk. There’s a grocery store there that supplies the holidayers and not much else.

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Old vehicles and older houses populate the town – there’s a lakeside section that has some nicer, newer houses, but the main of the village is old ‘dachas’ – village or summer homes that almost all Russian families have.

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‘For sale’ says the angry barrel.

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A row of lakeside houses we passed one the way to the lake. These are much nicer than the rest of the town.

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We made it!! Natalie holds a victorious bottle of kvas on the shore of Lake Baikal. This has been a lifelong dream for her, and she’s finally there!

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There are waves on the lake surface. They’re not super strong or large, but they do tear up the otherwise placid surface.

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So there we are, walking along the shore when suddenly..

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What’s that in the distance?

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It’s people! People swimming in the lake! For us as visitors this is insanity. The lake is freezing cold and the sun is setting. But for the locals this is not entirely normal, but somewhat usual. Young men in particular seem prone to jumping and swimming in the lake on a dare, especially when alcohol is involved.

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Somewhere around this time we met a family from Ulan Ude on vacation at their dacha. With my broken russian and their daughter’s perfectly fine english we traded stories. When they asked us where we were going to sleep, we told them of our tents and pointed somewhat vaguely to the lake shore. Their response was, of course you’re not, you’re going to sleep in our house, we have a spare bed. We gratefully accepted and spent an evening eating, drinking, and playing games with the family.

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Saying goodbye the next morning. These ladies were badass. Their grandma had lived through the worst of the various revolutions, economic crises, and societal upheavals of the last half century, and here she was calmly chopping up wood for their sauna.

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Next time : the hiking begins!

Crazy Taxi Surabaya: Bus Edition

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A P5 bus pulls into the Purabaya Station.

You often hear that in some parts of the world, driving is way worse because road rules simply don’t exist. We can now say with confidence that we’ve experienced this in Indonesia, and although this isn’t our first road-bound brush with death (looking at you Colombia/Ecuador/Peru), this one is particularly amusing. Our example comes courtesy of Surabaya, a major city on the island of Java.

The Crazy Taxi hero of our story is the P5 bus, which we took from Purabaya Bus Station to the train station Pasar Turi as part of our return from Mount Bromo to Jakarta. After brushing past hordes of taxi drivers, we managed to find our hero sitting peacefully under the P5 sign in the intercity bus terminal.

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Hanging out in the P5 bus, waiting to go. It’s got some ripped seat leather, some cracks on the dashboard…but I’m sure she runs just fine.

She may look a bit run down, but it’s just the façade. Once the driver and conductor got on board, she roared to life and we were on our way. The driver, of course, drives the bus. The conductor collects payment for the tickets (6,000 IDR as of April 2017), but then proceeds to take on a whole new role.

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Uh…sir, what are you doing? We are on the highway, you can’t get off here.

Like that guy in that super-popular 90’s song, he hangs out of his best friend’s ride and hollas, but what he’s hollering about is which traffic lane is free. It turns out driving the bus in Surabaya is a two person job, mostly because the driver is doing EIGHTY kilometers an hour while everyone around us is going no faster than sixty, all in a vehicle with less handling than your childhood schoolbus. The conductor yells whether the lane is clear, and the driver uses this info to weave like a MADMAN through traffic. For example, here’s us using the emergency lane to bypass traffic:

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Thought when this first happened: “This is now how I imagined I would die.”

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Thought when this happened the twentieth time: “I wonder if our train back to Jakarta will have a snack bar.”

And if you want a video experience, including lane-splitting, tailgating, and traffic-weaving, here you go:

So there you have it. The driver-conductor dynamic duo enables P5 to Crazy Taxi around Surabaya. We made it 11 km in 20 minutes in a bus at the start of rush hour. I don’t even.

The Influence Game: Probolinggo Fake Bus Tickets

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These are the real bus tickets for the Probolinggo->Surabaya trip, but don’t count on that to save you; the scammers may be ‘selling’ you identical ones.

All over the world there are folks trying to make a quick buck by scamming others, and travelers are particularly vulnerable because they’re often unfamiliar with the traditions and norms of an area. It’s a risk you take as a visitor to another place, and while a scam can ruin your trip, it’s also a chance to learn how people work. Below is one of the scams we encountered on our travels, broken down so that you can see the techniques the scammer uses to influence you; read on to learn the signs so you won’t fall for it:

Name: Fake Bus Tickets

Location: Probolinggo, Indonesia

Scam Summary: A man approaches you in the bus station or while you’re waiting for a bus to depart selling bus tickets. It will seem like a routine transaction for buying bus tickets, but once your bus departs the real bus ticket seller will come by collecting money for tickets. You’ve just given your money to a scammer selling fake tickets, but you’re already on your way and will never see him again!

How it works:

This scam works on the power of authority and while it’s simple, it’s also incredibly effective. If we hadn’t read anything about it, we probably would have fallen for it without knowing! AND despite plenty of warnings about it online, we still nearly fell for this one. If you’re making the trip to Probolinggo, you should read up on this and remember: only pay for bus passage when the bus is moving, and you pay the same guy that everyone else pays.

When we got off the minibus from Cemoro Lawang in Probolinggo, several men came up to us and offered to help us with our luggage and take us to the bus to Surabaya. While it’s possible some of those were genuine, this unsolicited offer of help raised some red flags with us and we politely declined. They could be helping us to the bus for some kind of tip, or they could be taking us somewhere that only sells fake bus tickets.

We carried our stuff across the street and into the train station, ignoring the additional guys here in kiosks hollering at us or motioning to us. There were no info booths of any kind, but the buses out back were all labeled with different destinations and we found the bus to Surabaya quickly. We got on the bus and settled into seats next to a few other people. A couple minutes later, an old guy boarded the bus and approached us with a stack of bus tickets in hand. He asked in English where we were going. We told him Surabaya, and he tore off two tickets and said it would be 50,000 IDR. This was more than twice the price we’d read online, and it made me hesitate just long enough to realize what was going on.

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On the bus with a few other locals.

“The price says 20,000 online,” I told the old guy, “and we pay the bus driver.” The old guy thought I was negotiating with him, and he paused before saying, “OK, 20,000.” He handed out his hand for the money. “No, we pay the bus driver,” I told him again. “I am the bus driver,” he told me with annoyance. “OK, I’ll pay you when the bus starts going,” I replied.

What followed was an increasingly aggressive and hostile salvo from the old guy, starting with his insistence that he was the bus driver and that we pay him now. I kept cool and stuck to my line about only paying the bus driver when the bus starts driving. But I was getting increasingly nervous; this guy had actual printed bus tickets and was extremely persistent. Was I making a mistake? Stoytcho glanced over at me several times, and I could see he had the same question. The old guy eventually left in a huff, giving us the chance to ask a local for help. We asked two girls nearby via Google Translate whether they’d paid already for the bus and they hadn’t. Vindicated.

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The scam ticket seller walks off in a huff, as a group of men at the front of our bus look on.

The old guy came back moments later with a younger guy in a polo shirt behind him for a good ol’ good cop-bad cop routine. “You pay for bus ticket,” he shouted at us. “You pay for bus ticket or you get off bus!” The younger man behind him told us more gently and calmly, “You have to pay for a bus ticket to ride the bus, so please pay for a bus ticket.” But we stuck to our guns, “We pay the bus driver once the bus starts.” This was the last straw for the old guy, who began yelling at us to get off the bus, “You take other bus then! I don’t care! NO PAY, NO GO!” The younger guy continued to plead with us, motioning to the old guy and saying “This is my driver. This IS the bus driver.”

(I WISH I had gotten a photo of these guys)

To shut them up, we got off the bus with our stuff. They both got off the bus and walked off in a huff. There was silence for a few moments and then laughter rose from a group of guys nearby. One of them broke from the group and walked over to us, motioning us to get back on. This was the real ticket collector for the bus, who we would pay minutes later when the bus actually started. While the scammers had their hustle, he wasn’t about to lose money from passengers over it. We got back on the bus and finally sat in peace.

And the scammers? The young guy was gone, nowhere to be seen. The old guy stood in front of the bus, glaring up at us for a few minutes while we settled in. When he saw me raising my camera to take his photo, he dashed off.

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The REAL ticket seller on the bus, currently selling a ticket to a local. You might recognize his shirt from the previous photo; he was in the group of men hanging out by the bus.

How to avoid this scam:

  1. Don’t travel through Probolinggo. This is terrible advice for those who must, but you can book a round-trip transit to Bromo with a jeep that’s affordable ($40-60 USD) and saves you a lot of hassle.
  2. Refuse to pay with confidence. Our mistake was trusting him at first, but then realizing it was a scam and refusing to pay. From the scammer’s point of view, he had us and it made him fight all the harder when we changed our minds. So if someone approaches you while the bus isn’t moving and the locals aren’t paying them, give them a dismissive look and tell them “I am from around here. I know your tickets are fake,” and wave the person away. If they persist and you want to cause a scene, threaten to take a photo of them and the tickets. If you don’t want to cause a scene, just calmly get off the bus and wait out front. As with us, your bus driver is probably nearby and only tolerates the scammers’ actions insofar as they don’t lose him any money. He’ll make sure you get back on the bus.
  3. Generally, the easiest way to avoid it anywhere is to know what the rules for bus tickets are. You can find this out online from other travelers and from talking with multiple locals when you are on the bus. While it’s possible multiple locals are in on the scam, it’s unlikely.

Bromo to Probolinggo to Surabaya: a primer on Indonesian driving

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Our driver from Cemoro Lawang to Probolinggo, standing intrepidly on his ride.

If you’re at Bromo/Cemoro Lawang and need to get back to Jakarta, the only feasible route (as of April 2017) is through Probolinggo and Surabaya.

Your first step is to catch a minivan from the center of Cemoro Lawang that will take you down the mountain for ~40,000 IDR ($3.00 USD). On paper these vans leave every hour, but realistically they leave when they’re full (about 13 people). It will help you to recruit others going down so you’ll leave sooner, or you can all agree to pay your driver more money to leave earlier.

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Somehow I don’t think this thing has AC, WiFi, OR Bluetooth.

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I claimed shotgun, but without seatbelts I don’t know if I can recommend that to you.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then there weren’t many good intentions to be had when they paved the road down to Probolinggo. It’s bumpy, windy, and your driver will go fast. Buckle up (if you can) and enjoy the ride. You’ll pass tons of adorable little villages, where at midday uniformed schoolchildren crowd the streets as they walk home for lunch. Whizz past them and fear for their safety with drivers like yours on the road.

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Someone having a bad day with a ditch.

In Probolinggo, the van driver will drop you on the street across from the Probolinggo bus station. Ignore everyone trying to help you with your luggage, signs advertising bus tickets (there’s a markup), and men trying to call you over and go straight into the bus station. The bus you want will say Surabaya, but you can double check by asking other people on the bus for Surabaya.

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Okay, time to play guess-the-real-ticketseller! Which guy down there will give you a REAL bus ticket?

Now here comes the hard part: ONLY pay the ticket collector once the bus is moving. Ignore the guy or pair of guys that board the bus and tell you to pay for a ticket from them. Do not hand over money for the official-looking bus ticket in their hand. It is a scam targeting foreigners and that is a fake bus ticket. If they get angry at you, stay calm. If they yell at you to get off, get off the bus and stand in front of it. The real bus driver will have a laugh at the scammers’ failure and usher you back on the bus. ONLY hand over your money once the bus is moving, and give it ONLY to the guy you see all of the locals paying. And check your change, as he may try to shortchange you. A ticket from Probolinggo to Surabaya cost 20,000 IDR ($1.50 USD) in April 2017, and you can always ask ‘harganya berapa di Surabaya?’ (“How much to Surabaya?”) to a person next to you.

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Did you guess the man in a striped shirt with a ponytail? You win! But check your change.

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Why yes, this is our bus passing a semi carrying a shipping container, passing another truck carrying construction supplies. Truck-ception, whoaaa.

Phew. Made it to Surabaya? Then you’re past the difficult part. You’ll likely be dropped south of city proper at Purabaya Bus Station, and it’s up to you to take a bus to the train station or airport. There is a WONDERFUL info booth in the bus station where the staff know some English, so politely decline the taxi callers and make your way there. As of April 2017 the bus to the train station was the P5; it cost 6,000 IDR ($0.45 USD) for a ride and took about 30 minutes. We had no scam problems, but it’s literally crazy taxi bus edition, so sit at the front for the 90 km-an-hour ride of your life along Surabaya freeway.

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Taxi drivers trying to wave us down at the Purabaya Bus Station. Ignore ’em, unless you’re in a hurry. Even then, the bus is going to be (disturbingly) fast.

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A P5 bus rolls into Purabaya Bus Station.

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The driver’s ed test: what’s wrong with this picture?

You’ll get off on the West side of the train station, which as far as we could tell had no actual entrance. You’ll have to find your way around to the other side of the station with a map or asking the super-nice locals. There aren’t really cheap street eats at the train station, but there are a couple of cafés and minimarts nearby. After buying your tickets, head over to stock up on snacks for the overnight ride back to Jakarta.

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You made it to the train station alive! The train from Surabaya to Jakarta will be a breeze, but bring an eye cover–they never turn the train lights off.

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A beautifully-domed mosque near the train station. You may want to offer a prayer of thanks to whatever you believe in for making it here alive.

Peru to Chile by bus

With a blink of an eye our time in Arequipa is done, and we’re on a bus bound for our next destination, Chile. We would have loved to stay longer, but we’re in such a rush because we’ve booked a flight from Santiago to New Zealand that happens in two weeks. For today’s leg, we’re heading from here to the Peruvian border town of Tacna, then across the border to Arica in Chile. A few days from now, we may head down to Calama and make our way to San Pedro de Atacama. But we’re not sure yet.

So first up is our ride from Arequipa to Tacna, a six-hour journey. We’ve planned it so that we’re not waking up absurdly early, and we’ve got two front-row seats on the second story of the bus so we can watch the scenery in full splendor. We think we’ve finally got this bus thing figured out.

 

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The bus terminal at Arequipa

 

En route update: So we may have worked out the perfect time and seats, but sometimes you can’t account for other people. The seats across from us are occupied by a woman with two toddlers run amok. It hasn’t helped that she has smacked one across the face twice. We’ve also listened to her call a cable company and claim she’s not responsible for bills on her account and then call a friend and complain about her problems. One of the kids reaches out a sticky hand and brushes it across my arm. He’s cute and all, but eeeughhhh.

En route update 2: The air conditioning is broken, so an attendant has come up and opened the emergency exit in the ceiling of the bus. It’s getting hot in here.

 

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The view from our seats. If you can’t tell, it’s a desert.

En route update 3: The toddlers have stripped down to their diapers and we’re all struggling in the sweltering heat. It doesn’t help that our bus is black and this region of Peru is all desert. Ten minutes ago the bus stopped and we all piled out into the desert for a customs checkpoint. They looked at all of our luggage while we stood in the unrelenting desert sun and asked if anyone had fruit or vegetables. It’s apparently to stop the spread of some kind of fly pest. I don’t know if anyone has these things, but I’m pretty sure any flies on our bus have been cooked alive.

 

En route update 4: The woman with toddlers needed to go to the bathroom. She stood up and asked me something in Spanish, and was gone before I could process that she had asked me to “watch her kids.” The children immediately attempt to go after their parent, and I find myself trying to stop them with my hands or legs. One of them begins wailing and I start making funny faces at him to get him to stop. Half of my brain is thinking “this isn’t my responsibility, I didn’t agree to this, just let them go.” The other half is rebutting with “They shouldn’t get hurt because of the carelessness of their mother.” Thankfully I’m not alone for long. Some older folks behind me notice what’s going on and distract the toddlers by asking them questions in a cutesy way. Still, it’s an agonizing few minutes before the mother comes back.

We’ve ARRIVED IN TACNA! We practically sprint off the bus to escape woman and her toddlers and enter the station. We’ve got our next bus in an hour and we’re not venturing beyond this station, but from what we can gather Tacna is Costco, just in city form. Everything is the station is sold in absurd bulk amounts, from 50-count rolls of toilet paper to 8 loaves of fruitcake. We manage to buy the smallest amount possible for bread rolls (that’s 16 of them) and tissues (that’s 18 of them) for our trip onward.

Everywhere around us there are people packing up their bulk goods, preparing to take buses across the border, lending the whole station a post-apocalyptic preparation camp feel. But this is a daily occurrence, and all of these people carrying hundreds of chip packets and bread rolls have simply done some economic math. Goods are cheaper in Peru than in Chile, and you can save or make a pretty penny carrying goods across the border.

It’s already dark when the time comes to board our second bus of the day. This bus is a standard, single floor bus with no seat assignments. We climb on board and pick seats together, and the bus roars to life.

 

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The bus terminal at Tacna doubles as a Costco. Families buy goods in bulk and then carry them across the border to Chile, where the same goods are more expensive.

 

En route update: We encountered another checkpoint, where all of us piled off the bus and had to take our stuff. The guards walked us into a small building to have our papers checked. Meanwhile, they put all of the bus baggage through an X-ray. A guard holds up one of our bags and asks whose it is. There’s some suspicion in his voice, but when Stoytcho and I come over he looks us up and down and waves us off with the bag. Being foreigners means it’s pretty unlikely we’re smuggling drugs or weapons.

En route update 2: We’ve reached the border, but traffic has trapped us on the Peruvian side for the last hour. We’re stalled within view of the border, but we’re not going anywhere so the bus driver kills the engine and opens the door. It doesn’t help us much with airflow though, and for a second time today we’re uncomfortably hot and sweaty. Everyone takes turns dashing off the bus temporarily to get some fresh air until the driver yells at us to come back on. Traffic is moving.

 

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So close, yet so far: we wait in traffic at the border crossing into Chile.

En route update 3: The border is uneventful. We got our Chilean passport stamps!

 

Our bus finally putters in to Arica’s bus terminal around 11 pm. It took us four hours to make what is normally an hour-long trip between the two cities, but that’s how borders work. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing where you hardly slow down, and sometimes it’s vehicular molasses. We grab our stuff and tackle our two problems: finding a place to stay and getting Chilean pesos to pay for that place. Stoytcho asks around for the nearest accommodations and someone points us down one of the streets. No one seems to know about an ATM though, so we’re stuck until I notice a gas station. ATM? Yes.

With money in pocket, we hunt around for a hotel with an available room. The first two we try are full, but the third one is empty and we manage to negotiate a room down to around $30 USD. It’s way more than we’re used to paying, but at least it’s better for our budget than the $40 the owner wanted originally.

We schlep our stuff upstairs to a clean but shabby room covered in tile, and we’re immediately greeted by a bizarre artifact of globalization. The beds here are equipped with pillowcases from China. How do I know? Well, the fabric depicts all of China’s different ethnic minorities joyously waving what appears to be Mao’s Little Red Book. There are a lot of questions here, from why someone would make these pillowcases in the first place to how they managed to wind up in Arica, Chile. But I can’t answer any of them. All I know is that we’re sleeping face-first in Maoist Communism tonight.

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There’s a party in my bed: the People’s Party. Globalization can have some very strange side effects, like this very Chinese Communism-themed pillowcases showing up in Arica, Chile.

 

On the way to Arequipa!

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Hey all, we’re taking a bus to Arequipa! We’re using Cruz del Sur and sprung for the fancy ‘ejecutivo’ class, so we’re got these plush seats and are sitting next to the manager of a copper mine whose flight got cancelled.

It’s an overnight drive and we’re arriving at stuipd o’clock in the morning, so wish us luck!

Salkantay Trek Day 0: Mollepata or Bust

 

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The night before the hike. One of us is tired. The other one isn’t.

We are not morning people. Stoytcho and I have both realized this over the years, although exceptions have been made at certain times in our lives, from the 7:00 AM crew practice to the 8:00 am morning lab meetings. In these cases, we’ve dealt with it, adapted our sleep schedules, and generally acted like the weird image people have of ‘grown ups’. But in the absence of such external pressures, we drift back toward being night owls with a 1:00 or 2:00 am bedtime. It’s just naturally who we are. So it was foolish of us to think we were going to catch the 4:30 am minibus from Cusco up to Mollepata to start the Salkantay hike at 7:30 am. Thankfully, we realized this last night around midnight and adapted; we’d spend tomorrow making sure we were fully prepared for the hike, then take an afternoon bus out to Mollepata, find a place to stay, and start the hike early the next day. No need to wake up at absurd-o’clock, which we’ve already determined is not our specialty.

We spent the day putting finishing touches on our hiking kit and taking in the last sights of Cusco. We discovered our biggest problem in the morning, when Stoytcho ran a dye test on our fancy water filter and realized it was broken. We’re guessing the altitude change when we came here to Cusco ruptured the glass filter, although there’s no real way to know since we’ve been using it for three months without a test. We decided to leave it behind (with a pile of other stuff Pisko and Soul let us leave), but it meant we had to go out and buy ~6 2.2 L bottles of water and stuff them into our packs. This 13.2 L of water wouldn’t get us all the way through the trek, but it would get us pretty far. Towns along the way would fill in the rest of our water needs.

After purchasing water, we stopped at Mercado Central de San Pedro, a local market filled with souvenirs, coca products, and food. We bought some honey candy made with coca leaf infusion, and while that may seem insidious, it’s closer to coffee drops than cocaine. Without the insane refining, coca acts as a mild stimulant, just like coffee, so it’s normal to the people here. Plus, we’ve heard it’s great for dealing with the huge altitude climb over the Salkantay pass. We also got an amazing late lunch here, a heavy beef-and-vegetable stew served up by two cheerfully rotund ladies. It cost 6 soles (~$1.80) for the two of us. We tried to give them more money because we felt the meal was worth more, but they politely refused it. We bought a second helping instead.

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Delicious beef stew. We don’t know when our next meal will be, so seconds was a good idea, right?

 

Full and ready to take on anything, we raced uphill with our packs to where the minibus departs for Mollepata. At 3:30 pm, we were pushing it; the bus we were trying to catch was the last bus of the day. But we arrived with plenty of time to spare and found the bus driver outside his van smoking, with 4 or 5 Mollepata-bound locals waiting nearby. “When do we leave?” we asked the driver. “When we have a full bus,” the driver replied. We went and stood with the locals, made some light conversation with our rapidly-improving Spanish, and watched the traffic go by.

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A local bus passes by us as we wait for our minibus to leave to Mollepata.

It took another forty minutes to gather enough people for the bus to depart, and then suddenly at the end there was an abundance. A woman with an infant showed up, an old couple appeared out of nowhere, and with a quorum all of us loaded into the bus. Then three teenagers came dashing up, though there was only one seat left on the bus. “Please,” they begged the driver, “we don’t want to be left here tonight.” The driver motioned for one of them to get in the back with us, and the other two climbed into the sole free seat in front. Then we were off, putt-putting out of town on the three-hour drive to Mollepata.

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Room for one more? I think not, but we’ll try all the same.

The bus wound its way along the narrow Andean roads, taking us higher into the mountains. Occasionally the driver stopped to let someone off or take someone on, though no one seemed to make any gestures to him. He just seemed to know where to stop for each person, as if by habit and routine. Finally around 6:30 pm, the bus puttered to a halt in Mollepata’s central square. In the dusk light, we climbed off the bus, stretched our cramped legs, and donned our heavy packs. Our two goals were to find a place to stay for the night and to find the trailhead for the Salkantay. We asked some older gentlemen hanging around the square where we could find a room for the night, and they pointed us in the direction of a hostel. But they couldn’t give us much idea of where the trailhead was. I tried asking about the church (according to one blog I read, that’s where the trailhead is), but this was met with blank stares. “This town has never had a church,” they told us.

 

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Don’t worry; they may not have a church here, but they at least have DOTA2.

It was getting dark, so we postponed our search for the Salkantay trailhead and wandered down the street in search of the hostel. Everything looked closed, and we weren’t sure we had gone the right way when we finally a sign that read “Hostal Intikilla“. We rang the doorbell and after a few minutes of shuffling, a woman came to the door. We negotiated a room for 60 soles, trudged upstairs, and finally dropped our heavy packs. With the sun set and darkness advancing, it was getting cold rapidly in this little town. Hopefully we had enough blankets.

We grabbed dinner at the hostel’s upstairs restaurant, which consisted of the innkeeper and her husband cooking while their young daughter tidied up the restaurant and brought us the food. We ordered lomo saltado and pollo a la plancha, which ended up being huge portions of meat accompanied by fries, lentils, rice, and salad. It was way too much, but we forced ourselves to finish as much as we could. “This is the best meal I’m going to get in days,” I thought to myself, “better eat what I can.”

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The name and phone number of our accomodation, in case anyone is looking for a place to stay in Mollepata

After dinner, we set out in search of the trailhead with our headlamps. That turned out to be unnecessary, because even this town in the Andean highlands had streetlamps. Using some maps we had found online and the suggestion of our innkeepers, we headed northeast and uphill toward one corner of town. We passed a man running a grocery store and asked him if he knew where the trail started. He pointed us further uphill. We passed a group of men catching up on a street corner and asked them where the trail was. Uphill, they told us, and turn right when the street dead ends. We followed their instructions, and found ourselves trudging up and down a few hills, past the remnants of Christmas lights on houses. We encountered a group of kids playing out on the street, and we asked them where the trail started. They pointed further along the road, giggling. Finally, a couple of hills later, we found the sign (the link shows where on Google Maps). In blue and white, it named our destination tomorrow: Sorayapampa.

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Finally, we’ve found the start of the Salkantay trek!

Back at the hostel, we got ready for bed. I had a headache and my stomach wasn’t feeling great, so I chugged as much water as I could and hoped that it wasn’t altitude sickness. Guess we’ll find out tomorrow!

Some tips on Quito’s Metrobuses

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A map of Quito’s Metrobus system

While we were in Quito, we took Metrobuses everywhere. The MetrobusQ system is easy to navigate, since it’s an official city system and not a collection of collectivos. It’s also fast because buses have their own dedicated lane on most streets, freeing them from the usual traffic snarls in rush hour. And it’s cheap–while a taxi costs $2.00 to cover a few kilometers, the bus costs $0.25 per ride regardless of distance (as of December 2016). Since the Metrobus system is so awesome, below are 3 tips to help you get started using it:

  1. Quito’s Metrobus lines are on Google Maps: This makes trip planning on the metro system super easy. Just go to Google Maps and type in your destination, then select the public transportation option.
  2. The official bus lines mostly travel north or south: Quito is a narrow city that stretches north(ish) and south(ish) because it’s situated between mountains. Bus lines primarily travel on major streets along this long north-south axis. This means it can be difficult to head east or west using the Metrobus. You’re better off walking or catching a cab in these cases, unless you can figure out the less formal bus routes.
  3. Riding a bus across the city takes 2 hours: A route from the southernmost stop for buses (Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe) to the northernmost stop (Terminal Terrestre Carcelén) takes 2 hours, while riding a bus from the Mariscal Sucre/Plaza Foch area to either of these places takes about 1 hour.

Happy traveling!

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Posing with my favorite Metrobus station. Seriously, say the name out loud and try not to smile. It’s SO HAPPY!

Surviving a long-haul bus ride in South America

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The view from a bus seat on the way to Medellín.

So you’re looking to get from point A to B in Central/South America, and for either price or accessibility reasons you’ve opted for the long-haul bus ride. Congratulations! You’ll be travelling like the locals do, so you’ll likely meet great people and have amazing adventures. But before you break out the camera to capture those perfectly unique memories you’d never have on a flight or tour, here are some pointers to help make your ride as easy and enjoyable as possible.

First, let’s talk about what you’re signing up for: a long-haul bus ride is one that’s 6 hours or longer in a large bus like the one above and usually leaves from a bus terminal. They’re used all over South America for transport, but tickets are cheaper than airlines for a reason: the trip takes longer and often has poorer amenities compared to a plane. So if you’re going to be taking one of these trips, the best thing you can do is plan ahead and be prepared.

Below, I’ll explain how to plan your long-haul bus ride to ensure three things: safety (for yourself), security (for your belongings), and comfort (for a relaxing trip). I’ll walk through the whole process, from choosing a bus company and purchasing the ticket to arriving intact with your belongings at your next destination. While there are dangers out there on the road, people regularly use long-haul buses with no trouble, and a bit of preparation can save you a lot of trouble.

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This is the type of bus you’ll likely be riding, although long haul buses also come in the even more exciting two-story format!

Is a long haul bus right for you?

Before you opt for the long-haul bus ride, learn about the bus route from point A to B and make sure it will work for you. If your schedule is tight and you MUST be at point B not long after your bus arrives, don’t take the bus—the buses are generally on time, but it’s just not worth the stress if it is late. Likewise, if the bus will travel through dangerous areas like active warzones, lawless regions, and natural disaster zones, consider whether it’s worth the risk to travel by bus. After all, you have to live to tell about your adventures.

To figure out the bus route, I usually use Rome2Rio and choose the bus option. If that fails, I move to Google Maps and plug in any stops I know the bus will be making to get a good idea of its route.

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Waiting at the Peruvian-Chilean border in traffic. While buses are normally on time, circumstances like these can happen.

Picking a bus company

The goal is to find a reputable company with a good safety and security record. Google once again comes in handy; searching the names of your start and end points and “bus” usually gets you a few company names. Searching the individual bus company names then gives you a good idea of their safety and security record, from positive reviews to possible negative incidents like accidents and robberies. Locals usually have advice on bus companies so feel free to ask them as well. While the companies with poorer safety and security records are often cheaper, keep in mind that money gets made up somewhere and you don’t want to be the victim of a modern-day coach robbery.

Now, pick the BEST seat…

You can usually view a seat map of the bus online or at the terminal, and yes, there are certain seats that will increase your security and comfort . The ideal seats on a single story bus are near the middle, while the ideal seats on a two-story bus depend on the fare class: if there’s only one fare class, the best seats are at the very front of the second story. If there’s an ‘executive’ class, the best seats are in the back on the ‘executive’ first floor or the front on the second story. These seats minimize the number of people passing and loitering near your seat (who might take the chance to steal something), but are far enough from the smell of the urinal at the back of the bus. You’ll also find that seats vary in their ability to recline, with ‘standard’ or ‘semi-cama’ usually meaning a 120 degree recline, and ‘executive’ or ‘cama’ meaning a 170 degree recline. If reclining affects your ability to sleep, factor this into your seat choice as well.

Buy that ticket!

Once you’ve got your ideal seat, you can purchase the ticket in two ways: the more expensive online purchase, or the less-expensive bus terminal purchase. Online purchase lets you book immediately so you’re likely to get your ideal seat, but you’ll pay surcharges for booking online. Purchasing at the bus terminal will be cheaper (especially if you’re savvy and negotiate a discounted price), but you may not get your ideal seat and some buses sell out in advance. Choose the best option for you based on your budget and schedule needs.

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AWESOME, you have your ticket. Now it’s time to put together your survival kit.

Your ticket goes a long way in ensuring your safety, security, and comfort on a long haul bus, but a good travel kit is essential for those 6+ hours on a bus. Sure, the bus temperature might be perfect and the scenery might entertain you the whole way. Or the temperature could vary wildly and the scenery might be terrible.

IMG_4036Below is an outline of our perfect travel kit; we made sure we always had these things on a bus trip:

  1. Clothing layers for temperatures from 50F to 90F – Prepare for all temperature possibilities here, from freezing to sweltering because the air conditioner is ‘broken’. For the top half, we wear light shirts and carry jackets that pack into small volumes, like the Patagonia Nano Puff. For the bottom half, we usually wear zip-off pants that become shorts; they may not be fashionable, but they’re SO useful for adjusting to any temperature.
  2. Compression socks – This is for all of us with terrible circulation that get swollen feet after sitting for several hours. Even on the most luxurious buses there’s still not much room to shift your legs, so compression socks can work wonders in reducing foot swelling and travel misery.
  3. A sleeping kit – What do you need to sleep? A blanket? A pillow? Bring it. Our kit consists of one of our sleeping bags that we shared like a blanket, two inflatable camping pillows, and earplugs to cancel out noise.
  4. A med kit – A long bus ride can become unbearable if you get a headache or motion sickness. We always carry a medkit in a plastic sandwich bag with pain medications (paracetamol, naproxen, ibuprofen) and stomach upset medications (Pepto-bismol and Immodium). If you’re prone to motion sickness, even in the slightest, bring some dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) with you as well – winding roads and mountain passes can be incredibly nausea inducing.
  5. Tissues – for both your nose and your bathroom visits, since the bus probably won’t have any. We carry a roll of toilet paper squashed into a sandwich bag.
  6. Water – This can be hard to come by, especially for buses that travel overnight or make few stops. We carry 1L per person for up to 8 hours, but your needs may vary. Just don’t expect any drinkable water on the bus.
  7. Snacks – great for staving off the hangries. We pack at least two servings per person in snacks, and always tried to have a mix of savory and sweet. Honey-roasted peanuts and whole wheat biscuits are wondrous because they provide protein and fiber. You don’t need to bring a whole meal because the buses usually have a scheduled stop at a cafeteria to eat. Executive class on some bus lines will also provide a meal.
  8. Cash – You should always have local currency in South America. It will help you buy food along the way, as most places don’t take credit cards. Carrying enough for your next step is also a good way to avoid the ‘is there an ATM’ headache. We always carried enough to cover the average cost of a room and two meals, just in case.
  9. Entertainment in the form of games, music, podcasts, etc. – This is mostly up to you, but we found it helpful. Don’t expect to have an internet connection (buses may claim to have one but it’s often shoddy at best), but offline phone games, pocket game sets (like magnet chess), and music/podcasts help pass the time. While you can bring a book, don’t rely on it exclusively for entertainment because the ride is often so rough that reading will give you a headache.

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Watching people board a bus from our bus window near Ipiales, Colombia.

Time to board the bus!

By now you’re prepared for almost any type of bus ride, so there’s not much you need to do except make sure you get to the bus terminal before departure, onto the bus, and into the right seat.

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Waiting to depart at a bus terminal in Arequipa, Peru.

But before you board the bus, follow these four steps:

      1. Poop now. There will only be a urinal on the bus, so grab some of your tissue and head for the restroom or you may be holding it. Thankfully, some drivers will stop along the way if you really need to go, but don’t always count on it.
      2. Check whether there’s a departure tax and if so, pay it. Several bus stations in South America charge this small fee (~ $1 USD or less) to use the bus station. To find out, ask a company employee “¿Hay una impuesta de salida?” If they say yes (Sí), ask “¿Donde pago?” and they should point you to a kiosk. In return for payment, the kiosk attendant at the kiosk will give you a small paper slip. Keep this slip, as you’ll be denied entry onto the bus without it.
      3. Find your bus. The buses will have company names written on the side and placards or signboards displaying the bus destination. If you’re totally lost, find a terminal employee or security guard and show them your ticket—they’ll point you in the right direction.
      4. Get your “check-in” bags tagged. Bring your large bags to an attendant before or during boarding and they should tag it, then rip off the bottom half of the tag and give it to you. Keep this stub to reclaim your luggage. This method goes a long way in preventing casual baggage theft (i.e. someone just ‘walks away’ with your bags), so make sure the attendant tags your bag.

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Paper slips given for paying the departure tax.

 

You’re all done! Now get on-board, settle in*, and enjoy the ride.

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So lovely of you to join us! The executive class from Cusco to Arequipa in Peru.

*P.S. We’ve read all sorts of advice on how to store your carry-on bag to ensure the security of your belongings, but in our experience this didn’t matter much. The days of urchins crawling under your seat and taking your bag or thieves cutting your bag and pulling out the contents seem to be past, at least for reputable companies between well-travelled cities. Just keep your wits about you and if you’re worried, you can always hold your bag in your lap or use it as an extra seat pillow.