On Tuesday evening, we headed to the Bolivia Hop headquarters (located in a pretty cool hostel, so if you're looking to do the backpacker thing in Cusco, check out their site and the affiliated lodging.) We had booked tickets through BH to also do an excursion to the floating islands in Puno during a morning stopover, but when we got to the office, they told us that local protests were planned for the roads the next day, so they'd have to skip the excursion and refund us our money. They wanted to ensure they got us to the Bolivian border as quickly as possible prior to the strikes, so skipping the 1 hour trip was going to help us. No problem here as I'd heard these islands weren't so great anyway.
We got on the half-full bus at about 10 pm, and Francisco, our guide (not a tour guide, but a local who spoke perfect English and was quite comical) handed out blankets and told us there was no pooping on the bus (LOL and good luck to you all.) He did note that they were going to have to make stops during the night - one to switch drivers (they don't allow 1 person to drive continuously for so many hours), and a second so that he could switch places with another guide, since he had hurt his back or something and couldn't stay with us.
We took off and had fallen asleep, but during the night I'd awoken at one of the stops. There seemed to be an issue - with my slight understanding of Spanish, I realized that the other bus driver never showed up at the switch point - we'd been waiting for this no-show which lost us probably half an hour. Then, I had woken up again when Francisco made his switch, and we appeared to have backtracked in the opposite direction to do so. Between both things, I'd gauge we'd lost about an hour traveling.
At around 6:00 am, we were supposed to make a stop off for breakfast in Puno, and the new guide, Manuel, kept implying that we needed to try to beat the strike, and asked if we wanted breakfast or if we could skip it. Nobody on the bus seemed to care either way, so he decided that we'd stop for half an hour in this dungeon-like place to eat, which really was totally unnecessary if it meant beating the strike, but I guess he was eager to please.
Well, after driving for about 2 hours after breakfast, what do you know - we hit a roadblock! Although we had skipped the Puno excursion, between the bus driver miss, the backtracking to get Manuel, and the prison breakfast, we most certainly hit the strike.
We were stuck next to Lake Titicaca - not the worst view, so we got out and walked around for a bit while Manuel was figuring out what to do with us...
As pretty as it is, apparently it's very polluted so we didn't get too close.
This roadblock consisted of boulders blocking the road. They looked like you could pick them up and move them, but the point was that you weren't supposed to do this - the people were striking (and we also didn't know how they were going to react if we moved them - possibly violently), so we were not moving forward, especially on a tour bus, any time soon. During this time, Manuel was saying that we could turn around and drive back the 2 hours to Puno, and possibly get a boat over to the Bolivian border, but it wouldn't be able to carry everyone, and it would take hours. There was nothing we could do while he was figuring out next steps, so we watched Jerry Maguire ("Show me the border!")
Not only was there no resolution as to which way, or how to go by the end of the movie, but a blockade had since been set up behind our bus now, so we were literally stuck!!! What natural next step was there but to...
Meanwhile, Manuel called a taxi (some small cars were allowed to pass through) to take him to a village about half an hour away to get us water and bananas (yay Manuel!)
After the movie (keep in mind how long Jerry Maguire + Forrest Gump are combined), we did some more hanging out by the lake, finally starting to get to know our fellow travelers a bit. There were some solo backpackers, 3 girls who had just graduated college and didn't have a care in the world (and I was totally jealous of them), a father and son, a man who owns a travel agency and wanted to try out this bus company for himself, and a woman with a twisted ankle, amongst some others.
Here's the bus that was stuck in front of ours...
And here are a bunch of backed up trucks...
Finally, Manuel received some news from the villagers that they still would not let the bus pass, but they would let us walk over the boulders with our luggage. Luckily for us, we were allowed to start moving, but unluckily, we had a big rolling suitcase while everyone else had a backpack - not so easy to roll (even the slick 4 wheeler) on these roads.
We made our way over the boulders with all of the men and women of the village watching - it was awkward to say the least. By the way, they were striking because an international company had made a deal with the local government to mine their sacred land. This had happened recently in another area of Peru and the strike worked out for those people, so I guess our guys were not going to cave, and rightfully so.
After we walked over the roadblock, there was a man in a van that Manuel paid to cram the 20 of us into along with all of our stuff, to take us as far as possible. This drive was great and all, but lasted only about 5 minutes until we hit the next village's roadblock. This one consisted of trees blocking the road, and there were men at the top of the hill above chopping another one down (which I was terrified was going to fall on us as we were crossing the blockade.) We quickly lugged our suitcase over the trees and kept going until the same thing literally happened again - Manuel found a van, he crammed us in, we drove about ten minutes until we hit yet another blockade. This next stop was different though - these villagers were no longer allowing any cars or vans through this roadblock, and they said it would take a few hours to walk this stretch, which was basically impossible. To clarify, this was not a village like you and I think of a village - this place consisted only of farmers' small homes, each of which had an outhouse and a donkey, and there were no shops, or anything else around. SuperManuel managed to find a farmer who said he would take us in his vehicle, which was kind of like the back of a truck that was connected to a motor bike. It was too small to fit everyone from our group though, so half of the people had to stay behind while the other half moved onward towards Bolivia. Dave and I were in the group that stayed, fearful that Manuel and the farmer were never coming back to get us and we'd die in rural Peru...
The carefree college grads had a "clever" idea to start walking, despite the fact that we knew that the walk to the border was a few hours away and we didn't have a good sense of direction. Everyone started following them, and Dave and I could not pull the suitcase on the rocky ground (and it was way too heavy to carry), so we said we'd just wait by ourselves (NOT what I wanted to do - a group should ALWAYS stick together!) About 3 minutes later, everyone realized that if they made progress, and Manuel and the farmer picked them up along the way, they'd still have to come back to get us, so there was no point in them continuing to walk (haha, we won.) Manuel eventually came back after about an hour (longer than they'd anticipated, but they had to stop for gas), so we crammed into the truck for a 15 minute bumpy ride through the farmland until we hit yet another roadblock. Here's the next one - it consisted of small bushes...
I have to give a shout out to T-Mobile - we had 4G and full bars here which was kind of amazing (though we were trying to conserve battery life, so they weren't of much use.)
Remember from my last post how I mentioned that other bus companies have been known to leave passengers at the border, etc.? Well, that other bus which I posted a photo of up above - that company actually did that! All of those people were just left stranded by their bus driver. They walked with us a bit, but when it came down to it, Manuel was responsible for us, and with only so many people he could fit in a van, they had to figure what to do on their own - they ended up paying locals to drive them on the backs of their motorbikes with their bags which is crazy.
We had to do one more trip to get to the border and the only car at this blockade fit just a few people. We said the 3 girls could go + one older American guy who didn't even have his passport photos at this point for border patrol. Apparently, he showed up at the Bolivia Hop office right before departure without any of the documents that I also hadn't had that morning, so the bus company printed everything for him, even the forged card! I know it's not their job to do this, but myself and the other American girls had to run around Cusco that morning printing and forging things (the same thing happened to them too), and this guy didn't have to do anything! On top of that, it was getting late and we were starting to worry about getting to the border before closing time, but this guy HAD to get his passport photos taken. So much grrrrr!
Manuel went with them in the car to the town near the border about 20 minutes away, and sent a van to come back for the rest of us, so that was another 40 minute wait. We met up with the other four in the town, and Manuel gave us a few minutes to get snacks, money, etc. - again not sure why he was letting us do this when it was so close to closing time at immigration, but maybe he's just a courteous guy?
A few minutes later, we pulled up to the border, and he's now urgently yelling for us to "RUN! RUN! RUN! The Bolivian side is CLOSING!!!!!" Everyone still had to go through Peruvian immigration, change money (Americans have to pay to get into Bolivia), and go through the Bolivian side. It also turned out that the two very lengthy forms the bus company had us fill out the night before (another perk - they provide all of the forms) was not a perk at all - the officials didn't want them; we had to fill out a whole other form during this mad rush (I didn't even have a second to worry about my forgery, I was so panicked about the border closing.) Long story not so short, they actually kept a copy of my "vaccination card," amongst a few other documents, plus the $55 fee, and I made it through. I was a bit concerned about the dude behind me who had no documentation at all, and was basically like, 'What's this country Bolivia? I heard it's cool, thought I'd check it out.'
The way that Bolivia Hop works is that they leave the Peruvian bus on the Peru side (along with Manuel), and another bus meets you on the Bolivian side. Apparently, the Bolivian bus and guide had been waiting hours for us - nice that we didn't get ditched, so overall the company stayed true to their word, and we were in Copacabana in less than 20 minutes after the border crossing. In all, it should have taken 3 and a half hours from Puno to Copacabana (including about half an hour at the border), and it took us from 7 am to 5:30 pm. Yep.
I also should mention that Manuel had worked something like 48 hours straight (covering for people, etc.) before our trip, and after dropping us at the border, he had to first figure out how to get back through all of those roadblocks to the woman with the twisted ankle who had stayed behind with the bus driver(!!!)
It turned out that we were going to be staying at the same hotel in Copa as the very nice father and son who were on our bus. This hotel had very strict rules about checking in because they are in such high demand - if you were going to arrive after 2 pm, you had to call them (no emails) to tell them you'd be late and when you were arriving. When planning your trip, if you knew then that you'd be arriving late, it was recommended to Western Union them the money to guarantee the room in advance. We hadn't bothered sending money since we were originally supposed to get there by 2 pm (LOL), so I called them twice during the day to explain our delays/ETA and tell them to not give up the room. I told the guys I had called (on my own behalf), but we collectively thought they'd be fine not calling as they had Western Unioned the money which should have been considered a guarantee. Upon arrival (and climbing up the steepest hill ever at a 4000 meter altitude, in the dark, then up another thousand steps), one of the hotel staff greeted us, and showed us to our room. We closed the door just when it seemed like the other guys' room might have been given away. Eek!
Next up: When alpacas attack.
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