Wednesday 22nd October: what a day!
We got an overnight bus from Ica and arrived about 8am at Arequipa, as a stop off point on route to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Our plan was to get the next bus to Puno, then another bus across the border to Copacabana in Bolivia where Lake Titicaca was the same day. All pretty straightforward… we thought?!
Unfortunately, the bus arrived an hour late into Puno and we arrived gone 4pm to a near empty bus station. A taxi driver approached us and asked where we were going - 'Copacabana' I replied. 'Too late' he told me and indeed we were. We had missed the last bus crossing the border into Copacabana. A couple of ladies behind a bus desk told us we should stay in Puno that night and get the next bus in the morning.However, the boat at Lake Titicaca was leaving at 8.30am the following morning so even if we got the first bus from Puno we wouldn't make that. Plus, we didn't want to spend a night in Puno, as it was a sh*t-hole with absolutely nothing there and we were on a really strict time schedule. God - what a mess!
We'd read that it took 2 and half hours to get to the Bolivian border from Puno on a bus, it was now 4.15pm so we had 1 hr and 45 minutes and wondered if we could make it in a taxi?! The ladies told us no chance and the only way of doing it in that time would be by plane. However, we weren't convinced as they just seemed keen to sign us up for their bus, so we spoke to the taxi drivers outside.
The same taxi driver, who had just told me it was too late to get to Copacabana, assured us in his very broken English he could get us to the border for 6pm for 120 Bolivianos (about 20 pounds). We weren't sure what to do and didn't have much time to waste thinking about it. It was much more expensive than taking the bus, but we really needed to get there that night. We looked at each other and decided to risk it rather than spending a pointless night in Puno and missing our boat at Lake Titicaca the next morning.
The driver hastily pulled the taxi beacon from the top of his roof (he needed to be as aerodynamic as possible I suppose?!), threw it in the back along with our rucksacks and off we set. The car had a cracked windowscreen, numerous squeaks and he stopped by two women sat in the road with watering cans of fuel to fill up - only in South America. All we could do was sit anxious in the back, hoping and praying we would make it in time.
We got on a long highway with absolutely nothing but barren land around and began to wonder what we would do if we didn't make it for 6pm. There was nowhere to stay near the border, so it would be a long trip back to Puno and getting that morning bus after all. The driver had his foot to the boards, but there were still people overtaking us and we felt every bump in the road with his rickety suspension as we 'sped' along. We were both frantically looking out for signs for the border, but there was nothing in sight so we just stared out of the window too worried to speak.
Eventually, we came to a 'town' and there was a huge road block preventing us from going any further. We couldn't believe it, the driver muttered under his breath and our hopes of making the border in time were vastly diminishing like the minutes on the clock. We turned down a backstreet to yet another roadblock, reversed down another backstreet, to find only another roadblock. I thought we'd just have to give up, when the driver pulled into an area fenced off for roadworks and somehow managed to get back on the highway. But, with that delay and again with absolutely nothing in sight I felt sick with worry.
The poor driver was clearly as stressed as us, as he sighed and pulled off his cap several times to mop his brow. All this for 20 quid - poor w***! Ellie then realized she had very little cash on her, not knowing there were no ATM's in Copacabana - eek! I had enough money on me to pay the driver, but not enough to pay for our stay in Copacabana. The whole situation was getting very stressful, even if we made it to the border, how would we pay for our accommodation for the night, the boat trip, food and bus tickets out of there?!
It was 5.30pm and there was still no sign of the border or any form of civilization. 'Yunguyo' pointed out the driver into the distance, which was the 'town' where the border was. It looked like a bleak and desolate place and there was definitely no way we could spend the night there if we didn't make it in time - it was going to be a long and expensive trip back to Puno.
We'd given up hope when just a couple of minutes before 6pm the driver pulled into a tiny 'money exchange' place and we could see the border control a few hundred metres up the road. We quickly exchanged all our leftover pesos into Bolivianos, grabbed our rucksacks and ran with the taxi driver running behind us pointing where to go.
Mistakenly, we ran into the Bolivian border control before we had got our exit stamps from the Peruvian border control. So we dashed across the road, got our exit stamps and sprinted straight back into the Bolivian office for our entry stamps with the people behind the desk looking at us like crazy gringos - we'd made it!!!! Well kind of, we still needed to get another taxi from the border into Copacabana. By this time, we'd paid the taxi driver, but the lovely guy was still waiting for us and took us over to one of his awaiting taxi friends to take us onto Copacabana. We were elated to have made it across in time and Ellie kissed and hugged the driver gratefully - I don't think he knew what to do!
We got in the next taxi, the old man driving and his tiny Peruvian wife chuddered on in Spanish, as they drove us to our hotel and even carried our bags to the reception for us. The hotel was 'La Cupula' which is highly recommended for the freshwater trout it serves and views over Lake Titicaca AND it accepted visa! Hooray!!! But, there was no room. The owner kindly called another hotel which accepted visa but he told us it would be VERY expensive, but it was late and we were desperate. It turned out that expensive was 15 pounds a night! We were so grateful and could not wait for a shower and to get in bed, after spending the past 2 nights on a bus.
Before we moved on, we had to have the trout dinner at the hotel we'd been looking forward to all day - freshwater trout from Lake Titicaca and it was delicious! After dinner we picked up our bags and made our way to the other hotel. It was really nice and after a much needed hot shower, we managed to laugh about our stressful and long journey and looked forward to the boat trip the next day.
Thursday 23rd October: we got to Lake Titicaca.
It was a blessing in disguise we had to stay at Hotel Rosario - we had comfy, warm beds (appreciated all the more after spending 2 nights on a bus) and woke to a splendid breakfast buffet with open views over the grand waters of Lake Titicaca. As we had little cash to buy anything and still had to pay for the boat, we'd ordered some packed lunches from the hotel as we could pay for them on card. We picked them up after breakfast and set off to get the boat to go trekking on one of the floating islands 'Isla del Sol' in the middle of Lake Titicaca.
Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake - it's huge and very, very beautiful as you look out over its vast deep blue waters. We bought our boat tickets from our limited funds and had very little leftover, but thought we should be able to cope as we already had lunch, had bought some water and paid for the bus to La Paz that evening.
It was a glorious sunny day so we sat up on deck, with some other travellers and some Bolivian people in their traditional dress, plaited hair and bowler hats. However, once the boat set off it was bloody freezing and I wish I'd worn more than shorts and a vest, so we made our way downstairs onto one of the tiny, metal seats. The boat was unbelievably slow and took a long 2 and half hours, sat on chairs built to Peruvian statistics and typically of Bolivia there was no toilet on board. A poor German guy we'd got chatting to didn't realize how long the journey would take and was bursting for the loo - literally! In the end he couldn't even speak to us as he stared ahead desperately trying not to pee himself and sprinted off the boat as soon as we pulled in - I have never seen anyone get off a boat so fast in my life!
We arrived at the north port of the island and had to be at the south port for 4pm for the last boat back to the mainland. We'd been told not to hang about if we wanted to make it back in time, so off we set as we couldn't afford to get stranded on the island with no cash and all our things back at the hotel. We hadn't gone very far, when we came to a woman sat at a gate selling tickets. We had to pay 10 Bolivianos to pass through the village, which was about a pound each. Not much, but since I only had about 50 Bolivianos left it wasn't a great start to our not spending day.
We hurried along the trek, stopping (briefly!) to take in the incredible views over the vast, deep blue waters and the glorious sunshine. There wasn't much on the island, other than some Inca ruins and non-surprisingly a few women along the way selling wooly alpaca goods. We had a very quick stop for lunch and set off again when we came to another woman demanding 10 Bolivianos each to pass. We paid her (we had no choice if we wanted to get to the south port for 4pm) and I was now down to my last 10 Bolivianos. Panicking a little, we made a plan that if we came to another 'toll' woman we would try and bargain Ellie's leftover chocolate bar and banana with my 10 Bolivianos. Luckily, it turned out the last stop was 5 Bolivianos each and we now had absolutely no money left... Ellie has since promised to keep $50 stuffed in her bra for emergencies J
We made it back to the south port in plenty of time and had walked about 16km over the island. The boat picked us up, it was another long journey back to the mainland, where we had to rush again, grab our bags from the hotel and get the 6.30pm bus to La Paz. In the chaotic centre, we managed to work out which bus was ours, our bags were loaded onto the roof and we set off for La Paz. It was now pitch black and I watched in amazement, as the bus stopped at numerous places in the hills, dropping men off in what seemed the middle of nowhere - where did these people live?!
Just as we'd got 'comfy', trying to get warm using Ellie's sarong as a blanket, we stopped and a man in a military outfit got on the bus and announced something in Spanish. We didn't have a CLUE what he had just said and weren't sure what to do other than obediently follow everyone else off the bus. That was when we saw a huge lake in front of us that we had to go across - this was not mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Our bus was loaded onto an old boat that looked fit to sink and disappeared into the darkness across the water - along with our rucksacks on the roof.
We then worked out we had to pay 1.5 Bolivianos each to get across the lake to meet the bus and our belongings on the other side. Sh*t! The bus driver ushered us all over to the ticket booth, but we had absolutely no money on us, not even a chocolate bar and banana this time. Not sure what to do, I told the driver 'no plata' he just shrugged and held his hands up. Hearing our pleas of 'no plata', two kind Israeli travellers gave us 3 Bolivianos (about 30p) to buy some tickets. We gratefully thanked them and got on the boat, hoping to find our rucksacks at the other side. Ellie and myself huddled together, as a guy played his guitar and ten minutes later we arrived across the lake. Eventually the bus arrived (sigh of relief!) and we set off again for La Paz.
We pulled into La Paz bus station around 10pm and just like you read in the guide books, it's deep, underground South America, with huge concrete buildings, hectic roads and people everywhere. We took a taxi to Loki Hostel (stopping off at an ATM on route!), but the driver could not find the hostel - I really was beginning to think I couldn't handle any more drama. We drove around for a while and I spotted the hostel up on the hill (the streets in La Paz are ridiculously steep at an even higher altitude than Cusco). It was Loki hostel, the same chain of hostel as in Cusco, and equally impressive. It was a converted hotel with huge wooden doors, spiral staircases (although a bit rundown) and the bar was a converted ballroom. La Paz is a party town and the bar was filled, but shattered and hungry, we checked in and collapsed into bed.