The Horrific 3 DAY Bus Journey from Buenos Aires to Lima, Peru (via Chile)
Friday 8th October: the pikey Peruvian bus experience.
We weren't looking forward to our 3 day bus journey to Lima, but what we experienced far exceeded any of our 'expectations' and we aptly named it the pikey Peruvian bus experience. Not quite the Kixi experience in New Zealand (I hope!), but if you want to submerse yourself in some real Peruvian culture, book a 3 day bus journey from Buenos Aires to Lima.
Well, where do I start?!... We arrived at the desk at the bus station at 5.30pm, the lady spoke little (if any!) English but hurridly rushed us downstairs to weigh and check in our bags. Apparently, we should have arrived at 4pm, yet everyone we spoke to said to arrive just 30 minutes before departure (but how many people had done this bus journey?!). Anyway, we were taken to some dodgy-looking underground loading area, where our bags were weighed and taken to be put on the bus. As I didn't actually see the bus or my rucksack being loadded onto it, I began to wonder if I would ever see my bag again. As the journey was crossing borders (from Argentina to Chile to Peru) we had to go through security on the international side of the bus station. We showed our passports, put our hand luggage through an xray machine and walked through the metal detectors. The security woman gave us a rather funny look as we were wearing flip flops (we thought it was pretty warm in BA?!) and then let us through to the bay where the bus would pull in.
The international departures area was sectioned off by a huge metal fence (similar to that of a high security prison) and it was too late to go back or buy any food/drink for the next 3 days. Well not to worry, we had been provided meals and drinks on the bus to BA so surely this would be the same?! As we waited, I looked around and began to wonder where the other travellers were?!... There were lots of Peruvian looking people, laden down with lots of luggage and some dodgy looking men, but definately no other travellers waiting for this bus.
The bus pulled in at 6pm, it looked smart - a bright yellow double decker, similar to the one that we had travelled on to BA. There was no smartly dressed stewardess this time, but two scruffy looking drivers with cigarettes hanging out their mouths who asked to see our tickets as we boarded. Loads of people piled on the bus and we went upstairs to find our seats, where we were greeted by many Peruvian faces and some creepy looking men staring at us... it then dawned on us we were the only gringos on the bus. The bus was rammed with Peruvians, most of which were looking at the only two white girls on the bus. The bus stank, every seat was taken, the conditions were really crampt and there was no sign of blankets, food or even water. Our images of a large, clean bus, comfy, reclining seats, waitress service and all else you expect on luxury Argentinean coaches soon disappeared. As the bus began to pull away, we looked at each other and burst out laughing (trying desperately to see the 'funny' side!) as we realised we'd made a big mistake... but there was nothing we could do now and this was it for the next 3 days.
There was a group of about eight men sat in front is us, who continued to blatantly stare at us, using the only english they knew 'hello baby', 'hello sexy' to try and get our attention. 'Musica, musica' some people shouted from the back of the bus - this was just the start of three days of horrendous quality, south american salsa videos - a greasy looking Peruvina man in a cheap suit singing while women wearing far too much make-up and ridiculously tacky outfits shook their assets to some terrible Peruvian salsa beats. We were shattered from ten days partying in BA, so we tried our best to get comfy under our fleeces (there were definately no blankets provided on this bus!) and I put my ear plugs in and eye mask on to attempt to sleep through what looked like it was going to be the journey from HELL! We'd only been on the bus for a few minutes, and already I was beginning to wonder if we were going to be able to survive 3 days of this 'hello sexy' staring, salsa music and terribly crampt conditions.
About 10.30pm we pulled into a service station, we were starving, we hadn't had dinner as we were going to pick up some nibbles and assumed a meal would be served soon after boarding. Instead, we'd been rushed through security with no time to stock up on travel snacks and realised this was definately a coach without meals (or anything else!). We had no money on us as we were leaving Argentina and the dirty roadside cafe didn't take card. I managed to scrape a few Argentinean soles together to buy a beef-thing sandwich which we shared and I struggled to swallow it was that chewy - eugh! The toilets were rank (but better than the filthy one on board) and there was a scruffy, cardboard sign above the sink which I translated as 'no washing hair' - I couldn't bear to think about the 3 days we still had ahead of us.
Luckily, there was a Shell garage next to the cafe which accepted card so we stocked up on water (even the rubbish buses in Brazil provided water) and snacks, and stood in the dark and cold to get back on the bus. As we waited, we got chatting to the only other gringos on the bus; an aussie guy in his late thirties, who had done loads of travelling and told us 'the best way to see a country is by bus' (he soon changed his opinion to 'I'm never doing this again... the conditions on the bus and toilet are disgusting, it's a health risk... this is the worst bus journey i have even had to endure') and a pleasant welsh guy with long dreadlocks who had spent the last 3 years travelling around South America in a truck and was on his way back to Cusco to pick it up.
We all boarded back on the bus - that was our stop for the night (luckily I'd packed my baby wipes and hoped I wouldn't need the toilet too much!). The 'musica' started up again... and did not stop... for THREE WHOLE DAYS!!!!!!!! Thank god I'd packed my ear plugs. We did had a few brief breaks from the 'musica' namely 'Mr Bean's Holiday' (which they thought was hillarious) and a couple of other rubbish spainish films that clearly never made it to the big screen. The pervy men continued to try and get our attention, making cat calls and their extensive english vocabulary of 'hello baby' and hello sexy'. There seemed to be a lot of young men travelling alone, but they annoyingly all congregated together around the stairs, staring back at us. I was just thankful to be travelling with Ellie, as there was a young girl (Brazilian i think?!), sat with a spare seat next to her... which wasn't empty for long. As the men kept taking it in turns to come and sit next to her, she was sleeping at one point and the guy sat next to her got hold of her arm and wrapped it around him - creep! I wrapped myself up in my fleece (with my money belt tied around me), 'washed' my face with a baby wipe, put my ear plugs in and eye mask on and hoped I could sleep through as much as the night as possible without having to get up for a wee and (a) have to pass the pervy Peruvians sat around the stairs, and (b) use the minging toilet that already stunk of stale p*ss.
Saturday 9th October: the near arrest for the possession of a papaya!
Early saturday morning, we pulled in to Mendoza bus station (still in Argentina) to pick up some more passengers and get some food. My ankles had already began to swell up MASSIVELY and were the same size of my calves, which was very concerning as we still had 2 days left on the bus. We spoke to the australian guy who turned out to be a nurse, who made us worry even more when he told us he had DVT and ended up in hospital. He advised me to keep walking around on the bus for circulation (that was the last thing I wanted to do on such a crampt bus with loads of pervy Peruvians staring at us), to drink lots of water (not ideal when your trying to avoid using the disgusting toilet) and to elevate my legs when back on the bus (near impossible in such crampt conditions!).
Back on the bus, the driver handed out forms for us to fill in to cross the Chilean border, I was already beginning to get nervous with the horror stories you hear about travellers on borders and with the size of my elephant ankles was wishing more and more we'd have flown to Lima despite the cost. As we began to approach the border, the driver made an announcement in spanish (no translations provided on the pikey Peruvian bus experience!) and everyone began to scoff the fruit they'd bought with them?! Maybe, you weren't allowed to take fruit across the border, I had a papaya in my bag, but didn't want to eat it so thought I'd just leave it on the bus. At the border, we all had to queue to get our exit stamps for Argentina and entry stamps for Chile.
Whilst we queued, two young men off the bus (not from the group of pervs) tried speaking to us. With their poor english, my terrible spanish and a LOT of guess work, we worked out they were two brothers, one was 17 and the other 23. They were both from Lima and had been away from their families for 3 months working in a sewing factory sewing clothes in BA, as jobs back home were scarce and the wages were much better in BA. They told us we were 'muy bonito' (very pretty) and with cheeky smiles asked for our email addresses as they wanted us to go dancing with them once we got to Lima (more Peruvian salsa even once the bus journey had finished - nooooo!!!). We told them we only had one night in Lima?! So they then asked if we could sit near them on the bus to teach them English - the bus journey was painful enough without attempting to teach English on it with my pathetic spanish and two complete beginners! We used the excuse Ellie was ill and needed to sleep... I pretended I couldn't understand the rest of their conversation.
Eventually, we got our exit stamps from Argentina and were told to go and get our hand luggage off the bus and put it through the machines for security. At this point, I noticed a large poster of an apple with a cross through it, and it dawned on me you musn't be able to take any fruit across the border - sh*t! I had a bloody papaya in my bag, and wasn't sure what to do with it, so just threw it under my seat, took my bag and queued for security. At this point, Ellie had had to do an emergency rush to the toilet so I waited nervously in the queue hoping my papaya wouldn't be found. As we were queuing, border control began to search the bus, there was some commotion and I couldn't understand what everyone was saying so looked over to the australian guy (who spoke spanish) and asked what was wrong?! 'Something's been found on the coach', and at that point everyone fell silent as the border control emerged from the bus branding my papaya up in the air.
There was a collective gasp, and it went from bedlam to complete silence as everyone started looking round for the culprit, at this point Ellie returned from the toilet totally oblivious to everything and said ' isn't that yours?'. I turned to her and told her to 'sssshh!!!!!!' , I'm papping myself thinking I'm going to get a harsh fine or even worse - banged up in a Chilean cell for the possession of a papaya! I could feel the colour draining from my cheeks down to my ankles and wasn't quite sure what to do. After a few minutes the guard announced something in spanish and I was wondering if I'd have to own up... if I didn't it was a pretty clear who the owner was - the papaya was under my seat! With a disapproving look, the guard said everyone was free to get back on the bus and I thanked my lucky stars I'd not been arrested, expecting the policeman to bag the papaya up as evidence and screen it for fingerprints! I got back on the bus with weak legs and made a mental note to self: never to carry fruit across borders!
The bus set off across the Chilean border as people chanted 'musica, musica' and yet another Peruvian salsa dvd was played. We headed up some windy, steep mountains before stopping for lunch in Chile. We pulled into a roadside 'restaurant' with a set menu of chicken and rice. It was reasonable food but pretty expensive (Chile is similar to Brazil for cost although I'm not sure why), and I invited the young Brazilian girl to sit with us, while the Peruvian pervs waved at us from their table with their gimpy smiles. We were served a scabby piece of chicken and a warm coca-cola (they don't seem to have cold drinks in Peru and Chile) then boarded back on the bus and headed deep into the Chilean desert. We didn't pull in again until the following day, there was no dinner or toilet stop and we were tossed a sandwich about 10pm as I tried to get comfy on my tiny, partially reclined seat - 2 more nights sleeping like this and I would never appreciate a bed so much.
Sunday 10th October: we experienced Peruvian duty free!
Similarly, Sunday morning, still deep in the Chilean desert with no where to stop, we were thrown breakfast - an alfajore (a small, round biscuit with dulce leche in the middle which you get EVERYWHERE in Argentina). Mid-day, we pulled into a 'restaurant' (if you could call it that) still in the middle of the Chilean desert, with nothing for miles. The only thing on the menu was... chicken and rice (well it can't all be the juicy steaks of Argentina or delicious Brazilian buffets I suppose?!). The toilets were MINGING and I reminded myself I wasn't on holiday but travelling and would encounter days... and toilets like these.
I went outside, and walked around in the baking heat trying desperately to get some ciruclation into my legs which had swelled so badly my ankles were overlapping my feet. The australian nurse told us this was the worst experience of his 17 years of travelling, we were hardly stopping at all and the bus was getting even smellier and the toilet even stinkier in the desert conditions. Back on the bus, I took some aspirin to try and thin my blood and walked up and down the bottom of the stairs, whilst trying to ignore the stares and the 'hello baby' comments. However, my ankles didn't seem to be getting any better and I uncomfortably tried to prop my legs up on Ellie to try and stop them swelling anymore - hoping this NIGHTMARE would end soon!
Sunday evening, as we approached the Peruvian border everyone began to cheer. I joined in on their exclamation as all I wanted to do was get to Lima, shower and hopefully stop my cankles (as we'd aptly named them), swelling any more. We filled in the forms and all piled off the bus again to get our exit stamps from Chile and entry stamps to Peru. The Peruvian brothers began to chat to us again, the older one produced a poem he'd written for Ellie with a picture of a blonde girl (quite artistic!) he'd drawn, which we began to think was very sweet... until he pulled out a photograph of his wife and newborn baby to show us?! Bizarrely, his younger brother asked us for a sovenir - pointing at Ellie's necklace, my keyring, an earring none of which we let him have.
One of the coach drivers then took all our passports from us for for inspection and our bags were searched by border control (no papaya possession this time!). Once we had all passed through security, the driver returned with our pile of passports and asked who would like to hand them out?! What?! A lady kindly volunteered, so all our passports were handed to a complete stranger as everyone crowded round waiting for their name to be called (photo provided!). I struggled to understand her spanish pronunciation whilst she struggled to pronounce my english name, but I was relieved to have my passport handed back to me, whilst the australian man told us this was the most insane thing he had ever come across.
We piled back onto the bus and everyone cheered again as we arrived in the home country of Peru... then the real mayhem started. Just as we crossed the border, hoards of people began to appear up the stairs. First of all, we had an old guy selling cameras (even the old style ones you put a film in - which one man actually bought). And as Ellie amusingly remarked 'Is this Peruvian duty free?', a stack of blankets began to appear up the stairs, followed by a tiny Peruvian woman selling them, followed by people selling trainers, bra's, sports clothing, socks... and wait for it - cuddly toys!! We were in hysterics, as we sat watching absolute mayhem erupt with people trying on shoes, coats, blankets being examined and deals being done in the already crampt aisles; despite the hellish past 3 days, this was a real insight into Peruvian culture that was just hillarious to see.
The bedlam continued for about half an hour, with people buying all sorts, from camera's made in the 90s to tacky cuddly toys and copy sportsgear. We then pulled into a roadside cafe, where we were bombarded with even more sales people, this time selling watches and horrific-looking dolls. The driver then instructed the sales people off the bus and told us to watch our bags as we headed into a cafe for our first taste of authentic Peruvian cuisine and Inca Cola.
Inca Cola is Peru's answer to Coca-cola, it's made with lemongrass and is bright illuminous yellow! It tasted just like Irn Bru and I really liked it! (although it would have been better served chilled). We also tried the local dish 'lomo saltado' which is stir-fired beef with rice and chips. There are apparently 4000 varieties of potatoe in Peru and you get them with everything! Normally, I wouldn't have even considered eating in a cafe like that, but we were starving and Ellie told me not to eat the salad, as it's washed in local water, but I was so hungry I mixed it in with the rice and hoped for the best (later I regretted this - reminding myself your 5 a day doesn't matter when on a 3 day bus journey from hell).
Monday 11th October: we arrived at Lima - HOORAY!!!
Monday morning we were awoken very early (about 6.30am) at a roadside kiosk and cafe. More minging toilets but the tiny kiosk sold EVERYTHING - yoghurt, water, choc, fresh fruit and some much needed aspirin. After a diet of scabby meat and rice for three days, I gobbled down a couple bananas and bought some snacks for the LAST day on the bus - I couldn't wait to pull in at Lima. After three days in the same clothes with no shower, I felt disgusting and the bus was getting sweatier... and I won't even mention the state of the toilet.
Back on the bus, more 'musica, musica' was played and we headed straight through to Lima with no stops. About 3pm, we stopped at a petrol station to refuel, where more mayhem erupted! Half a dozen Peruvians ran over, thrusting trays of food in the air - chicken sandwiches, mini fish and chips, jellies, pigs trotters, some unidentifiable food items?! By this time, there was a bus full of hungry people and everyone grabbed food off the trays. The driver shouted at them to get off the bus, and we set off again, with more 'musica, musica' in the background as I starred out the window desperately trying to spot signs for Lima. A couple of hours later, there was a cheer on the bus and I asuumed we were nearly there and these hellish 3 days were almost over. Just then my stomach began to gripe and I didn't feel too well at all. I dived in the smelly, humid toilet and tried to hoover over the loo while the bus manouvered corners and hit bumps in the road. I had a terrible attack of diarhoea, not once, not twice, but three times!! Maybe Ellie was right about not eating the salad?! I took my emergency Immodium capsule in my bag, and thanked god after the state of the toilet we were nearly there.
About 6.30pm local time, we pulled into Lima and I could not wait to get off the bus. It wasn't the large bus terminal I'd imagined, but a single layby surrounded by Peruvians welcoming their loved ones back home. We all piled off the bus, and I saw the young Peruvian guy (who gave Ellie the love note) embrace his young wife and baby; they looked so happy to be reunited which was lovely to see.
Once the bus had pulled in, the high metal gates (which looked just like prison gates) were firmly closed with a rogue-looking old man stood in front of them as no one was allowed to leave until all the bags had been collected. As we stood their waiting (when travelling you seeem to spend so much time waiting - waiting for buses, waiting for planes, waiting for accommodation, waiting for food...) the Peruvian man proudly came over with his newborn baby. 'Muy bonito' I told him, looking at his beautiful baby girl wrapped up in a shawl and young mum clearly so happy to have her husband back home, which made me think how tough it must be to have to leave your young family and go working away for 3 months. The guard got the nod and with all our bags returned, the high prison gates were opened and we were allowed to leave. Weak, tired and smelly, we got a taxi to our pre-booked hotel as part of our Inca Trail package. Although, I could NEVER do a journey like that again, we somehow found a way to laugh at it and it was an interesting insight into the Peruvian culture that we really wouldn't have experienced any other way!