Puno to Cusco – Busride from Hell

Imagine the worst and most uncomfortable busride you can think of, then add a bus breakdown, a strike that blocked the roads and sub-zero temperature without a working heater. Welcome to the Puno to Cusco busride that we had the pleasure of enjoying due to the extensive strikes that were happening all over Peru at the time of our visit. I really feel for the strikers and I empathise with their cause, but there was just no need for the cold and the crappy bus that kept on stopping.

The rosy version of this tale would have started with us getting back from an amazing visit to the islands of Lake Titicaca only to be greated by the friendly staff of Cial, our bus company of choice in Peru. We would then be able to relax in the plush comfortable reclining chairs that are just luxurious compared to normal busses. The busride would last approximately 6-7 hours before we arrived in Cusco with an already booked hostel welcoming us with the certainty of a warm shower in the cold highland night. Not trying to sound bitter here, but this is NOT the way it went down.

I was still feeling the aftermath of the altitude sickness that I caught while climbing to the top of Taquile as we got dropped off at the bus station in Puno. The bus station in Puno is filled with stalls of different bus companies offering tickets to the most remote corners of Peru. As the route to Cusco is by far the most popular we were aiming at catching one of the busses that went half an hour later. Being the sensible travellers that we are we had already got the approximate times of the bus and felt confident when we walked into the bus station. As we got a collective No from the first 5 stalls that we tried we could slowly start to notice the icy feeling of despair climbing up our spine. When we had stuttered out our plea for a busticket to Cusco with half the companies at the station we started thinking. Could it be that they all had a common goal of not letting us get to Cusco or was there something else hat we had missed? Stopping up and taking a look around we realized that there were several other groups of backpackers just like us, lurking from booth to booth asking the same questions that we had a few minutes ago. Something was amiss. It turned out that the strike from the Amazon part of Peru had reached this part of the country as well. This meant that all the companies effectively had shut down their operations to Cusco due to roadblocks on the main highway into Cusco. This wouldn’t have been a problem on any other day or travel destination as we would just have waited the strike out and continued to Cusco when it was done.

This time it was different, as we had to be in Cusco by 5pm the next day to make sure our booking for the Inca Trail wasn’t cancelled. If you didn’t already know it, the Inca Trail is immensely popular and there is a roof on the amount of visitor allowed to start the trek each day. This meant that we had booked our spots on the trail almost a year back to be sure that we got to do it. If we didn’t show up at Peru Treks office in Cusco by the next day at 5pm we would not only lose our spots we would also lose our quite substantial deposit.

This was not going to happen, not now! So we kept on bitching and asking all the ticket offices untill we got lucky. There seemed to be a rogue bus company that spottet a chance of making some extra profit. We were told that it would take a bit more time and we were promised a good bus with heating. We had no chance but to pay the extra money and go with it. It was definently on…

Eli and Veronica bought some alpacca blankets that was going to be one of the best investments on the entire trip. We got into the bus that was crowded with tourists like us that either really wanter to go to Cusco or had no other option like us. The bus was crap compared to the rest of the busses we had done in Peru so far, but compared to the bus ride we did from Laos to Vietnam it was still nothing. It started to dawn on us that it was gooing to be a cold night as the temperature dropped significantly as we climbed higher on windy roads. It got really cold.. By the time I woke up from the cold around 1am there were icicles inside the bus and the windows were covered with a thick layer of frost.

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Eli and me trying to preserve som heat in the freezing bus

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The bus suddenly stopped and then got going again after a few minutes. This happened again an hour or so later and when it happened the third time around 4 in the morning the bus had nothing more to give. It turned out that the engine was still going strong, but the bus driver had kept on getting the bus stuck and this time it was for real. We were told to get out of the bus and it turned out to be even colder outside.. While the incompetent bus driver went with the well tried and equally known not to work solution of just pressing the gas pedal to the medal and waiting for the problem to solve itself… It was bonechilling outside and the seamingly obvious solution to this was to soak the bushes on the side in gasoline and let the inferno loose. Burning bushes equals heat, but also a hell of a lot of smoke. So the situation had now gotten worse as nobody could breathe or see a thing, especially the bus driver that was trying to get us out of there however basic his attempts were.

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Nothing like a forrest fire to keep yourself warm!

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The dry bushes quickly caught fire

It took us another hour or so before the bus miraculously broke loose of whatever was holding it back. I had tried to check it out to see if I could help but the smoke from the spinning wheel combined with the smoke from the now very much alive forrest fire made it impossible to see what was holding us back. With my less than adequate spanish skills I made no attempt to convey my obeservation to the driver either. Luckily the persistent, but basic solution of stepping on it worked and as the bus started to climb the hilll we had saught refuge from the smoke in, the entire crowd of cold, smoke poisoned and tired people broke out in applause and loud cheers!

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Not the best idea ever...

It was over.. the sun was soon going to heat things up and we couldn’t be that far away from Cusco. That was at least my line of reasoning, and as we had already been driving for 12 hours I figured it was a safe bet. I was wrong again.. When the sun started to shine on us my initial joy of the increased temperature was soon substituted by despair as the icicles started melting and drip drip dripping down on us.. There is nothing worse than being cold and wet.. This had to be it..

After another few hours of driving it wasn’t so bad anymore, we were getting warmer and we had seen signs signalling that Cusco was about one hour away. We had now been on the bus for 16 hours and were definently ready for Cusco. It was right about now that the bus stopped again.. The rumous spread quickly through the bus, the bridge had been burnt. Our bridge had been burnt.. By now the situation was turning morbid and there was nothing else to do but to laugh about the entire situation. The strikers had burned the bridge in the valley beneath us and piled rocks on the road so that the bus couldn’t get any further. There was nothing else to do but put our backpacks on and start walking. It was a beautiful day and the sun was shining. Atleast something was alright!

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Walking down along the road filled with rocks

We ended up crossing the bridge, balancing on the one support that was still in place while we could hear the jeering from the hundreds strong crowd of strikers. They were luckily not angry with us and we were allowed to pass without attracting too much attention. It was although quite a spectacle, and I could see that the issue was close to heart. We walked for another kilometre or so, got on another bus and at around three o’clock we arrived in Cusco.. The hostel was easy to find and as we had covered our bases by choosing a hostel with 24 hour hot water guarantee we were ready for some relaxation after a long day and night. There’s nothing like a happy ending eh? Luckily for you readers it ended with a horrible cold shower as there was of course not hot water due to repairs.. screw Hollywood endings, this was as good as it was going to get! We were in Cusco and we still had two hours on our deadline, the Inca Trail was still on!

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