Andean “Andrews Sisters”
About a month ago, I regaled readers with stories about a few of my travel adventures in India. Fast forward a few years and spin the globe halfway around its axis and you’re in the Andean highlands of Peru and Bolivia with me in 1975 – and another great travel adventure.
With Peace Corps service behind me, I was then in the U.S. Foreign Service working in Brazil – first in the U.S. embassy in Brasilia and then in the bustling city of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the booming state of Minas Gerais, about halfway between Rio de Janeiro on the Atlantic coast and Brasilia, two days’ drive north into the interior of this enormous country.
My wife and I had taken several vacations within Brazil – my biggest regret is that we never made it to the Amazon – but early in 1975 we were eager to experience something a little different. So we set our sights on Peru and Bolivia where we planned to visit Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest commercially navigable lake (12,556 feet/3,827 m).
My interest in Lake Titicaca dated back to when I was in the second grade and read in my geography book about the lake’s floating reed islands, whose female residents wear wide, colorful skirts and, incongruously, bowler hats.
You can see lots of great photos of Machu Picchu elsewhere. What I want to do here is bring you along on one of the greatest bus-ride adventures – and cultural experiences – I’ve ever had.
Inca wall in Cusco
We began our vacation flying from Belo Horizonte to Lima, Peru, where we spent a day or two before getting back on a plane and heading for Cusco, Peru’s most important Andean city. Our headquarters for the next few days, Cusco is no ordinary Latin American town. It’s built on the remnants of a pre-Columbian Inca metropolis, many of whose astonishing stone walls – perfectly fitted together, jigsaw puzzle-like, without mortar – still stand, despite the Andes being an earthquake hot spot.
A Kodak Moment
From Cuzco we took a train along the Urubamba River Valley to Machu Picchu. I won’t tell you about it or post my photos here, because the Kodak lab in Paterson, N.J., lost all 10 rolls I shot on that trip. Grrr! It still ticks me off, four decades later. The good news is, they gave me 10 new rolls of film! Whoopie! Oh, well, you’ve probably seen it all in National Geographic anyhow.
Now, it’s not as though Machu Picchu wasn’t memorable, but the really exotic part of the trip still lay ahead of us. After returning to Cusco, we prepared to embark on the second leg of our trip – to Lake Titicaca and then La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.
Here I should backtrack a bit and explain the preparations we’d made before leaving Brazil. Knowing that the lake’s floating islands were a must-see and suspecting that they were well off the beaten path (they no longer are), I’d made arrangements ahead of time with a Brazilian travel agency to see them. Or so I thought. They told us to take the train southeast from Cusco to the town of Puno on the Peruvian shore of the lake. That would take most of a day, so the travel agency made hotel reservations there for us. At 7 o’clock the next morning we were to catch a hydrofoil that would take us across the lake to the Bolivian side, where a bus would be waiting to take us to La Paz and another pre-booked hotel. While crossing the lake, the hydrofoil would stop at an island – the Island of the Sun, which the travel agent assured me was the floating island I was looking for. I was a bit dubious, given her less-than-confident look as she assured me her arrangements would get us to the island’s “terra infirma,” but I could think of no way to double check. I paid for the booking.
Bound for Puno
So, to pick up the narrative where I left off, we got on the train on the appointed morning and headed for Puno, 240 miles (390 km) and full day distant. The high point – literally and figuratively – of the rail journey came a little more than halfway to Puno. We were seated opposite a French couple who were traveling from their home in New Caledonia (a French “department” located about midway between Fiji and Australia in the South Pacific) to Paris – the long way.1 As the train struggled up the slope toward the Andean pass that was the highest point on the rail line, the Frenchwoman pointed out that our altitude was just about 500 meters lower – 1,600 feet – than the 15,781-foot summit of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps.2
When we got to Puno that evening, using my best Portuñol (the broken mixture of Portuguese and high-school Spanish that came out of my mouth as I did my best to untangle the two similar languages), I inquired about those islands of floating reeds. And found out that my Brazilian travel agent had not, in fact, known what she was talking about. The floating islands were all located in Puno Bay, I was told, while the hydrofoil landing was a few miles away from town. That boat wouldn’t even enter Puno Bay. If we stuck with the itinerary I’d bought, we’d have come all that way and still missed the floating islands. No way!
That was when I started negotiating with a guy who promised (1) that he’d pick us up at our hotel bright and early, take us in his taxi to the lakeshore, put us in a hired motorboat and take us to see the floating islands, following which he’d (2) drive us along the southwestern shore of the lake to the Bolivian border where we could cross on foot and then catch a waiting “deluxe” bus to La Paz.
Terra Infirma, Then Desaguadero
The next morning, I went out to the floating island alone. My wife was bedridden with a bad case of altitude sickness. The island was everything I’d imagined. Ladies in their trademark colorful skirts and bowler hats3 and the “ground” beneath my feet a bouncy, squishy mass of matted, woven reeds. Terra infirma indeed! All the structures – homes, stores, a church – were also built of reeds. It was my second-grade geography book come to life.
On a floating reed island
Back ashore, we picked up my wife at the hotel, went to the Bolivian consulate to get visas and then headed for the border. It was not the loveliest ride I’d ever experienced. The border was a lot farther from Puno than I expected – 92 miles (147 km) on one of the most rutted, potholed dirt roads I’ve ever traversed. We seldom managed to exceed 20 mph (32 km/hr).
Finally arriving at the border town of Desaguadero (rough translation: Drier and Dustier Than Death Valley), we walked across, had our passports stamped and stepped out of the customs building into a picture-perfect Third-World movie set: a plaza filled with buses, people, food and wares of every kind. One thing we did not see: a clean bathroom. The one in the customs building was unspeakable. This was particularly disheartening because my wife was in the first trimester of pregnancy, and her bladder had begun to shrink. She would have to soldier on.
We looked at all the buses but saw none with a sign reading “Deluxe.” Deluxe would have been a blessing after a night of altitude sickness topped by a long morning of edging around potholes the size of lunar craters. But it was not to be.
Appreciating Local Culture
Instead we embarked on a cultural experience. We found a not-so-deluxe bus marked “La Paz,” had our luggage hoisted to the roof, and climbed aboard. We found ourselves among an assortment of local people, most of whom soon turned out to be smugglers. I’m not talking diamonds, weapons or drugs. No. It’s extra sweaters, skirts and cigarette lighters I have in mind. Big-time crime.
No sooner had we sat down than a woman moved into the seat in front of us and asked if I could carry something for her. I didn’t know what the game was, but it took very little imagination to realize this was not the sort of thing I wanted to get mixed up in. Someone else boarded the bus carrying a two-foot fish partly wrapped in newspaper. Every new passenger was carrying packages. Later, looking a little more carefully, I noticed that some of the ladies had big, rectangular lumps under their thick stockings. I soon realized these were Zippos.
Eventually the bus got underway. It rolled to the edge of the plaza, stopped at a lowered gate and let some uniformed officials aboard. There we sat for about half an hour while the officials went down the aisle, questioning everybody (except the two of us gringos), collaring a few unlucky souls and escorting them off the bus. Eventually, those detained came back aboard looking a little lighter. And with fewer lumps on their legs.
This was our introduction to the cat-and-mouse game of smuggling in the Andes. We made three such half-hour stops in every town – one as we entered the town, another in the town plaza and a final one as we were leaving town. Each time, a different crew of uniformed officials came aboard and repeated the game we had first seen back at the border town.
It wasn’t a hard game to figure out. The smugglers conferring with the officials making their way down the aisle were being shaken down: “Pay me off and I won’t haul you off the bus and fine you.” The ones who were taken off the bus were the victims of the officials’ need to produce results. Apparently, with three stops per town, the authorities could catch their quota of smugglers, the officials could line their pockets while still satisfying their superiors with “results,” and the smugglers, with a little luck, could pay these guys off just enough to continue the journey still in possession of their goods.
Unsteady on the Roof
After passing through several of these towns, with the long waits needed for the game to proceed and our bladders feeling the pressure ever more urgently, we were again in the midst of a shakedown stop when another bus came up alongside us. Emblazoned on the front were words of salvation: “La Paz Luxo.” It was also clear that the more prosperous-looking passengers on that bus were in a privileged class that would be allowed to proceed with minimal delay.
I sprang into action. I spoke with the driver of the deluxe bus and arranged for us to get aboard. But there was the little matter of our luggage on the roof of the bus we’d come in on. While my wife boarded the nice new bus, I climbed onto the roof to transfer our bags. I had both our passports in my pocket. While I was still up there, the local shakedown team had apparently just finished its “business,” and all the passengers were understandably eager to get moving again.
Our bus started pulling out, with this gringo standing on the roof, luggage in hand. I roared out an imprecation – not in Portuñol and totally unfit to print in a family-friendly blog. The driver, not a linguist, nonetheless caught my drift. The bus stopped rolling long enough for me to get the second bag over to the roof of the new bus, climb down and join my wife in deluxe seating.
From there it was smooth sailing. Arriving in La Paz after dark, we found the hotel we’d booked but were told our room had been given away because we hadn’t shown up on time. (If we’d taken the hydrofoil, we’d have arrived hours earlier but missed the cultural entertainment as well as the floating islands.)
We traipsed around the city and finally found a hotel with an available room. ¡Bienvenido a Bolivia!
1. I’m not sure if there is a short way. New Caledonia has got to be about as far from Paris as any Francophone location on the globe, whether you head east or west – 10,290 miles (16,560 km). The couple’s trip, via Peru, reminded me of the Qantas Airlines poster I’d seen years earlier in Sydney as I traveled home to the U.S. from India. The poster offered “three great routes” from Sydney to London: One across the Pacific to California, then across the U.S. and the Atlantic. A second route via India and the Middle East. And, finally, the “Fiesta Route” via Fiji, Mexico, the Bahamas and a final trans-Atlantic leg.
2. A Google check made when writing this indicates that the altitude of our pass was 14,177 feet (4,321 m). For all my Hawaii friends, that’s about 375 feet higher than Mauna Kea.
3. I bought one for myself; it’s too small for my head, but it’s hanging on our wall along with other souvenirs of my globetrotting days.
My Peruvian bowler