Travel Dates 23rd March - 2nd April 2010.
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One of the defining things about travel is that, unless you are extraordinarily fit, you need to find means of transport over land, air and water.
I am not extraordinarily fit. In fact, my recent exposure to simultaneous traveller's curse and altitude sickness has shown me how unfit I am. So I tend to make a quick study of the quality and cost of local transportation a priority as I travel. I also have a nostalgic interest as I owned and drove cabs in Melbourne for many years.
I am using Qantas and LAN for air transport on this journey; so far they have been up to the excellent standard I expected. Back on Terra Firma, since arriving in Peru I have travelled in many taxis, private cars pretending to be taxis, buses of several types, an ancient boat on Lake Titicaca, a traditional reed boat on that lake and the train from there to Cusco.
First, taxis. The difference as I moved from city to city has been fascinating. In Lima it seemed that every fourth car on the street was a taxi. But that was deceptive. You only have to momentarily slow as you walk down a street in Miraflores for a car, with or without a taxi sign, to appear beside you with a questioning brief toot of the horn. The prices, in Lima and every other city or town have been incredibly cheap. A typical local short fare is two or three soles, about AU$0.80 to AU$1.20 (one AU$ = US$0.92). The longest fare I have paid for in a taxi here took about 30 minutes and cost 10 soles (AU$4.00).
As a digression, some people don't need cabs at all. The Lima official who stepped out of this limo not only had his own personal limo and driver but a police bike, with amplifier, to precede him. As he approached an intersection the guy on the bike called via the amplifier to the cop on duty who immediately closed the intersection to other traffic until the nabob was through.
But if I thought there were a lot of cabs on the road in Lima, the proportion doubled in Nazca. Every second car had a taxi sign of some sort on it. In Arequipa, it was even higher. It actually became difficult to notice a private car in the flow of cabs along the roads. In fact, there seemed to be more military vehicles than private cars and more taxis than either. Cusco is a little more restrained – about 50/50 private and taxis, with tour buses outnumbering both at certain times.
The most popular vehicle for a taxi in all the towns, by a long way, is the Daewoo Tico. The good ones appear to be at least ten years old; I don't think they have made them since 2000 anywhere but Egypt. If you think that's too small for a cab - you're right. But I saw five people get into the back seat of one today in Cusco. Every cab I got into had a sign on the dashboard reminding all passengers to wear their seat belts. So far, one cab has had operating seat belts...and the driver looked at me as though I was weird when I buckled up.
Puno added an interesting addition to the “transport for hire” fleet. I first noticed three-wheel auto-rickshaws in Arequipa, exactly like the ones on the roads in India. But in Juliaca and Puno there are human powered tricycles. In these the passengers sit in a bench seat up front, replacing the bumper bars if they happen to meet oncoming traffic; the driver pedals behind them. I could see them as a good means of transport for the brave in relatively flat Juliaca, but the operators in hilly Puno must have thighs of steel.
Next, buses. I was very impressed by the buses I took from Lima to Nazca and Nazca to Lima. The first was five hours by day, the second nine hours by night, boarding at 10pm and arriving at 7am.
I paid a little extra to travel downstairs in the VIP section. If you are contemplating this trip – pay that, it is worth it. It is like being on board a plane without the take-offs and landings. In the VIP section there are 9 or 12 seats with a recline far greater than the average economy aircraft seat and much more comfortable. Chatting to a Canadian lady who travelled upstairs I was informed that she felt the sway of the bus more and the seats were less comfortable than downstairs. I was surprised to find that I slept well on the Cruz del Sur overnight bus to Arequipa. My only hassle was the refusal of the attendant to reduce the volume of the on-board movie on the Lima-Nazca run. I bought earplugs in Nazca and had no problems on the next bus – with the same attendant (and the same movies) despite a crying baby as well. I think they switched off the movies at midnight, but as I was asleep by then I can't be sure. I bought my tickets over the internet; I was a little nervous presenting my printouts at the terminal but had no problems at all.
In Arequipa, and also back in Lima , the Peruvians used "Collectivos" a lot. These are microbuses with very cheap fares which follow routes mystical to tourists like me but well known to the locals. An attendant travels on many of them; their function seems to be to find ways to pack at least twice as many people on the collectivo as there are seats for them.
The next bus I travelled on was a microbus for the five-hour trip to Chivay and Yunque from Arequipa. As microbuses go, it was OK. The firmer seats and limited recline weren't as noticeable as we regularly stopped to take photos of vicunas, llamas, alpacas, locals or landscapes. The road started off as good bitumen; I noticed the bus needed new shock absorbers. Then we hit the unsealed rough road and I discovered what had destroyed them. The driver showed excellent skills at the moment when we struck black ice when it was sleeting at 4800m altitude; he kept us on the road. We were told later that the bus behind us went off the road but no-one was injured. We had the same bus the next day on the worse roads up into the Colca Canyon and back to Chivay. I now have a new respect for the durability of microbuses; I didn't notice the make.
The Mercedes microbus on the six-hour trip from Chivay to Puno didn't handle the initial 20km rough section back towards Arequipa well at all. Another passenger and I decided at the rest stop that we had one serviceable spinal column and butt between us. But it improved after that on the good roads to Puno.
Next, boats. I'm not sure how but I ended up in the oldest boat on the water for my trip out to the reed islands on Lake Titicaca. It wasn't really a problem, because it got us there and back, with the distinctive “chug, chug, chug” of boats I remember from my childhood. The guy I thought was the captain turned out to be the guide. The kid I thought was his young son turned out to be the captain. But maybe he was older than that because he had a toddler sitting in his lap for the trip. But we got there...
Part of the visit to those islands included a trip between them on this reed boat with an upstairs section, propelled the old-fashioned way. This guy really had to work hard to move about twenty of us through the water and deserved his five sole “tip”.
I travelled from Puno to Cusco on the Andean Explorer train. That was one of the best experiences of this trip so far and I will be writing a separate post about that trip. I admit that I'm biased – I have loved train journeys since I was a toddler travelling on steam trains on the New South Wales Government Railways with my mum to see my grandparents in Narrabri in the north-west of the state. I just like trains.
On Monday I will be getting on another bus at 6am to be taken to the 82km point on the damaged Cusco-Machu Picchu rail line and then on the Vistadome Autovagon train to Aguas Calientes and eventually Machu Picchu. Considering the disaster this line has suffered over the past couple of months I am enormously relieved that they fixed that part of the line in time for my visit. The local traders are also enormously relieved, the economy here has been in limbo during that period.