Our group of 3 Chilean strangers and the Peruvian collectivo driver all made sure we hustled though the customs office together. Each car driver gets a printed carnet listing who is in the car. The collectivo taxi cars have been remodeled so the gear stick is on the wheel to allow 2 passengers to sit in the front double seat and 3 in back plus the driver. The border crossing from Chile to Peru was super easy, in 45 minutes we had left Arica and arrived in Tacna all for £2 each.
We had an hour or so to wait for the bus departure time to our first destination in Peru – Arequipa. As we were coming up to Christmas we wanted to make sure we had some nice places booked to stay, so we bought our Cruz del Sur Bus tickets for our journeys while we waited.
While in the bus terminal we quickly noticed the change in diversity. In complete contrast to the European dress and look of the people of Chile and Argentina, the indigenous people of Peru are short in height, the women have long braided jet black hair, wear bowler or straw hats and dress far more traditionally. However the landscape was unchanged for the first part of the journey with a continuation of sandy dunes, rocks and desert but then as we got further north and higher to Arequipa it became scrubby moorland and far more mountainous.
Arequipa is surrounded by a spectacular mountain range and three volcanoes including the dormant El Misti. We were totally amazed at how big Arequipa was and how much traffic there was, thousands of taxis were honking horns and cutting each other up! We had read Arequipa was a beautiful colonial city with many of the historic central buildings built out of a creamy volcanic sillar rock giving the city its name tag of the ‘white city’. On arrival our first impression was to thinking it was a bit grim and super busy, but once we arrived in the Plaza de Armas we both called out in a wow. It was one of the most beautiful colonial squares we had seen and luckily for us the hotel Los Tambos we booked was just around the corner.
The hotel was lovely and the excellent staff assisted us booking our outrageously expensive train and entry tickets for Machu Picchu on their computer. We’d failed to book online using our android tablets plus buying tickets to Machu Picchu is through a ridiculous 3 stage process!
We had changed our plans yet again and decided we were going to return to Arequipa for New Year as hotel prices and availability to our planned destination of seaside Paracas further north on the Peruvian coast were out of our price range. With that in mind we knew we could explore Arequipa on our return but opted to take an afternoon overview of the city. We paid for a 2 hour quick city tour but somehow ended up on a 4 hour countryside tourist bus with full narrative guide! But we got some nice views of the valley and the volcanoes.
Our next journey was from Arequipa to Puno for Lake Titicaca. All our travelling so far has been pretty great but it wasn’t to be all joyous as this bus journey was the worst of our South America trip so far. Our seats were cramped, it was freezing cold, the floors and windows were wet with condensation, our bags got wet, it snowed big time as we crossed the Andes so you couldn’t see out of the window, the bus driver could cheerily take up a second career as a rally driver and an unfortunate woman behind us got altitude sickness and puked a lot. Before reaching Puno the bus stopped on the muddy outskirts of the city of Juliaca and I’m pretty sure this is the Mos Eisley of Peru. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…I’ve since read this is where smuggled goods from Bolivia are sold for a fraction of the price you would find them in any Peru store.
But thankfully we arrived in Puno an hour later, it was dark, wet and really cold. A 200-year-old taxi driver who resembled a leathery walnut safely dropped us through the narrow streets of unfinished houses with rebar poking out of the top to our cosy retreat hotel Tierra Viva. We slurped a cup of coca tea and settled into our cosy warm room. All was good again even though our heads were starting to feel dizzy with the altitude.
We spent the next couple of days adjusting to life at 14,000ft visiting the mysterious burial towers at Sillustani, the fascinating floating Uros Islands of Lake Titicaca and learning about the men who knit on the intriguing island of Taquille. But that’s all for another blog..