Peru started smoothly for us. After practically gliding across the border from Bolivia, we took a short bus ride to Puno, Peru’s gateway town for Lake Titicaca.
It’s famous for access to the floating islands of Uros, a series of small inhabited islands built with a foundation of reeds.
We…uh…didn’t go there.
In our one afternoon in Puno, we kicked around town, went to the local market, and made a big salad in our supremely comfortable hostel room (Marlon’s Hostel, if you’re wondering).
And it’s a good thing we got all of that rest and relaxation in, because the next day was full of adventure. We rolled up to the bus station at 7:55am, prepared to look for a bus to Cusco. The first desk we passed had a bus leaving at eight.
The cost for the 8-hour bus ride was 15 soles – less than $3.
When I saw the bus, I began to have my suspicions. There were sleek double-decker buses filling the parking lot, complete with bathroom and blankets.
Our bus was a rusty single-decker. Most of the seats were covered in crumbs. There was no bathroom.
This in itself isn’t really a problem, but there was a weird vibe. About six women were already on the bus, bustling back and forth down the aisles. Most of them were in the traditional Peruvian dress of long skirts, aprons, bowler hats and braids. All of them had stuff.
Lots of stuff. Like 25 pairs of pantyhose. Blankets. Earrings. Piles of t-shirts.
And for some reason, they were traversing the bus, storing their things under and above random empty seats. When we arrived at our assigned seats, there were bags on them. A woman ran over and removed them, then pointed at two duffel bags, one under each seat.
Reluctantly, we agreed to keep them there, not wanting to raise a fuss.
I brushed the crumbs from my seat and sat down. Another woman came over with a huge fleece blanket, one of those that has a weird pattern of a galloping horse or howling wolf on it.
“Por favoooooorrrrrr,” she crooned, shaking it at us.
We stared at her, uncomprehending.
“Por favooorrrr,” she repeated, sticking out her lower lip and smoothing the air over our laps with her occupied hands.
This woman wanted us to wear her blanket on our laps for the entire 8-hour, bathroom-free journey to Cusco. When there were 15 empty seats on the bus.
I don’t think so.
Meanwhile, a woman in her 20s was rushing around, stashing squares of cardboard in various places around the bus.
At 8:15, we finally left, driving away from Lake Titicaca and towards Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Shortly afterwards, a man with greasy curls boarded, stood at the front, and pulled out a laminated binder.
Christ. Another sales pitch.
An irritatingly common phenomenon on South American buses is the salesman. People hop on, give long, droning product descriptions in the front, then stroll down the aisles, trying to sell you ginseng tea, chocolates, hotels, and other unnecessary items.
This guy stepped it up a notch – he had a headset so he was impossible to ignore. As he launched into his spiel about health, he showed us pictures of the human anatomy. At one point I looked up to see a detailed diagram of the male reproductive system. 30 minutes later, he finally stopped talking and got off the bus. I never figured out what he was selling.
That was about the time the police raided our bus.
The driver pulled over for a routine security check, and two policemen climbed on. They began digging through everyone’s carry-on bags, searching for a black bag. The women we’d encountered earlier that morning all stiffened.
The police started yanking bags off the bus, checking under the seats, and questioning passengers. They must have had a tip, because they pulled all of those women off the bus. The women screamed and moaned. One clutched the policeman’s arm, refusing to give up her bag or get out of her seat. She literally had to be dragged away.
The other passengers started shouting; they appeared to be on the women’s side.
We had no idea what was going on, and hoped we wouldn’t be held culpable for the bags under our seats.
We weren’t – the police had no interest in us and swiftly removed the bags once we said they weren’t ours.
A tense half hour later, peace was restored to the bus. The women got back on. The police drove off. Everyone settled down and we drove away.
“What the hell was that?” I asked Jared.
We figured that this was a delayed customs check – these women buy cheap goods in Bolivia with the intention of selling them in Peru, but they don’t pay tax on the t-shirts, pantyhose, or blankets.
I don’t know what happened to the women, if anything. I just know that I was incredibly relieved to get off that bus in Cusco.
The lesson here: pay 15 soles and get a nail-biting adventure, or pay 25 to not get pulled over by the police and to have a baño on your bus.
The choice is yours.