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Posted by Tim on Jun 23, 2005
The Longest Day

On Thursday, June 9th, the two of us embarked on our longest journey yet. Over the course of 40 hours or so, we crossed thousands of kilometers, soaring mountains, desolate salt flats, the world's most "perfect" desert, and two borders.

This is the tale of those 40 hours. This is the tale of our trip from Salta, Argentina, to Arequipa, Peru.

Salta, Argentina

It is 5:45am when the alarm goes off. We switched hotels yesterday, so that we wouldn't have to do the long walk to the bus station in the dark. Our new hostel is literally five minutes from the station, so we have time for two leisurely showers, some final packing, and a last minute room-check before heading out.

We'd had a choice between two competing lines, Geminis and Pullman. They both left Salta at 7am and arrived in Arica, Chile (on the Peruvian border) about 24 hours later, both with a layover in a place called Calama, Chile. The Pullman bus was a bit more expensive, but we went with them in the end because they had a better reputation.

We arrive at the bus station at about 6:30am, a comfotable half-hour before our bus is to leave. The Geminis bus is already there when we arrive at the station, and the Pullman doesn't arrive until shortly before it is due to leave. Somehow, though, when we pull out, the Geminis bus is still sitting there. Score one for Pullman.

The bus is filled with backpackers as it makes its way westward and upward from Salta, all chattering away in British, Irish, Australian, and American accents. Soon though, one by one, they fall asleep, and the bus is silent as it works its way slowly up into the Andes.

The middle of nowhere, Argentina

This is the most beautiful bus ride either of us has ever been on, and the most motion-sickness-inducing. The bus is constantly making 180-degree turns, snaking its way back and forth up and between mountains. Often, looking out the window, we can peer straight down the side of the mountain we're climbing, and see the road we've passed along twisted below us like coils of ribbon.

We pass occasionally through isolated hamlets, set below mountains with such varying strata that they look like they've been painted in garish stripes. These signs of civilization come more and more infrequently as the day wears on, though, and soon we're thousands of feet above sea level, with spectacular mountainous vistas unwinding beneath us.

We've brought a box of Honey Nut Cheerios along with us for the ride, and we devour it by the handful as greedily as we devour the scenery outside.

Jessica sleeps as the bus passes through the first of several salt flats, an ocean of white from horizon to horizon. This is a taste of what we're missing out on in Bolivia, where an unimaginably vast sea of salt forms the bleakest, most barren landscape on earth. This salt flat is only a fraction of that size, but it is still mesmerizing. At times it has the appearance of cracked plates, like a turtle's shell; at times, it looks almost fluid, like foamy waves lapping at the edge of the asphalt road.

In such a suddenly starkly flat landscape, it's hard to remember that we're higher than either of us has ever been outside of a plane. The temperature serves as a reminder of our altitude, though: the window beside me begins to frost up from time to time, witness to the frigid chill on the other side of it.

The Argentina-Chile border

The bus pulls to a stop at an isolated guardhouse alongside the highway. All of us tumble out to wait in line outside, shivering in the chilly early-afternoon air.

Being an Argentinean border guard stationed here must really suck. It can't possibly be less than an hour or two to wherever they might live, because there just isn't anything any closer than that. It's nearly as cold inside the bunker of a building as it is outside, and it's not like there's really anywhere to order lunch from. It's also damn high, about 16,500 feet in the air or so, twice the height at which altitude sickness can start to set in. I, for one, was feeling decidedly light-headed.

All that notwithstanding, though, the border guards weren't in nearly as bad a mood as I would have expected. After scrutinizing our passports for an uncomfortably long time, they stamped us out of the country and waved us by. Back on to the bus, we couldn't help but notice that the Geminis bus was just pulling in. Score one more for Pullman.


I guess after going through customs and having our passports stamped, we technically passed into Chile. It was another two hours, though, before we reached Chilean customs, before we officially entered the country.

In the meantime, you could argue that we weren't in any country at all.

We had passed now into some kind of high-altitude desert, on our way to the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. Surrounding us now was the infamous Atacama Desert, called by some the "most perfect desert in the world" because portions of it had never recorded a single drop of rain.

For 120 minutes or so, nothing rolled by outside except sand and rock and evenly-spaced little white flags. Not only was there no sign of man other than the highway we followed, there was no sign of anything remotely alive.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

At about 3pm or so (Chile time, an hour behind Argentina), in the little town of San Pedro, we were officially checked into Chile. This time we had to take all of our stuff off of the bus with us, and for some reason we had to walk across an enormous sponge. Perhaps Chile so dislikes its neighbor to the east that they don't want a speck of Argentinean soil getting in.

Our passports were stamped, our tourist cards were issued, and our bags were rather unenthusiastically searched. While waiting for the bus to set out again, we made the acquaintance of another passenger, an American named Maresol. She was traveling to Peru as well, on her way to the city of Cuzco with two friends. Like us, she was detouring around Bolivia. In fact, that was probably the case of just about everyone on the bus. We were specifically not stopping in San Pedro, in fact, because we had heard it was getting positively full. Backpackers fleeing Bolivia and backpackers rerouting around Bolivia, all of them winding up in tiny San Pedro de Atacama along the Chile-Argentina border. Like us, Maresol was more than happy to miss out on all of that, and continue on to Arica, on the border Chile shares with Peru.

We all piled back onto the bus, which then traveled a distance of approximately 50 feet (I am not exaggerating), and dropped off all of the passengers disembarking at San Pedro. As the sun began to set, the mostly-empty bus then continued to the Chilean town of Calama.

Calama, Chile

We knew that we were going to have a 3-hour layover in Calama. What we hadn't expected was that we would be dropped off and picked up at a shopping mall. That was exactly what happened, though, and suddenly we found ourselves back in the states, for all appearances. If it weren't for the fact that the signs were all in Spanish or that the soda machine cheered that a can of coke cost only $350, we could have been back in Philadelphia.

We decided to wait out our layover in a mall restaurant whose name I forget. We happily relieved ourselves of our backpacks (carefully securing them to each other and to the chairs they sat on, of course), and enjoyed as much as we could a couple of overpriced chicken sandwiches. Chile, it turns out, costs just about as much as the US does, which came as a bit of a shock after lovely, inexpensive Argentina. It didn't help that the waitress tried to short us on our change.

Waiting for the bus in front of the mall, we were reunited with Maresol and her friends, as well as with a friendly Argentinean man who had been sitting across from us on the last bus. At about 9:30pm, the bus set off on the 9½-hour trip to Arica. Although it was supposed to be more comfortable than our previous bus (so that we could sleep through the trip), it was decidedly not.

Arica, Chile

We awoke to find the bus was pulled over on the side of the road, so that they could serve us all breakfast. We wound up being pulled over for about 20 minutes, a fact that got a little irritating when we realized that we were only about 15 minutes from Arica.

At the Arica bus station, I retireved my bag (we only check my bag on buses: Jessica's is small enough to take on board) and we made our way inside to collect our thoughts. Our next goal was to get as quickly as possible across the border to the Peruvian city of Tacna, where we could book a bus to beautiful Ariquipa. This cross-border journey can be done slowly by bus, or rapidly by collectivo.

A collectivo is a shared taxi. They charge a set price (Ch$2000, or about US$3.25) to take you from Arica to Tacna, and they fasttrack you across the border. They don't set off until they've collected five people for the trip, however, and we were nervous about crossing a border with other people we didn't know, who may or may not be carrying anything illicit on them.

That was when Maresol approached us. She, her two friends, and the two of us made up the necessary five people. Moreover, we'd all already been through a border together, so the risk of unpleasant surprises was susbstantially reduced. We soon hired ourselves a collectivo (and found another for our Argentean friend), and set off for the Peruvian border.

Our driver was an amiable man with a lead foot, and it took us about twenty minutes to reach the border. The border, unfortunately, didn't open for another hour, as it turned out, so we all sat in his car to wait. We soon found ourselves at the head of a rapidly growing line of cars, in fact, and when the border did open at 8am, we were the very first car to go through.

Border formalities were prefunctory at best, bags looked over and passports stamped, and then we were officially in Peru. Our collectivo drove onward towards the city of Tacna, another 30km further through the desert. The barren expanse of sand from horizon to mountainous horizon was broken every few kilometers by little shrines and memorials along the side of the road. Whenever we would pass one, our driver would give it a familiar little wave, the kind you would give if you passed a good friend going the other way.

Tacna, Peru

Tacna was a little intimidating to us. Peru is a more dangerous country than Argentina was, and we were still adjusting to that fact. Tacna, meanwhile, was a bordertown trying to shake the bad press of a crime-ridden past, and the result of this is signs everywhere telling you fifty things you shouldn't do if you want to avoid being robbed. As a result, the place is fifty times safer than it used to be, but feels like it's fifty times more dangerous.

Our next task was to change our Chilean pesos (and some US$ for good measure) over to Peruvian soles. Our moneychanger of choice was an adorable old lady with a warm smile and a warmer laugh. Happily, she changed our money over to exactly the number of soles we were expecting: this in contrast to the dodgy-looking gentleman at the counter next to her, who robbed Maresol&Co blind on the rate he gave them for their Argentinean pesos. After she'd exchanged our money, she gave us directions to the bus terminal we wanted, and gave us a very parental-feeling warning to keep an eye on our bags while in Tacna. We loved her.

Over in the bus terminal, we bought tickets to Arequipa on Cruz del Sur, a bus line that our good friends Paul and Caroline had recommended to us, and waited around for about four hours for it. We spent our time eating some milanesas (breaded chicked breasts, very thin but big enough to cover an entire dinner plate) and catching up on our email in the terminal's interent cafe. Soon enough, it was time to catch our bus. We soon discovered that we were once again sharing it with Maresol and her friends, and with our Argentinean friend: all of them were on their way up to Cuzco.

Cruz del Sur

Our busride was again beautiful, and blessedly uneventful. It also had the distinction of showing the best "bus movies" we've yet seen. At some point, we'll write a post about some of the more bizarre cinematic decisions that bus lines have made, but it's hard to do better than Pirates of the Carribean and Hildago. Very good choices: my hat goes off to you, Cruz del Sur.

The only problem we had was that we were getting into Arequipa just after nightfall. Usually, we like to arrive in a new city while it's still light out, so that we can scope it out and find a place to stay. Until you've had your first reconnoiter of a city, you don't know which areas you'd rather avoid after dark, so arriving at night is a little unnerving. Plus, we were still a little on edge from reading a few too many "robbed in Peru" horror stories.

Arequipa, Peru

We pulled into the bus station at about 7:00pm, and said our goodbyes to Maresol&Co and our friendly Argentinean man (all of whom had another 12 hours of bus travel ahead of them, poor bastards). We had decided to pick an auspicious-sounding hostel from our guidebook, call them, and have them send someone to pick us up at the bus station. This was our first telephone call in Spanish, by the way, and I'd like to take a moment to give Jessica her props for doing an excellent job, especially in a loud bus station.

We had suspected that there may have been a little miscommunication when she spelled her name (McHugh), though, and this was confirmed twenty minutes later when a friendly-looking man showed up carrying a sign that said "NcHurh". We followed him outside, where he flagged down a cab. After a very eventful cabride (a story in itself, but this post is already far too long), we arrived at the Tambo Veijo Hostel. The proprieter, a lovely older woman who spoke Spanish with a dutch accent, set us up in a comfortable room and ordered us a pizza. It was 7:45pm, and after you factor in the two timezones we'd passed through, that comes out to exactly 40 hours since our day had begun in Salta. Whew!

Here and Now

That was all about two weeks ago. We've now adjusted quite well to being in Peru, and Arequipa has become one of our very favorite cities. We spent our first full day here checking out about fifty hotels and hostels, and wound up in the most beautiful room we've ever stayed in, complete with TV, fridge, and a giant balcony overlooking the back of the main plaza. We're leaving Arequipa in a few hours, and we will be sorry to say goodbye to it.

Our next busride will be about 10 hours long. Child's play. :)

June 23, 2005 at 5:15pm
Stunning as always.

Hope you had a lovely b-day.

June 23, 2005 at 11:48pm
Lovely. :) I just love the way you write about the people you meet and the places you see :D
June 24, 2005 at 3:17pm
pictures and prose are as always great sounds, like your still having fun .buses however sound like our greyhounds not much on comfort . after forty hours on them you need to unwind keep having fun love all woof meow chirp and binkies

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