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Taking the High Road from Cusco to La Paz: Bus Travel in South America

  • Cynthia Ord
  • 19 August 2011

I leaned in, weighing the advice coming from a local tour operator in Cusco, Peru. We were in a tourist information office and he was helping me plan the next leg of my trip to La Paz, Bolivia.

“I suggest you take an airplane,” he said.

Maybe his advice was because I was a woman travelling alone. Maybe it was because that bus route had been plagued by protesters and blockades in Puno, Peru, for the past month and bus companies were cancelling trips on that road or rerouting them in order to avoid the blockades, adding four more hours to what was normally an eight- to 10-hour long route. Maybe it was because overland border crossings tend to be a little rougher than the customs lines at airports. Or perhaps it was simply because I was in a tourist information office and tourists tend to seek the path of least resistance.

I considered my options: a 14-hour overnight bus ride or a one-hour flight. “I think I’ll hope that the blockades clear up and take the bus,” I said.

Bus terminal in South America

The bus terminal is where long journeys to other parts of Peru and South America begin. Photo by Flickr/Martintoy

I made my decision for a combination of reasons. I bought my bus ticket from Cusco to La Paz in part because there was no online booking system for the one Bolivian airline offering flights. I also made my decision because, with La Paz around 12,000 feet above sea level – 1,000 feet higher than Cusco – I figured the bus trip would be better way to adjust to the difference. I made my choice because there was a price difference of about $90 and also because I had been thinking a lot about airplane travel: its heavy carbon emissions and its insulation from the local experience of place and journey in which I believe.

The Long, Local Ride

That night at 10pm, I boarded the first of three buses for a trip that actually lasted over 20 hours. During the first stretch from Cusco to Puno, I got out my blackout eye mask and my travel pillow. Cold, I pulled out my travel towel and used that as a blanket. I was caught in a half-sleep delirium that lasted all the way to Puno, our first stop, at 5am, when we were all unloaded and instructed to wait at the terminal for an hour and a half for a different bus that would take us to the border.

A 90-minute layover at a bus terminal in Peru at 5am? My ticket hadn’t said anything about that. Crankily, I made my way to the upstairs cafe and ordered a chamomile tea. I sat at a table with the woman who had been sitting next to me on the bus and we huddled by a little space heater. She was Peruvian, but had emigrated to Spain several years ago and now she was home on vacation to see her family and to take care of some paperwork. We shared experiences and pondered immigration laws. As we parted ways on different buses, she called out in Spanish, “The time passed so quickly. Take care!”

Border crossing between Peru and Bolivia

To cross the border between Peru and Bolivia, bus passengers walk under an arch. Customs and immigrations offices await on both sides. Photo by Flickr/T-Oh! & Matt

My second bus took me to the border. At customs, we were all unloaded again and shuffled through the first line for an exit stamp from Peru. We walked under a brick arch that was the border and on to Bolivian Immigration, the office I had been dreading for months. In retaliation against the U.S. and its difficult visa policy toward Bolivians, Bolivia requires a number of documents and a large fee from Americans seeking tourist visas. I had assembled my passport, my letter of invitation, my yellow fever vaccination card, two passport-sized photos, a bank statement, my itinerary as proof of onward travel and the cash payment.

When I presented the folder to the official, he leered at me. “Nice photo,” he said. “Can I have one to keep?” I blinked, sleep-deprived and dazed. “Is all the paperwork okay?” I asked. He hardly glanced at all the requisite documents that I had collated so carefully. He took the dollar bills and examined them closely. “This one has a tear in it. So does this one. We can’t accept these. The bank will not take them from us.” Five out of six of my bills were unacceptable. Meanwhile, the bus driver was glaring at me for delaying the bus. Frantic, I rifled through my emergency cash reserves and found just enough bills that were acceptably new.

I made my way back to the bus and collapsed into the seat for a six-kilometres sprint into the nearby town of Copacabana, Bolivia. We stopped, unloaded everything again and waited for a different, smaller bus that would take us to La Paz. That left me with just 20 minutes to scramble down the main road in search of a food stand. I returned to the bus stop just in time to reload my luggage and take my seat.

Bus in boat on Strait of Tiquina, Bolivia

Crossing the Strait of Tiquina on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, involves unloading passengers and steering the buses onto bus-only barges. Meanwhile, passengers cross on 'lancha' motorboats. Photo by Flickr/jimmyharris

The Final Stretch to La Paz

On the bus, a Japanese woman (also travelling solo) and I shared a package of cookies and watched out the window as the blue landscapes of Lake Titicaca rolled by. Unfortunately just as I was finally feeling fed, warm and comfortable enough to try to nap, the bus stopped again and we were asked to unload.

What was it this time? We had reached the Strait of Tiquina. Here, I realised why we had had to change to a smaller bus back in Copacabana. Buses are transported across the stretch of lake on barges, while the passengers a ferried in lancha motor boats.

At around 6pm, I was finally in a taxi in La Paz on the way to my friend Raul’s house, where I would be visiting for a few days. His mom opened the door and I staggered in with my luggage, dizzy from the journey and the altitude. “You look like you have the hangover of a lifetime,” she laughed. “Drop everything and sit down. I’ll make you some mate de coca.”

In a taxi in La Paz, Bolivia

The 20-hour journey by bus from Cusco, Peru, ended with a taxi ride in Bolivia's high-elevation capital city of La Paz. Photo by Flickr/Claudius Prößer

Raul joined us at the kitchen table and I relayed anecdotes from the 20-hour bus marathon I had just completed. “Do you wish you had taken a plane instead of the bus?” his mother asked. I paused, undecided. Then Raul spoke up: “I think you’ve had a more Bolivian experience taking the bus. Bus travel in South America – long bus rides – is a part of life for people in South America. The bus trip you’ve just made is standard for us. Some are much longer.”

Now, looking back, the answer is a definitive: No, I don’t wish I had taken a plane from Cusco to La Paz. The 20-hour bus-bus-bus-boat-bus-taxi ride was a rite of passage into the local experience of South American life. And the $90 savings meant I could buy more local alpaca goods here in Bolivia!

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Cynthia Ord

Cynthia Ord discovered the WHL Group while interning with the local partner Outdoor Albania for a summer. She is currently based in her hometown of Denver, Colorado, helping out with The Travel Word newsletter, and planning her next trip. On the side, she writes about the impacts of tourism for her blog, tourism, people and the earth.
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Bolivia, cities, lakes, local knowledge, opinion, personal experience, Peru, responsible transport, South America,

4 Responses to “Taking the High Road from Cusco to La Paz: Bus Travel in South America”

  1. Sophie says:

    Hi Cynthia, I just wanted to say this article has been just what I’ve been looking for. I’ve been wondering what it’s like for a female travelling alone by bus between Cusco and La Paz, as I’m intending to do the trip soon. It is good to hear you say that it is worth taking a bus as opposed to a flight, to immerse yourself in the culture. Thank you for your article 🙂

  2. Cynthia Ord says:

    Hi Blair, thanks for reading. At this point I don’t remember the name of the bus line — I had a local tour operator in Cusco set it up for me, and it turned out to be about three different buses! I did the same trip backward from La Paz to Cusco about 10 months later, with no blockades and without a hitch. Again, I arranged it with a local tour operator in La Paz the day before.

  3. Blair says:

    Cynthia, I am hoping to save some money and take a bus between Cusco and La Paz as well, what bus company did you use? Thanks for all the great info!

  4. Nikon Jones says:

    Very nice article Cynthia! My company may be sending me to work in La Paz in the spring, so I was doing some reading and found your article. Very informative! Thanks!

    Jimmy Jones
    Bryant, AR

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