After Cusco and Machu Pichu Austin didn’t have much time left so he and I took a night bus down to Puno, a town on Peru’s border right next to Lake Titicaca, the biggest (8,400 square kilometers) high-altitude (3,812 meters above sea level) lake in the world.
Night buses are almost more common than day buses in South America.
Because of the continent’s massive size the time between one city and another is often 8-14 hours, making overnight sleeper buses the norm rather than the exception. I avoided night buses like the plague in Southeast Asia because the sleeper seats there are designed for men with an average height of 5’4”, which can make for some very uncomfortable riding.
While night buses in South America are more comfortable than their Southeast Asian counterparts, there is some significant variance between the quality of the rides in the different countries of South America. For example, more developed Argentina and Colombia had more comfortable (and much more expensive) sleeper buses than less developed (and less expensive) Bolivia.
One common thing that I didn’t really appreciate or understand about bus stations in South America was the bus ride tax. Generally, after purchasing your bus ticket in a South American bus station (though this did not happen in Colombia or Ecuador) you must then get in a second line to pay a tax for your use of the station (your use of the bus leaving the station).
If you fail to do this they won’t even let you outside the station to get to your bus. While the tax is always something nominal I don’t understand why each city can’t simply integrate this cost into the cost of the ticket and then have each bus company simply pass this cost onto the customer in the form of increased ticket cost.
Instead of this more efficient solution, riders in South America stand in two lines, a system which is not only less time-efficient, but less cost-efficient. The integration and cost-passing solution described above requires one line (less time) and one person to sell you the ticket (less cost). The current system requires two lines (more time) and three people to administrate the system (more cost) – one to actually sell you the bus ticket, one to validate your ticket to show you’ve paid the tax, and then one to check to make sure your ticket has been validated before letting you on the bus.
While the integration solution may require a steep up-front cost to design a system to make sure bus companies aren’t skirting the tax for some of their passengers the savings over time would be worth it. I’m guessing the up-front cost might be the hold-up. In other words, maybe this is just another example of short-sighted South American business practices. It is also possible that these bus station tax stands have long outgrown their historical necessity (maybe started when the station started) but have just become a part of the system.
Either way, on to Puno.
After some decent sleep on our overnight bus Austin arrived early in the morning and saw lots of people in the streets setting up what would be a festive carnival parade later that night.
Like every good South American celebration it would have a Catholic element to it.
Unfortunately, the only flute I saw being played in Peru was in Puno and it was not a Puruvian flute band or a Peruvian flute, but a random jam band with a typical metal flute.
Austin only had two days left so we made the most of our first day in Puno, heading straight towards the shore of Lake Titicaca and passing several traditionally dressed Peruvian women on the way.
At the shore we hastily boarded a boat headed for Isla Tequile, one of the older and more beautiful Islands on Lake Titicaca and one letter away from sharing a name with the popular Jose Cuervo beverage. It was not until after we boarded that we realized that we were on a boat full of locals. All the better.
Austin and I were two of the few tourists on the boat – the rest were locals (of Isla Tequile) heading back from a supply trip to Puno. Aside from the annoying local music that played for over three hours straight, the ride with the locals was pleasant.
We found out why we were riding the local boat through a pamphlet they handed us. The pamphlet explained that we were supporting a “traditional rotation system” which allows the locals on Isla Tequila to spread the revenue from tourism between the different boat operators.
But it seemed to Austin and I that the main thing we were supporting was binge drinking before noon.
The locals’ “traditional rotation system” turned out to involve pouring about 4 ounces of beer into a plastic cup with the top torn off, drinking it down, then rotating the cup to the amigo or amiga to their right and repeating.
The captain and several of his co-pilots (friends) had brought two full crates of two liter beer bottles and time of the day be damned – they were going to finish both crates of beers before noon.