Colectivos

Chiclayo, Perú
September 2009

Nothing prepares you for the Latin American colectivo. In some countries, they call them combis. Outside the stop in Chiclayo, a young man and his colleague shout out destinations and guide people to the correct vans. It’s chaos, not orchestrated. It’s like herding moving cats while juggling simultaneously.

A colectivo is a small bus or larger van, sometimes a truck, that carts people around town or to outlying places. Not really a bus, but not a cab either.

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On a Bus to Huaraz

Perú
September 2009

The Cruz del Sur bus to Huaraz follows the Panamericana north from Lima, hugging the Pacific coast line. For a while it winds along sandy cliffs overlooking the ocean, cliffs carved like giant sand dunes piled high and far, gray sand mountains like dull facsimiles of the golden, limestone cliffs of Egypt.

In the first class cabin, Peruvian travel shows and dubbed American movies blare from the television. Travelogues produced for the bus line preview Sipán and Chiclayo, coastal locales that I will visit near the end of my trip to the north. A thin, fashionable hostess takes the tours, then visits a popular restaurant. The restaurant’s maître d’ and chef display the wide array of dishes, introduce the full wait and kitchen staff. It’s all very Telemundo.

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Scenes From a Bus Ride

Arequipa to Puno, Perú
September 2006

As the bus pulls away, a tall man from Arequipa stands in the aisle and points out where the bathroom is located. Dressed in a white shirt with black prints, he begins an evangelical oration in a booming voice, hands out a free book on the life of Pope Juan Pablo II, and tells how “papa” should be made a saint. Then, he touts books for purchase and a complete map of Perú.

The man goes on loudly, as if it is of ultimate importance. Some listen, but most ignore him. I’ve never been so glad to not speak Spanish well. I wish someone would throw him off the bus. About an hour into the trip, on the far outskirts of the Arequipa region, he bruskly takes back the “papa” books from those who haven’t bought anything and disembarks.

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Planes, Trains, Etc.

When it comes to transportation, know your options in advance, but play it by ear when you get there. A lot depends on the type and quality of the infrastructure. If there are good, fast, affordable trains, take a train. If you are covering a long distance, check into budget flights. In some countries, a local flight doesn’t cost much.

If there are no trains, and flying isn’t an option, take the bus — but take the best bus possible. In South America, air-conditioned, long-haul buses are comfortable and comparable to trains, making them popular among locals. On the other hand, the Central American chicken bus is like riding a rickety U.S. school bus for several hours with all the locals — and everything they can carry — while the loudest Latin party music blares in your head.

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Highlights: Argentina and Uruguay

November 2011

“Tell me about your trip,” our friend Allison says. “How did it go?”

The scene is a second-floor sushi restaurant near downtown Orlando, looking out across the road at a block building shared by a bridal store and a mixed martial arts dojo. It is our usual place, Karimé and mine, where we began to plot this adventure. Now three days later, she and I sit with Allison, just in town from Oakland on business. Allison peppers us with questions: “Where did you go? How did the two of you get along?”

In Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg tells tales over bitters at his private London club. “What adventures did you have, old boy?” his listeners would ask. “What marvels did you see?”

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Salvaging

Buenos Aires, Argentina
November 2011

The best laid plans have failed. Now what? Thanksgiving dinner at the Estancia. Way too much beef, chorizo, and wine in one of the most expensive restaurants in the microcentro. After the bus trip, we owed it to ourselves. In the evening, our quest for the elusive Buenos Aires pizza goes unrequited. Lousy late-night empanadas give way to exhaustion.

We do what we can. Black Friday morning we plunge into the tourist traps in colorful la Boca. The hotel manager gave us strict instructions on how to get there by bus and warnings about straying too far from the beaten path, but it’s certainly less dangerous than getting maced at an American Walmart during the after-Thanksgiving doorbuster sale.

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Karimé

Argentina
November 2011

When I announced last December that I was going to Argentina on my next trip, Karimé insisted on coming along. “If you go to Argentina without me, I will disown you,” she told me. “You’ll be dead to me.”

For nearly one year, we prepared and plotted. I bought her a book she barely read. We consulted friends who had been there. “Tres Fronteras Iguazú,” her Puerto Rican friends told her. Our friend Dorcas recommended Uruguay. Raquel said Mendoza definitely, for the wine. We held meetings, bought very expensive plane tickets, consulted travel agents who were no help at all.

It’s been the hardest trip I’ve taken thus far. I don’t tell her that.Karimé is one of my closest friends. If our friendship survives this trip, it will be great. She is four-foot-ten and Puerto Rican, permanently twenty-seven — well, when we met several years ago, she was twenty-five. She’s carrying the biggest, fire-engine-red, rolling suitcase I can imagine to store all her hair products. She has to lug that thing up several flights of stairs at every hotel. I keep waiting for her to snap, but so far, she’s been a trooper. She survived the shared room in Montevideo. The soaking rain at Iguazú. The overnight bus.

It’s been the hardest trip I’ve taken thus far. I don’t tell her that. She’s sunk every penny she has into this trip. I wanted something better for her.