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

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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Argentina Is My Waterloo

Puerto Iguazú, Argentina
November 2011

“Can’t touch this,” Karimé says. “When did parachute pants come back?”

She’s pointing at a young, blonde, German woman who is wearing the billowy, patterned pants young, artsy girls have brought back from places like Madras. “It would make sense if it was a skirt,” Karimé says. “But this? Not even MC Hammer would touch this.”

We are standing in an absurd crowd that is bum-rushing the boarding gate at the Puerto Iguazú bus station. It is a crowd of people we’ve been seeing all day. This afternoon at the airport waiting for the flight that ultimately was cancelled, same as all the flights that were cancelled today, that were cancelled yesterday.

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Black Friday

Campeche, México
November 2016

For a while it looked as if I’d be stranded at the Edzná ruins. I waited more than an hour at the dusty crossroads before the combi finally arrived heading back to Campeche. That’s the problem with combis — they come when they come.

Combis leave when they leave, as well. I waited nearly an hour for the outbound combi to depart this morning.

The Edzná ruins are a fine display of Mayan architecture. Atop a long staircase, the Edificio de los Cinco Pisos (Five-story building) towers over a spacious acropolis. In the grassy field below, the grand plaza has another tall pyramid, a ball court, and a long stepped building that looks like stadium bleachers but was once a government building for the Maya. It’s nice, too, that the ruins are not as well-traveled as Chichen Itzá, Palenque, and Uxmal. But then, that explains the transportation problem.

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Day Tour Etiquette for Solo Travelers

Yaxchilan and Bonampak, México
November 2016

The tall young man ambles onto the tour van and plops down on a long double seat, draping his backpack on the open space beside him. At the breakfast stop, he is missing when it is time to depart, and everyone has to wait several minutes while the driver goes searching for him. He turns out to be standing by the road in front of the restaurant.

At the Yaxchilan ruins, he is quick to ask me to take his picture in front of the first building. He offers to take my photo, as is customary. A couple minutes later, he asks me to take another one. And as we get separated, he soon approaches others who came with us in the van.

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