A Bus to Puno

The bus station was teeming with Quechua families with suitcases-worth of belongings in rainbow papooses which they squeezed through the doors of the buses. There were a few gringo backpackers, too, with the look of the road about them. Touts shouted destinations, barely pausing to breathe. “Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Aquipa-Aquipa-Aquip-Aquip….” But no one was buying tickets to Arequipa.

I wanted to go to Puno and knew from the guidebook that it would be a full day’s drive.

Will it be a coach?” I asked.

“…Almost,” the guy said.

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I imagined a scrapper with four bald tyres and seats like park benches and filthy windows taped shut; and it was easy to picture, because most of the buses in Lima had been like that. I expected to arrive in the sort of discomfort you feel when you commute on British trains.

It was not so bad, though. The bus cannot have been more than thirty years old – not much more, at any rate – and although it pumped out black smoke and wallowed over bumps, it looked capable of getting to Puno. The buses in Lima never looked as if they would make the next traffic lights.

The single track road stretched for hours ahead on its serpentine way through an endless landscape of plains reaching out to distant mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains, chaperoned by a river and flocks of sheep and herds of llamas which grazed beside and blundered right onto the road, forcing the driver to stop. Sometimes, in the middle of miles of nothing, there was an adobe hut with a collapsing thatched roof which looked like a relic from decades ago, but nearby there was a Quechua herdsman who could surely have lived nowhere else. There were the ruins of an ancient stone village, with a new adobe village abutting it; there were charming little towns, a long way from the Gringo Trail; and then there was Juliaca.

All the gringos stared out the window as we passed through, much as they might at a car smash. It is the scariest city I have ever seen, despite growing up in West Yorkshire. The roads were just mud and boating lake puddles in the bit that I saw: no surface, no pavements at all. Dangerous-looking young men lounged in doorways, scowling from under hoods. My guidebook warned that daytime muggings were common enough, and at night were too frequent to mention.

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But Puno is better, in parts. It has a nice Baroque cathedral, photogenic decay and indigenous markets selling colourful fabrics and sandals made from car tyres. It is worth a day of your time.

I arrived, by chance, the day before the festival of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the party erupted all over town next morning. There were street food vendors on every corner and I bought an anticucho (marinated beef heart skewer) outside my hotel and tried to eat it while I threaded my way through the crowds. Scuse me! Scuse… err… ¡Permesso! There were brass bands and flautists and men with big drums they call wankaras. Aymara dancers trooped down the street whirling batons. I wanted to cross but there was never a gap, so I joined the parade and slipped out further down the road. Wankara, someone said.

A very drunk man leaned against a wall in a lane, with his head lolling a few centimetres from speeding mototaxis. Another happily pissed in the middle of the road and people pretended not to notice.

It was like a Saturday night back home.

© Richard Senior 2015

6 thoughts on “A Bus to Puno

  1. Actually I’m from Juliaca, aymara. It’s not meant to be a touristic city, the most of population are peasants so they aren’t used to hire professionals to built their buildings, but that’s lack of education (an education focused in westerners), not lack of desire to live better.
    The topography in Juliaca is flat (it’s in the Andean Plateau) so the demography growing was faster than the building of infrastructure, for that you saw mud from the rains. Actually we pay taxes, the city hall can ask the taxes of the owners and the government office that collects taxes from the business is the most efficient institution.
    Muggings aren’t so common in our city because it’s commercial so thieves (that is the worst one can be in our culture) know can be a dangerous time. But I guess they could go after tourists.
    I don’t want to change your perception of the city, (it’s not a town, it has I think the same population as Newcastle), because certainly it has its problems. Perhaps you had been in the exterior vial ring, but I hope you can have an explanation about you saw.
    Kind regards, it was a very entertaining text.
    Post-Data: Juliaca is nicer in the Chacas Lagoon or some other sectors.

    • Many thanks for this and I am sorry for any offence caused. I have made a few changes in light of what you say. The guidebooks encourage the negative view of the city (I used the word “town” idiomatically because it gave the sentence a better rhythm than the two syllable “city,” but have changed it) and informed what I wrote about muggings. I have heard the story about the ‘tax dodge’ from a few sources but given what you say have taken that sentence out altogether.

      • Don’t worry please. There is no offense in the truth and it’s better be friend of the truth than Plato. And your narration of your travel was very respectful about the truth from your point of view, I just wanted to complemented it from my point of view.
        Usually the mugglings, in the few cases they have against us but surely in bigger proportion to tourists, are committed by relatives of criminals from Lima or the coast that are taken to the local penitentiary.
        The tax evasion could be related to the smugglers market where even congressmen (the corruption is national…) go to buy a Samsung TV or an iPad.
        Nevertheless I’m sorry if I sounded harsh, I have a great respect for the freedom of word so I wouldn’t want to apply a kind of censorship, just to add my point of view to yours to get a better panorama about why our city seems an unfinished drama XD
        Thanks for your time and kindness, sir. And then again my apologies if my words could have carried a message of censorship, far from that, it is (and it was in its original shape) very enjoyable.
        Best wishes for this year 🙂
        Francis.

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