Rio Branco to Assis
It was 11am when we got to Rio Branco, and we knew we had missed the 10am bus to Puerto Maldonado. When we asked around we found out there was only one bus a day, and since we didn’t have the luxury of waiting until the next day we had no choice but take a taxi to Assis, the city at the border with Peru. And another one from there to Puerto Maldonado.
The taxi guy charged us 25Reais each and he was going to pass us to someone else half way, but in the end we were lucky enough not only that he took us all the way, but that he even stopped for us to have our last lunch of feijao – it was a buffet and it was one of the best we’d had!
The locals don’t need a stamp in their passport when crossing the border, so we had to be careful about stopping to get one. I don’t think many tourists pass by there because the people at the border were very animated about chit chatting with us. After getting the stamps we were handed over to a Peruvian guy who was to take us to Puerto Maldonado for 35Soles. This was the time when my brain showed me proof of its power: in the space of a few minutes I had to switch among 4 different languages and I did it without feeling fainty or dizzy – Portuguese with the Brazilian, Spanish with the Peruvian, Romanian with Silviu and English with Boca. And probably a combination of the above with myself. What victory! 🙂
While waiting for our taxi driver to arrange all his business, we took a few moments to analyze how we felt about being back in Peru. Interestingly enough, we all had the same feeling: that we were coming back home. It felt so good to be back in this country that had captured our hearts from the very first minute…
Assis to Puerto Maldonado
The taxi was a 12 seater minivan and we were excited we were the only passengers when we started off. Three minutes later we picked up two ladies and a kid from the border, then stopped by someone’s house and picked up two more ladies and another kid. These guys seemed to be moving houses, because they had luggage enough to fill up the whole car. One of these bags was near our feet and every now and then it would move in a strange way, as it it had life of its own. Towards the end we found out it did. The life of a chicken!
We squeezed at best we could, and by the time we left Puerto Maldonado it was clear we’d be having a crowded 3 hours ride. Our guy was a maximizer too, as he kept picking up hitch hikers along the way, even after we thought there’d be no way he could fit anyone else in. He always found a way though, and we’d later find out this was the norm in Peru – every single place, sitting or standing, must be occupied for a car to be considered full. Some of these rides would turn out to be quite entertaining :).
As for this particular one, it was anything but a 3 hours ride. We were supposed to make it to Puerto Maldonado at 6, but at 8 we were still crossing rivers. It was already night when we got to the river just before Maldonado, and the bridge there is still under construction so we had to use the ferry, as they do on all bridgless rivers.
We waited in line for about half an hour holding our breath every time a car would get on board, as the ramp was nothing but 2 planks of wood. It was dark and a tiny mistake could easily find the car and its driver in the water. We were thankful all those we saw made it safely on board (not without hitches though), but when we got to the other side we saw a big car that had sunk by the shore. It had happened a while before and it seemed abandoned now. One thing for sure, we would have hated to be the owner of that vehicle.
Puerto Maldonado by night and day
When we got to Puerto Maldonado it was late evening but it was still incredibly hot and the city seemed very much alive. We asked the driver if he knew of any cheap hostel and he took us to one. It was dodgy to say the least, and the reception guy was going to charge us 70 Soles for a room. When we asked if internet and breakfast were included, he replied with a laugh followed by a grin: “If you want breakfast and internet, you are welcome to go to the hotel across”. We did not stay there, and the next two hostels we checked out, thankfully just meters away, seemed even dodgier. In the end we found a decent one where we were charged 50 Soles a night and even had our private bathroom. “Clean” was all we were expecting, and we were happy it was. As for the bed, after 3 nights spent on a bus anything that we could lie on was going to be “the perfect bed”.
We woke up early the next day to catch a bus to Cusco as soon as possible. We were looking at a 10 hour ride and this was the 30th now, so we only had one day to make it to our destination. We had a very good night sleep and when the alarm clock rang at 7am we were fresh and good to go. We got ready and half an hour later, when in the hallway, we caught sight of the clock on the wall: 6.30! How is it possible we thought, to get up at 7 and go back in time while getting ready? The mistery was soon solved: we had neglected to take into account the one hour time difference from Rio Branco to Maldonado, so we ended up being super morning people.
We adored being on the streets as the city was just waking up, and starting the day with freshly baked bread and quinoa drinks on the streets of Puerto Maldonado. By 8am, when we returned to the hostel, we had had breakfast, found the buses going to Cusco, decided on the time and gotten ourselves a ticket, finally found that ATM, had 3 glasses of fresh orange juice for 1USD and found a laundry place where they said they’d have our clothes clean and dry in two hours. We could not believe it! Usually at that time we’d just be turning on the other side, and now we had done all of the above and felt great about it too! Boy, was Benjamin Franklin right when he said “The early morning has gold in its mouth” :).
The earliest bus to Cusco we found was at 5pm, and we easily understood why. It was so hot during the day we just wanted to hide in a cool hole and not come out until sundown. Being on a bus without aircon on such weather could have made one capable of suicide. I think that someone could have easily been me.
We spent the day in the city, on the internet (after 5 days on a bus we had catching up to do) and in a cafe that seemed to be the gringos’ hangout place. It’s in the Plaza and they have really delicous fruits drinks. They have wireless too, but it doesn’t always work. Try the place out if you’re there, it’s got a nice atmosphere and the owner is the sweetest man!
The horrific bus ride to Cusco
We got on the bus with a take away lunch/dinner we had found at a vegetarian restaurant on the way to the terminal. It was a challenge eating it as the road was pretty bumpy and we were close to eating the food literally from our laps. The soup was the best, as they had put it in a bag so we ended up eating it with a… straw. It was pretty hilarious.
We had the “Panoramic seats”, as the lady who sold them to us so proudly called them, but it was all the same as less than an hour into the ride it was already dark. We had heard the scenery between these two cities was supposed to be spectacular, but unfortunately we didn’t have a choice about the time of day to be on the road. The bus was totally packed from the beginning and it was one of the worse we had been on in the past 6 months. It was smelly and dirty, and the closest thing to the idea of air conditioning was the tiny window we could open near the front seat. It was broken too, so the only two options we had was full open, with the air blowing directly on us and bringing with it huge grasshoppers and other insects that came straight in our face, or closed, leaving us totally without air.
If this were not enough, the drivers put a movie on and the TV was just by our heads. It was an extremely violent movie too, so the noise was so terrible it could have made one bang one’s had against the window in horror. That could have easily been me, but luckily Boca lent me her ear plugs and I managed to survive the 2 hours of torture. We couldn’t for the life of us imagine why someone would not only watch something so horrific, but actually buy it to play on a bus packed with people. Looking around we soon understood – the men were all watching fascinated, eyes literally glued to the bloody scenes. And since most drivers out there are men… it made sense they’d choose something they’d enjoy, thinking everyone would. The movie was so charged with negativity that all the evil in the world suddenly made sense to us: if you keep watching such filth you will soon want to act that way too… and that’s how we get ourselves heaps of serial killers and phsychopaths playing God.
The heat soon turned into chilly weather and during the night it became so cold that even our jackets proved insufficient in keeping us warm. “Are we there yet?” was the first thing that came to mind whenever the bus slowed down and we seemed to be stopping. We eventually made it to Cusco before 5am, and we staggered out of the bus happy we had made it to our destination sane and sound.
Finally at our final destination
We were told it wasn’t safe to walk to the city center so early in the morning, as no police was yet on the roads plus nothing was open in town yet, so we’d be better off waiting in the terminal until 7am. We did just that and at 7 we took a taxi to Plaza de Armas, the central plaza you’re bound to find in every Peruvian city you go to. Once there we were approached by Jimmy, a hostel owner who was very excited to be meeting a Hungarian and Romanians for the first time in his life. He told us the restaurants open only at 8, but we could go to his hostel to use his wireless for 1.5 Soles if we wanted to. We agreed, and on the way we stopped by a bakery impossible to find if you didn’t know where it was hidden. We bought some delicious crispy bread, fresh from the oven, and had ourselves a lovely breakfast of warm bread and strawberry jam on Jimmy’s hostel’s roof terrace. He was kind enough to serve us each a coca tea as, in his own words “You might be young, but this is still 3500 metres high”. We totally appreciated his help and hospitality.
We were meant to be at the Valle Sagrada Ashram in Calca, the place where the Vipassana would happen, before 2pm. We found out it’d take about 1.5hrs to get there, so we had a second breakfast at a cafe in the plaza and then off we went again. On the way there we saw a guy carrying a blanket, so we suspected he was heading there too. He saw us carrying lots of toilet paper, so he knew we were going there as well (blanket, pillow and 4 rolls of toilet paper were the things we had been instructed to bring with us to the ashram). That’s how we met Steve, a most wonderful English guy who we’d end up spending some great times after the 10 days of meditation were over.
Half and hour after we had gotten to Vallle Sagrada and completed our registration, a more than pleasant surprise entered the gates of the ashram: Carmen, one of our friends from the Eco Yoga Park in Argentina. Boca and she were chatting on Facebook one day when she was in Bolivia, and upon hearing what we were about to do she was immediately interested. She was still on the waiting list 2 days before the start of the course, but she hopped on a bus from La Paz to Cusco anyway because … “just like that, for no reason”. When she got to Cusco and checked her email in the morning she found a message that said she was in. And that’s how we all embarked on the 10 days journey towards… ourselves.
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