Night buses were something that we’d heard so much about from when we started planning the trip. Some countries like Colombia and Brazil would have good low cost airlines which are worth using instead of mammoth 24hr+ bus journeys. In others, it seemed flights would be strangely expensive for shorter journeys and when it came to crossing borders, buses would be the only option as international flight prices would be astronomical. All this turned out to be true.
Another bit of advice was not to scrimp when choosing which company to go with, pay a bit more for something reliable and comfortable. This was also a good call.
With Ecuador being a relatively small country, we’d only taken day buses so far as the distances were relatively short plus you got the added benefit of seeing places out the window as you went past! We’d taken flights twice in Colombia when we had to cover big distances and they weren’t much more expensive than going by bus.
We’d done a bit of research on bus options and there was one company that did a nightly trip from Cuenca in southern Ecuador over the border to Chiclayo in northern Peru. It was 12 hours and meant we wouldn’t have to change buses at the border with just a quick stop to check passports! Sounds grand! But we weren’t too sure how we’d survive our first night bus. Could we actually sleep on them? Would our bags still be there when we woke up? And could we actually function the next day or would it be a write off?
When we got on the bus at Cuenca Terminal, we were pleasantly surprised. The bus was fairly modern and clean and half full of backpackers and Peruvians. Like all bus trips, every food seller and their wife in the area got on the bus first to sell as many sugary snack possible. As usual, only one or two takers each time. The bus sped off at 10pm into darkness and a rocky-ish road to the Peruvian border. We settled into the initial four hours, consuming as many podcasts as we could download earlier in the day on dodgy wifi. It’s always strange being so far away but so connected to back home through radio podcasts. Listening to a breakfast show from the day before as you look out the window into the nights sky.
We got about an hour shut-eye before the bus pulled up at the border crossing at 2am. A bit confused, everyone got off and joined the passport queue. We were about an hour waiting but it was easy as you literally went from one desk to get your Ecuador exit stamp and directly to your right was the Peruvian border official giving you your 90 days entry stamp. We got chatting to another guy on the bus and he ended up being Irish (Conor from Waterford), on his way back to Cusco where he’d been working in a hostel for six months. We were beginning our Peruvian adventure and he was finishing up and flying home for Christmas the following week. At that point it felt strange not going home for Christmas – we had so much ahead of us though.
After a decent few hours sleep and with my earphones playing an endless podcast playlist, I woke up about 7am and it was bright outside! It was very sunny and warm, but everyone had their bus curtains drawn. Conor had gone (as he was getting off at a different town about 4am) and was replaced by loads of Peruvian families around us. I were pretty disorientated trying to figure out what time it was and where the heck we were! But I just remember thinking – wow, I actually got some sleep, but although patchy. John didn’t fair as well and had woken about 5am and saw the departure of some passengers and the arrival of more including, I was informed 4 police officers who went from one town to the next and then got off. Nevertheless we had survived the overnight bus and weren’t in too bad shape!
The bus trundled along the dusty Peruvian roads for another three hours till we got to Chiclayo – a large commercial city in northern Peru. It was really hot getting off the bus. Such a difference to the cooler altitude of the Andes we’d been in for the last few weeks. The two bus drivers and conductor seemed more worse for wear as they were sweating heavily and looked like they were getting straight into bed as half their clothes were off already.
We got our bags on our backs and did our what is now usual gauntlet of saying “No Gracias” to every random man-with-a-car. Especially those who just beep at you on the street and don’t even look like a taxi. They remind me of Moscow and all the worn out Ladas that just pull up beside you on the street! Plus this isn’t to be mistaken for every other car that just beeps as an act of warning at every crossroad where there are no traffic lights. This was pretty much the same standard from Colombia to Bolivia.
With the help of John’s iPhone (map.me is a great app!) we figured out where we were and where we were heading. The iPhone is the new compass. Thankfully our hotel was only a few streets away and we could check-in early! We had a few hours power nap before walking around the centre of the city in the afternoon. There’s really not much to Chiclayo besides street after street of shops but you can buy everything you’d ever need. Each street has a theme. One street is full of only paint shops; the next is selling only commemorative medals. The last time I’d last seen them was in my school days. I’m sure it’s handy if you only want to buy only one type of thing. I guess it’s very like how old Ireland towns and cities used to be.
We were hungry. It was around 3pm and we hadn’t really eaten anything beside some bread we’d picked up earlier. We had got into the habit of looking up the nearest Govinda’s Restaurant to get a good hearty vegetarian ‘Menu del Dia’. There’s only so much chicken you can eat! We weren’t disappointed in Chiclayo and made it just before they closed for the day. The menu of the day always starts with a huge portion of veg soup, followed by a plate of a veg stew-like bake and enough rice for three people. Sometimes they throw in a sugary fruit syrup for dessert to round off the meal. All for a few euro.
Northern Peru was where we took four night buses in a row. It just worked out that each place we stopped at was enough for two days to explore, plus we only had just over a week before we needed to get our flight from Lima to Cusco and start the Inka trek. We’d arrive very early in the morning into each city, stay a night, and then leave on a night bus the following evening. We lost track of what day it was very quickly.
Our night bus from Chiclayo didn’t leave until 9pm so we had the whole day to explore. We took a local collectivo/mini-van an hour north to a real dusty town called Lambayeque where there’s an impressive museum housing the Tombs of Sipán. Lord Sipán ruled the Moche people, who were a pre-Inca civilisation. They went to amazing efforts when burying royal family members. They build large pyramid-like tombs and put everything imaginable into each royal burial site from human sacrifices, priests, llamas and even the king’s wife! Not to mention tons of jewellery and gold. It was all about the afterlife so guess they needed as much buried with them as possible.
We got back to Chiclayo and with hours to spare we explored the large never-ending city market. There were stalls after stalls selling everything and nothing. There was even a witches market section with concoctions on sale for making spells and potions. (We’ve seen this a good few times on our travels so far.) We sat down at one of the juice stalls and a lovely woman made us a sugary papaya and milk drink in her blender. We just sat there at her kiosk while other merchants were trying to sell the last of their mackerel catch at our feet. Another thing we see in every South American market is that the (bootleg) dvd sellers are always showing films at their stalls of local men or woman fighting… almost in a bull ring style setting. It seems very popular as there’s always people standing around the stall watching it intently. You can even go and watch ‘the sport’ as a spectator if you wish.
Our next nigh bus, with Movil Tours, showed us the big step up in buses in Peru. We bought semi-cama (semi-bed) seats upstairs for the ten hour journey. They recline back about 150 degrees and have a leg rest which makes it into a semi bed. It’s still tight on space but just about comfortable for an overnight sleep. Peruvian night buses are like planes. They give you a small snack box and tea or coffee before bedtime. The bus throttles along at speed and you wake up in a new place with it just getting bright outside.
We arrived at 7am in Chachapoyas, which is a town a good bit inland and at higher altitude. While a lot smaller, it was a lot nicer than Chiclayo with lovely whitewashed buildings built around a colonial main square. We checked into our hostel and grabbed a quick shower before joining a day trip at 8am to the Kuelap Fortress, one of the top sites of Northern Peru. There was about fifteen of us in the group visiting Kuelap which was built on top of a mountain at 3000 metres. It’s a pre-Inca ruin and the guidebooks call it the Machu Picchu of the north. It’s not as impressive as Machu Picchu, but the views are spectacular and there was only one other group there at the time so it was really peaceful as we looked down at the valleys below. Besides the day trip friends we made, we also saw our first llamas of the trip!
That evening we ended up getting a worse-than-Goodfellas pizza in a local restaurant while watching the The Voice of Peru with the other tables. We were exhausted after a full day and collapsed into bed. We checked out of our hostel by 12 and killed time until the bus at 9pm getting another Menu del Dia lunch and planning and booking our next travel steps in an Internet cafe. It’s fun, but it always takes hours before you finally book accommodation and buses, etc.
That evening we boarded our night bus (Movil Tours again) and because it was a 12 hour journey to Trujillo we decided to pay the extra five euro and upgrade to the more comfortable cama seats on the bus. On most buses the cama seats are on the ground floor. There’s more room and they go back near 180 degrees. I’ve never seen John so happy settling into his seat for the night!! All the people we had met on the trip the day before were also on our bus and all went straight on up to the semi-cama seats upstairs. We awkwardly said Hi as each of them boarded but sure first class was worth it! The next morning John was chatting to one of the girls as we waited for our bags and she said she hadn’t slept a wink all night.
Trujillo is further south along the coast and had a nice central square with cobbled streets around it that were full of locals enjoying the weekend. We stayed in a newish hotel south of the city which had a power cut for hours when we arrived. No hot shower that morning! We took it easy and wandered around the city and got some food and beer. We dropped by the supermarket on the way back to get more beer and somehow we couldn’t buy bottled beer as it was only sold on a bottle return system. You buy a bottle and keep bringing back the empties every time. Confused by this we just got some cans… they’ll do. It’s actually a good recycling system and the same in Argentina and Uruguay, but not great when you keep moving cities. No room for empties in our backpacks! We have to constantly buy new bottles, but is worth it as the cans are never cold.
We had a full day to explore the next day and we had hoped to get to both the Chan Chan ruins and also the Moche temples, Las Huacas Del Sol Y Del La Luna. But we didn’t realise they both closed at 4pm so only got to the Temples of the Sun and Moon in the end. Situated about an hour outside the city, we again managed in our basic Spanish to hop on a collectivo and get off at the right stop. The temple ruins themselves were really impressive – built like a pyramid and from the same period as Lord of Sipán. The guide made a point as she showed us around that they get no funding from the Peruvian government for all the excavation work (still lots to do) but they get donations from foreign governments that help keep their work going. The Moche people buried old temples on top of each other so they are very well preserved and you can see the different designs and stories they depicted on the walls during each period. Also roaming the site are the unusual Peruvian bald dogs – check the photos below.
Night bus number four from Trujillo brought us eight hours inland to the high mountain range of the Cordilleras Blanca and the city of Huaraz. The first thing we noticed at 7am carrying our backpacks was the altitude – it was 3000+ metres above sea level. We found our hostel just off the main square and again managed to check-in early. We ventured out about midday to look around Huaraz and what struck us first were the high snow-capped mountains encircling the city – it was picture postcard. There were also lots of local Peruvians who had travelled into the city to sell their goods and do their weekly shop.
Just off the main square we were approached by four nervous girls who were learning english and needed our help with their weekly assignment. Sure we had no plans. So it entailed them interviewing us on camera with real basic questions like where are you from. Our favourite was – what is your favourite colour?! Two of the girls were so nervous they could barely speak, plus their english wasn’t as good. Well it was a whole lot better than our spanish!! It was a nice interaction with the locals… we can tick that off the Huaraz list!
With the Inka trek coming up a week later we knew we had to start acclimatising to the altitude, so no better place to be than Huaraz. It’s a base for lots of hiking and mountain climbing opportunities. Some people go on strenuous four day climbs with what looked like proper Everest gear with them. With only one day to play with we booked ourselves onto one of the well known day hikes to ‘Laguna 69’ at 4600 metres. (By the way, there’s seemingly a Laguna 68 & 70, but we didn’t see any sign of them!) It’s popular with beginners and it’s a prerequisite for those doing the longer climbs.
We were collected at 5.30am by a white van of other weary and apprehensive backpackers. A few English, two girls from the US, some Peruvians, other South Americans, and a guy from Japan – 14 in total. It was a three hour journey along scenic stretches of road before we stopped at a breakfast pit stop just short of base camp. After sipping back a coca de mata tea, we were on our way and soon enough everyone was out of the van and informed to meet back at the van by 3pm. The driver directed us down along a hill and said keep going in Spanish. With these day trip groups it’s always a case of follow the leader – that is if there is someone ahead. We ended us leading with a couple from Argentina (I think?). The weather was bright to begin with and we had lots of layers which hopefully would keep us going no matter what the weather.
The trek started at about 3800 metres and we noticed the thin air straight away, even at the slow incline for the first 45 minutes. We initially hopped over a few streams and kept meeting curious cows along the path. They looked harmless but I wasn’t too sure with their super sharp horns jutting out. On either side of us were large waterfalls gushing down and ahead and we could see the snow capped mountains. We knew were couldn’t be going that high, but we had 900 metres to climb in a few hours. The easy bit was over and we were quickly gaining altitude as the trail path weaved it’s way up a mountain… switch back after switch back. By this stage we had to stop every few minutes to take a breather and down some water.
Among the kit we had assembled the day before were coca leaves! For those who aren’t aware, coca leaves are known to help you adjust to high altitude. All locals are constantly chewing them all over Peru. They were surprisingly hard to find around the local market, but they caught our eye straight away in a local stall. They were only two euro for a large pack, plus they had another pack of suspicious white flour-like powder in the same basket for sale. We bought some of that too just in case it was needed… whatever it was. We later read it was an easier way to get the coca into your blood stream – through your gums.
(Back on the trek) we cracked open the coca leave bag and started chewing and chewing as we marched on up the mountain. They did have a positive effect, but the bitter leaf taste got sorta disgusting after a while. I spat mine out after a while. John managed better with them. The rain had started to pour down so on went our rain jackets. Their first proper tests of the trip! We made it up to the top of the mountain section we were on which felt great, but it only lead us to a plateau before the main climb started.
The plateau itself was stunning. There was a large lake which we trailed around and then meandered around another herd of cows. How did they get up there? They sure had a lot of grass to graze on. We crossed a few more streams and could see the path up to the summit. It looked like the final section of the Sugar Loaf (in Ireland) times three. Very rocky and hard to get your grip. We worked our way up slowly taking breaks every two minutes. Near the top we were breaking every 40 steps. The altitude was really tough but we were surprised we had made it this far with most of the group behind us. Some very far behind. My chest was gasping for air so lots of in through the nose and out through the mouth! The weather was changeable just like home so layers went on and off very quickly.
We reached the final steps over the top of the mountain which led us to a flatish path which we knew led us to Laguna 69 at 4800 metres! There was lots of volcanic rock around us… like being on the moon (if it’s like that). The path just opened up and you could see the turquoise blue lagoon water with high cliffs all around it, massive sheets of ice and a huge snowy mountain range overlooking it. A dramatic waterfall was lashing down while we found a rock and savoured the moment. We made it! We munched on some quick out of the bag sandwiches and it started to pelt down with rain. Everyone looked for a bit of cover and we found a large rock to shelter under slightly. The rain didn’t take too much of it away. It really was spectacular.
We spent about thirty minutes there before we started to head back down. We had two hours ahead of us before our lift back to Huaraz so we made pretty quick progress down to the plateau. It was a dream hiking back down and enjoying the landscape. Our raincoats held up ok, but John’s jacket had a few more leaks. As we neared the van, I started feeling the affects of altitude sickness with a headache and some numbness and nausea. I had luckily read a blog from someone who had experienced the same when they descend from the climb so I knew what was going on. Some others in our group had the same. It was a quiet three hour trip back to Huaraz and I felt worse as we got closer but luckily I held on and we stumbled back to our hotel. It passed after a few hours and I was back to normal the next day. It was a good lesson on what altitude can do to the body and gave us an insight into what to expect on the Inka trek.
John’s picking up the blog next on southern Peru, before and after Machu Picchu.