Bus problems, Dakar and getting robbed: Cusco to Salta and Back
I was stuck in Cusco waiting for my clavicle and rib to heal. The Dakar was soon to start and broken shoulder or not, I wasn’t going to be this close and miss it. So I took a bus to Salta, Argentina for the Dakar and liked it there so much I stayed a couple weeks. But taking a bus is not the same as riding a moto.
I don’t like working to other peoples schedules anyways, and not the greatest way to start a journey, but the comfy seats brightened my night.
This seat would be comfortable only for a little while. The bus broke a few hours later just before sunrise, so we had to wait for a replacement.
The replacement bus was late to Puno, so of course we missed our connecting comfy bus. Kudos to the company that only an hour later they had found us a new bus, a new OLD bus without comfy seats at all. This old bus took me to the border of Peru and Bolivia.
At the border I hoped to switch passports from travelling on my Canadian to my UK passport, figuring it would be easier at this border than when it mattered in Argentina. Entering Argentina on a Canadian passport costs 100$US. UK passport is free.
Leaving Peru was easy: stamp stamp see-ya. Entering Bolivia with an empty UK passport was not. After flipping through the pages and seeing no stamps, immediately the border officer asked if I had another passport. I said “yes”, but when I asked to be stamped “in” on my UK passport instead, the officer shoved my passports back into my hand, pushed me aside and helped the next person in line. I was relegated to last. “Fair enough” I thought. But when the line was gone and it was my turn once more, the officer wouldn’t budge. As I tried to convince him and gauge the possibility of greasing the wheels a little, my bus driver ran over to see what the hold up was. “Oh you can sort your passport stamps out at the immigration office in La Paz” he told me. The officer agreed and took my Canadian passport. Stamp stamp see-ya.
It was a pretty, but slow bus ride to La Paz. And possibly it would have been possible to sort out my passport stamp issue had my original bus arrived on time to La Paz. However my fourth bus of this journey was very late, and the immigration office was long since closed by the time I arrived. Waiting until morning for the office to open would mean not making it to Salta for the Dakar, thus defeating the main carrot for the trip. Reluctantly, I set off on the next 17 hour long bus ride to the border at Villazon-La Quiaca: The worst border in the Americas.
And that was 7 hours WITHOUT importing a motorbike! It was nearly sunset by the time I finally made it to the window. I had taken these hours to inquire with some Bolivian Border guards in the street about getting an exit stamp in my UK passport. Eventually I found a border officer who would acquire one for me… for 300 Bolivianos (about 50$). Half the price of the Argentinian Visa, but not guaranteed to work. I could see the Argentinians questioning why I only had an exit stamp and no entry stamp, then making me pay for the Visa anyways. In that case, I would be doubly screwed, since my Canadian passport also barely had 6 months left before expiry (didn’t think the trip would take this long…). I could get into Argentina with it, but I wouldn’t be able to re-enter Bolivia or Peru with less than 6 months remaining. I had to go back to Peru to fetch my bike. After hours of internal debate while melting in line, I decided to just try my luck at the immigration windows. First I tried pleading for an extra exit stamp at the Bolivia exit window. No dice. I explained my case, made jokes, even begged. They smiled, but still said “no”. In the end it wouldn’t matter.
At the Argentina entry window the young man took my passport, read it, then stared at it for awhile. Then he asked where I was born. “Calgary” I said.
“What country is that?”
“Then you need to pay”.
“That can’t be right. I am a British Citizen as you can see by the passport, where I was born doesn’t matter”. This stumped him a little, and he went for his supervisor. Him leaving the office with a still very long line behind me didn’t help my popularity with the crowds. They were pleased when I was taken aside out of their way when the supervisor came over. But he gave me the same answer. “You must go back to Bolivia, find an internet cafe and pay online”. I argued, politely, but I argued for a long time. Basically:Â “I have dual citizenship. Right now I am choosing to be from the UK. You would do the same if the difference was 100$US and possible problems with onwards travel on an expiring passport… By law I am a UK citizen… This has to be a misunderstanding of the rules… yada yada yada”. That I was arguing in Spanish might have helped sway things. Eventually, the supervisor told me to wait and walked off into an office. 10 minutes later he returned, flashed me the page on my UK passport that had been stamped and ushered me away over the border without saying another word. (For the record, I was in the right and should not have had to pay… but entering on a passport without an exit stamp from Bolivia probably should have given me problems.)
Post border fun I had bus problems again, as my bus ticket that I had specifically asked and paid for to be non-stop: had a 6 hour stop-over in the middle… of a 7 hour bus ride. Argentina wasn’t wooing me well.
I finally made it to Salta at 5:30 am after 3 days of travel. I got to the hostel just outside of town, checked in, and promptly slept through the first day worth of racing of the Dakar around Salta. Nuts!
The problem with the Dakar rally (from a spectator standpoint) is that the Rally is made for the drivers. As such, they don’t release the route or timing of the spectator areas until the evening before each stage. This keeps the route secret from the drivers… but also makes it exceptionally tough to plan for, especially when you don’t have wheels of your own.
When I did wake up, I was warmly greeted by Jayne and all the bikers in her new gang. None of them had made it to catch the days stage either. This would prove to be the common theme, with none of us actually seeing any live racing at all. I will have to do the Dakar again sometime.
The hostel there was fun and I decided to spend 2 weeks in Salta. The lower elevation, thus more oxygenation for my healing was a draw, and the nicer weather and pool didn’t hurt. I started work at the hostel, another of the Loki chain, and it was a blast.
Nearing the end of my stay, I visited a hospital for a follow-up.
While certainly not healed, the bone was starting to heal. The Doc thought pulling the pins was the right move, but in the end I didn’t get insurance approval in time to have that done. I had managed to get a coverage extention and didn’t want to mess it up by having procedures without prior approval. Probably for the best that I didn’t have the pin out then. But this did mean that after a long month of being stuck in a sling, my left arm could once again taste sweet freedom!
For whatever reason I took very few photo’s while in Salta, but here is a small sampling of all the good people I had the pleasure of hanging out with there.
Many a night at the hostel would last till the wee hours of the morning drinking with such new amigos.
The sun would set on my time in Salta sooner than I might have liked, with my rapidly expiring Peruvian temporary motorcycle import docs beckoning me back to Cusco. This involved more bus rides. And my first robbery.
After a non-eventful night bus ride back to the border town of La Quiaca, I found myself walking towards the Villazon border-from-hell at around 5:30am. While walking, I struck up conversation with a Bolivian guy also walking to the border. I bemoaned how long the border took on the way in. He agreed, and said he had heard of another nearby crossing colloquially called “the White House”. He asked a guy walking the other way about the border wait.
“Terrible, 4 hours. You would do best to try the White House”.
Asked another two guys the same question, both answered the same thing: “The White House is better”.
To top it off, the last guy we asked offered to lead us there. Nice guy. Love meeting locals who know these little tips. Especially given how long the border crossing was the last time.
I followed the two guys along beside the road until we head down a well worn dirt path into a ravine. Another guy was following not far behind “also going to this White House crossing” I thought… “or perhaps they are all going to rob me down in this ravine”. I palmed my leatherman just in case, but figured a) I wouldn’t be able to fight back well anyways given my arm has only been out of a sling for 2 days, and b) I didn’t really have much on me worth stealing, so if this adventure went down that way it wouldn’t be a big loss. Plus, I still thought that they could just be friendly locals who really did know a faster crossing. I was interested to find out.
At the bottom of the ravine, a flashlight came bouncing towards us along the waters edge “Stop, Police!”. One solitary officer came up to us. We all stopped. He showed us his ID that was poorly laminated paper with a grainy photo and large red lettering saying “POLICE”. Ok then, I’m probably getting robbed.
He asked for our ID’s, which the other three men already seemed to have at the ready. I offered for the “officer” to look at my passport, but when he went to hold it I pulled back. “You may read it, but I will hold it” I said, “I’ve heard of Police robbing tourists like this.”
The “officer” didn’t like it, but accepted that I wouldn’t let him hold my passport. Then he asked to look in our bags for contraband. A quick search of the other mens bags, followed by an in depth look through mine. I squatted down so close our heads were nearly touching so that I could see exactly what he was doing. Nothing really worth stealing in my bag anyways. Then he said he needed to check our money for fakes. Ok then, I’m definitely getting robbed.
Fortunately I only had 110 Argentinian pesos (less than 10$) on me. I’d spent the rest. The “officer” was upset, repeatedly asking me “are you sure you don’t have any more?”. “Yes I’m sure” I replied, getting more hostile each time. Then he gave me a pat down. The Officer insisted I put my camera from my pocket into my bag. I resisted, saying that was ridiculous and unnecessary. He insisted more than I resisted, so I placed the camera in an internal zippered pocket in my bag and zipped the bag closed too. The “officer” patted me down again, then wanted to take another look in my bag. I resisted again, but by this point I figured the other men must be in on it, so kicking the officer over and running might not go down very well. I again watched closely as he dug through my bag once more. But that was it for me, I grabbed my bag and said “if you want to search me more, it’ll have to be somewhere that isn’t a ravine”. He said “Fine, get going then!”
I walked 5 steps then stopped.
I really wanted a photo of these guys. I opened my bag, unzipped the pocket… to find that my camera was gone. One armed or not, I exploded in rage and ran at them “Where’s my Camera?!!”. One guy quickly handed it back to the “officer”, and the “officer” said “here it is, you dropped it” as he handed it to me. Riiiight, I “dropped it” and you are a “police officer”. The men then scurried off together, into the darkness. By the time I snapped a photo it wasn’t too incriminating.
The whole boondoggle took about 45 minutes. As I walked back up out of the ravine, I checked for my cash to find that it had indeed been taken. He was quick with skilled fingers. I had been watching the whole time like a hawk. A short walk to the real border would reveal that not only was there no 4 hour wait; the border didn’t even open until 7 am! It was then I realized that all told there had to have been at least 6, and likely 8 men involved in a semi-organized heist. Each guy walking the other way who mentioned the non-existent “White house” border crossing had been in on the scam too. An organized heist which netted them 10$, 1.25$ each. I’m happy to have wasted their time I suppose.
A couple weeks later I would (sadly) end up crossing at the same border again. I figured the robbers were organized enough it likely wasn’t their only time pulling that stunt, so I mentioned it to the Argentinian border police. The police response: “Yep, there are bad people around. Watch out for that.”
Thanks for that.
Moral of this story: Don’t take buses while on a motorcycle trip and you won’t get robbed.