aTypical Travel Day *Video*

Travel days usually last more than 24 hours and require some degree of mental preparation. I find I need to psych myself up (or rather down), and enter a trace-like state where long delays, blatant rip offs, and unforeseen changes will not rattle me.

I recently had a travel day that covered 1,438 miles (2,313 kilometers) in one stretch. I traveled from the remote San Blas islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama to the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa. Here’s how this typical day went:

Leg 1: San Blas to the Panama Mainland

I took a 5 night / 6 day sail from the Colombian city of Cartagena to the San Blas islands. Because our boat left a day late, the captain extended our sailing trip by a day, which interfered with my flight to South America. Consequently, I needed to make the journey to Panama City on my own, a day earlier then the res t of my sail mates.

The captain arranged a boat taxi to pick me up at 2:30 to take me to shore, usually a 40-minute ride. The boat, run by the local Kuna Indians, was on time but we ran a few errands first, so my taxi trip was about 1.5 hours.

Here’s a peek at my conveyance and crew:

Can’t see the video? Click on this link: San Blas Boat Taxi

Leg 2: The “port” of El Porvenir

When I arrived at El Porvenir, the drop off spot on the Panamanian mainland, I was to find a 4 x 4 truck waiting to take me to Panama City. However, when I arrived at the dock, there were no cars, so I sat down to wait. It was now 4:00 and darkness (always a danger when traveling on back roads) would be in 2 hours.

During my wait, I tried to make friends with the women who were working on the dock (just in case I might need to go home with one of them that night). I admired the molas they were embroidering and showed them the ones I bought on the islands.

Only 1 hour later, a truck came that had room for just one – it was my lucky day! (Although the Kuna family of 3 waiting with me wasn’t so pleased.) I hopped in and we set off, dropping off 2 Italians heading out to the islands and picking up a nice local couple who were just returning.

Leg 3: Border Controls into Panama City

At this point it was starting to get dark, and we still had to go through several check points to get to the main road. The border guards were checking for drugs (since this is a main route from Colombia). Our driver gave a heads up to the nice couple and they hid their stash of pot deep in their camera bag. (They did think of throwing it out the window, but decided to hold on to it).

We were waved through the check point with only a cursorily look at our luggage, and headed off onto the dirt road. It soon became clear why we needed a 4 x 4. While the new road was paved, it had sections of the road that were just dirt and large potholes filled with water. These gaps in the pavement served as speed bumps to slow down traffic.

The road was incredible windy and it had now become quite dark and foggy, with a light drizzle. Not particularly good driving conditions. The second border posting we crossed had closed at this time and we needed to lift the gate up ourselves. Apparently the road closes at 4:30 to new traffic. I was literally on the last car out that day.

After a couple of quick stops for the driver to get dinner and for petrol, we reached Panama City about 8:00 pm that night. The 2-hour trip took 5.5 hours. I paid our driver $25 and got dropped off at my hostel.

Leg 4: Panama City to Lima, Peru

Upon checking in, I arranged for an airport shuttle the next morning at 9:00 am, plenty of time to get to the airport for my 11:40 am flight. I had a shower, did a load of laundry, re-packed and got online for a bit, then hit the hay. I also confirmed one more time that the shuttle had been arranged.

The next morning, I asked for the shuttle at 8:45 am and was told there would be no shuttle, that the van was caught in traffic. Instead, I needed to go down to the main street and hail my own cab. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but taxi travel is the most dangerous part of any trip, where you’re more likely to be abducted or just outright robbed.

Luckily, another American was scheduled for the shuttle too and we hailed a cab together and were dropped off at the airport without incident. The rest of the flight to Lima went smoothly with no delays.

Leg 5: Airport to Bus Station, Lima, Peru

I arrived in Lima at 3:00 pm in the afternoon, with 3 hours to get to the bus station before dark, to catch my 6:30 pm bus. I stopped off at the airport information booth and was told where to catch a taxi. (Note: For safety, tourists in Peru should only ride in “official” taxis.)

I went to find the taxi stand, but there wasn’t one, instead I was mobbed by taxi touts. I fended them off (after exchanging a few choice words) and set off to find my own cab. After consulting a few other tourists and a parking lot cleaner, I hailed what I thought was an official cab and crossed my fingers he would take me directly to the bus station.

Because sometimes thugs hire real taxis as decoys, I specifically hired a grandpa taxi driver, someone who looked old and religious (he was wearing a giant cross). And he drove like a grandpa too, super slow. But we made it to the bus station and I paid him a fair price. After checking in, I settled in the upstairs café to check email and wait 1.5 hours for my overnight bus.

Leg 6: 15-hour Overnight Bus to Arequipa

I specifically chose this overnight bus because it arrived into Arequipa in the morning, meaning daylight hours. I also chose Peru’s most reputable bus company, Cruz del Sur, because they videotape all passengers in their seats (again for safety reasons). In fact, our attendant told us to that there was a GPS tracking system on the bus and it was being monitored for any erratic changes in speed or unscheduled stops. (Precautions against bandits on the road.)

I splurged and bought a VIP seat, mainly because it was on the ground floor, with less people, and again was supposedly more secure. I was quite happy with my plush, reclining seat and sat back to watch the two movies and eat my veggie meal. (Actually bus travel in foreign countries can be quite nice).

I was sleeping deeply, when in the middle of the night I was jarred awake by the swaying of the bus. The driver was going super fast and we were literally rolling back and forth in our seats with hand luggage flying into the aisles. I made the mistake of looking out the window and saw that we were driving along a seaside cliff, barreling along in the semi-darkness and fog.

I tightened my seat and contemplated calling the attendant to ask the driver to slow down. I didn’t for 2 reasons: 1) I was afraid to distract the driver in any way, 2) I would feel horrible if the attendant was killed in a crash because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt when answering my call. I then made the mistake of looking out the window a few more times and really got scared as the bus continued to careen around the corners. (Obviously the GPS-speed control monitor wasn’t working.)

In the end we arrived only 1.5 hours later than scheduled. I hailed another cab at the Arequipa bus station and paid the driver an extra Peruvian sole because he took me directly to my hostel.

In total, the trip took 44 hours and I arrived safely with no major incident. I didn’t get robbed or ripped off and I was fairly relaxed the whole time. A good travel day in my book!

Interested in more posts about travel mishaps? Check out:


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 7th, 2012 and is filed under On the Road.

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