When my flight landed in Juliaca, Peru at 8am, I was more than a little bit of a wreck. I had slept no more than 10 hours in 3 days, I’d forgotten my altitude sickness medication in my checked bag, and I was still reeling from being kidnapped by a supposed taxi driver, taken to an ATM in a bad part of Lima, and forced to withdraw the maximum allowed amount. Yup… I fell for a fake taxi scam. I lost 600 soles, but I got a tour of Lima’s ghetto and a valuable lesson for that price. I’m an idiot, but I think we already knew that.
I vowed not to trust anyone ever again, but I wanted to feel the compassion of someone who was physically with me so badly after that. So when an Incan man and his Austrian girlfriend who were old enough to be my grandparents asked me where I was from in the baggage claim area, I couldn’t help but tell them everything that had just happened. I asked them if there was a bus to Puno from the airport, desperate for some rest, and Puno was where the nearest listing on hostel world was. There was no bus from the airport, but they told me I should share their taxi and they would show me where the bus stop in downtown Juliaca was.
Their names were Manuel and Rosamarie. They were on their way to visit Manuel’s brother, René, who lives in Juliaca. They asked me if I’d mind coming into his home for a little while so they could put down their suitcases and say hell. Hesitantly, I agreed.
Before I knew it, I had been offered a spare room for the night, a piece of paper with René’s address and phone number, and a key to the front door (a piece of sheet metal that covered a 20-foot passageway to a courtyard). René even made me try the key to prove I wouldn’t be abandoned on the street without my backpack if I followed them out around the city.
They nursed me back to health with water, sleep, bread and mate de coca. Yes, mom… that is tea made from the same plant as cocaine, but I promise it doesn’t get you high. It feels just like coffee and seems to hold the same place in the culture. Plus, it’s got the added benefit of easing the head and stomach aches of altitude sickness.
Once my body was fit enough for a little bit of walking and something solid that wasn’t bread, I was taken out to explore the city. Although Juliaca is considered very dangerous and not a good place for tourists to be at all, I loved it. The streets were colourful and chaotic, full of dogs, Incan women in traditional clothing, children having temper tantrums in the gutters, and everything from giant tractor wheels to sheep’s feet for sale. Miniature moto taxis weaved in and out between vehicles of all sizes. There were no traffic lights or even “pare” signs to speak of. The driver who was most determined to go was the driver whose turn it was to pass through the intersection. Riding in vehicles felt like riding a roller coaster.
René was the most amazing host. With difficulty, he insisted on speaking to me in English the whole time, and he sawed off a the handle of a door that was accidentally locked from the inside so that I could have my own bathroom next to the bedroom he gave me. He dragged me around, making me try all his favourite foods and drinks— jugo de frutas, ceviche, the “menu” at his favourite restaurant, some sort of quinoa pudding, peruvian beer, and pizza at the recently built mall. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything— not even the moto taxi to the collectivo station when it was time for me to leave for Puno. Needless to say, I owe these people a big thank you.
I arrived in Puno with a lot of optimism, but it was hard to maintain. I checked into the cheapest place I could find on hostel world, naively thinking that would be where all the other budget travellers would be. The place was deserted, so I headed out for a walk without any new friends. Twenty minutes later, my phone got pick pocketed. If you’re wondering about the absence of photos in my posts for the next little while, that’s why. For just two minutes, I’d forgotten the importance of not putting valuable things in the water bottle pockets of my backpack in Peru, but two minutes was all it took. When I went to move it to a better spot, it was already gone.
Clutching to that optimism with everything I had, I decided to suck it up and immediately move on by buying a ticket from the nearest stall selling tours of the floating Uros islands on Lake Titicaca. I couldn’t keep it together, though. Just as I had been warned by several people and the internet, I had bought into a classic tourist trap. The ticket for the boat was only 10 soles, but then there was a 5 sol entrance fee for the island and after having souvenirs pushed on me for half an hour, I was told that I needed to pay another 10 soles to ride the “traditional” catamaran made of reeds (which was powered by a modern dinghy that wasn’t even hidden between the hulls), unless I wanted to wait on the tiny island alone for an hour. The whole time, I was just thinking about my phone and my credit card information attached to my Apple ID and my passport number written in my notes.
As soon as I got off that stupid boat, I went straight back to the hostel to see if I could wipe the phone remotely from my laptop. I could, but after refusing 25 sol ceviche over and over again on the floating island, I was starving. The sun was starting to set, so I didn’t want to go far, but I had to go out and find some food. That’s when I discovered just how deep in tourist-central I was. I walked up and down the streets surrounding the hostel and swatted at people offering me menus for restaurants so expensive that I would have thought the prices were outrageous even in Canada. Eventually, I settled on pizza and then returned to the hostel to spend the next 36 hours puking my guts out.
Something needed to change. I figured that I needed a little karma, so I took my left over plane snacks, handed them out to people who looked hungry at the plaza de armas, and caught a bus to Cusco. That was almost 2 weeks ago now and it seemed to do the trick. I’m just getting around to telling this story now. Clearly I’ve been having a little bit of fun.
Stay tuned for Peru, part two, featuring adventure, romance, food, and profound weirdness.