Things I hate about Workaway

A lot has been written about the amazing possibilities and upsides of workaway: you get to see the world almost without spending any money, can learn a lot of new skills, share your knowledge and meet the locals and their culture. But there are a lot of things about workaway that most travellers, blogs and of course workaway itself fail to mention. After I left my last workaway host early following a very mixed experience I decided to write about exactly these downsides. The things I hate about workaway. After five hosts in four countries I might not be the most experienced workawayer, but I think I have seen enough to speak my mind about a few things.

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A lovely workaway place in Bolivia where I had lots of fun – but did’t find the community I was looking for

Firstly the profiles rarely draw an accurate picture of the place, people and work that await you. I was told I would work and live in a hostel with a restaurant when really neither my accommodation nor work were in that hostel. An eco-community turned out to only have one member and the eco farm I was expecting was neither eco, nor a real farm. A lot of these inaccuracies came down to outdated profiles and of course it is always difficult to describe a place you are attached to, but it is annoying to find out that something you particularly liked about a profile is not true. For example I picked one of my hosts because I was looking to experience communal living. In another occasion I was hoping to learn more about sustainable farming in Namibia and ended up with hosts that not only worked in a lodge, not a farm, but thought it was fine to pour old paint into the nature where noone could see it.

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Playing soccer in front of the restaurant (not hostel) where I volunteered in Peru

Not seldom the basic premises of workaway are violated, sometimes without any mention on the profile or in the e-mails before arrival. So free food and board for 25h of volunteering per week is not always guaranteed with workaway. Two of my hosts told me beforehand that they could not provide food and as both of them were beautiful non-profit community projects I was fine with that – but when my last hosts told me upon arrival  that they really expected me to work a 50h week and had many rules they didn’t mention in several e-mails we exchanged beforehand I was very disappointed to say the least. I would have liked to know this before my arrival to make a decision if it was ok for me. In the end it was not the work or the amount of hours that made me leave, but the aggressive communication and stressful environment, but it lead to an unfortunate first impression.

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Painting a roof in the hot sun at my first Namibian workaway

It is especially important to know the details of each workaway agreement, because spontaneously leaving is not always easy. Depending on many circumstances you might be very dependent on your host. If your host lives very rural you might rely on them to get to the next village, bus stop, or even road. In a country like Namibia many farmers  own thousands of hectares of land far away from main roads – so hitchhiking is not an option everywhere. In cheap countries with lots of hosts it might be easy to come up with a plan B and I am lucky to travel with enough savings so I can leave everywhere if I feel I am being  mistreated – but I have met at least a handful of travellers who could’t afford to leave before they found a new host and this is not a situation I wish upon anyone.

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I found my host in the Bolivian Amazon by just asking around – and a boat was the only way to reach the amazing jungle camp

Of course some people will argue that you can avoid bad experiences simply by reading the feedback other travellers have left, but the truth is that workaways feedback system is very flawed. It has been written about before, but I am not sure most people realise that in the rare case that feedback has been left, it could have been left by anyone. There are no reminders or double-blind system in place and even worse, negative feedback won’t be posted by workaway. Yes you have read right – if you have an experience you’d like to tell future volunteers about don’t select the negative smiley because it will be posted without your written feedback. Not only does this system actively withhold important information from other workawayers, it also makes every host look good.

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Painting stones at a childrens summercamp – my second Namibian workaway

So will I stop using workaway and advise others to do the same? Definitely not! A lot of hosts are amazing and there is a reason travellers rave about this page, but there are a few measures I will be taking from now on, even if I am looking for a host last minute and I would advise others to do the same. Firstly and most importantly ask many questions before your arrival (even if the profile seems to answer them) and also get across what is important to you! If there is feedback which raises questions there is sometimes the possibility to contact former volunteers who left that feedback and I think it’s great chance to get more information. It also helps to get information on the exact location of your host and the surroundings like nearby hostels and alternative hosts, just in case. And lastly I would personally never do workaway without the funds to at least pay for transport and a few nights of cheap accommodation. I really don’t want to scare anyone away from volunteering or travelling and think it is great to arrive everywhere with a an open heart and mind,  but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared…

Just in case anyone was wondering: I have never used helpx or other similar sites and this is the only reason this post focusses on workaway. I have no clue is the other pages work better, worse or the same and therefore they are not mentioned. 

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My Southamerica trip in numbers

I have a confession to make: I kind of like statistics. Not to the extend that I spend my free time calculating structural equation models for fun, but looking at numbers and visualising them in pretty charts is weirdly satisfying to me. Of course I know that most things can’t be measured in numbers and that is great – but I still thought it would be interesting to show what my time in Peru and Bolivia looks like in numbers and facts. So where and how did I spend my time? What story do the numbers tell?

First of all I would like to show you where I’ve been on an interactive map. All places I spent a night at (excluding hikes) have been marked and you can also see when I went from A to B:

As I have mentioned before the initial plan was to spend most of my time in Peru – that didn’t work out so well. Out of my five months (or 154 days) 85 days were spent in Bolivia and only 69 in Peru. Bolivia is amazing though and I don’t regret a single day I spent there. Ok maybe I do, the three days spent in Santa Cruz to extend my visa were pretty annoying and I lost my credit card not once but twice (!) in the exact same cash machine there, but that is another story.

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Figure 1: Where did I spend my time?

I also had some favourite places I spent a lot of time at. Here are my top three cities and villages measured by the time I spent there (I only included days if I spent the night in said place). Unsurprisingly I have written blogposts about three of the four places so I didn’t get stuck there by accident…

  1. La Paz (Bolivia), 14 days
  2. Samaipata (Bolivia), 13 days
  3. Pisac (Peru) & Cuzco (Peru), 11 days

Now you know where I spent my time. But what did I do with it? How did I spend my days?  I didn’t actually volunteer or couchsurf all that much as you can see – but my days hiking (including dayhikes) almost add up to a full month which I think is pretty impressive.

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Figure 2: How did I spend my time?

 I also thought quite a lot about if I should bring a sleeping bag and tent and ended up only bringing the sleeping bag. I used it quite a lot (couchsurfing, hiking, workaway…) and next time I’ll defnitely be bringing my tent too!

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Figure 3: Where did I sleep?

Lastly I would like to take a look at the people I met. I had a lot of brief encounters that were amazing. People I connected with a lot although we might have only spent a day or two together. But some people I ended up spending quite a lot of time with and that was great! Who were the people I spent most time with (in absolute days and percentage of my trip spent with them)? Last but not least, let me introduce you to:

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Melina at the train graveyard

  1. Melina – 32 days, 20.8%: I met Melina in Samaipata and we instantly bonded over having the same hiking guidebook. She tured out to be the most caring person, a great Macrame teacher and (like me) a bit of a planner. We ended up travelling together for 25 days filled with some of the most adventurous dayhikes and amazing guided tours through a salar, pampas and even the amazon djungle where we supported each other like a perfect team and had the most amazing personal conversations. At the end of my trip we met up again in Samaipata for a week and it was like meeting up with an old friend again. She also wrote a guestpost about our greatest challenge together and I am shure we will meet again as soon as we are both back in Germany.
  2. Marie – 25 days, 16.2%: I met Marie while volunteering near Samaipata. She lit up the days with her beautiful guitar music, made my infamous braid and was the start of a more hippe travelling style for me. Though my time in and around Samaipata involved many more wonderfull people, she was the person who intoduced me to the ‘hostal jardin’ and an everchanging group of amazing people that became like a temporal family. Samaipata was probably my favourite place on this trip and Marie was a big part of that.
  3. Camille, Daniel (& Thomas) – 22 days, 14.3%: I had already gone on a lot of dayhikes with Melina, but this international group of solo travellers took it to a whole other level. And even though Thomas left earlier the list would not be complete without him. The four of us hiked around Cuzco on the Salkantay and Ausangate treks and while doing so planned the amazing meals we would cook together when getting back (I kid you not). On our way to Machu Picchu Thomas (from Italy) and Daniel (from Germany) came up with the idea of making Rouladen (a typical german roast) with spinach dumplings and red cabbage. We spent about 5 hours in the hostel kitchen and Camille (from Canada) topped the meal off with a great salad. Let’s just say that we shared some of the best meals of my journey and I even convinced Daniel and Camille to stay in Cuzco a bit longer to go to the most insane pilgimage that is Quyllurit’i together. I didn’t think staying together with a group of people for that long would work well bit it did and it was great!
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Pedro teaching Marie how to make bread from scratch

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Daniel, Camille & Thomas (front to back) on our way to Machu Picchu

Pisac is the new Samaipata

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Souvenir shop in Pisac

Every once in a while when travelling you find a new home. Not just a comfy hostel, but a place you become part of so much that the urge to explore almost vanishes. When I first knocked on the door of “El Parche Rutero” Alvero opened and greeted me with a hug, Lucho instantlyt offered me some cold beer and not five minutes later I was helping to make pancakes. It was already then that I realized I would probably stay longer than the two or three planned nights. To be honest I would still be at this great hostel if my flight back to Europe wasn’t in three days…

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El Parche aka the psytrance hostel

El Parche is owned by Felix, an Artesano who travels a lot to festivals in Europe to sell his stuff there. He also organizes monthly goa full moon parties in the sacred valley together with Lucho and the psytrance influence defnitely shows. Everythiung from the spacious kitchen to the chill-out area and the sunny patio is decorated with artesania, posters of past festivals and beautiful murals.

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Hanging out in the sunny patio

On my first night we went to a psytrance party in the village and I got to know some great people. Beer was passed around, there was fire, good music and lots of dancing. And this nice atmosphere stayed, although the hostel was a little more relaxed. During my two weeks in Pisac I went to the ruins twice (at 4 o’clock in the morning in order to avoid the hefty entrance fee), enjoyed the thermal baths in Lares and visited the inca salt terraces in Maras, but mostly I just chilled at the hostel.

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Salt terraces near Maras

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Pisac ruins at sunsise

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Landscapes of the sacred valley

Each day someone would cook for almost the entire hostel and in the evenings there were fire shows and cuddly movie nights. It felt like hanging out with friends I had known for years and when Melina arrived things got even better! Her first two days were spent exchanging stories about what happened after we went our seperate ways and later we took lots of time to improve my macrame skills.

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Melina, Lucho, Nicola, Cynthia and me enjoying one of the great communal meals

But I didn’t just see Melina again, I also ran into more than a handfull of friends I had met in Bolivia: Lennard who I volunteered with in the djungel, Alan in whose house I stayed for a while in Samaipata, the argentinian family with their three children… It was great to catch up again and and I defnitely made lots of new friends too: Kent from Southafrica who shared his Ayahuasca experiences and always knew a fitting quote, Christine the fellow psycologist who taught me about logotherapy, Nicola who made the most delicious wraps from scratch and was always great to talk to, Sam the Canadian with  excellent german skills and of course Alvero and Lucho who basically ran the hostel while producing incredible artesania and designing flyers for the next party and still managed to spent lots of time with us.

I could go on about the many other amazing people I met but you get the picture. I had a great time and my two weeks in Pisac were the best end of this trip I could imagine. As we say in Germany: Wenns am schönsten ist sollte man gehen (if it can’t get any better one should leave)!

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On our way to the thermal baths

Walking to Machu Picchu

It has been a while since my last blog post and there is a good reason for it: lots and lots of trekking. Though I have been in the Cuzco area for more than two weeks it feels like I only ever spend a day or two in the city to organize the next trek. My first trek in the area was the Salkantay and I started just one day after my arrival. In the hostel kitchen I met Thomas, Daniel and Camille who were preparing a delicous looking meal and when they told me about their plans to do both the Salkantay (on a dead cheap tour) and the Ausangate trail by themselves right after I instantly decided to join them.

The Salkantay turned out to be a nice and easy warm up for our further trekking plans and we ended up in a wonderfull group of people. The first two days were amazing with spectacular landscapes and despite hords of tourists with selfie sticks I see the reason why Machu Picchu is so popular. However, there were long parts walking on dirt roads to get there and I would not say that Machu Picchu was “the cherry on top of my journey”. I also realized that I much prefer trekking without a tour, although it was nice to only carry a daypack and not have to worry about food.

If you would like to get an impression of the Salkantay I recommend Isabels blog post. She was part of our group and writes about sustainable travel. Though she might have experienced a few things different than me she takes incredible pictures and you’ll get an impression of the trail in general.

 

Three things I have learned to appreciate while travelling

There are a lot of things we take for granted at home and often we don’t realize what they are until they are gone. Of course the thing I miss most are my friends and family, their conversations, hugs and laughs (cheesy but true), but there are some more unexpected things I have learned to appreciate. Here is a random selection of three things that stood out to me:

Hot showers – although every hostel claims to have them they are a rare treasure in Peru and especially Bolivia. I even had no water at all on some occasions. Also in Bolivia the “suicide shower” is really popular (thanks to the amazing Seven Grey for warning me about them). Electric cables and water are never a good combination, so if you touch the shower head you get an electric shock.

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This shower was cold – can you figure out why?

Silence – this probably means that I have spent too much time in cities surrounded by honking cars, but even in the smallest village and especially in busses loud music or (in Peru) movies are constantly present. This makes me really appreciate nature, but still a little quiet every now and then even in inhabited areas is nice. I also nioticed while travelling with other people that I do need some alone time each day. Even just 10 minutes writing my journal or chilling in a hammock make me more attentive towards and appreciative of other people again.

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This beautiful bus (apparently owned by Wilfredo) is probably blasting some cumbia

Short distances – and by short I mean rides of four hours or less. The sights that are “close to” a city or village are often six to eight hours away (one way) and getting to the next city or national park will usually take at least ten to twelve hours. Yes the views from the bus are spectacular at times, but little leg space and long hours make me cheer about every place on the way worth spending a night or two that will cut travel times.

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On the road from Torotoro to Cochabamba

Virgen de Candelaria Carnival

Glitter, feathers and dances while the same song is played over and over again. Carnival in Puno was great fun though I gave up on watching the whole parade after about two hours. It goes on from 7am to 1am the next day so I only managed to see the first 5 out of 86 carnival groups but to be honest the whole city was a parade for several days so even just walking around I didn’t feel like missing out on anything…

Things I learned at my first workaway

Although my first workaway experience was quite brief, there is still a lot I learned in my 10 days in the Colca Canyon. And now that the carnival in Puno is over I finally have time to reflect on all the small and big things I have realized. So here are some random thoughts and realizations in no particular order:

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Viewpoint near Cabanaconde

  • I really like waiting tables and despite my clumsiness am quite good at it
  • WiFi is usefull, but can defnitely get in the way of living in the now and getting to know people
  • It is difficult for me to give less then 100% when working, especially if people are involved in the work
  • I enjoy the calm that comes with staying in one place for a while, taking my time to explore without rush
  • Age and matureness are not necessarily correlated
  • I crave a sense of community, especially when staying in one place for longer
  • One can travel the world with very little money
  • Peruvian employees see and treat their boss much different from what I am used to
  • My german directness can easily be missunderstood for anger and grudge
  • The world is small and the chances of meeting again while travelling the same country are quite high
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Colca Canyon in the afternoon sun

 

Nocturnal adventures

He should have mentioned it. But then, how did I ever think that I could trust information I got at the tiny tourist information office in Cabanaconde? By now I should have learned to double check information. But let me start where it all began.

The remote village of Cabanaconde deep in the Colca Cañon has been my home for a couple of days now and I already learned that things work a little different here. From the weird opening hours (8am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm) of the restaurant I cluelessly run together with Laura and Alex, the two other volunteers, to the fact that the kitchen staff seems to consider it normal to buy fruits from the store whenever someone orders a juice chaos has been a constant since my arrival. At the same time the pace of living is slow here, which I quite enjoy. With the next city being 6 hours by bus from here, there is not much to do other than enjoying the spectacular scenery of high mountains and deep valleys, read in the sun and get together on the street for an improvised game of volleyball or football.

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Passing time in Cabanaconde

On my free day however I decided to finally go on a real hike with Laura, an impressively smart full-blood traveller and pastry chef from the states who happened to turn 20 that same day. So we packed lots of water, some fruits and cake and walked off into the wilderness. We had planned a full day hike to the village of Llahuar and I was scheduled to work the next day, but as there was a bus at 5am which would get me to Cabanaconde hours before my shift I didn’t worry too much. And so we walked down steep into the canyon, passing fragile bridges and washed away paths while discussing politics, travel and life in general.

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Lau casually passing a landslip

Eventually the sun started burning and while we were craving shade, we felt like explorers retracing the paths that had probably connected the tiny villages for centuries.* After a few more bridges and steamy geysers we finally reached Llahuar, which turned out to be no village, but a single guesthouse and restaurant with a beautiful view of the river.

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Views of the stunning Colca Canyon

The homemade lemonade felt more than deserved after walking 5 hours and passing 1267m of altitude difference. We went on to take a bath in the 38 degree hot natural springs right by the river, surrounded by beautiful landscape, before retiring to the lovely hut that would be our home for the night.

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A much deserved bath

Dinner was great and we even treated ourselves with a glass of Pisco Sour, Peru’s famous cocktail, while meeting the other guests. What a great day! There was obnly one problem: the bus at 5am! When the man at the tourist info had told me about the bus it had somehow slipped his mind to mention that the dirt road was about a 40 minute hike from the guest house. A hike crossing the river and going up a steep mountain in serpentines. Even worse: I was told the bus could pass anytime between 4:30 and 5:30am. Fortunately a german girl lent me her headlamp (thanks Theresa, you’ll never be forgotten) so I wouldn’t break both of my legs.

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Our little home for the night

I set my alarm at 3:30am and when it went off the real adventure started. The night was pitch black with the only light coming from the half moon in the sky and my flashlight. Walking down to the river the only sounds I could hear were flowing water and the clicking stones under my feet. Crossing the swinging bridge at the bottom of the valley felt surreal with the stars above me and the mountains reaching high into the sky in different shades of black and grey.

Going up on the other side of the stream was a challenge. My hreat was pounding hiking up in the thin air and an inexplicable anxiety was creeping in the back of my head. I was thankfull for the donkeyshit on the path leading me in the right direction when in doubt. When I reached the start of the dirt road I was relieved, but the reakl shock was yet to come. I confidently walked towards the tiny farm we had passed on the day before and had thought to be deserted. Turns out it was not. In the dark of the night, a dog was barking at me from the middle of the path, his eyes reflecting the light of my headlamp. It was clearly defending his territory I needed to pass in order to get to my bus. I cursed myself for not getting a rabies shot. Should I turn around and walk back to Llahuar? Should I search a way around the farm? I was praying for the dogs owners to wake up – but they didn’t. Then suddenly I was given a brief chance. The dog, still barking loudly and showing his teeth, ran off to one of the houses seemingly trying to waker the farmer. Without thinking I quickly walked past the farm, cursing myself for the whole plan of taking a 5am bus and just seconds after I had passed the huts the dog reappeared, now running in my direction. i remembered Jasons story of dealing with grizzly bears and attempted to bark back at the dog while walking backwards in the direction of the “bus stop”. Eventually the dog stopped and in great relieve I reached the dirt road to Cabanaconde 5 minutes later.

For the next 40 minutes I lay on the ground watching the stars, my senses still so sharpened that I sensed every tiny stone rolling down the steep hillside and every faint light in the distance. Lying there in the middle of nowhere with the mountains surrounding me, listening to the pouring river in the valley and watching the night sky must have been one ofg the most stunning moments of my journey so far. Still I was happy when the honking bus picked me up and I didn’t much care about the cold, the rough driving style and the bad roads. Surely this was both the nicest and scariest night walk of my life!

*I later found out the dirt road was only built one year ago, so all goods were actually trasported via foot or mule before that, using the exact same hinking paths.

Sandboarding with Olly and Lucy

I met two german girls and this wonderfull english couple in Paracas and gave my best to impress them by doing sea lion impressions on the beach. It must have worked, because they didn’t object to me joining them on a trip to Huacachina where we sandboarded, jumped into the sunset and had great food before going our seperate ways the next day. Check out their blog post here.

A beginners guide to peruvian busses

Screaming, waving, jumping and squeezing in – if there is one thing I have become good at since my arrival in Lima it is riding a bus. As a European one might think that this is not a thing you have to learn, but let me assure you that it is. In my first week in Peru I have taken 17 (!) different Busses, all while successfully avoiding taxis and ‘Cruz del Sur’, the luxurious but expensive long distance bus company popular with tourists. How this worked out for me? Surprisingly well. And though I have by no means figured out the whole system yet (if there is one) let me pass on what I have learned so far…

To understand how peruvian busses work it is important to know that there are roughly four kinds: micros, collectivos, city and long distance busses. The latter are easiest because once you have found the right bus terminal (there is one for each company) they even have a timetable which might be followed. City busses however are on a whole different scale, especially in Lima.

Imagine standing in a crowded pavement where you have been told your bus stops. There is probably some trash on the dusty pavement and most defnitely no shade. Next to you a Street vendor is selling avocados out of an old shopping cart while reggaeton is blasting from some old car or radio. Honking busses and cars are passing you by constantly, treating the different lanes as if they were mere suggestions. In this chaos some busses approaching the bus stop (and I am using this term loosely) reduce their speed while the drivers assistant keeps screaming the name of its final destination at passers by. And this is where you come in: quickly you try to spot the right bus in the sea of traffic, searching for a tiny number somewhere on the colourful bus as it is almost impossible to figure out what is shouted at you with all the noise going on. If you think you have spotted the right one: congratolatuins! now it is your turn to scream your destination and hurry towards the bus, because surely it will only stop for seconds (if at all). Your best bet is therefore to run and jump into the bus, quickly grabbing a seat before the driver speeds off again. Pro tip for tall people: don’t even try to fit into the inner seat and watch your head! From there on your fate is in the hands of the drivens assistant who will collect money from you within the first 2 to 15 minutes of the ride. They will hopefully tell you shortly before you reach your destination so you can prepare to get off just as quick as you got on the bus.

As you can see, reacting fast is key to successfully riding city busses, but another kind of attention is needed for micros and collectivos. These “busses” typically used for lesser travelled routes are a lot smaller. Whenever people tell you to take a taxi – ask again! – because there is usually a micro or collectivo going right to your destination for 1/4 to 1/10 of the price. As they often wait until full there is much less running and screaming involved. But while city busses are easily indentified as such, micros an collectivos are much harder to spot. Even calling them busses streches the definition of the word. Sometimes they are mini-vans, but more often than not just normal cars. And of course if I say normal cars I mean the type of vehicle that would never in a million years pass the german TÜV. My favourite micro that dropped me off in el Carmen even had a broken front window. So the trick is to find the right spot and then look for a crappier looking taxi that isn’t actually one. Luckily I’d say that asking 2-3 people will usually get you to the right bus and to my surprise even taxi drivers will gladly point you in the correct directon. Also, with about four passengers the thrill of getting off at the right spot is much smaller, but most drivers make up for this with increased speed. So if you enjoy a bit of speed and chaos, peruvian busses are defnitely for you. Who needs rollercoasters, right?

Of course I haven’t even arrived in the Andes where roads are smaller and steeper, so I guess there is a lot more to local busses I still have to learn. So be warned, there might be an ‘advanced guide to peruvian busses’ yet to come…

PS: If you are wondering why there are no pictures with this post – think again! My multitasking has its limits.