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I ran huffing and puffing towards the train station, leaving my taxi abandoned in the traffic of Cuzco. It would be typical, I thought as I dodged the tourists and Indians, if I missed this, the most expensive train of my trip. Arriving at the station while cursing my heavy backpack, a smart guide ushered me through a room of welcome panpipe players and onto the train.
I was a mess: red, sweaty with a dirty backpack and a broken plastic bag containing my snacks.
The train on the other hand looked like the reception of a five-star hotel. The chairs were actually armchairs, the tables were adorned with tablecloths and gold-plated lamps and the other passengers looked haughtily up at me over their reading glasses.
I settled myself in trying to ignore their prying eyes and took in my luxurious surrounds. Wood panelled walls with gold trims and photos of the train from yonder year when the locals could actually afford the trip. At $220 for a one way ticket, there was sadly not a local in sight and despite enjoying the comfort as I sipped my ’welcome’ drink I felt frustrated that this rail journey had now been reserved solely for the moneyed holidaymaker.
Paul Theroux had not managed to take what is now called The Andean Explorer, strikes had meant he was forced to take a bus to Puno, like the locals now. I settled into the undulating Andean scenery, local farms and villages whizzed by as the occupants of the train, spurred on by their welcome drink, retired to the bar carriage to enjoy their expensive cocktails.
The train slowed at one of the villages and dirty children tried to sell us Llama dolls through the windows, I remembered a bag of lollies I had and decided to share them with the kids, they smiled and laughed as I passed them out of the train. One of the haughty women suddenly shouted across the carriage to me:
“Are you giving them lollies?”
“Yes” I replied
“Well tell them to clean their teeth then, all of these children have terrible teeth.”
I doubted that any of these children had ever seen a toothbrush, their parents picked at the teeth they had left with sticks and the kids probably did the same. I desperately wanted to respond to this idiotic woman but I knew that whatever I said would come out rudely so I did the mature thing and ignored her, fuming silently inside.
The train chugged through the centre of the town Juliaca, the market was either side of us selling everything imaginable including car parts and plumbing, haughty lady remarked to no one in particular: “This is the real Peru…I’ve been living in the real Peru for three weeks. It was hard but very rewarding.”
Suddenly a small group formed around her as she told of staying in a village, ‘without a hotel?’ someone gasped. I walked away unsure I would be able to hold my tongue when faced with more of her right-on preening.
The tourists got drunker and started dancing in the bar with the local band, in a very English manner I felt embarrassed for them and stayed in my seat reading Death in the Andes, a dark tale that had me gripped as Mario Vargas Llosa’s fantastic prose gave me an insight into some of the Andean towns I had recently travelled through.
Puno itself is a small bustling town with more tourists than I had imagined, scurrying to and from the floating islands on Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. I enjoyed a beer in a rock bar with graffiti all over its walls and spent some time reading the daubings, my favourite being: ‘We got them out on Lake Titi.’ Lovely.
The bus to the border and La Paz awaited. It’s torn seats and smelly interior filled me with a new dread, I had heard many a horror story about Bolivian roads and buses and this particular one seemed to be living up to its reputation. Paul Theroux had enjoyed the luxury of taking the train from La Paz all the way to Buenos Aires but the details of this part of my trip were hazy as that train no longer runs. The thought of spending substantial amounts of time on Bolivian buses worried me somewhat, but the stunning sunset over Lake Titicaca and the mountains stopped my concerns until I was shaken awake by a Bolivian army guy and asked to get off the bus.
I was confused, he was pointing me towards a little boat where the rest of the passengers were waiting, it appeared we had to cross a small stretch of water, us in a little boat and the bus on what looked like several planks of wood that would then be punted to the other side. I looked around hoping to see a bridge, but there was none. The situation was so bizarre and I was so sleepy I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream, but sure enough after waiting a few minutes on the other side of the water our bus came bobbing towards the shore and we were back on the road. Marvelling at the strangeness of the situation I had no time to be complacent as not much further along the road we came to a sudden halt. I peered out of the back window into the dark to see an overturned bus on the road and a backpacker limping towards us. The driver had been going too fast around the corner and the bus had toppled. I checked that the backpacker was okay. He was very casual about the situation, I think he must have still been in shock:
“I’m fine, I just clung onto the luggage shelf while the whole thing seemed to go in slow motion, but it was really nothing. Where are you planning to stay in La Paz anyway?”
I couldn’t get over how calm he was being as the twinkling lights of La Paz appeared before us. I was excited about seeing this city, one of the few that Paul Theroux had actually praised.
It was the second time I’d seen the armadillo, but this time it was covered in confetti.
As I stood and pondered why there was a dead armadillo chained up outside a Cuzco internet café, a toothless man popped up next to the animal and cheerfully informed me it was the armadillo’s birthday, hence the confetti, while cackling madly.
It seemed despite being a tourist Mecca Cuzco was not without its idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t decide if I loved or loathed the place. After all the little Andean towns it was strangely comforting to see so many tourists marred only by the fact that all of them were clad in ‘activity’ trousers teamed with llama wool hats and large cameras.
The Plaza de Armas was a mob of relentless restaurant, massage and tour hustlers. But I had decided to avoid a tour and take the train to Machu Picchu in peace and without a guide, so I thought, but it seems the Bert Howie’s of Paul’s day are still around and have grown in number. The tour group surrounding me on the 4.15pm Vistadome were all already sporting Machu Picchu sun hats, one had some sort of Peruvian instrument in a hippie bag and several wore utility jackets.
The Urubamba valley was immense, its high peaks, left undisturbed by the world until Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, towered over the river and train tracks at the bottom of the valley. I didn’t want to like the ‘Vistadome’ train, named thus for its windows in the ceiling, I wanted to prefer the locals trains I had travelled on, but I had to admit that I rather enjoyed being able to see the peaks of the mountains as the train rattled along the tracks.
The Japanese couple beside me relaxed and put on their slippers as their mulleted tour guide bleated on about the difficulties of the Inca trail and how taking the train was ‘easy peasy, lemon squeezey, Japanesey.’ Not very politically correct considering his audience.
I felt strangely alienated from these wealthy tourists and they in turn seemed not to know what to make of me, so left me alone.
Perhaps they took me for a ‘freebooting backpacker’ just like the ones Paul encountered in the seventies. The breed still exists but they now seem to spend any extra pennys they find on cheap, potentially dangerous adventure sports. I’d seen many of them busing into towns, white-water rafting, trekking and then busing out without even a glance at the local community or culture.
I felt alienated from these travellers also, with no inclination for adventure sports or buses if I could avoid them. I felt like a strange observer neither in one camp or another.
This feeling reminded me of Paul’s comment: “ I had neither a tourist badge or a rucksack. I trod a narrow implausible line between the two…” (although I do actually have a rucksack and often wonder how Paul managed this journey with a suitcase.)
The tinny pan pipe music on the train suddenly changed to an upbeat dance song and it was announced that we were to be subjected to an alpaca fashion show, unfortunately not including alpacas themselves, just embarrassed train staff in rather nasty jumpers parading up and down the carriages. As we neared Machu Picchu I wasn’t sure who felt more embarrassed, me or them.
These words, from The Old Patagonian Express, rang in my ears as I clung to the edge of my seat and kept my eyes tightly shut as the bus negotiated the highest, narrowest and scariest ‘puna’ (high, cold plateau) I had ever encountered.
Taking a route across the Andes via Andahuaylas had seemed like an excellent idea from the comfort of a town that actually had paved roads running in and out of it.
Two bumpy, dusty hours out of Ayacucho and frightened for my life I was beginning to have my doubts. Alarm bells had started ringing when the bus driver had backed out of the station smashing his wing mirror off in the process, this was not boding well for his negotiation skills, but I tried not to worry and kept my head in my book, also trying not to think about the fact the bus looked as though most of it had been glued back together at one stage or another in its long life.
An hour out of Ayacucho the brakes started making a horrific squealing noise, further adding to my panic. It was starting to become very difficult to concentrate on reading (My book: Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes – not a great choice at this point in the trip) and by the time we reached the puna I didn’t know what to do with myself.
We were as high as the highest snowy peaks and the formidable mountains surrounded us as the creaking monster of a bus struggled around the hair pin bends, looking at every moment as if it might slip off the road and down into the precipice below. At each bend the driver hit the squeaky breaks and honked his horn for the benefit of any oncoming traffic.
I alternated between staring out of the window while shrieking quietly to myself in harmony with the breaks and keeping my eyes closed and breathing deeply. Just as my thoughts of ’why, why did I choose this route?’ started to get out of control, the driver came to a screeching halt and all the passengers screamed as we nearly had a head on collision with a truck on a hairpin bend overlooking a sheer drop of 350 ft.
This had an almost cathartic effect on my mood. How much worse could this get? I thought to myself, and an hour later when we stopped for lunch I shared my fears with one of the ladies on the bus. She looked at me and burst out laughing: “This bus journey is very safe the roads are wide, they used to be a lot worse than this. There is no reason to be scared.” I felt a little bit embarrassed and laughed nervously while thinking… well its easy for you not to be scared there is no awareness of safety in this country whatsoever. Just walking down the road is a liability with uncovered drains and giant potholes everywhere you look. A simple stroll to the local shop would be an American lawyers dream.
After lunch the track became slightly more tolerable and I spent a great deal of the afternoon trying not to be covered in a bottle of oil a local woman had brought onto the bus. She was dressed in local garb with a smelly bundle on her back and a lidless bottle that kept tipping over and emptying its contents over my feet. The problem was made worse by the fact that whenever I tried to right the bottle she snatched at it, thinking I was trying to steal it and snarled at me with a toothless grimace. Just as I thought things could not get anymore uncomfortable or weird a man got on the bus and started giving the passengers some sort of sex education talk before trying to sell them posters of scientific diagrams of genitalia.
It is safe to say that the ten-hour trip from Ayacucho to Andahuaylas had been one of the worst so far and that the Lonely Planet’s description of “a tough ride on a road rarely used except by the most hard-core travellers” was not wrong, although I very much doubted that I fell into the category of ‘hard-core traveller’.
Huancayo is a buzzing little Andean town, full of colour, people and life. Certainly not the cold, sad picture that I had imagined after Paul Theroux‘s descriptions:
“There was something about the damp walls of every room in this town, and the muddy roads leading out of it that made the isolation palpable; it’s chill conveyed a physical feeling of remoteness.”
No longer so isolated from the rest of Peru, with good connecting roads, the town has blossomed into a thriving Andean centre, famous for its Sunday markets and even boasting a modern shopping centre.
The square was a veritable social club, always full of chatting families and street sellers. I had arrived on the weekend of Halloween and the pavements were mobbed with miniature vampires and ghosts, while a Christian concert took place on a makeshift stage. It all felt a little surreal as I watched little children dressed as devils sing Halleluiahs with their parents.
But I could not linger long, I was going to take a train that even Theroux himself had not managed to get on; he had returned to Lima from Huancayo and flown to Cuzco, as in the seventies, when he took his trip, there was no passable road or railway through the mountains to the east. Now it is possible to take the train to Huancavelica then a bus to Ayacucho and then two more mountain buses across the Andes to Cuzco.
This was in fact the same route which Michael Jacobs took in his book Andes, so I started mentally preparing myself for the bus rides, which sounded a little rough. Although I should have perhaps focused on the train ride which was also a little less than comfortable. Even the queue for tickets was an experience in itself: I was serenaded by a man in a wheelchair and his son, sold bread, offered sweets, moisturiser, tiger balm and flowers. So distracted by these offerings I failed to notice a man push in front of me, which caused quite a stir when the security guard picked him out of the queue giving me a disparaging look and a telling-off as he did so. The ‘queue’ was a colourful melee of shouting, pushing and a distinct lack of personal space, so taking a deep breath I stuck my elbows out and pushed forward in an attempt to get a ticket while wondering why on earth I hadn’t thought about booking in advance.
I was still wondering this when I found myself sharing my bag, which was now being used as a seat, with a small family of three, off to visit their relatives in Huancavelica.
The mother, dressed in the usual Andean outfit of smart hat, brightly coloured flared skirt and belongings tied in a shawl on her back asked me:
“What is the traditional dress in England?”
That’s a good question I thought to myself and ashamedly I could not give her a very satisfactory answer.
“What kind of food do you eat in your country?” was the next question, crikey I thought, this is going from bad to worse, I tried explaining fish and chips, the lady looked less than impressed.
The scenery was beautiful, craggy peaks and tiny villages passed by as we climbed to a height of 3676 metres. A “classic” Andean train journey as described by The South American Handbook. We clung precariously to the side of the mountains whilst negotiating numerous tunnels (38 to be precise) and bridges.
From my perch on the floor I marvelled at the goings on in the train: families squabbled, children cried, strange looking foods were consumed and the jostling continued. I peered jealously into the buffet class car. This car had been full when I reached the ticket office, it boasted numbered seats and no one was allowed in the aisles or doorways. It’s attendant was tasked with serving food to the entire train. He tottered up and down carrying plates piled high with food, his skill in this task was impressive as he never seemed to spill anything despite the numerous obstacles in his path – including myself.
At each village people poured off the train and even more climbed on. At one point I was nearly hit in the face by a lamb bleating in a bag. After a while an English teacher from Huancayo took pity on me and offered her seat for half an hour, I gladly accepted as the man now sitting next to me had fallen asleep and his breath was less than fragrant. As I prised his head off my shoulder and relinquished the space on my bag-turned-seat the teacher explained:
“Sorry, that’s my brother.” She added apologetically. “He drinks.”
I took her seat in the carriage to be faced with what felt like hundreds of people staring at me, as we bobbed along I enjoyed the views which were unlike anything I had seen on a train ride before, the towering mountains took my breath away and the peering locals made the experience all the more unusual.
The peering did not stop once I had disembarked from the train in Huancavelica, a charming little town nestled in the craggy mountains. Sitting in the square after a stroll I watched a little boy try and teach his brother how to ride a bicycle, the little boys inability to balance was not the only problem in the venture, a stray dog, of which there are many in Peru, was nibbling at their ankles as they circumnavigated the square. I was happy to have something to watch, it took my attention away from the local inhabitants who were mostly staring at me, this was somewhat unnerving as it appeared I was the only tourist in town.
Lima did not feel as downtrodden as I had expected. Most people I met had advised me to avoid the city altogether, perhaps because my arrival coincided with the choosing of a new mayor the place seemed in a jubilant mood.
The “lovely cream-coloured railway station in Lima,” as described by Paul Theroux, is now a bright shade of yellow and is not solely the train station, as it doubles as the ‘Casa de la Literatura Peruana’ housing many literary exhibitions and a new Mario Vargos Llosa library.
I was very excited about taking the train from Lima to Huancayo and also slightly nervous, I had only just got over a bout of altitude sickness and Paul Theroux’s descriptions of ailments on the journey concerned me. Determined to be able to enjoy the stunning mountain vistas I took an altitude sickness pill and hoped for the best.
Luckily I was not disappointed. Sat in classic (cheap) class as the train clattered out of Lima I felt happy to finally be on the tracks and travelling a good distance. The train, which reaches an impressive height of 4781 metres, making it one of the highest in the world, takes 12 hours to creep to Huancayo and is even slower now than it was in the seventies.
We started the trip with bright blue skies and as the train climbed out of the suburban Lima slums the brown shrubby mountains appeared.
Llosa in his book, Conversation in the Cathedral, describes some of the houses in Lima as “… cubes with gratings on them, caves cracked by earthquakes, inside there’s a traffic of utensils and reeking little old women with slippers and varicose legs.”
Sadly this description came to mind as the train passed by row after row of half-built one-floor hovels with ill-fitting windows and grimy occupants spilling onto the dirt roads. I was moved at the sight of a sad old man standing alone in the middle of a derelict football pitch, a ball poised at his feet while he waved and smiled forlornly at the train.
Sitting across from me was a honeymooning couple from Wales who were very excited about the journey, so much so that not a second passed on the entire trip when the new bride was not snapping a photograph, accompanied by the rolling of her new husbands eyes: “If she hasn’t taken a picture of it then it hasn’t happened.” he mentioned to me at one point, I pondered on this rather frustrating concept for a while and tried to contain the urge to ask what on earth they did with these millions of photographs.
The scrub on the mountains started to turn green and trees appeared as we climbed ever higher and the train negotiated bridges and tunnels while clinging to the mountains edge.
I took a walk along the train’s corridors and met a holidaying family from Lima. They were in high spirits and talked of their weekend plans for Huancayo.
The brown earth turned a startling shade of red as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting and contemplating on my green faux velvet seat on the train.
All too soon the sky followed the earth and coloured bright red before darkening, signalling our arrival in Huancayo.
Laying fully clothed shivering in my hotel room bed I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s problems with altitude sickness: the staggering and the sweats. As I had ascended gradually in Ecuador it hadn’t been a problem. But a bus straight from sea level to Huaraz at 3052m followed by a hike to Lake 69 at 4600m, had proved too much for my body to handle.
Prior to this my brief coastal interlude, first at Mancora and then Trujillo had been a welcome respite from the mountains. Trujillo and it’s surrounds were especially interesting.
Inspired by Michael Jacobs (author of Andes) I visited the ruins of Chan Chan, the former capital of the Chimu Kingdom and the largest pre-Colombian city in South America. It was an impressive site and with the help of an English guide I was soon envisaging how the city and peoples had functioned when it was built in AD 850 until it was taken over by the Incas in AD 1470. After an educational morning I headed to Trujillo and lounged in the colonial square and restaurants before taking a trip to nearby fishing village Huanchaco, which had once also been part of the Chimu’s land.
Fisherman bobbed in the waves on their ‘Caballitos’ (reed fishing boats) while backpackers, volunteers and surfers loitered on the beach and in bay side eateries. This welcoming village was just managing to retain its traditional charms, despite the swarms of tourists who have now discovered this peaceful spot, with it’s relaxing atmosphere and good waves.
My urge for the coast now sated I took a taxi to catch a bus back into the mountains, this time heading further south to Huaraz.
“How much do you earn in your country? I only earn $200 a month, it’s a hard life in Peru for a taxi driver.”
Back in the seventies, Peru, according to Paul Theroux, was the poorest country in South America, now this is not true and Paraguay sits bottom of the economic pile, with Bolivia and Ecuador following and Peru just above them. My complaining cabbie, seemed not to be aware of his improved status and told of the difficulties in his life for the entire 20 minute journey to the bus station. I couldn’t decide if he was annoying me because he just wanted a bigger tip or whether I felt genuinely sorry for the man.
In my bed in Huaraz a few days later I was certainly feeling sorry for myself. I vowed to take things a little slower in the future and chuckled at the irony as I thought of Paul’s frustrations when taking the train from Lima to Huancayo: “Why was it in this landscape of such unbelievable loveliness that I felt sick as a dog?” I agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
Finally feeling better I ventured out to see what the city had to offer. The streets were lined with Andean women in their traditional hats, bright shawls and skirts selling fruit and vegetables. As I surveyed the buzzing market streets a man tapped me on the shoulder: “Tortuga?” Tortoise? I thought, that’s a bit odd why did he say that? Then the chap turned around to reveal a huge tortoise on his back, crudely covered by a plastic bag. I jumped and yelped with surprise: “No gracias?!” It was certainly the first time anyone had illicitly offered me a tortoise on a street corner.
The local women looked very tough and judging by their surrounds they have to be, the harsh Andean climates and the poor living conditions combining to make their lives quite a struggle. I often saw women carrying heavy loads on their backs and in one instance I spotted a lady rolling a huge rock across the road which I’m sure heavyweight lifters would have struggled with.
But I didn’t linger long in Huaraz, because I needed to get to Lima in order to catch the train to Huancayo. This train, to my elation, does still run but only once a month so I hopped an overnight bus, this time bound for Lima.
Paul Theroux did not see much of the coastline on his trip, but I felt as though I had been in the mountains for too long and was craving a glimpse of the sea, some warmth and a respite from the altitude. It was time to head south across the border and into Peru, first though I had to survive the inevitable nail-biting road journey…
The ticket collector on my bus stumbled around as we pulled out of Guayaquil bus station at brake-neck speed, he then closed the window at the front of the bus, getting his tie caught in the process and spent a good ten minutes trying to stay upright whilst extricating his tie from the stubborn window. This I then realised had comprised the buses safety as part of his job involved being a human indicator, who hung out of the side of the bus shouting and waving whenever we needed to pull over. His shouts were often drowned out by those of other passengers who seemed a little unnerved at the human indicator teamed with the fast, erratic driving style of his crazy amigo. The fact the normally unfazed locals were concerned worried me, a lady with copious amounts of purple eye-shadow and a super-tight hot pink lycra top seemed the most upset and at regular intervals stood up and screamed at the ticket collector for the bus to slow down or stop overtaking.
The situation reached a peak when the driver decided to race another bus, they were neck and neck, passengers and drivers screaming and shouting. But much to our bus drivers jubilation the other coach had to drop back to avoid a head on collision.
I had been looking forward to reading a good chunk of my Andes book on this bus ride, but I realised that gripping my seat and breathing deeply would be the best occupation of my time on this particular journey.
After seven roller-coaster hours and a surprisingly easy border crossing I arrived in Tumbes and took an auto-rickshaw across town to pick-up a bus to the coastal town of Mancora, where I was looking forward to some sunshine.
I became bemused when boarding the bus as the ticket collector took my finger-print. I then became rather nervous when a chap got on the bus and took pictures of all the seat numbers and the people in them. My imagination started to run wild, was this so they had photos of us and our fingerprints if the bus crashed? Did they know something I didn’t? I had managed to calm myself down by focusing on reading my book (this bus was smooth and comfortable, thank God) when the bus pulled over on the side of the road and both the drivers got out and walked over to a fabulously kitsch catholic shrine. It was a picturesque moment as the shrine was on the seafront, but as the drivers lit candles, said prayers and crossed themselves my earlier fears returned; Was this normal? Do all the drivers do this? Was there some horrific problem with this road and they themselves were terrified and had to pray to keep calm?
Just as my whirring brain reached fever pitch the television on the bus flickered into life and I was saved. Well sort of, Mel Gibson’s Edge of Darkness. This was the third time this trip I had been subjected to this film, which consisted of many close-ups of Mel’s haggard face, but it managed to stop my mind from worrying and as the usual shooting and fighting, that is prerequisite on all Latin American bus films, started. I sank back into my seat and tried for the thousandth time that day not to worry.
I was wondering, did you take a plane, or rather a ‘carpeted metal tube’ from Guayaquil to Lima because of the lack of trains on this part of your trip?
I was a little flummoxed at this sudden plane ride in your journey. Why not take a bus as you so disliked flying?
I’m continuing this part of my trip overland in order to try and fill in the missing chapter from Guayaquil to Lima. I hope you’ll find it somewhat interesting. My reading companion is now Michael Jacob’s Andes. A heavy, informative tome that has been weighing me down for some weeks now. Yet an inspirational read and a great insight into the history of the Andes and their present day reality, I’ll be drawing on some of Jacobs’ insights to help guide me along the way. Starting on the coast I’ll then move into the mountains before getting to Lima and hopefully taking the train east as far as I can get.