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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’.