There are three entry points from Peru into Ecuador. Two of them are in the west of the country, are approached by a perfectly decent asphalt road, have an organised immigration procedure and a customs office where their computer systems work a treat. For a little adventure I suggested we take the third option, though I’ve since been awarded the wooden spoon for the most protracted border crossing in South America. The third option is in the highlands, along a muddy track winding through tropical forest, via a border post that sees maybe a couple of vehicles on a busy day. At the Zumba border crossing dogs are able to sleep soundly in the middle of the track, and the chickens never have to run. The officials are very old fashioned here: there is no internet connection, only ledgers and the post. Their telephones have a dial and a veneer of dust. The silver-haired Ecuadorian customs officer took four hours to produce our temporary vehicle import document. He had to ring the border post at Macala so that somebody could enter us in the computer, except nobody was responding to his request. ‘They need to issue me a number,’ he said. Lunchtime came and went, and so did a tropical storm. When we got grumpy, miraculously he produced the import document, promising us it was the right one. We have a number. We hope we’re in the computer. That night, as dusk approached, we stopped in a tiny settlement and asked permission to park next to the church. ‘No problem,’ a woman in rubber boots said. ‘Not so long ago we had some cyclists staying here,’ Andrea, the little girl told us, ‘and a Chinaman came on a bicycle, too. They put their tents inside the church.’
The next day it rained (as it does everyday) and we almost got stuck behind a bus. It’s remarkable how they keep the service running.
By the afternoon we’d left the mud and the forest behind us and arrived at the village of Vilcabamba, a place popular with expats who move out here from the States, build a big house in the hills and then…well, I’m not quite sure what they do next. We camped in the municipal park on the edge of the village, where we met a young American couple and their three children. They’d come to live in Vilcabamba and were starting to convert an old sugar cane mill into a smallholding where they could hide away in the hills, though the dream was taking a while to materialise. The man looked longingly at our vehicle and said he wished he could go travelling.
Ever since our service at the Toyota garage in Cusco we’ve developed something of screech in one of our back brakes, and traversing the Andes is not a great place to develop a brake screech when you descend 2000 metres in a few turns of the wheel. So, before leaving Tarma we visit the local ‘brake expert’, a wizened fellow who shares a well-disorganised compound with a lot of other wizened fellows. ‘Experts in chaos’ might be a more fitting title for this lot. Things do not bode well from the beginning, for each time he jacks up the back of the car, before he can get to the problem brake, it has sunk back down on its wheels. A second jack appears with more success. The second worry is that I have to show him how to dismantle the brake drum…when it comes to this we always know we’re in trouble. He takes one look at the brake pads and asks the age of the vehicle. When we tell him it’s 2 years old he throws up his hands and declares ‘It’s brand new. How can they´re be a problem!’
After Tarma our route leads us passed the silver mining town of Cerro de Pasco, which at an altitude of 4300 metres declares itself the highest town in the world. It’s certainly the ugliest town in the world. From here we descend steeply down towards the Amazon. The lower reaches of this valley, and the road leading out into the Amazon, is becoming a major cocaine producing region and certain villages are only worth visiting in the company of a battalion of soldiers. Armed hold-ups are not uncommon, though we don’t need to worry about this because, after a pleasant night by the river, the road ahead is blocked by demonstrators protesting about having to pay the high toll for using the road. For a while we negotiate the rocks, trees, broken bottles, burnt tyres and savage thorn bushes all laid in the road, until we reach Ambo, where it is well and truly blocked by the chanting crowd. When the truckers start to clear out, and we’re told someone has already been killed, we turn around sharpish and climb back to the highest, ugliest town in the world. From here we take a spectacular, albeit bone-jarring ride down to the coast, arriving on the outskirts of Lima, a city we’d never wanted to come to. Quite a diversion, but hey! this is Peru. It takes us a couple of days, several passes and a lot of brake screeching to get ourselves back to the Cordillera Blanca and the village of Chavin de Huantar, where we thankfully manage to miss the bull fight.
The Chavin are considered one of the oldest major cultures in Peru (1000 BC to 300 BC) and we pass the morning wandering over the ruins and through the myriad of tunnels. Continuing down the Conchucos Valley we pass through Huari, a town known for its prodigious consumption of cats. The coming of the annual Fiesta de los Gatos has the local cat population heading for the hills. Those unlucky enough not to make it end up as miche broaster, or roasted cat. What a strange place this is!
In the Conchucos Valley, on these narrow mountain tracks, time has pretty much stood still…until a great big bus roars up behind you and rudely blows its horn.
Chacas is the last village before ascending the road up to Punto Olimpica Pass.
At Yungay we drive up the mountain to the Llanganuco Mountain Lodge, which is owned and operated by the 38 year old Charlie Good. Charlie was an accountant at Arthur Anderson, though packed it in after the Enron affair and now, along with his three Rhodesian Ridgebacks, welcomes hikers and climbers to his lodge at 3600 metres, at the foot of Cerro Huandoy and Cerro Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain (6768 metres). This is a remote climbing region, not to be undertaken lightly. Eight climbers have been lost this year. It was in this region, a hundred kilometres or so to the south where Joe Simpson famously survived ‘the cutting of the rope’ incident.
From Cusco we follow the road through the central Andes. For some three months now, apart from a week in the Amazon Basin, we have been living above 3000 metres. That roads exist in these mountain regions is a credit to the civil engineers. You don’t get anywhere round here without crossing a pass of over 4000 metres. Tough on man and machine.
DE CUZCO, NOUS SUIVONS LA ROUTE CENTRALE DES ANDES, MAINTENANT NOMMEE LA LONGITUDINALE, ELLE EST EN TRAVAUX ET POUR LONGTEMPS. CE SERAIT BIEN TROP FACILE DE REJOINDRE LA COTE ET DE SE LA COULER DOUCE SUR LES PLAGES, BIEN AU CHAUD…..A PART UNE SEMAINE DANS LE BASSIN AMAZONIEN, CELA FAIT MAINTENANT 3 MOIS QUE NOUS VIVONS A PLUS DE 3000 METRES. QUE CETTE ROUTE EXISTE EST UN MIRACLE DE L’INGENIERIE PERUVIENNE. IMPOSSIBLE D’AVANCER SANS PASSER LES COLS A PLUS DE 4000 METRES. DUR POUR NOUS ET LA MACHINE.
Two days after leaving Cusco we arrive at Ayacucho, a city founded by the Spanish in 1540 and thereafter regularly defended against Inca attack. 440 years later and the city was to come under siege by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a radical Maoist group whose reign of terror closed down the region to tourists during the 80s and 90s. They were responsible for the deaths of 70,000 people. The group was largely wiped out with the capture of its leader in the early 90s. Today the group is more a gangster organisation, involved in the coca growing regions to the east of Ayacucho, in the foothills running to the Amazon Basin. In the middle of August three of its leading members were gunned down by police. There have recently been quite a few gun battles, though nobody here says much about it.
NOUS ARRIVONS A AYACUCHO APRES 2 JOURS DE ROUTE, UNE VILLE FONDEE PAR LES ESPAGNOLS EN 1540 ET REGULIEREMENT DEFENDUE CONTRE LES INVASIONS INCAS. 440 ANS PLUS TARD, ELLE EST LE SIEGE DU SENTIER LUMINEUX, UN GROUPE MAOISTE RADICAL DONT LE REGNE DE LA TERREUR DURERA 20 ANS ET ISOLERA TOTALEMENT LA REGION. LE PAYS ENTIER A SOUFFERT, IL NE FAISAIT PAS BON Y PASSER SES VACANCES – IL N’Y AVAIT BIEN QUE MARIANNE POUR Y ALLER PASSER UN MOIS SAC A DOS! LES GUERILLEROS SERAIENT RESPONSABLES DE LA MORT OU DISPARITION DE PLUS DE 70000 PERSONNES. L’ARRESTATION DE GUZMAN, FONDATEUR DU MOUVEMENT, AU DEBUT DES ANNEES 90, A PRATIQUEMENT ERADIQUE LE MOUVEMENT TERRORISTE MAIS CEUX QUI RESTENT ONT CHANGE LEUR FUSIL D’EPAULE ET SONT DEVENUS DES BARONS DE LA DROGUE. ILS SONT BASES DANS LA REGION AMAZONIENNE A L’EST D’AYACUCHO, LA OU POUSSE LA COCA. MI-AOUT, 3 LEADERS ONT ETE TUES PAR L’ARMEE. PEU D’INFORMATIONS ONT FILTRE JUSQU’A NOUS, MAIS NOUS AVONS PREFERE EVITER LA ZONE. LE SUJET EST TOUJOURS TABOU.
From Ayacucho were are soon back on the altiplano and crossing the Apacheta Pass at 4750 metres. Whilst this road between Ayacucho and the coast used to be bandit country, today we encounter nothing more threatening than herds of grazing alpaca, cows and sheep. In the lower regions it is common to see smallholders herding their animals along the road – three or four cows, a couple of sheep, a goat and a pig, all in the same group. In Andahuaylas town we saw a women walking her pig on a lead along the busy road, she in her typical bowler hat, heavy skirts and stockings as thick as pipe lagging. The temp was 25 degrees centigrade. They were quite a sight!
D’AYACUCHO, NOUS SOMMES DE NOUVEAU SUR L’ALTIPLANO ET AU COL APACHETA A 4700 METRES. ALORS QUE CETTE ROUTE FUT LONGTEMPS FERMEE PAR LES BANDITS REVOLUTIONNAIRES, NOUS NE RENCONTRONS RIEN DE PLUS MENACANT QUE DES TROUPEAUX D’ALPACAS, DE VACHES OU DE MOUTONS. AU MILIEU DE LA ROUTE, DES BERGERES DEPLACENT LEUR PETITS TROUPEAUX MIXTES: 3 VACHES, 2 MOUTONS, UNE CHEVRE ET UN COCHON. A ANDAHUAYLAS, UNE FEMME SE PROMENAIT AVEC SON COCHON EN LAISSE ACCOUTREE COMME D’HABITUDE DE SON CHAPEAU MELON, SES JUPES A VOLANTS, ET SES GUETRES DE LAINE. IL FAISAIT 25 DEGRES.
ANOTHER RESIDENT OF THE APACHETA PASS
At Lake Choclococha there is a trout farm. At 4700 metres, we wondered if this was the highest trout farm in the world (?)
AU LAC CHOCLOCOCHA, IL Y A UN ELEVAGE DE TRUITE. A 4700 METRES, SERAIT-CE LE PLUS HAUT DU MONDE?
Having ascended and descended more than 4000 metres a day for the past few days, like the brakes of the car, my ears are running a bit hot. So, time for a halt. We drive through the iron gates of Hacienda La Florida, park up and switch off the engine. Here you can join in with hacienda life if you wish (cut the grass, make a chicken pen, feed the guinea pigs) or do nothing. I opt to do nothing. Splendid!
LA HACIENDA LA FLORIDA – CA VEUT DIRE FLEURIE! – NOUS OUVRE SES LOURDES PORTES A TARMA. ELLE EST ESPAGNOLE, VIEILLE DE 400 ANS, CHARMANTE ET ACCUEILLANTE. ON PEUT Y PASSER SES JOURNEES A TRAVAILLER, A LA FERME, ET DANS CE CAS ON EST NOURRIT ET LOGE, OU BIEN NE RIEN FAIRE. JE ME LEVE UNE FOIS DE BON MATIN POUR LA TRAITE MANUELLE DES VACHES MAIS C’EST TOUT. NOUS CAMPONS DANS UN COIN DE L’ENCEINTE CARREE POUR NE PAS GENER ET OBSERVONS LES TRAVAUX DES CHAMPS. NOUS ALLONS POUVOIR FAIRE NOS EMPLETTES: DES OEUFS, DU FROMAGE, DU BEURRE, DES CONFITURES, DU MIEL. NOUS Y SOMMES TROP BIEN ET AURONS DU MAL A REPRENDRE LA ROUTE…..MAIS LA CORDILLERE BLANCHE NOUS ATTENDS.