Part I — Northern Peru
Tumbes to Lima, via the Cordillera Blanca
'ROAD MOVIE — THE ANIMATION' »»»»
Star Wars landscape.
Grey-hued, grey-carpeted. The landscape robbed of contrast,
sinking into layers of blue-grey. Camouflaged huts of
adobe, even their shiny zinc roofs unable to pulse in
the washed out sunshine. Mesmerising serpents of sand
coiling across the black asphalt, winding from one side
to another, hallucinating sashes that disappear under
the bonnet. Heat-haze mirages. Lines of pylons. Sand,
sand. Battleship grey. Mauve grey. Yellows and ochres
and browns. Road, road, road.
Lives in the nowhere.
Dust, dust, dust.
Rocks and baking heat.
Parched villages. Squeal of rubber on asphalt. A seaside
town and a pier. Night fishermen casting lines into
inky-black waves. Promenade lights.
Prickly bushes and stubbly
earth. Valleys of fertility and genesis. Sugar cane
thatches regimented for miles. Potatoes, cabbages and
vegetables in rows that play with perspective. Thirsty,
stunted, bowed bright green acacia trees, roots fingering
into the dust. Houses out of nowhere. Godforsaken places
of sun, shadow, dust and toil.
A desert of earth, moved
only by the whipping wind. Plastic bags caught in mid-flight,
half-buried, clasped by the suffocating dust. Dust-belted
villages. Dust-shredded settlements. Lives, lives. Old
woman with a shop and a stand out front, sold mangos
and ciruelas to the gringos. Inside, a lime green barber's
chair was caught in a shard of sunlight amid the dim
outlines of calendars, dolls, toothpaste, sweets. Plaits
wove down her head under a wide-brimmed, oval hat, above
an age-scoured face.
A river beckons, up its banks and coiling, rasping
course, up to its source in the snow-dusted peaks, arms
Up and up the river valley, walls growing taller and
more precipitous, we stitch back and forth. Fading light
of the afternoon, gives up the struggle and slips from
the cliffs. Grey and brown turn to purple and then to
black. The road is ripped and torn, loose stones banging
on the underside of the jeep, ricocheting in all directions,
flying off down into the roaring river below.
Up to a little village, seen at first as a floating
set of fairy lights on the hillside above. Huallanco's
laughing policeman was on hand to direct the visitors
to the only hostal in town, where we park the jeep and
stumble dustily out. We play football and twenty questions
with a gaggle of local boys before our chicken and rice
supper finally appeared.
The next day, the undramatic-sounding and misnamed
Duck Canyon. Some twenty tunnels to burrow through,
their craggy, rocky innards lit up by the bouncing beams
of the headlight, echoing with the sound of my horn
as we round bend after bend after bend. A waterfall
cascades down the smooth rock face in staircases hundreds
of feet tall. Virtually no traffic. A relief not to
have to edge past leviathan trucks, or meet one bumper
to bumper. Through more tunnels, lost count at ten.
Through the cliffs themselves it seems we travel, the
road scooped out of the mountain's ribs to our right,
only a gaping cavity into which to fall to our left.
Up we go. Up to where the gorge finally opens up, a
wide valley unfurling as we emerge onto asphalt and
blissful driving. It's cloudy that morning, so we don't
realise the majesty of the mountains which rise to the
east. Only later would we divine the peaks through the
afternoon haze as we drove up yet another bump-ridden
road to a glassy glacial lake at 3,000-odd metres. A
picnic on a grassy verge by the side of the track, laid
out on a blue-checked duvet cover. Cheese and avocado
munched while peasants appear from their fields and
cows low off in distant valleys. Patches of greens and
browns flecked with houses and bodies bent double.
Back down to another village, Carhuaz, buzzing with
all the activity of a rain-sodden Saturday night. It's
laid out in the same monotonous grid layout stamped
throughout the Americas by the Spanish, its square a
symphony to shrubbery and cheap statuary. The odd handsome,
old house, but the rest stuck in brieze block purgatory.
The locals have made up for the architectural boredom
with a bang. Carhuaz is the fireworks capital of Peru.
Set off on a bright morning, clear and crisp after
the night's rains. Banking back and forth between the
twin cordilleras, Negra and Blanca,
of the Callejón de Huaylas, the Huaylas Alleyway.
We keep the river to our right, occasionally crisscrossing
it as we weave through more little villages of graffiti,
sheep, buses, goats and twists of electric wiring.
In and out of the jeep we clamber. The back beginning
quite tidy and orderly in the morning, but ending the
day in a jumble of boots, sweaters, water bottles, food,
plastic bags, cameras and books. In and out all through
the day, music accompanying the countryside which scrolls
outside the windows, stopping to gape at views and stretch
our legs. Cigarettes and food passed back and forth.
And a joint to send us giggling and spaced out south
into the heart of infernal rush-hour Lima.
Part II — Into the Jungle, Mother of God
Cusco to Puerto Maldonado - 500 kms total; 50 kms asphalt
The names of villages
and towns appear strange at first. Later they become
flesh, peopled. Ocongate, Quince Mil, Masuko, Laberinto,
Puerto Maldonado. Ocongate sounded like how the Spanish
say 'Colgate' to me; Quince Mil made you wonder how
a place ever came to be called Fifteen Thousand; Puerto
Maldonado assumed Mecca status. If we reached it, we'd
made it safely into the jungle.
Arriving in Ocongate,
at 3,700 m high, deep in the highlands east of Cusco,
the square was already dark, framed by a shabby church,
restaurants, glowing bulbs hanging from flexes, the
bright plastics in the shopfronts and stalls manned
by gossiping women. The restaurant we had dinner in
was washed pink inside. Embroidered strips framed the
wallposters. Most were of pin-ups — Jennifer Lopez,
'Lorena', 'Beatriz' — but one was of a juicy,
roasted chicken breast. Incongruous to be sure, but
perhaps not to feminists. The waitress scurried about
between the tables and the kitchen hatch, talked to
herself more than the clientele, and was slightly demented.
The bill for three with beer came to less than £2.
The hotel we selected
from a choice of two was run by an eight year-old, or
so it seemed, and the rooms' doorframes designed for
pre-pubescents. Plaster littered the floor by one of
them, testament to an unfortunate encounter. The boy
was very efficient in everything. He stared longingly
at our backpacks, one of which he shouldered proudly
up the stairs even though it was about as tall as him.
His cheeks were burnished a deep grape purple and the
skin of his grubby hands was cracked. He waved us off
at 6 am.
Not long before 9 am,
we were stuck in the mud. Children from the nearby hamlet
came to watch the struggle. Best thing that's happened
to them in ages, I'm sure. I was wittering on to Paúl
about the Gran Sabana, telling him this story, when
I lost my concentration and plopped the left, driver's
side wheels into a muddy quagmire of a ditch. Paúl
jumped out to engage the four wheel drive. The wheels
span. Mud splattered the grassy verges. The wheels squidged
deeper. I couldn't believe I'd done it at first. On
the right, the road was dry, with tracks labelled 'this
is the right way, arsehole.'
We spun the wheels some
more, in that desperate way people do when stuck in
a bog and sinking. We put our shiny new metal ladders
down, digging them into place beneath the wheels, and
spun again; we dug out the crown, dug some more, and
spun again; we swore in several languages, looked sheepish
in front of the children, and spun again. Then we gave
up. We waited for the truck that would surely appear
around the bend soon enough. And it did. I love you,
By 10 am, we were out,
on the road again. The left side of the jeep was caked
in mud, Paúl and I blending with it rakishly.
"Se le ganó el sueño," said
one of the locals. Sleep won him over. If only.
All that morning we
climbed. The previous afternoon, the hulking snow-capped
peak of Ausangate (Peru's highest at over 6,400 m) had
played hide and seek with the clouds. We'd stopped at
a wind-pulverised pass to admire it, only to notice
two women huddled up against a low wall, the yellow
trim of their traditional hats ruffling and dancing
whenever they looked up. Later, girls in red and blacks
and embroidery shepherded sheep and llamas over the
puna. The waning afternoon light moved in a
magical cubes across the valleys, the fingering shadows
of eucalyptus groves growing with every passing minute.
Now, in the rare Andean
morning, Ausangate rose triumphant into the clear, cobalt
skies. We wound higher and higher, until it seemed we'd
touch the brilliance of the glaciers that wept cascading
rivers from their skirts. Up we wound, to the pass at
4,400 m, the engine gasping for air, second gear all
the way. We passed a shrine to Our Lord of the Peaks,
candles struggling inside its peak roofed hut, and we
knew it was down, down, down from here on. From my window,
the dirt road below looked like spaghetti loops strung
out by a capricious giant.
The head-spinning and
breath-inhibiting altitude left behind, we lunched in
a thickly-grassed meadow by a river, watched by four
curious children. I fell asleep while waiting for sandwiches
to appear, and awoke bemused and seeing blue. The children
later came down from their nearby house to offer us
delicious granadina fruit, and an unidentified tuber
which was later discarded on grounds of taste and ignorance.
As we bounced on, we
realised we wouldn't be able to make it beyond the town
of Quince Mil that day. I'd hoped to get far further.
We'd only managed 160 kms. The forest was thick now,
bushy, dense and humid. I found myself itching to get
down to enjoy it, feel it. Paúl spotted a track
just after a river crossing. We turned around and drove
tentatively down it, to a cluster of logs by the river's
banks. At first, the sun skulked behind muggy clouds,
but came out later to dry us off before the rain came,
once we'd spent a good ten minutes being pummelled back
to life by the revitalising waters.
Quince Mil turned out
to be a one-street town, sprung on the forest by the
promise of gold. We settled for a clap-board hotel of
rooms painted baby blue. It was clean and friendly,
even if the local band was rehearsing a few doors down.
And rehearsals they need.
Dinner was chicken
in peanut sauce, Peruvian TV blaring comedy in echoing
stereo from two televisions. We shopped for lunch supplies,
and were shown cheap 18-carat flakes and dust of 'saint-seducing'
gold in the local shop. We failed to be seduced, and
bought mayonnaise, tuna and chocolate instead.
At dawn, the jungle
steamed in reams of cloud upon the 'eyelash of the forest'
(as the Peruvians poetically put it). The forest perfume
was richer than I remembered. Heat gathered, mustering,
creeping up on the day as we bouldered eastwards, until
the first drops of sweat gathered on my brow.
We knew it would be
a long day. And so it was. By far the longest day on
All morning we bumped
and ground along, round and occasionally over (on spectacular
orange suspension bridges) the Madre de Dios river.
The road was only a llittle wider than the car. We rounded
hills, only to swerve back into another cleft where
waterfalls splashed, recducing the road to a rocky river
bed, or else a muddy rugby pitch. The huge trucks that
lumber up and down the road daily leave ruts in their
wake. And the jeep, its wheel span being narrower, spent
most of the day at an angle, one wheel on the peak,
one on the trough.
Choices, choices. All have to be made in split seconds,
before another pothole, bump, rock, stone, hump, mud-patch
or swinging curve. Eying the road constantly, like a
croupier watching cards, choosing which track is best,
what route to take, how to avoid falling into that hole,
taking the car over the edge into the cloying forest
below. Decisions, decisions.
of gears. Second, third back to second, hole, ease into
first, up to second, a straight, into third, a curve,
back to second. On and on, for five hours to Mazuko,
twelve hours to Puerto Maldonado. I only pushed into
fourth gear for parts of the last 100 kms. Never thought
it would feel so good.
We had to stop at one
waterfall, where a 'cuadrilla' of workmen were pick-axing,
earthmoving and digging, but mostly idling while someone
else worked. We shared a swig of Pisco (Peruvian gut-rot
which helps on long journeys...) with an unimpressed
truck driver who told us bitterly that the Municipality
had only just begun working on the road again. "During
the rains, they abandon us," he seethed. It can
take a week or more to complete the 500 kms then. He
did the trip all week long, he said, all year-round,
with one day of rest in-between stops at Cusco and Puerto
Two otters crossed the
road in the morning in Indian file. Later, blue-and-yellow
macaws squawked in inelegant formations across a dusky
Mazuko sounded like
bazuko to me (the raw, nasty paste that is
an early product of the cocaine-making process). It
boasted all of 500 metres of asphalt in the town centre,
but it felt like Heaven to me. Until we nociced a clanking,
tinking sound eminating from beneath the car. Luckily
it turned out to be related to the four-wheel drive
mechanism of the front wheels, and was soon solved.
The local policeman
flagged us down. He was highly trained in pedantry.
He insisted on going through all the car's paperwork,
even questioning what three million venezuelan bolivares
(the price I bought the car for in 1999) was worth today.
Twat. He couldn't find the entry stamp to Peru in my
passport, and complained that I'd visited too many countries.
In Mazuko, the petrol
was duty-free and cheaper than anywhere we'd been so
far (unbelievably, petrol in Peru is nearly as costly
as in Britain). It was dispensed from five-gallon yellow
pots with the aid of a siphon.
As I mentioned, it was
a long day. As the light gave up the ghost along the
road cut through the once-close jungle, the stereo,
for some reason, started to cut out. It got darker.
I drove as fast as I could, trying to get to the speed
where the car glides over the stones, rather than hitting
them one by one. About half an hour after dark, we stopped
to stretch our legs and take a pee. I left the lights
on low, to avoid getting squashed by an oncoming truck.
But when we got back in the car, the battery acted as
if it was dead. It hardly turned the starter motor over.
Luckily, we flagged
down a bus whose assistant-driver I'd chatted to at
the last crossroads. He jumped out, helped give us a
push, and we set off once again. But not ten minutes
down the road, the lights failed to go to high beam.
Five minutes on, the engine started fading in fourth.
Five more minutes and third was failing too. The alternator
had gone. About the only part of the engine that I hadn't
had checked when I retrieved the car in Quito after
its 18-month sabbatical. Ain't that the way.
Once we got down to
second gear, we knew we were in for a long night. Up
ahead, about a hundred yards, there was a street lamp
shining. But before the decision to push the car to
there was made, the bus which had helped us before pulled
Faced with such honed
persuasive techniques, the driver decided he could indeed
tow us into Puerto Maldonado. We'd got close; within
seven kilometres. But the last six were spent ignominiously
behind a puffing diesel motor, eyes glued to the cable
(a new addition to the car, which I'm so glad
we bought in Cusco...) as it flexed and pulled at the
back of the big, white bus.
It dropped us off at
a mechanics' on the outskirts of town. Then we remembered
it was Labour Day, May 1st. All the mechanics were drunk.
"Yeah, yeah, sure...
leave the car with us. Yeah yeah, tomorrow, tranquilo,
we'll fix it... ¿Alternador? Claro, claro, si
We managed to get most
of stuff out of the back, the spare petrol tank off
the roofrack, locks fixed on the cable, bonnet and pedals,
and hailed a motokar, the Asian motorised trycles
which we proceeded to permanently dent with all our
We made it to the Hotel
Libertador at 8 pm. We'd made it into the jungle. Most
people are pleased to leave to it, the Green Hell. I've
never been so pleased to get anywhere in my life.
'ROAD MOVIE — THE ANIMATION' »»»»
<< I returned to this part of Peru in May 2006 to research the asphalting of this road, now loftily known as the Inter-Oceanica. See jungle for more.