Miracle on the Pan-American Highway.


Roadside south of Lima

It was just after dawn as I walked along the street to a wonky symphony of car klaxons. Inhaling exhaust fumes and dodging the cars stuck on Avenida Javier Prado my knees buckled under the weight of my overpacked backpack. Glancing at the facial features of the drivers I realised I really was in South America, thousands of miles from home and everything familiar and that I was alone, my only companion being Kermis, my beloved goodluck mascot.

So far Lima had been a blur. Arriving the evening before the cab had made it’s way along scary ill-lit grafitti-covered streets, mostly abandoned except for the odd pile of burning trash and sinister shadows lurking unnaturally in doorways. I would return to Lima and mentally made a note to myself never to walk in that area, day or night. I had only glimpsed the cities historical heart, Centro, from the cab window as we made our way along Avenida Wilson and around Paseo de la República and already it had seemed fascinating, Latin American, the smell of fried food from the street stalls had wafted it’s way through the car’s ventilation system sending my appetite into overdrive.

I had opted to stay in the shiny new business district of San Isidro purely because it was near to the bus company terminal. Due to excitement and possibly the different timezones it was around 4am when I managed to doze off when a drunk man woke me up after five. I couldn’t help but giggle as I watched him stagger along the empty street six floors below, his tipsy song sung in Spanish directed at a lamppost which he had kissed a number of times before he stumbled on, his melody booming around the canyons created by the glass skyscrapers for quite a while. In a way he had seemed fantastically rebellious amongst those posh buildings and expensive cars, as if he had just stepped out of another era adamant to show that even though the buildings change and may be futuristic the image of a drunk man will forever remain. I can’t remember the last time I had witnessed such a scene but knew it must have been in the 20th Century. I wondered where he was going and hoped for his sake he was not off to work.

I realised there was no point in trying to sleep anymore as the traffic would start soon. In my mind swirled snow covered peaks and shy Quechua women dressed in bright clothes, steep cobbled streets and alpacas, thoughts that had made me restless for weeks. No I thought, I could always sleep when I got back home. I was so near to the Andes mountain range now and felt an overwhelming need to push on.

I followed all the safety advice I had been given about travelling in Peru and bought a ticket from the countries second best bus company. Second best because the buses owned by the top company had been robbed a number of times often in remote areas. Expensive and mostly used by groups of tourists they had been an easy target, I would slip past under the bandit’s radar surrounded by Peruvians. I felt safe as all of the bus passengers had been photographed, fingerprinted (except me) and scanned by metal detectors, this was bus travel like I had never experienced before. The bus was brand new with television screens, earphones, WIFI, seats that reclined into beds and a steward handing out complementary meals, snacks and drinks. I was already starting to like Peru and couldn’t believe I had been influenced by horror stories from hysterical travellers on internet forums who portrayed Peru as all pickpockets, doom and gloom. The airport cab driver had looked at me shocked and asked if it was my first time in Peru when I had asked him to lock all of the doors and close all of the windows, he assured me I had nothing to worry about and from that moment on I had felt nothing but calm.

The bus snailed along traffic-clogged avenues and past hillsides crammed with brightly coloured cinderblock houses reminding me of Brazilian favelas before Lima began to fade away cloaked in it’s infamous grey mist. The homes lining the Pan-American Highway were sparser now, the odd dwelling built randomly in areas with no roads. What struck me was Peruvian pride. Some of these basic shacks were built on or near trash sites but still the occupants had took the time to plant flowers in their tiny gardens and paint their doors and window frames bright colours, I found this immensely touching. Maybe they didn’t have much but what they did have they would make it the best they possibly could. I decided from that moment on I liked Peruvians.


Andes mountain range begins to appear across the desert

We were not even out of the region of Lima before the landscape changed dramatically. I imagined Peru as green but these were huge sand dunes at heights I had never saw before. Some dunes had what seemed like military lookout towers built on them. I wondered if this natural landscape had been put to good use by the army becoming in someway the capital’s natural defence. The further south we drove the weather began to improve, mountains began to appear far off on the left backed by blue skies and wispy clouds, on the right a murky Pacific Ocean hugged the road but I decided not to look at it. I had last saw that ocean thirteen months earlier from the window of a Japanese bullet train as I had travelled with my ex boyfriend. I didn’t want to remember those days, the Pacific Ocean or Japan. I was not quite ready yet.

After a while it became apparent that I was on a non-stop bus for twenty hours with no food. The steward had come around with lunch which had been chicken and rice. I explained that I was vegetarian and asked if I could have the non-meat option. He looked at me bewildered as they do in many countries when you explain that you don’t eat meat. He apologized and said that was all they had. I  thanked God when I managed to find a granola bar in my bag and the steward handed me part of his personal stash, a banana! In a way it didn’t bother me though, people were starving the world over and I should be nothing but grateful that I had a chance to go to Peru.

The landscapes slipped by like a watercolour, light and shade mixing with one another, bright towns would appear bathed in a desert glow as light reflected onto walls from golden sand. Peruvian life appeared in all it’s glory, markets brimming with vegetables and gossip, a small boy standing in a red basin as his mother washed him, a girl struggling against the wind as she tried to put wet clothes over a washing line, an old woman whiling away the hours had set up a table on her doorstep selling a yellow drink called Inca Kola, stray dogs sleeping on garbage tips without a care in the world, a group of men black from oil stood bent over the engine of a moto-taxi looking puzzled, a group of boys playing marbles cheered, dreadlocked newage travellers whom I guessed were Israelis swung on a rope tied between two trees looking lost and far from home.

Suddenly the bus screeched to a halt and I like the other passengers were thrown towards the chairs in front, thankful that the steward had insisted we wear seatbelts. I managed to glance out of the window deciding we must have crashed when a miracle unfolded right in front of my eyes. It was a beige coloured pup, it must have run out into the highway infront of our bus, terrified it kept running and to my horror into the other lane full of oncoming traffic and right out infront of a speeding truck. The truck driver didn’t brake, I gasped as I watched the dog’s hind legs get clipped from the front left tyre before it dissappeared under the truck miraculously appearing on the other side scampering to safety after it’s game of rubber and asphalt Russian roulette. A spilt second earlier and that dog would have been killed joining the other carcasses that seemed to line this section of the highway. As the dog ran along a sandy lane between houses it looked back terrified towards the road and in that moment I could do nothing but wish that animal well and hope in the future it stays well away from danger.

I remember Nazca as the last town with any sort of life before our bus pulled away and into the mountains and darkness. I put the chair right back into it’s bed position and covered myself with a blanket, after a while the lights were put out inside the bus and I stared out at the night, the luminous sky crowded with stars in a way that I can only ever remember seeing once before one winters night in Scotland. It was impossible to sleep because of the steep switchback roads throwing the bus from left to right. In a way I felt like I was lying on an old LP record as it rotated on a turntable, every few minutes the moon and stars would sway to the left before swinging to the right, giving me umpteen chances to try and figure out the names of the constellations. In the middle of the night I became aware of my breathing, or more correctly lack of oxygen. Now the air seemed dry, thin and sharp. I could hear the steward inflating balloons from an oxygen tank in the back of the bus and hoped I wouldn’t need them.

Andes above the clouds

Andes snow

These photos were just after sunrise somewhere between Abancay and Cusco

I think I must have slept but for how long I don’t know. When in transit I never sleep but nap, maybe I was gone for a few hours or a few minutes i’m not sure but as I awoke I noticed a blanket of clouds in a valley far below amazement diminishing any tiredness I might have had.  Towering mountain ranges topped off with snow appeared above the ridges, melting snow creating narrow waterfalls hundreds of metres high, cactii clung precariously to the sides of otherwise barren cliffs and below were green valleys and muddy rivers and tiny dots which I later figured out were houses. At the side of the road sometimes a sheer drop would appear and the spaces between the side of the bus and edge of the road began to consume me, at one point I remember counting 12 memorials to road accident victims huddled in a space of three metres.

I will never forget the first time I saw a Quechua woman. Even though the mountain peaks were illuminated by sunlight far below in the shadows this hamlet still seemed to linger in the last traces of night. She appeared out of the shadows of a narrow lane wearing a typical Andean bowler hat and carrying rainbow coloured bundles of cloth on her back as she led a donkey tied to a rope. I felt a rush of excitement as I realised of all my thoughts of South America those people are to me the most alluring, the most exotic.

To my dismay breakfast was served to the passengers, chicken and rice. A little while later the bus ground to a halt beside a roadside food stall where the steward rushed out and brought back bread and cheese and a pastry wrapped in plastic foil…just for me. See, I told you, Peruvians are lovely.

Cusco first glimpse

First glimpse of Cusco

Cusco, the Imperial City and great capital of the Inca empire appeared quite suddenly as we passed a bend on the road, spread out into the distance under a blue sky it’s red tiled roofs seemed to go on for miles, the city growth cut off by steep hills it had decided to stretch far off along the valley. I had wanted to visit Cusco for years, attracted to it’s architecture, history and surrounding landscapes and in a way I couldn’t believe I was really there and thankful that I had made it at all.

There had been so many obstacles on my journey to South America, a mix up with leave from work, cancelled flights, delays, chaotic Lima and dangerous roads so in a way just being in Cusco I decided was the highlight of my trip. Little did I know that Cusco was just the beginning of a series of moments ingrained into my memory that I will forever cherish and look back with nothing but awe.

Next up: Enduring Machu Picchu