The traffic in Lima can best be compared to a stock car race where even sixty year olds drive like boy racers in the UK. The roads in Lima are heavily potholed, some so deep that a 4x4 would have difficulty in crossing them, local knowledge is essential if one is to make rapid progress. The two options to negotiate them are to swing into the traffic in a nearby lane (regardless of conditions) or to go fast enough to leap over them.
The fastest only gives way to the biggest. This means that bus and truck drivers go exactly when and where they want, completely ignoring all other traffic. This has to be taken into account when in their vicinity. Traffic lights are only obeyed reluctantly, this due the extreme notoriety of the police in their dealings with offenders of any description. The maximum number of vehicles possible crams into the front line, the left turning ones not necessarily in the left hand lane, gunning their engines and creeping forward in order to secure the minutest advantage over a rival. The remainder vie for position on the grid. Children and teenage hucksters run through the traffic selling every kind of confectionery and cigarettes.
At the instant the lights change to orange the whole mass leaps forward with a blare of horns and a cloud of exhaust fumes, the hucksters leap for safety or stand very still and hope for the best.
Petrol is cheap in Peru. Due to extremes of altitude and complete indifference of most drivers, most engines are badly adjusted. Ninety percent of vehicles are twenty years old or more with nineteen forties/fifties models not uncommon. These burn vast amounts of oil. Many cars about have no glass, lights, bumpers or mudguards. Tyres are not considered to be worn out until the last layer of canvas is revealed. Most Limonos consider exhaust systems to be superfluous. Nothing is fixed until it actually breaks or ceases to function at all. At this point some amazingly ingenious repairs are resorted to, usually involving bent wire of various gauges. In spite of all this I saw few accidents.
Ninety nine percent of new cars are Japanese, there are a few British and American cars about but all of sixties and seventies vintage. However there are few new cars in Lima, the ancient VW beetle rules O.K.
We picked him up at the (cheaper) unofficial taxi drivers park at the airport. One always haggles over the fare in Lima and he obviously thought he had the better of us and could therefore afford to indulge in a little "sport". We piled in, four in the back and one up front. This is normal in Lima, even a small car can be packed with up to eight persons. We were used to "loco" taxi drivers in Lima but this one seemed to be something special even by Limono standards. The first indication was the choice of horn (easily the best maintained part of any taxi here). Not only has the volume of the sound to be considered but it's quality. This particular horn had a particularly discordant ear-jarring note. His handling of this item was particularly adept. Not for him the prolonged blast. As a true master he played a staccato tattoo guaranteed to set the nerves jangling and demolish the moral of any competitor.
The initial lurch onto the highway confirmed our suspicions. The driver who was in his fifties (we never did find his name) had a maniacal gleam in his eye. We hurtled into the gathering gloom, weaving our way down the highway through buses, trucks and the only slightly less insane. First of all it was necessary to obtain petrol. I suspect we went quite some way off track to find a suitable place, it's hard to tell in Lima as the taxi drivers always pursue some route they imagine will dodge the traffic. (It never works).
We finally arrived at the desired refuelling place cutting up a bus and two other taxis in order to get in first. It was "Shell" apparently the driver's first visit here. We screeched to a halt by the pumps, a small boy leapt out from between them to take the money and the terse instructions rapped out to him. An old man leapt out, adroitly removed the rag bunged into the filler cap and stuck the hose in.
Our driver scowled, viciously gunning the engine in order to encourage the fuellers to greater effort. His attention was divided between the dials on the petrol pump and the road ahead where traffic hurtled past inches from our front bumper. The instant the correct sum was clocked up, the motor howled, he dropped the clutch, the old man swiftly inserted the rag and leapt back into his den. The taxi driver apparently considered that the whole operation had been conducted with appropriate professionalism. At intervals thereafter he muttered "Shell, sí, Shell" nodding his head approvingly. He did not however allow this to impede progress.
When traffic light change to red in Lima every vehicle approaching them immediately tries to change lane in order to gain some imagined advantage. The whole mass halts bumper to bumper and the front runners then creep forward into the crossing traffic until it is reduced to a single lane. Quite often half a dozen vehicles are trapped in the centre reservation. This is considered to be an advantage as they have gained a few yards on the remainder. Whilst poised on the front row of the impending debacle, we observed a VW beetle (of which there are thousands in Peru) which performed a "U" turn which involved crossing four lanes of traffic, literally on two wheels. Our driver was highly impressed by the audacity and verve of this manoeuvre and whistled nodding his head approvingly.
There are zebra crossings in Lima but I never saw anyone pay the slightest attention to them. Peruvians are inveterate jay walkers, as can be imagined this is a highly dangerous sport. It is however the only way to cross the road, it being best to tag on to some locals bent on the same. It's especially dangerous for Brits with the traffic on the "wrong" side of the road. We did arrive at our destination in one piece, in fact there are not that many accidents, probably because all motorists in Lima are on a perpetual adrenalin high. To blink would probably result in instant death.
We had a couple of days to kill in Lima before we went home.
The immediate coastline to the North and to the South of Lima reading the guide book did not sound particularly scenic, (at least within a comfortable days journey). After closely consulting the guide book, I decided that the road to the North seemed marginally more interesting than the road to the South. The only places within range were Ancon and Chancay.
I got on to our noble hostess at the Hostel Petitrojas, Miry, who as I suspected, knew someone with a "combi". After a prolonged haggle over the telephone we agreed to hire this vehicle for $70 for the day. (Down from $110 "muchas grandes, mucho bonito"). When it turned up the next day I had to concur, it was excellent. Pilot for the day was one Hernandes Castro with his son riding shotgun. We discovered later that the reason for the son's presence was to act as guard, as such a desirable vehicle could not be left unattended, even for a moment. The son was the only person I ever saw in Peru to wear the seat belt. They both had a great sense of humour, (as do most Peruvians) but no English.
We set off North along the Pan-American highway. The first place after the airport one comes to is "Los Jovenes". This is the most incredible collection of ramshackle huts built by economic migrants from the outback of Peru. It extends for miles, the only gaps being where threatening notices from the army forbade access. There seemed to be no sanitation, water or electricity and certainly no roads. This must be the absolute bottom of the pile in Peru. We stopped for a moment to purchase some bottled water. Everyone remained in the combi except Hernandes and myself. Even so he locked all the doors, the son alertly peered in all directions from within whilst we circumspectly sloped off to make our purchase. Hernandes walked behind, eyes rolling about, as we made our way through the milling crowds of the most desperately poor people I ever saw. I think this was the only time I felt insecure in Peru.
We carried on. The terrain is desert, there were huge sand dunes, I have visited many deserts but this was one of its own. The sea was only occasionally visible due to this "garua", a sort of thin fog that is always present for most of the year in these parts.
From time to time we came to police roadblocks, Hernandes produced a document and we were immediately waved through. It transpired that he was a retired policeman, he only had to flash his I.D. and we were through! Though retired, he was still a policeman, the best driver we saw in Peru, his head constantly rotated, eyes everywhere. Nothing was missed!
The first stop was Ancon, this is a small resort town frequented by Limonos in the season. It was not the season, the place was deserted. It reminded me of Lloret de Mar in the late fifties, part sleepy fishing village with a few large hotels at Southern edge. In the harbour were small workaday wooden fishing vessels whilst by the hotels were moored the yachts of the wealthy. There were a few large and costly dwellings in the plum spots overlooking the sea.
There were traditional fishermen (picture, 35K) and their wives by the harbour cleaning fish. The catch seemed paltry, I saw nothing bigger than six inches in the process of being gutted and packed in containers with salt. They looked desperately poor, nevertheless they were a cheerful bunch with plenty of witty remarks to throw around about their Gringo visitors. The girls were delighted by the antics of the dozens of pelicans on the jetty by the harbour, come down for scraps of offal. They had a wingspan of at least six feet and an extremely sagacious expression, shuffling up and down the pier and jockeying for the best position.
We had a walk around. The place was virtually deserted. The traditional part of the town had a few colonial style buildings in poor repair plus blocks of "dormitory" accommodation which took me straight back to Butlins in the fifties. It has to be said that the climate of coastal Peru for most of the year is gray. The temperature was very comfortable for us, but I suspect Peruvians found it cold. This is due to the Humbolt current which comes from Antarctica up the West coast of South America. The water temperature is actually similar to what we are used to, but most of the locals were wearing wet suits when in the sea. There seemed to be nothing in the way of "amusements", it was hard to see what holidaymakers did here. Perhaps just to get away from Lima was holiday enough.
Chancay was a few miles off the main highway, it's outskirts were particularly unprepossessing, a shamble of hovels gathered around dirt roads, however as we came into the centre things looked up. There were municipal buildings, a police station, a town square with neatly trimmed grass and trees. A parade of some sort was going on. The Peruvian flag was raised, speeches were made, troops, police and girl guides? marched and counter marched. School children waved the national flag. A large crowd viewed the proceedings, applauding at appropriate intervals. We rubber necked until the show was over and then viewed the local market which seemed to be desperately poor. There didn't seem to be anywhere to eat so we had to be content with what we had with us and confectionery from a barrow boy.
This seemed to be about it, however the indomitable Hernendez, our driver, had not finished with us yet. We plunged into the coastal outskirts of the town which seemed to principally consist of closed and semi-derelict fish oil factories. Millions of tons of anchovy (a sort of sardine) were once landed here and converted to fish oil. However over fishing by Peruvian and foreign fleets resulted in the collapse of fish stocks a few years ago. This disaster was reflected in the local economy and a crash in seabird population which also depended on the anchovy.
In this unlikely location is El Castillo de Chancay. (Picture,25K) As I had neglected to read up in the guide book this was something of a surprise, indeed startling as Peru is not renowned for it's castles (except for the Inca ones!) Stunned we paid our 1.50 Sol entrance fee (free secure parking for our bus) and were ushered in. The initial impression was one of a Peruvian Disneyland. Perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, el castillo presented a vista of concrete. Concrete towers, concrete turrets and concrete battlements. There were twee little lawns and twee little fences. Gaily coloured flags fluttered in the wind, chaser lights edged the crenellations, neat little tables with sun brollies were tastefully arranged. Pert, bright-eyed serving girls in short skirts hovered about in the background. Souvenir shops displayed their wares to a non-existent clientele. For except for us and the staff the place was deserted.
Our presence was clearly unexpected and seemed to cause some confusion, we wandered about randomly. Eventually the management seemed to come to grips with the situation, we were rounded up and a guide found. A young handsome fellow, his English was only marginally better than my Spanish (best described as appalling). Clearly it was not every day that a busload (well five) Gringoes turned up at El Castillo. We were shepherded on the tour so beloved of the Peruvian mentality.
So far as I could work out the castle was built in the 1860's by a rich Spanish/Italian family and was occupied until the 1920's when it was severely damaged by earthquake. It then lay derelict until the inhabitants of Chancay decided to rebuild it as a tourist attraction. This was done by local volunteers utilising the dubious local practice of cement rendered hollow clay blocks, presenting a wholly disastrous appearance. It gradually became apparent that this was a community project of which the local populace are immensely proud. This was the embryo tourist industry which was to replace the now defunct fish oil factories. How this was financed I could not determine.
We traipsed around the interior of the castle where a few original floors and fireplaces remained together with a few sticks of furniture. Mouldering photographs of the original inhabitants stared down at us from cracked and broken frames. They seemed to have enjoyed a high old life with fancy European clothing and large expensive cars. I wondered how the locals lived at that time. There was very little glass in any of the windows, most of the interior was running with water. There was a museum of the thousand year old Chancay Indian culture with the inevitable desert mummies and pots. (Picture, 29K) Many of the cases were bereft of glass and even those that had it were far from airtight. The contents had visibly deteriorated. The guide passed around thousand year old human skulls for our edification, the less inhibited fingered them and posed for photographs in the Yoric style.
We went down the cliff path to the site of the proposed swimming pool. This was only part completed, the money had run out. Someone had optimistically outlined it on the rock with spray paint. Meanwhile the unfinished concrete retaining wall with projecting reinforcing bars rusted in the salty air. Brickbats and waste materials littered the beach below. Marigolds had been planted in clefts in the rocks and were being lovingly nurtured.
There had been a massive oilspill at sea a few years ago. As there was no money for a clean up, thousands of tons of oil had ended up on the beach below the castle. This hardened into a continuous layer of asphalt, feet thick, extending as far as the eye could see in both directions. In the distance could be seen the redundant fishing fleet, rusting hulks anchored a few hundred yards from the harbour mouth.
Whilst we admired the view, our guide who had clearly taken a shine to Ann, hot Latin blood aboil enquired into her marital status. He was astounded to learn that her partner had been abandoned in England for four weeks. The concept of any woman being at liberty to do such a thing was more than he could get his mind around. Hardheartedly I informed him that she drove a tank in the British army and was a paratrooper to boot! This information (a slight exaggeration) finished him off completely. I advised him to be polite to her, as I was, or she would break his legs. He took this information at face value and thereafter shot her amazed glances, muttering and shaking his head when he fancied she wasn't looking.
Finally we finished up on top of the castle. This our guide considered to be the high point of the tour. "Muy interessant, muy bonito, hey Señor?" his final remark. His face shone with enthusiasm and civic pride. I looked out over a leaden ocean and it's formless divide with a leaden sky. The long Pacific rollers thundered in on the asphalt beach(picture31K). A plume of greasy smoke from the part of the fish oil factory that was still working rolled across a wilderness town of the meanest of hovels. The rusting hulks of the anchovy fleet provided the only spots of colour in a grey landscape. I had to agree with him. The inhabitants of Chancay had truly wrought a miracle here at the castle. It was an acre of paradise in sea of despair.
I strongly feel that the inhabitants of Chancay should get every encouragement in this, which is for them, a tremendous effort. Visit if you can to support this project!
My wife has this thing about markets. The markets of Peru are enormous, noisy, dirty, smelly, colourful and usually quite the most interesting part of any town or city. European markets pale into insignificance beside them. The high point of any visit to Peru!
For the "Mercado Central" in Lima it's necessary to have a good map, nerves of steel and an iron constitution to pay a visit! It's also necessary not to carry anything of value, real or apparent.
Having a day to spare and possesing a map we decided to pay a visit. It has to be said that some of our party proved not to have the necessary iron constitution. The official market is shown as a single city block. Taking our lives in our hands we trotted the three miles or so through the Lima traffic arriving there a good deal sooner than expected, as the official market has vastly overflowed due to the the influx of desperately poor people from boondocks of Peru.
It's very easy to get lost in the chaos as we did several times. The police maintain a highly visible armed presence on almost every street corner, so there's someone to ask the way. Not many Gringos visit this market. Virtually anything you want is for sale here. The meat market will turn your stomach, the caged bird market will break your heart. The jostling crowds of hucksters, beggers, stall holders, and would be buyers crush layers of refuse underfoot. Barefoot children dart through the crowds bent on unknown errands. Nevertheless there is a discipline here, that of rampant and unchecked capitalism and a grim battle for survival equal to anything in the rainforests.
The British Army is held in a mixture of fear, dread and respect in Peru. This situation has arisen from the Falkland Islands campaign where it was initially supposed by the Peruvian populace the local superpower, Argentina, would prevail. The average Peruvian, needless to say, followed events minutely and was completely and utterly astounded at the outcome. On several occasions I was closely cross- questioned as to my views on the situation and as to the status of the British Army.
When Maggie (Thatcher) was "deposed" it was confidently assumed that the "British Army" would come to her rescue and restore her to power. When this did not occur the Peruvian populace were astounded and amazed. For me this resulted in long political discussions in to how British society was governed and about democracy. It was of especial interest as to who controlled this fearsome force, the "British Army". The average Peruvian has not the faintest idea of how democracy functions and most of them consider it to be unnecessary and inefficient.
One of our group members, Anne, as it happened was in the Territorials (equiv. = National Guard, USA) and had driven a tank and done a few parachute jumps. (Her main duties were actually clerical). Now women are not highly regarded in Peru, being expected to keep quiet and have no opinions. It was therefore my special pleasure to inform the more macho individuals that she was a paratrooper in the British Army, drove a tank and they had jolly well better be polite to her. This information was always received with stunned amazement. That some female could be a member of this terrifying and elite force was, to them, astounding.
The noble Anne had decided to treat us all to a dinner on this particular evening in Lima so we set off on a random walk on the city centre to see if we could find a place. We had only walked a few hundred yards when we came across quite a salubrious looking establishment. In England I would have walked straight past as it would have been entirely beyond my means, or more than I was prepared to spend anyway.
As is usual in Peru the menu was at the door, there was nothing more than sixty Sols, a fortune in here but only fifteen quid in real money, so we all trooped in, the four ladies and myself. We were clad in our jungle attire, i.e. jeans, tee-shirts and clodhopper boots. These latter did help to get a grip on the thick pile of the carpet at least.
There was low lighting, soft music (with not one pianist but two). The table were spread widely apart and were occupied by well dressed local couples. The girls immediately reckoned this was the place where the better off could discreetly bring their girl friends. It has to be said that all of the girls had bad minds in this respect but it did seem quite likely. I half expected to get chucked out because of our appearance, but this was Lima, we were escorted to the largest and most prominent table in the centre of the room and close to the pianos.
Here we were subjected to the most curious of stares from the clientele. I don't suppose many scruffy Gringos made it to this establishment. The most intense speculation often arises as to how one man is with so many women. Brains go into overdrive as they try to work out the relationship between us all.
Softly spoken waiters held velvet upholstered chairs for us and pressed huge gold embossed wine lists and menus into our hands. Sparkling cutlery appeared as if by magic on the white tablecloths with carafes of water. We gazed bemused at the menu which was in a mixture of Spanish and French. English was not on the menu so our selection was largely a matter of guesswork.
I have to say it was produced in an extraordinarily short space of time, well cooked and in enormous helpings. A veritable work of art, each vegetable had been laboriously carved into a flower. We ate ravenously demolishing a second helping that appeared spontaneously. We were by now quite the centre of attention the other clientele seemed to consider us part of the entertainment judging by the astonished looks we were getting. The pianist hit quite few wrong notes.
When we had finished and a suitable time had elapsed the waiter appeared with the bill which he presented to me with a flourish. He had managed to maintain a professional composure so far, however when I waved him away and pointed to Anne he was stunned. (Women aren't supposed to have any money in this most macho of societies). By now the whole restaurant was agog, the pianist ceased to play while he too had an ogle.
When Anne produced her Visa card there was a combined gasp of amazement. Women in Peru don't have Visa cards, which along with the cellular telephone is one of the highest status symbols in Peru. She had show her passport as well which also revealed she was divorced, another no-no in Peru. (They also don't drive, have any opinions or any money). This was quite the best stir we had caused so far. The girls considered every incident like this another blow struck for women's lib. in Peru.
Our escapades in the Cusco area
Police in Peru come in various shapes and colours, all are armed to the teeth with heavy caliber pistols, batons and sometimes automatic weapons. All a bit intimidating to the average British tourist. This arises from the recent terrorist activities of the "Sendaro Luminoso" whose activities until a few years ago made the IRA look like schoolboys. Things have quietened down now but there is still a heavy police presence on the streets especially outside banks and police stations, which are often heavily fortified, in the major cities.
Their uniform is military in style with contrasting belts and harness, weapons are carried prominently and easily to hand. They are usually to be seen in pairs on street corners within sight of one another. Often they direct traffic, blowing their whistles furiously. Most wear at least the official frown which sometimes lapses to a ferocious grimace. Altogether they don't look like people to be messed with.
Ann had the ambition to photograph them and it was deemed sensible to first request permission. In Cuzco therefore we set out to find a couple of likely candidates. The first we saw were rejected out of hand as too old, the next was too ugly. Eventually in the Plaza de Armas the perfect specimens were found, two of them, young and handsome guarding a police motorbike wearing the usual serious expression and dark glasses.
As it was Ann's idea, and she was the most attractive she was prodded forward to make contact. She had been carefully briefed:- "Senior, permissio para una foto, por favor" The effect was astounding. The frowns disappeared instantly to be replaced with broad grins. They immediately began to adjust their accouterments and to dust one another down. This had clearly made their day. First they adopted various macho poses about the motorbike whilst we snapped away.
The rider of the bike then materialised and seemed hurt that he was being left out. Not to be out done he sat on the bike with Ann on the rear whilst his colleagues stood on either side with their arms about her. More photographs (picture, 29K) were taken. Finally they insisted that I sat on the bike whilst they posed around it. A real gang of posers! We parted with many a handshake and expression of goodwill.
I have this theory that the police have been told to be kind to Gringoes however they seemed genuine in their wish to oblige. It also seemed to fit in with the Peruvian love to be photographed. I never saw a Peruvian take a picture of a landscape, only of one another.
Whilst wandering about Cusco we were buttonholed by a short but well built female who brandished what looked to be a bunch of lottery tickets under our noses, clearly indicating an interest to sell. There are numerous hucksters on the streets of Cusco my first inclination was to ignore her but she was persistent even by Cusqueño standards. (It's fatal to show even the slightest interest in any unwanted item!)
She had no English but eventually we deduced that she was selling tickets to Peruvian folk dancing demos and further she was one of the stars. In Peru it seems that if you are a performer, you perform, you rehearse and when not doing these things you get off your backside and sell tickets! She had quite a bunch which she was expected to sell that day. Not quite the way things are run in Hollywood! We paid up in the end. It was necessary to keep these tickets to hand in order to fend off the rest of the cast who were on the streets on the same mission.
On the appointed evening we found our way to the converted cinema on "Avenida El Sol" that was the home of the Cusco branch of the Peruvian folkloric society. The place was soon packed out. There was a scuffle as some Peruvian pop star turned up and took his place in the audience, all the girlies wanting to sit by him.
I could tell it was folk music because it consisted of lots of different dances all to the same tune. This applied even to the guest stars from Arequipa (who are considered in the same light as the Scottish in England in Cusco.) In the first dance the women wore short folksy dresses and bowler hats, the men wore ponchos and cowboy boots. In the next dance the women wore short folksy dresses and pork pie hats, the men wore pumps. The ugly and inept ones were on the back row, the ones with the best legs were on the front row and had the shortest dresses. Und so weite. We did see "our" dancer in the front row. When we went out the performers were there in the lobby to receive the adulation from their fans. On the whole it was a better deal then you would get in U.K. It was a pity about the venue.
According to the guide book, the place in Peru where you are the most likely to be mugged is in the central market (picture, 44K) in Cusco. We just had to see for ourselves. They didn't let us down.
It has to be said that this market is absolutely fascinating (much better than the renouned markets of Pisac and Chinchero) especially the indoor bit. Strangely, although Cusco is the tourism centre of Peru, the central market is totally untouristified. It's obviously the place where the locals come to shop, colourfull, noisy and smelly. There can't be much you can't buy here. Stuff is very cheap the girls were having a whale of a spending spree, grossly distorting the local pricing structures and contributing, no doubt to, Peru's notorious inflation problems. There were over forty different potatos on sale as well as numerous fruit and vegetables I could not identify. The place was virtually deserted (of customers that is) so we were quite the centre of attention, not many gringos venture here.
Eventually they struck, Vicky was the target. One threw a bucket of water over her whilst a (female) dwarf went in and attempted to remove her money belt. They had no chance. Stormtrooper Anne was on the alert and pounced, Vicky gave the dwarf a thick ear whereupon she fled. There was pandemonium for a few minutes as various stallholders gave pursuit and advice as the inclination took them. Surprisingly Vicky did not seem at all concerned by the interlude. The stormtrooper on the other hand seemed peeved that the perpetrator had escaped.
After ten minutes haggling at "Snow's tour" at the Plaza Armas in Cusco we finally settled on a price of twenty five Sols for a circular bus tour to take in Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero in the Urabamba valley, (picture, 28K) a real tourist run. But for six quid and being picked up at the hotel you can't really go wrong. It was a crowded bus and the luckless guide had to cope with six nationalities and three languages. We sat next to some Germans, I was able to translate the English into German which wasn't on the agenda.
It was quite hard going as everywhere was beset with legions of Gringos and these were not like the vast site of Manchu Pichhu where an army could disperse. The ride was incredibly scenic and the walk to the ruins at Pisac sorted the wheat from the chaff. Between the blazing sun and the insidious lack of oxygen what should have been a short stroll became a challenge (and definitely not for anyone suffering with vertigo). I can report that the ruins (picture, 37K) are well worth a visit. The Pisac market (picture, 40K) is now totally touristifed, (picture, 41K) there being nothing to buy except the knickknacks the locals would not be seen dead in (even if they could afford the prices). Sue and Vicky had a prolonged haggle for tapestries (picture, 36K) decorated with macaws which they took a fancy to. This lasted for at least an hour and culminated with the objects being hurled through the window of the departing bus and cash being passed out of the window. And so to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo (picture, 36K) resembled the handing down of the ten commandments such were the numbers of Gringos and Japanese on the ramparts of the this mighty fortress. It was hard to grasp that this was one of the node points in history where the future of the Americas hung in the balance for that few incredible hours when the Incas almost triumphed over the Spanish, (although the press of tourists at times resembles a re-enactment of this last battle).
The view from the top was stupendous as was the feat of transporting the mighty stones used in it's construction across the valley and to the lofty crag where they rest today. Such was the press of tourists at the regular eating stop on the way back we ran out of time and were unable to visit Chinchero.
As we reached the top of the Urubamba Valley (most of the passengers were asleep) the swift equatorial darkness fell. At thirteen thousand feet and above half the Earth's atmosphere, no leisurely crimson sunset here. The blinding white disk of the sun plunged vertically behind the icy snow clad fangs of the Andes. For a few seconds the distant peaks were rimmed in gold from horizon to horizon before a complete and utter blackness fell. A wan and gibbous moon appeared briefly before it followed the sun. The temperature dipped towards freezing and in the few minutes before we came within sight of the lights of Cusco the alien stars of the Southern hemisphere shone brilliantly in a pollution and vapour free sky. I made a mental note that here was a place to return to.
There's a lot of bad news about the worlds railways these days as competition from roads forces closures. Here's a more cheerful story concerning the Cusco/Manchu Pichhu line.
There is no road to Manchu Pichhu, one walks there via the "Inca Trail", (four days) or goes on the train from Cusco. Needless to say most people go by train. The line is a single track narrow gauge which actually passes 2000ft below Manchu Pichhu, (one gets off at Puentas Ruinas station not Manchu Pichhu station). There are at least three classes of travel (all diesel these days), the best being in a separate train known as the "Autowagen" (quite respectable) the other two being on the "local" train, which is normally totally packed out. Journey time on the train is about four hours. The northern part of the line passes through a gorge which is tropical in climate. The peaks surrounding it tower to almost twenty thousand feet some of which are permanently snow covered. As regards scenery any European railway pales into insignificance!
I would have thought there is not the slightest possibility of constructing a road so difficult is the terrain. Neither is there the slightest possibility of constructing even a tiny airport. An ancient and ill-maintained Russian helicopter makes occasional sorties for the wealthy and foolhardy. The future of the railway would therefore seem to be totally secure.
Manchu Pichhu is a world class tourist venue easily comparable with the pyramids of Egypt, a "lost" city of the Incas in a located on an unassailable peak amid scenery of unsurpassable grandeur. The railway actually forms a bottleneck to the burgeoning tourist traffic, so much so that lately operators have been bussing tourists to the North of the Urabamba valley where the road finishes. The train then spends it's time shuttling up and down the Urabamba river gorge. This means that the railway buff misses the spectacular rail climb out of Cusco. It's as well to check on this aspect when tickets are purchased. The Autowagen class is particularly prone to this modification in the busy season.
It's very difficult to organise trip to Manchu Pichhu on one's own, I suspect that the whole business is "cornered" by the local cartels. This makes it virtually impossible for the poor to zero Spanish speaking visitor to wangle anything on the cheap in the time available.
There are however numerous "travel agents" in Cusco vying with one another to sell trips. There are at least ten on and about the Plaza de Armas in Cusco alone. The prices range from US$35 to $85 depending on how hard you haggle and how much you are prepared to "rough it".
We went first class but on the "local" train which set us back $70 U.S. including taxi from and to our hotel. For this you are presented with a handful of tickets for the various train and bus rides, each agent seems to have a sort of minder who pops up from time to time on the journey to shepherd his clientele about. The best views are from a seat on the left hand side.
The train ride is a memorable experience. In order to climb (picture, 25K) out of Cusco, there are very sharp curves and five reverse turns have to be made. Due to nature of the couplings between the carriages, each time the train stops on a turn the carriages first telescope violently together and then apart, the number and violence depending on the number of carriages and the skill and mood of the driver. We had lots of carriages and an ill tempered driver.
There are superb views over Cusco during the climb over the saddle to the "Sacred Valley" as the Urabamba valley is known. The train rolls undefended through the poorest part of town, through streets and backyards. The seats are not particularly comfortable and the lines are not particularly well laid. It amazed me how the train stays on the lines sometimes, however speeds are not great, thirty miles an hour at the most. The line then descends into the Urabamba Valley which is an agricultural area.
The flat valley bottom is the most productive area in Peru. The mountains rise abruptly from this area but even these are terraced by some of the most desperate feats of labour I have seen anywhere. The ancient Inca irrigation ducts can be seen along the valley walls that bring meltwater from the high Andes.
Four hundred years ago it was possible to continuously cultivate the land throughout the year, now however the aqueducts have fallen into disrepair and only seasonal cultivation is possible. A local told me contemptuously "My people are too lazy to fix them".
When we passed through it was the end of the dry season and the land was parched. Only near to the river were there growing crops. Nevertheless it is an interesting ride, the train travels slowly and the local peasants toil on the land much as they must have in the days of the Incas. At the North end of the valley the river (and the train) plunges into a narrow gorge picture,30K) and shortly after the road disappears, there being simply no room for it. Thousands of tons of explosives were expended to force the rail tracks through the hard rock, I lost count of the tunnels and cuttings. People live in the gorge, cultivating tiny patches of ground. Their only access, apart from walking, is the railway.
The sides of the gorge are almost vertical rising to towering snow covered peaks above. Below as the line descends the vegetation becomes increasingly lush and abundant. Orchids and other exotic plants cling to the cutting walls. The Urabamba river rushes by, many feet below. At one point is a small hydro electric plant.
Instead of spending money on track maintenance the railway spends money on pretty little girls who are dressed like air hostesses and must stagger up and down the swaying aisles pushing little trolleys laden with goodies and drinks. I suppose they come cheaper than railway line! (This on the autowagen only). I wondered what went on their heads, did they aspire one day to become the real thing with Aero Peru? Would they be any better off if they did?
It's easy to know when one has arrived at Puentas Ruinas, (picture,42K) 90% of passengers disembark. It's necessary to move smartly to get on the bus which makes the two thousand feet climb to the actual site on the peak above. There's actually plenty of buses but chaos rules as tickets are checked and the masses are shepherded about.
The bus climbs the modern orchid infested road (picture, 44K) forced up the steep mountainside with many a hairpin bend. Constant improvements have been made but the road is still subject to frequent avalanche (picture, 36K) which passengers have to climb over to (hopefully) meet a bus on the other side. Often carelessly handled explosives are used to break large rocks in these falls. Manchu Pichhu (picture, 30K) (picture1, 31K) (picture2, 27K) itself is like the pyramids, one of the places you must see before you die. (It's possible to die on the way there, the line has a notorious safety record. There are numerous minor collisions and derailments however fatalities are few due to the low speeds!)
The latter part of the return journey is often by night and again the left hand side secures the best views. As the train descends the reverse turns, the lights of Cusco spread as far as the eye can see, shine diamond sharp in the thin dry atmosphere, a sight unparalleled in Europe. The road takes a slightly different route and this spectacle is missed from the bus. Cunningly the operators play "El Condor Paso" (The flight of the condor) at this point and then make a fortune selling the tapes afterwards. (Don't buy, the ones they sell are very poor quality).
This has to be one of the worlds most incredible rail journeys. Nowhere else is such diverse scenery crammed into such a short journey with a destination of such magnificence at the end.
Our Manchu Pichhu deal from the previous day had included a taxi ride and the vehicle when it arrived turned out to be vast, ancient and American of indeterminate make and model. However there was plenty of room for five and so I arranged with the driver to hire it for the next day and to take us to Chinchero, a round trip of some sixty miles. The driver, (Pedro) was a short and sturdy man in his fifties. He was astonished that we should consider him and his car for such a journey. However he was clearly not going to pass up such an opportunity and after much soul searching came up with a price of twenty US dollars which between five of us was nothing. We stressed that the journey was to be "Muy despacio, muy foto". (It transpired that there was no alternative to this arrangement anyway!)
Pedro actually turned up early (almost unheard of in Peru) but with bad news. Twenty dollars was "No possible", it would have to be thirty. I had considered his calculations dodgy myself in view of the not inconsiderable size of the engine of his car and agreed at once to the extra. Even twice nothing is still nothing. Pedro was staggered by this and I could almost hear his brain going "I should have said forty". Pausing only to grab a few iron rations from the tiny "Supermercado" next to the hotel we piled into the charabanger.
It was obvious from the first that the voyage was not going to be without moment. Not a single instrument or light functioned on the panel. The windscreen sported a huge star shaped crack that someone had (unsuccessfully) tried to drill to prevent it spreading. None of the lights worked. It was a typical Peruvian taxi.
Immediately there was a problem. Pedro had no money to pay for the petrol for such a journey so I had to sub him. I passed over a twenty Sol note without comment. Pedro seized it and placed it in his special hidey-hole for cash. We navigated the back streets to the cheap petrol establishment where Pedro minutely supervised the refuelling operation, carefully locking the fuel cap with a huge padlock afterwards. Nearly every way out of Cusco is up. Pedro however knew all the ways that involved the least gradient, whether this was to save petrol or to save the transmission was not clear. It did mean that we saw places in Cusco the tourist never sees as we tacked through the back streets, gradually gaining altitude. The streets were of earth, the houses were of adobe. Sanitation seemed to be non existent. Ragged children ran around the feet of their ragged parents. Refuse littered the streets. Strangely there was street lighting almost everywhere and many of the meanest houses sported a television. We lurched from one side of the road to the other as potholes and traffic dictated, suddenly bursting onto the tarmac of the main road to Lima and Ollantaytambo.
To Chinchero from this point is a continuous climb with no alternative route. Our car, it's once considerable horsepower eroded by the years and the altitude staggered up the gradient at about fifteen miles an hour. Turbo charged diesel tourist buses hammered past. This suited us fine as the views are quite amazing. Pedro struggled with the column gear change, making valiant and usually unsuccessful attempts to double declutch. How the gearbox stood this maltreatment was beyond me. A mellady of mechanical noises emanated from the engine, tappets, timing chain, and the occasional screech of the fan belt if Pedro let the revs rise to much. He listened to this cacophony attentively as did I, no clues being offered by the redundant instrument panel.
Finally we came to a level stretch and we could all relax. We got into top gear, the motor purred. Hard white sunlight blasted down onto a parched landscape,(picture,22K). Far in the distance stood the snow capped peaks of the biggest mountain range in the world. In a crystal clear atmosphere just how distant was hard to judge. Pedro rattled away happily in Spanish pointing out the features. We coasted to a halt at what Pedro deemed to be the first photo opportunity and we all leapt out. The sky was steely blue, the road was utterly deserted. I could feel the backs of my hands being slowly incinerated by the unshielded solar radiation.
The engine of our car rumbled volcanically due to overheating, however Pedro was quite unperturbed by this. We all got our cameras out taking pictures of one another against the splendid backdrop. There appeared on the horizon bobbing figures which after a few minutes resolved into a couple of locals complete with flock of sheep. They too were not going to miss the photo-opportunity(picture,40K) (but in the starring role). One of them produced a distaff (standard local cunning ploy to extort money from gringo photographers.) However this was seized by Vicky who was into weaving and reckoned to be a dab hand at this. Her antics produced hoots of laughter as the wool was like old rope, clearly not the "baby alpaca" so beloved of vendors at the tourist markets! We tipped graciously and continued on our way through the tremendous scene.
Pedro had got into his stride now. The road was undulating all he had to do was to avoid the occasional massive pothole. With grandiose gesture he pointed out the villages and lakes we passed. He laughed uproariously at my enquiry as to his price for a journey to Lima,(some 400Km). There was almost no traffic, the engine rumbled contentedly. The breeze of our progress kept us to the perfect temperature.
As we rolled into Chinchero however, there trouble arose in the form of an ominous screech and reek of burning rubber. Pedro was entirely unconcerned by this but went to the boot and produced a pair of pliers and an enormous bundle of wire, (all metals, all gauges, insulated and uninsulated). With purposeful air he raised the bonnet (picture, 22K) and waved his pliers threateningly at the motor which was already liberally festooned with wire of all gauges. The alternator bearing had fell out. I was intrigued to see how he would effect a repair with such a paucity of material and was torn between the attractions of Chinchero and this curiosity. In the end I went to Chinchero.
We strolled up the dirt road to the centre of town, conscious of the effect of the altitude for even such a minor exertion. Running would have been out of the question. There by the Inca ruins and the colonial church thirty or forty of the locals had their tourist trinkets spread out on the ground for the unwary. The place was otherwise deserted. Each trader (picture, 36K) however had a strict economic zone, invisibly marked on the ground. As the would be purchaser stepped from one to the other the would be vendor pounced whilst his immediate predecessor was forced by the rules to relinquish him. It was possible to play a sort of hopscotch once the realisation dawned. I never did discover the rule governing what happened if one crossed this boundary whilst still clutching an unbought item.
The girls had quite a spending spree, some of the local children were especially persistent haggling for the last Sol. They often tried to sell us nick nacks we didn't really want, however if one shows even the slightest interest they consider themselves to be in with a chance. I did detect, I think, an air of desperation in the eyes of one poor child (picture, 35K) who was extremely persistent. In the end I bought the item she was selling and gave her the difference in exchange for a posed photograph.
The photo didn't turn out too well because she was so dark that in the harsh sun her features were completely under exposed and mine were over exposed. She was quite a pretty child but this was quite hidden to the casual observer due to the layers of grime and her ragged dress.
We returned to the taxi accompanied by a swarm of children (obviously we were the last of the big spenders) Pedro had effected a masterly repair of the alternator, which was clearly not an original item, by encasing it in a cats cradle of wire. This lasted about five miles when we ground to a halt (picture, 32K) once more. I was not unduly concerned, there was occasional traffic passing, we could soon get a lift I felt sure.
It was by now past midday, the sun was almost vertically above, its radiation verged on the lethal for Europeans. The girls took refuge in a roadside shack. I examined the local irrigation arrangements. I find it amazing how third world peoples can come up with low or zero cost methods of problem solving that would never occur to me.
In due course Pedro fixed the engine using yards of wire, the alternator resembled some sort of mechanical chrysalis, however it worked so off we went again. This was the bonus part of the trip as far as Pedro was concerned. The moment we came to a downhill stretch he switched the engine off and we coasted. I wondered uneasily if the brakes were power assisted or not. At one point we were able to coast for a good fifteen miles. Pedro used the full width of the road on the frequent hairpin bends, the tires scrubbed off the surplus speed. A strong smell of hot brakes and rubber permeated the car. He clearly enjoyed this part of the ride, being divested of the worry that the engine would stop. However stop it did and we coasted to a halt on a short uphill stretch. This was clearly a known problem for he leapt out and fixed it in a trice.
On the downhill run to Cusco the magnificence of the scenery can be appreciated at its best, at least when we dared take our eyes from the road. There was no heat haze in the dry and tenuous air, we could see peaks that must have been forty miles away marked by massive cumulus clouds that must have risen to thirty thousand feet. (So speaks the glider pilot.)
We stopped under a shady tree to have our picnic which we shared with Pedro. He sat a little distance away clearly amazed that we should want to associate with him or share our food with him. I don't think that the ordinary Peruvian can afford to buy the packeted foods that we had brought, he seemed completely unfamiliar with items we had bought in the corner shop. I also got the distinct impression he thought us a little mad for sitting in the shade at the side of the road to eat our food. He was quite indifferent to the view.
We rolled into Cuzco at around two. As far as we were concerned it had been an immensely enjoyable trip. It had been cheap, comfortable and Pedro had been just fine. Pedro however clearly considered it to have been something of a failure. He stood outside the hotel with head hung. I think he expected us to demand a reduction because of the breakdowns. He looked astounded when I handed over to him the thirty dollars and let him keep his petrol money as a tip. I assured him that it had been a "Muchas buenas expediccion,- mucho bonito!" which was as much as I could manage with my Spanish. He wrung my hand in gratitude, I thought he was going to kiss me, (you can never tell with these Latin types.)
As we parted another Gringo stepped up to him, clearly interested in a ride. It seemed that it was an auspicious day for everyone.
Post script. I am convinced that the best way to do local sight seeing in South America is by taxi. You really need a group of three or four people. There are so many taxis in the towns that the owner- drivers are hungry men. I usually haggle the price right down and if the driver performs well give him a good tip.
The advantages are that it costs only slightly more than a bus, you can stop when you like and you get an unpaid guide. You can ask the driver's opinion and you can get to go to places you never heard of.
The drivers love it. It's almost like a holiday for them and I fancy they love the status of transporting "rich" tourists about the place. If he's satisfactory you can use him for several days and usually they spare no effort to please (especially when they know there's a good bonus to be had at the end of the day.)
English is a bonus but not vitally necessary in my experience. Avoid the "tourist taxis" at the air port, find some hack from the street. Above all don't let any intermediates work the deal for you, the price will quadruple.
Puno, along with Cusco, is one of the places where most of the tourists to Peru gravitate, this in order to see Lake Titicaca. As the railhead linked to Cusco and port with a nearby airport at Juliaca, this happy situation allows the inhabitants to make what is by their standards a good living.
There are numerous hotels, boat trips are organised, there is a thriving industry in tourist gew-gews and knick-knacks. We too duly arrived by rail, to be sucked into this local round.
Having taken out trip on the lake to the artificial (in more ways than one) Uros islands and viewed the wildlife of the lake (which is in the process of being captured, stuffed and sold to visitors) we thought to take a wander round the local market. This is another of my wifes' favourite pursuits, hampered here only by the altitude and the ferocious sunlight.
It has to be said that the tourist industry has resulted in rather a lack lustred market compared with Lima and even Cusco. Many of the more horrifying sights (eg the meat market) to be seen elsewhere either do not exist or are carefully hidden. Many of the stalls display your standard tourist woollen hats, alpaca sweaters and toy llamas. It has to be said that the stallholders here seemed to be quite prosperous, there was none of the desperation of the Mercado Central in Lima. It was not busy in the heat of the early afternoon but as we strolled disappointedly through the area we came across a great abberation.
Squatted in the centre of a large area, clearly it was her pitch, was an ancient crone (I use the word reluctantly but it fits as no other) clad in a mixture of traditional garb and filthy rags. On the cobbles before her was a tiny piece of sackcloth with a handful of grains upon it. Clearly this was all she had to offer for sale.
As I pondered upon this situation, a woman from a neighbouring stall approached, shrilly upbraiding her and then threw a handfull of bread crumbs on the ground by her. The crone fell upon them, stuffing them into her mouth. Suddenly the locals noticed our presence and an embarrassed silence fell. The crone continued her feast completely unaware of me. Never before had such convincing evidence of starvation been laid before me. Peru and I stood shuffling, facing one another, equally unsure of how to proceed. In the end I gave the crone all the loose change in my pockets. She seemed completely bemused. I was tempted to take a picture but did not, it seemed too great an infringement. The situation resolved when a group of Americans arrived, clearly far too great a financial opportunity for Peru to miss.
I hope the lady at the next stall continues to feed her even if it's only bread crumbs.
Go to our homepage.
Go to "Wild Macaws"