The less-traveled road to Cusco

Back on the coast I looked at the little map in the guidebook to see what the most direct route to Cusco is. Which it turns out, is not always the fastest route! What the map didn’t show is that the most direct route actually takes the longest.. about 30 hours in fact, over rough dirt roads. Ah well, the joys of unplanned travel…

My first connection is in Pisco, just an hour or so north of Ica. Not being a morning person, I miss the early bus.. and I don’t like traveling at night, particularly when the scenery is so spectacular. So, I figure a night in Pisco couldn’t hurt. Listen, fellow traveler: do as I say, not as I do. Pisco is an abomination of a town. Had I landed here a year ago with less experience under my belt, I probably would have burst into tears. Ugly, ugly, ugly. People trying to rip you off at every turn. Even the hotel, which normally takes the side of their guests, tries to tell me as I’m leaving that the taxi fare to the Pan-American highway is in fact twice what I had paid the night before – and even that was a rip-off. In moments like these you simply turn your back on the hustlers and walk away with your middle finger held high.

It’s funny that some places don’t realize that travelers do in fact talk to each other, and that ripping people off will only lead to less business in the long run. But then, many people I interact with don’t think in the long term – only what will make them a buck today.

The ugliness of Pisco isn’t really their fault. Just two years ago, an 8.0 earthquake struck this area killing 519 people, injuring 1,366, and destroying 58,500 homes – fully half of the buildings in town. Rebuilding is dragging. The entire place is a construction zone. Hot, dusty, and dirty. No reason to come. Move along now, nothing to see here.

Just off the coast, however, are some islands covered in guano (another Quechua word – along with pisco, coca, condor, jerky, llama, puma, quinine, and quinoa – that’s made it into the English language.) During Peru’s guano rush of 1850-1870, 10 million tons of the stuff was carted away. This had the effect of lowering the islands’ height by 30 metres and almost destroying the bird population – which includes the Humboldt penguin (Arthur!), flamingo, pelican, and of course, boobies! Guano rush?!
[An historical aside – the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing U.S. citizens to take possesion of any island containing guano deposit (providing it’s not already owned by another nation). It also empowers the President to direct the military to protect such interests. Who knew?]

After waiting by the side of the road for a while (why did I get up so early??), the bus eventually rambles up only an hour or so late. Once I’m settled in, the stewardess inexplicably picks me to go downstairs into the first class section. Woo-hoo! Really plush, huge comfy seats that recline all the way. Further along in the journey she takes a bit of trash from a passenger, opens the window, and throws it out. Did I mention that we’re in the middle of pristine wilderness. How do you begin changing behavior like that which is so ingrained? The scenery is spectacular, I’m glad I waited to take the day bus. We’re traveling over puna, that alpine-like terrain that looks so beautifully desolate.

My first stop along this less-traveled route is the mountain town of Ayacucho. Less-traveled indeed: just 500 foreigners visit Ayacucho monthly, as opposed to the 45,000 that visit Cusco. [You can see why I’m kind of dreading Cusco!] Ayacucho is a pleasant town with lots of churches, hills with lovely views, and artisans. But the town is best known as the birthplace of the Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla group that fought an 11-year civil war which claimed the lives of 69,000 people in the 1980’s and early 90’s. Much of the fighting between the Army and the guerrillas occurred around here, terrorizing local villages and causing widespread migration to the cities. The guidebooks and tourist websites will tell you that’s all over with. But in fact, the Shining Path has become a Peruvian version of the FARC – political in name only, but in reality they are shrewd businesspeople reaping huge profits from the cocaine trade. Moreover, pockets of rebels still wreck havoc in parts of the country occasionally. Just a few months ago an Air Force helicopter was shot down by rebels near here. It’s not the kind of thing tourists should worry about, but it’s always nice to find out what’s really going on, as opposed to just hearing the party line. Full credit again goes to Wikipedia for exposing these facts.

The oldest evidence of human presence in all of South America was also discovered near here. The Pikimachay Cave sheltered a series of nomadic groups during the last ice age, around 15,000 B.C. The cave’s inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, hunting now-extinct animals such as mastodons, giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and miniature horses. Cool!

Apparently the Easter celebrations in Ayacucho are second to none, if you happen to find yourself around these parts then.
I’m experiencing my first taste of the rainy season – after a pleasant spring-like morning, the skies opened up and the street turned into a river for about an hour. But then it stopped and birds were singing again. Gotta love the tropics.

I’m not sure I’d recommend this route unless you have a lot of time and love the mountains. One can see equally interesting indigenous highland culture in Cajamarca for far less schlepping and unlike Cajamarca, there’s not much to see within striking distance of Ayacucho.

The altitude always does a number on me. I know my body will adapt in a few days, but for now I’ve got headaches, wooziness, shortness of breath, and I keep tripping. One can only drink so much coca tea.
My UV water purifier that I always rave about broke! It only dropped 2 feet, from the bed to the carpeted floor šŸ˜³ Damn… well, I can still purify water by boiling it in the kettle; this just means no more cold water nor instantly. I never really used it away from the hotel room anyway. Although if I do go on one of the Incan trail treks, it would have come in really useful then. Technology hates me this month.

Speaking of drinking, at 7pm tonight as I’m in the restaurant picking up my pizza to go, I notice two guys passed out cold. Face down on the table. Their buddy is wearing a chef’s hat and drunkenly trying to engage me in conversation. I wonder what the occasion is.

The supermarket here has a sign explaining the significance of the different colors of candles. Blue for love, red for money, etc. Handy, because I can never remember which color to buy. The nuns in the monastery down the street sell sweets and marmalade made from a recipe given to them by God.

UPDATE from a week after I left – mudslides came streaming down the main streets, sweeping away cars and killing nine!

After a couple of nights in Ayacucho I continue my journey on the dirt road heading up and over the high treeless pĆ”ramo. I catch my first glimpse of vicuƱa – the wild ancestor of the alpaca – whose wool the Incas valued higher than gold. We stop for lunch at 11am in the tiny Quechua town of Chumbes where I partake in some fried dough while wandering the rural market. It’s really peaceful here and the air is so fresh. And thin – I think I’m getting sunburnt from just a half hour outside with no hat on. I can see why the indigenous wear those wonderful large hats with the big brims. The kids slung on mama’s backs are adorable with their little hats, too.

Another couple of hours on the bus finds us descending into the Pampa Valley, a cobalt-blue river meandering through subtropic desert. It’s about at this time that we come to a stop at a roadblock and I get out to see what all the fuss is about. There’s been a landslide! Last night’s rains loosened up all that dry dirt on the hillside and completely blocked the road. It looks like road crews have been working on it all morning, but now I understand that the largest backhoe has locked up and they can’t get it moving again. This massive machine is right in the middle of things. To make matters worse, they can’t simply clear a path around it since the edge of the road is a cliff hanging over the river. Well, this is going to be interesting! We could be here all day.

One of the things I love about Latin America is when people rush to the scene of excitement, even if it’s dangerous. And nobody stops them. Thus, myself and about 50 other people are clustered around the scene of these large earth-moving machines which are throwing boulders around while perched on the side of a cliff and nobody’s concerned about liability. Actually for a while it looked like nothing was happening. I thought I was back in Italy, what with everyone standing around arguing about what should be done and no one actually doing anything. An enormous neighborhood pig then wanders through the scene. Finally someone has the idea to knock down a concrete wall and create a route around the obstacle that way. He jumps in his front-end loader and just knocks the wall right into the river. A swarm of guys standing around (just bystanders, not road crew) pounces on the remaining rebar and clears the site. I’m impressed with this can-do spirit. Back in the States, they would have sent all traffic back for days while the site was methodically repaired. Probably would have needed to get the right permits first.

Now to send the first bus across this dicey route. [By this point a line of about 20 trucks and buses had backed up. Fortunately mine was not first in line.] I had my doubts – when I walked the path, my feet sank about 6″ into the soft dirt. Fine for the huge treads on a front-loader, but for a large cruising bus? Yikes. So naturally they empty the bus of passengers first, just in case it does go toppling over the edge, right? Um, that would be no. I’ve got to hand it to the drivers – they’re incredibly brave (or incredibly stupid). The top-heavy bus took a couple of gasp-inducing shifts leaning towards the river as it negotiated the rough path, and then.. sure enough, got stuck in the soft sand. Long story short, they eventually got it out and with each subsequent vehicle, the path became easier to drive. I elected to get back on only once the bus was well clear of the danger. Of course, then we had to contend with the traffic that was now backed up on the other side coming our way. Lots of honking and shouting and negotiating later, we’re finally on our way again.

Amazingly we only lost a couple of hours, and our crazy skilled driver was able to make up lost time. This guy knows the exact length of his wheelbase down to the centimetre. He’s able to take corners to the point where the front of the bus is hanging well over the edge of the road (it’s only about a thousand-foot drop down) but the wheels are still clinging on. Did I mention it’s a dirt road? We’re climbing a series of switchbacks and each one has stunning views of the rugged mountains. It’s classic South American scenery up here, everything you imagine and have seen in photographs. We pass tiny remote Andean villages, rarely if ever visited by occidentals.

At last we reach Andahuaylas, a pleasant town with friendly people. I’m remembering an important lesson of traveling – that the further one gets from big cities and touristed areas, the friendlier and more open people are. Generally. The folks here rarely see tourists and perhaps as a result, they’re curious and chatty and pleasantly free from that awful scammy attitude. It always takes me a bit to readjust if I’ve recently had my guard up. Oh right, that person trying to “help” me really is trying to help – with no ulterior motive! Ok, don’t brush him off, instead let’s engage.

I’m also pleased to find a nice hotel with WiFi for a very reasonable price (30 Soles, about $10). The next morning as I’m having breakfast I observe indigenous farmers wander into the restaurant trying to sell their bit of produce to the proprietor. Big bags of matĆ©, carrots, quail eggs, limes, etc. To my surprise the owner buys everything offered. I guess that’s how she gets her ingredients – no need to go to the market, let it come to you!

Luckily I’m in town on a Sunday. I didn’t know it (the guidebooks and the ‘net hardly mention it), but Andahuaylas has easily one of the largest and most colorful markets that I’ve yet seen on this trip. Enormous, it goes on for maybe 1/2 km. And varied – every kind of fruit, vegetable, and grain imaginable; clothing, shoes, DVDs, crappy electronics; and the first large animal market I’ve yet seen. Rabbits, guinea pigs, cocks, horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, cats.. all being traded and sold by beautiful Quechua people wearing their colorful traditional garb. A photographer’s dream (unfortunately my battery ran out, so I can’t back that claim up). I recommend a trip up here just for this market if nothing else. A few stands are selling snake oil remedies for anything that ails you. These hawkers display large gruesome photos of various diseases and conditions, claiming their products will cure all. Including cancer!

40 minutes outside of town is the beautiful and tranquil Lake Pacucha. Overlooking the lake by a couple of km lies the ruined Chanca fortress of Sondor. Not incredibly impressive as ruins go, but it’s set amidst dramatic mountains and valleys and is a lovely place to spend the afternoon peacefully picnicing with the resident sheep herder. The last foreigner in the logbook was over a week ago. Nice. If one were to rent a 4×4 or motorcycle and drive part of Peru, this would be the place to do it. Spreading out in all directions are enticing dirt roads leading far into the countryside through fantastic scenery. I could picture spending a week or more driving these back roads, camping, meeting the local farmers, some of whom have probably never met a foreigner in their lives.

From Moon Travel Handbooks:
If you come at the end of July you can witness the Festival of Blood. Men from the village head into the high sierra and capture several condors, using horsemeat as bait. During the festival, the condors are tied one by one onto the back of a bull. Anthropologists theorize that the ensuing struggle may represent a symbolic confrontation between the Incas (condor) and the Spanish (bull). The contest ends before either animal is killed and the condors are always released back into the wild.

After the ruins I decide to walk around the lake. A girl of about 8 years old walks with me for a while not saying much. I stop by a large group of people all standing outside what I later realize is a church. Ah, this is a wake. The men who were shooting the breeze as I approached enthusiastically greet me and keep insisting I drink more of their “soda”. I believe them – it tastes like soda after all, but of course I finally realize this has a fair amount of alcohol in it. Times like these I wish I had a camera in my eye sockets. These guys are perfectly iconic. Most of their teeth are missing (a couple have gold stars on the remaining ones), wonderfully expressive weatherbeaten faces, as old as the earth. Probably my age in reality, but it’s the tough living conditions out here. And such great spirit – they’re good-naturedly teasing me and joking around, without a hint of scamming or asking for anything in return. As I’m leaving I hear one of the grandmothers say under her breath while looking at me, “you’re drunk”. It wasn’t true, but the remaining walk around the lake did become much longer than it otherwise would have been. Hot sun, no water, local firewater. Great combination.

Remembering how that American couple found me on the coast by simply doing a Twitter search for the name of the town we were in, I decided to try the same thing here to see if any other gringos were around to hang out with. Whoa, this opened a Pandora’s box – the search revealed all sorts of dramatic events that have been going on over the last few weeks here. Apparently there have been a number of strikes, roadblocks, and confrontations with the police. Two farmers were killed and 87 injured. Again, the power of Twitter demonstrated – this is the sort of news one wouldn’t have been able to learn about just a few years ago. Too small to make international press, and I’m not in the habit of picking up local papers that I can’t read anyway. It’s a good thing I hung out in Andahuaylas a couple of extra days before heading out – I wouldn’t have made it, due to the road being blocked by the protesters.

Usually when a backpacker walks into a bus station all the touts and representatives of the various companies come running up, frantically trying to get your business. It happens similarly here in Andahuaylas but on a much more relaxed scale. It was actually fun pitting the reps against each other, laughing with them all the way, because it was obvious that they all know each other from way back and it’s not cutthroat here as it is in the big cities.

From Andahuaylas, it’s 10 hours to Cusco. But I’m having such a nice time here in these highland towns that I’ve decided to stop in one more before facing Cusco. So I take a minivan 5 hours to Abancay. It’s meant to be a 3 1/2 hour trip, but we ran into another landslide (this one much less dramatic) as well as getting a flat tire. The driver jacked the car up while we were still sitting in it. Huh. Again, fantastically breathtaking scenery. Between the two cities is only 50km as the crow flies, but one look at the map and you’ll see why it takes so long. The road looks like crumpled-up string squished into a thimble – one continuous series of switchbacks and hairpin turns. The driver leans on the horn before every turn in case of traffic coming the other way. You can see Abancay laid out in the valley far below long before you actually arrive. Again, the road is all packed dirt, no asphalt/tarmac.

I found a great room here in Abancay with an enormous picture window overlooking the park and the mountains rising up from the edge of town beyond. The hotel has a fast internet connection at an affordable price. No reason to leave! I expected to see more indigenous culture here – the book says most residents speak Quechua – but I’ve actually seen less than in Andahuaylas. Why do all three towns I’ve stayed in over the past week start with the letter ‘A’? It’s confusing my poor little brain. Abancay is a pretty lively town for just 50,000 people – even on a Monday night the streets are alive quite late. Probably due to the universities here. The weather is pleasant – a bit of rain, but it’s that soft misty rain that smells nice and is not too cold. Actually, I’ve been surprised at how warm this whole region is for as high altitude as we are. Maybe I’m far enough south now that I’m starting to feel the effects of summer, rather than the same year-round temperatures you get close to the equator.

I was anxious to see what kind of national police and military presence there would be here since this town is the epicenter of the recent conflict. But despite a state of emergency being declared for this region, you hardly notice anything unusual. There’s no curfew as I thought there might be. Groups of soldiers are on every third corner standing around in full battle gear with machine guns, but nobody seems to pay them any mind and they look relaxed as they flirt with the local girls. It’s like being back in Colombia!

I did see some signs of the recent demonstrations, though. There are a lot of boulders and rocks strewn (placed) in the roads above town. This is the technique protesters use in Peru to block traffic. Although this is such a sleepy little city, I’m not sure what traffic they were blocking! During my jog tonight I also came upon a large football field being used by the police to practice their motorcycle skills. They had traffic cones and rocks set up in various formations as a dozen cops slowly weaved around the obstacles and a supervisor took notes on a clipboard. Beautiful choreography, if unintended as such. I walked back through rustic little neighborhoods at twilight. Old people sitting on their front stoop watching the world go by. Kids playing in the street, so cute. Occasional woman selling a bit of meat from a grill she has set up on the corner.

Every day this week a different funeral procession has marched (ok, ambled) down main street. They’re small, simple affairs – led in front by a half dozen people holding large flower arrangements on stands; next come the pallbearers, a half-dozen guys in suits with the casket held aloft. Immediately behind the casket are the grieving family members. Taking up the rear is the band – bass drum, snare, and a couple of horns. I think it’s been the same band during every procession. Their sheet music is clothes-pinned to the jacket of the person in front of them. Although I don’t know why they need it, since they’re playing the same few tunes every day:

Two attractions near Abancay are the Ampay National Sanctuary with what look to be beautiful high alpine lagoons, if I can figure out how to get there – and the Saywite monolith, a large boulder onto which the Incans carved a scale map of their entire empire. Yawn. I’ll probably just hang around here, for there is great hiking just 5 minutes outside my door. The foothills rise improbably (and steeply) right from the edge of town, and within 20 minutes you feel completely transported.



This first one is a combination of two markets. We begin in Chumbes, that tiny village where buses stop for lunch. The first lady is hawking some snake oil and I love how she’s using her VW Bug’s battery to power her P.A. Then we cut to a lady making fried dough rings. She could probably form those in her sleep with her other hand tied behind her back. The liquid she pours on at the end is a watered-down honey as near as I can tell. Whatever it is, it’s delicious. Then we jump to the animal market in Andahuaylas where we wander around taking in all the animals on offer:

This other video is one of the many funeral processions I’ve witnessed this week. It’s surprising how few people attend these things – just 20 or 30 people at the most. I can’t get enough of the music:

Written by in: Peru | Tags: ,


  • flip says:

    what an interesting trip…

    “usually when a backpacker walks into a bus station all the touts and representatives of the various companies come running up”

    so true everywhere…

    keep traveling and keep on writing


  • flip says:

    merry christmas and a happy new year to you…

    wishing you more travels to come this 2010…


  • Arthur says:

    You finally get to the penguins and then leave everybody hanging!

  • irma says:

    i read your essay. I’m from Peru and i used to live in andahuaylas. I’m sorry that you had a bad time in Pisco , and the rest of the journey was nice. i feel really happy that you visited my city. i hope that you like the trip. have a good day and keep traveling.


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