Part I Northern Peru
Tumbes to Lima, via the Cordillera Blanca


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 cupped.

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, angels.

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 this trip.

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.

Decisions, decisions. 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.

Relentless changing 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 Maldonado.

Two otters crossed the road in the morning in Indian file. Later, blue-and-yellow macaws squawked in inelegant formations across a dusky sky.

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. Twat.

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 up again.

"Help," we pleaded.

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 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 luggage.

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.


<< 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.

All text and images are © Dominic Hamilton 2003-7