Peru-Argentina: Vagabond travels

I had heard the old cliché about stepping into an oven, but this did nothing to prepare me for the fact that stepping out into Lima… was exactly like stepping into an oven. In these conditions one cannot help sympathize with the idea of Mesoamerican rituals. So many people couldn’t possibly have been made to exist in such a crowded mess without eating each other. It’s just impossible. Cars flooded the streets in what I can only describe as a mad orgy of chaos. It seemed that man’s best friend was somewhat unconventionally his horn, and my taxi driver seemed fairly unconcerned whether he ploughed straight through, or over those who walked the streets. Some juggled fire, some, perhaps more sensibly sold water. The Highway Code had been substituted for something more applicable to fairground bumper cars. To tell the truth, Lima was a mess, a compound fiasco, a ‘quilombo’, but it brimmed with excitement. This place was definitely alive and our 1,935 mile journey to Buenos Aires had begun.

I could feel my brain and body beginning to melt in the sweltering heat as thew effects of 24 hours of travel started to grate away at my soul. My rotund and slightly red faced taxi driver weaved his way through the sea of traffic, as we talked about how greed was tearing sports apart. His passion was like a baptism for my journey through South America. I had almost forgotten the zeal of the people down here and football was the perfect topic to remind me. Unsurprisingly, Lima bus station was where I began my first bus journey. Somehow 18 hours became 25, but the scenery was unbelievable. Coastal roads turned deserts into mountains and lush green valleys. Without seeing it, it is hard to picture the scenic transition.

For all the beautiful scenery, the journey was unbelievably dangerous. As we crossed through the mountains, every two minutes there would be a PELIGRO (danger) sign. First it would read; PELIGRO, 400 metre curve. Then it would be; PELIGRO, sharp descent, and then; PELIGRO, this bit of road is essentially just a jumbled composition of rocks and bits of dirt that will fall down the 500 meter drop as you drive over them, followed by; PELIGRO, whoa you’re still alive…well good luck with the next corner! I’m not quite sure if that was the exact translation, my Spanish is still improving day by day.

As soon as I arrived in Cuzco I felt nauseated by the combination of jet-lag, altitude and general frustration. It didn’t help my disorientated state when I arrived at the hostel bar to find Americans showing photos of cows’ heads from the local market. The bar tender was adamant that guinea pig, the local delicacy, was a must. I retorted, “There aren’t many things that I would NOT like to try before guinea pig.” He looked a bit confused and I went to bed and caught up with my sleep with a 18 hour snooze .Good times.

Our stay in Cuzco was a bit too long but there was plenty to see. It is easy to become trapped by such an enchanting city. Our hostel had a tab and English breakfast nachos, and the mesmerizing smell of garlic bread certainly made it difficult to even go outside. The historic centre of Cuzco, surrounded by Peru’s rich and complex history can be seen by just taking a walk around Cuzco. You can see Spanish colonial buildings erected directly atop Incan walls line the Plaza de Armas. A recommended trip is just up the hill to the closest and largest of the nearby Incan ruins, the amazing Sacsayhuamán or “Sexy Woman”. It is a nice walk, but in these altitudes, even a small flight of stairs can make you feel like you are emabarking upon a trek . For me, just the climb to the top bunk felt like I had ran a marathon. At the top of the hill is a large statue of Jesus, reminiscent of Rio. It really is a beautiful view of the city. We took a taxi up at sunrise after a night in the town. Unfortunately it was cloudy so it just got lighter in a depressing and “I’ve really sobered up now and just want to be in bed” sort of way. The ruins were impressive. The sheer size of the stones that were moved and the importance of the battle make it well worth entrance fee.

Our journey continued to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world: the Inca trail. It is a must if you are in Peru. We began our ‘alternative Inca trail’ on bikes. It was an amazing journey from the freezing cold rain of the summit down to the thirty degrees in the jungle at the foot of our descent. We had to survive rock slides and literally dodged boulders which tumbled from the mountain above. Edder the tour guide took us through a further three days of hiking. The scenery was breathtaking, with small paths, navigating round sharp cliff edges, at times it wasn’t for the faint hearted. After a long and arduous trek we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes. In this picturesque town at the foot of Macchu Pichu we stayed up all night in the square with some interesting characters. I held the authority, and by extension lead vocals on a slightly wayward version of Hotel California. Not knowing the words was less of a problem, being the only English speaker. The night went by soon enough and it was soon time to tackle the final mountain before Macchu Pichu.

It was pouring with rain on the final ascent. With three days of walking and a bottle of cheap rum behind us, half way up the mountain, we decided I would feign a leg injury. It was the only way the bus would stop for us. Our American travel friend Ed was ever in tune and our superb acting skills were rewarded with a free ride up the unforgiving mountain.
The journey out of Peru was made especially difficult by the seemingly perpetual bus strikes. We were forced to ride an illegitimate bus, which felt like it had an engine powered by Ribena; it was more cramped as we picked up more passengers who had broken down along the way. Even when the weathered bus was brimming beyond official capacity we still piled in more and more people, chicken, goats and other farmyard animals. We really were lucky to make it riding on just one flat tyre, bursting another on the way.

Our entry to Chile was greeted by a very unusual hostel. It was run by a charismatic lady who seemed to use three men as pawns in some weird experiment. They basically built the hostel and worked as her slaves in return for the right to swindle any guests. Ironically they spent most of the day, well actually the whole day playing chess, for which they had even bought a bell. We left Ariqua, the slightly twisted surfer’s paradise ,to hitch a lift further south.

Our target was Vina del Mar and it would prove to be one of the toughest journeys ever made. After an hour or so we were picked up by two Asian men who told us they were Chilean. They seemed to be acting strangely secretive, quickly shutting down the radio when banghra nights came on. Their Spanish was remedial and things didn’t quite add up. We didn’t worry though because they seemed nice and let us listen to Busta Rhymes, which is always pleasant. Just as we arrived at our destination some 6 hours down the coast they announced that they had a confession to make. “We have to tell you, that we are not actually Chilean, we are Muslims from Pakistan.” We laughed awkwardly…They had not wanted to scare us by letting us know their identity. Emil told them his grandfather is a Muslim and we couldn’t quite realize what the world had come to that people had to hide their true identities, frantically change the language on their sat navs and listen to banghra in secret.

That night we arrived in Iquique at 4 in the morning and instead of getting a room we decided to loiter around the casino until sunrise. It was the only place that was open all night and made sense at the time. Unfortunately, we spent a hostel fee and then some on drink and gambling. It was also forbidden to fall asleep in the casino. Our eyes could only stay shut for eight seconds at a time or we would be thrown out of the premises.
It was decided that for some reason it was now morally justifiable to steal breakfast from a five star hotel. It is funny what sleep derivation and delusion does to you. It was possibly the nicest breakfast ever. It was super delicious: pancakes, bowls of fruit, toast, all sorts…But we were lucky to escape. A hotel worker approached us with a clipboard to ask our room number. He was told that we were meeting our parents. But we were then walked to reception. Luckily we explained that we had arrived too late last night to join our family in the hotel and had been staying with (our) brother. Our parents were in the hotel and would be reserved under the names of those which I jotted down for them. As my brother had the mobile phone we would go to find him, call my parents, and return for lunch. Incredibly, they let us go, trusting the crafty Europeans once again proved costly for the South Americans.
We were drunk off power, fuelled by delicious breakfast and ideas of Oceans 14: The Big Breakfast. When we got on the next bus, we realized how long it had been since the last shower. After catching my reflection I really felt less Brad Pitt, more bad pits. Anyway, vagabond was the word of the hour and that summed things up just about perfectly.

From the next town our journey to Vina del Mar felt like it was coming together. We managed to hitch a lift in a van to the edge of a small town near to Coquimbo then rode on the back of a truck, with a machete yielding farmer. From here we were forced to take another 12 hour bus journey which finally took us to Vina del Mar. Vina is a beautiful seaside town. It has a lot of dogs and some strange customs. It was nice to spend some time relaxing on the beach. After a few hours in the town I entered a shop that was smaller than most rooms. It was immediately strange. There were only the three workers in the shop. I approached a counter, to find a bearded gentleman who looked as if he might be asleep. I asked for and was then handed my diet coke. When I tried to pay him he ushered me to the other counter where another league of gentleman character spent about 3 minutes writing me out a ticket for my mini sized coke. I said I didn’t need the ticket. He looked absolutely heart broken that I had to not only take it, but try to look enthused. Just as I left I thought they had two more counters than customers and that this town is really strange.

Anyway that was pretty irrelevant as was the rest of our journey. The ride through the pampas back to Buenos Aires was a long and arid journey, through flat and seemingly forever unchanging scenery. I felt like we had conquered a great feat. We had survived our journey and we were ready to once again take on the monster known as “la París de Sudamérica”


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