Serving in South America offers unique opportunities to see life in remote and forbidding places. So with wars raging throughout many parts of the world, we decided in the great American tradition to get to know our new home better and head for the hills. Only these hills were over 12,000 feet high.
The trip sounded picturesque – majestic snow-capped mountains, llamas grazing along the side of the road, crystal blue skies. Reality broke into our postcard almost immediately as we made our way out of Lima. Taking the Pan Americana Norte out of the city was like hopping onto the Beltway. Traffic was stop and go and the drive out of the city that should have taken 30 minutes took three times as long.
Unlike the interstate, Lima’s streets were filled with the billowing smoke of countless Tico taxis (Daewoo’s answer to the Mini – and at only $2500, why not buy two). There are also the ubiquitous combis – the closest thing to public transport, and vans that make every effort to swerve from the left-hand side of the road to just far enough right so that they blocked the path in order to pick up/eject passengers. Added to that are the 18-wheelers that carry fruits, poultry, pigs, and everything else imaginable.
The drive up the coast of Peru is no more scenic either, mainly desert with miles and miles of dry sand in mounds. Sometimes one saw nothing – because the Humboldt Current that runs along the Pacific coast tended to bring in heavy clouds of fog.Three hours north of Lima we made the shift into the sugar cane fields of the valley surrounding Pativilca, the town where we turned northeast into the Andes. But this splash of green was only temporary. Leaving the solidly paved roads of the Pan-Americana, we headed into sloping curves that twist through the brown desolate mountains of the Cordillera Negra. These hills were even more lifeless and forbidding than those along the coast. Though the valleys supported agriculture, the hills themselves couldn’t support a sprig of cactus.
Though the drive was winding at a decent pace, we weren’t encouraged by the lack of better scenery. But after another hour of driving, the brown gave way to greener mountains as we climbed higher into the Andes. We thought that this was where the fun would begin. Little did we know!
As we approached the small town of Cajacay, we spotted an overturned pickup in the other lane. A few locals were gathering around to see what was happening, and as we approached, we could see why. The pavement was covered with two large bloodstains. Slowing down, we saw nobody, and saw no obvious signs of carnage. Questioning one of the local spectators, it appeared that some animals that they had been transporting had not made it through the accident. As we pulled forward to continue, a squawk came over the walkie-talkie radio.
“I’ve just lost power steering.” Following behind us were our travel companions. Their Subaru had apparently picked this very moment to eject engine parts and turn the trip into a real adventure. Around the next pass, the road widened enough to allow us to park, so we made our way over. Looking under the hood, it was quickly obvious why they no longer had power. The belt had come loose. Of course, we had no tools. A police cruiser soon passed (which had no tools either). The police kindly explained that a few kilometers up ahead was the town of Cajacay and an excellent mechanic there could repair the Subaru. We thanked them and proceed along the hillside at a snails pace. We were getting a little far inland, so my only fear was that this mechanic might be more likely to speak Quechua than Spanish, and make our explanations that much more difficult.
Sure enough, a few miles up the road we pulled into Cajacay. It consisted of several houses, fruit stands, an open field used for soccer, and a few other structures that took up three bends of the road. It wasn’t hard to find the mechanic. He was right there drinking a beer along with thirty other people who clustered along the road.
Not having bathed in what looked like of couple of days, the stocky Indio wore a tattered navy sweater filled with more holes than wool, and had not many teeth left in his head. But he was quick to usher us into his “garage” which was just a patch of dirt in front of his house/fruit stand. His Spanish was much clearer than mine and popping his head under the hood, it quickly became obvious to him what had to be done. “Bring over the wrench,” he said to the boy standing beside him, whom I presumed to be his son. The child, who had been shooing chickens from out of the fruit stand, ran to bring him his tools, grinning to show a few more teeth than his father.
As he began to tighten the belt into place, he explained to the boy what he was doing, “We just need to tighten this piece,” he said turning the bolt into place.
“What’s that called?” his son asked.
“It’s a repuesto,” he said quite seriously, making up a name that was a general term for an auto part. I shook my head and wondered if this car would make it out in one piece.
As he was working, the local cop strolled over to inspect the action. He and the mechanic began to joke as to whom was the greater town drunk. Our mechanic flashed me a wry smile and said “Ask him what happened to his arm?”
I glanced down at the policeman’s forearm, scarred from a recent accident.”
“Qué pasa, jefe?” I asked.
“Oh this guy gets a little too excited after a few beers, so I had to calm him down last night. It’s still a little sore, do you have any cream I could put on it?”
I opened the car and rummaged through the emergency kit. No cream, but there were alcohol wipes and Band-Aids, at least he could clean the infection somewhat.
After an hour of the mechanic trying to tighten the piece back into place, only to have the belt fly off again when the engine was started, an empty fruit truck passed and offered to haul the vehicle up to Huaraz. They assured us that Huaraz was a big enough town for replacement parts and had plenty of excellent mechanics. Again I shook my head, but having little choice, we reluctantly loaded up the car, packed everyone into our 4Runner, and made what should have been a 2-hour drive.
Unfortunately, the fully loaded fruit truck was now only able to make the curves up the mountainside at 20 miles per hour. And since the sun had set, that speed was a push. Meanwhile our backseat was full of children, who we attempted to keep entertained and full of sugarcoated cereals to stave off a full-scale rebellion. Finally, after 10 that night the gringo circus arrived into the town of Huaraz.
The off-loading was perhaps the highlight of the evening. Because the truck had no ramp, we had to drive through this sleepy Andean village looking for an embankment high enough to get the car out. An attempt by the local jail didn’t succeed, nor did another by the local gas station. It wasn’t until after searching for a half-hour around Huaraz that we found a road with a curve just high enough so that we could get the car out. We naively hoped for a quick repair the next day. Making it to bed by midnight, we collapsed, but the altitude prevented more than a minimal amount of sleep.
Bright and early the next morning, after leaving our friends in town to deal with the automotive crisis, the whole family decided to head out and explore. I’d been told that one of the more impressive archeological sites in the area was in nearby Chavín, some 3 hours away. Chavín was known for the remains of a temple – Chavín de Huántar, which was built around 800 BC. Not much was left after so many centuries, though there was still a small square at the base of where the temple was located, and areas where they had rebuilt the temple walls, and a few rocks that still showed the barely perceptible, but highly intricate carvings of this culture. It was the drive to Chavín that was more memorable than the site itself.Heading south from Huaraz, the road was good until the turn-off at the town of Recuay. The signs were not remotely clear where to go – but the locals were able to point us in the right direction. The road slowly became less well paved as we entered the National Park of Huántar. And from there the incline picked up. The mountains closed in around us, their beauty befitting the most idyllic landscape painting. The snowcapped peaks reached into the clear Andean sky, blue beyond anything we’d seen before. The Cordillera Blanca rose some 20,000 feet above the sea. Just looking up the mountainside, I began to feel it. For those without much experience at this height, altitude effects are quite strange. The blood began to pound in an unforgettable way through my temples, stabbing behind my eyes. My breathing was much labored. As we continued to drive along, dodging the sheep and llamas that local herders were moving between pastures, it became more difficult to concentrate on the road, as I focused more and more on the pain.
Heading further in, the road was even less forgiving, but reaching the surreal Laguna Querococha in the midst of these surroundings at least made the throbbing recede momentarily. It was difficult to comprehend a lake at such an altitude, much less one that supported life (from within and without). The lake sat gently at the foot of green mountains and the calm water was host to only a small number of hand-woven boats. It was magical, though not great in size and filled the landscape with its peaceful presence. The road curved around its shores and was perhaps the last bit of respite available before the real climb began.
After another half-hour driving, we made it to a tunnel drilled through the mountainside (at some 15,000 feet) and at this point I was almost completely crawling out of my skin. The road worsened and we had risen over 3,000 feet in a relatively short period of time. The pain had grown from a dull pounding into a sharp drilling at my skull. My eyes were being forced from their sockets, as though in space, being pulled by the vacuum of infinite expansion. This was the highest I’d even gone, and the pressure from the soroche, the Quechua word for altitude sickness, was like nothing I’d experienced. I’d broken bones before, had picked up nasty amoebae from infested water, had a few bad hangovers, but this was the first time that I thought the end had come from sheer screeching agony.
A lack of oxygen and a knot growing in the pit of my stomach was all being worsened by the jostling of a road that was now completely unpaved. In fact the turns became more severe, the lane often narrowed to less than the width of one car. When we approached the occasional on-coming bus, one of us would either have to back up or wait along the shoulder in advance while the other passed, slowing down the trip considerably.
The few peasant families that eked out a living on this land could be seen along the roadside. Sometime they sold their wares to the passing commuter buses; sometimes they tried to catch a ride into the next village. For a period, we followed closely behind one such bus. Unfortunately as we drove along, one Indian had his dog with him and the dog loved chasing buses. The barking followed for a few brief seconds. With the road bending and the gears slipping, we heard a YELP but saw nothing as we continued through the dust path. The bus driver had no time or desire to stop on these roads. Life was hard in the Andes.
But the most surreal event after exiting the tunnel into the valley below was coming across the fifty foot WHITE MARBLE JESUS statue that stood to greet us. At first I thought I was hallucinating from the altitude. How this mammoth figure made it to this remote location was something I was having trouble imagining. It was like the Colossus of Rhodes, only 12,000 feet above the sea. The big white Jesus should have warned us to turn back. But bitterly we pressed on. Passing Giant Jesus, the road crossed through a valley that I vainly hoped would lead us to Chavín. After another hour of driving though this valley, I finally pulled over to ask a local along the roadside, “How much further?”
“Una hora.” Great.
In fact, though most of the land was unpopulated, we would occasionally pass though small communities. Farmable land was tilled. Sheep and llama grazed peacefully. Their lives were simple, mud huts for homes, occasional signs of electricity. Life here was unchanged for centuries. It was easy to see why these areas, so remote, so poor, and so unprotected, were the very areas that the Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) had chosen in the 1980s and 1990s to begin their “people’s war.” It was an aptly chosen name, because the grisly reality was that the slaughter of these Indian farmers by twisted “liberation” guerrillas was a war against the people – vulnerable and unwitting victims of a massacre. With their leaders now jailed and the uprising all but over, life had pretty much returned to its ceaseless ebb and flow.
We made it back to Lima in one piece, but it took the Subaru a little longer. Those excellent mechanics in Huaraz never appeared, and we all piled into the Toyota for the trip back down the mountain together. Several tense days followed, and then another fruit truck, and finally the Subaru too showed up. It took several days to recover from that soroche, but back at sea level life slowly returned to normal.
Christopher Teal entered the Foreign Service in 1999, beginning his career with the United States Information Agency (USIS) before it was integrated into the State Department. He is currently serving as a Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru. Prior to that, he served in Santo Domingo as a consular officer and deputy press secretary.