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  • Writer's pictureGuy Burchett

El camino a Cusco

Updated: Jul 10, 2022

North of Lima there is a desert. It's not what you expect when you drive out of the city, even though they tell you it never actually rains in Lima, only gets foggy and damp. The hard stony desert stretches for many miles northwards, and as you drive along the Pan-American Highway it seems that there is nothing to greet the Pacific Ocean but sand and rocks. It's easy to imagine the conquistadors sailing up this coast, wondering what a god-awful place they had discovered.

It's either at Huanco or later, at Barranco, that some sizeable town and greenery interrupt the straight roads that are swept with sand and lonely as hell. You barrel down the highway at over 100kph while your friends sleep in the back, and meeting those towns and green flashes provides a strange comfort that there is, indeed, some life out there amid the desolation.

Having started the journey on the north coast of Peru, at a tiny wild-west town called Colan, 60km from Piura, we were used to deserts in Peru. But the past eight days had also shown us the more well-known mountains and high passes. It was those mountains and the inclines and the shell-holed torrents masquerading as roads, and not only the inescapable direness of our first vehicle, that had finally done for us and forced this change of plan upon us. To climb the second highest mountain range in the world and cover the nearly two-thousand kilometres from Colan to Cusco in two weeks in a decent vehicle is one thing. But to do it with three people in a 125cc mototaxi, taking the route we wanted through the central highlands and sierra, that was damn-near impossible.

A mototaxi: essentially, a 125cc motorbike whose back wheel has been sawn off and replaced with a sofa.

Given the vehicle we were given for the race, a vehicle with ten years and God-only knows how many kilometres to her name, we were pretty much destined to finish the race the way that we did, in the vehicle that we did. Hell, we had to stop at mechanics and auto shops sometimes twice a day to patch her up. Eventually, we had to have her whole engine rebuilt and a new gearbox fitted. But it wasn't the expense of those repairs that hurt us. What we could not afford was the time we lost - four hours one afternoon. Darkness fell promptly a little after six in the evening, and it was suicide trying to drive that thing in the dark. I know because we tried it the following night. Jesus, that night was a whole story in itself.

That was the heartbreaking thing: we tried. God knows, we tried our hearts out.

The day we had the engine rebuilt we tried to make up the lost time by hiring a truck driver to transport the mototaxi from Bambamarca to Cajamarca. It was a crazy, rain-soaked three-hour drive in a huge five-ton truck. We never would have made it in the mototaxi on those roads, climbing the hills and mountains and crossing the more than 3,000m passes, in less than five or six hours. When the going was good the mototaxi crawled uphill at 10kph, the steering so bad on a one-wheel drive heap of spare parts that a two-hour shift of wrestling to stay on a straight line left you physically exhausted. Paying 700 soles for that lift to Cajamarca was the only real option we had. And, boy, what a shitty option.

Our driver, señor Nelson, spent nearly two hours removing the swing panel from the back of his pick-up truck so we could roll the mototaxi aboard. Then he drove like a madman through the rain and the night, swigging pisco from a glass bottle while chewing on cocoa leaves. The mood in the cab, where five people were crammed into a space barely adequate for three, fluctuated wildly. When Nelson rubbed the fingers of one hand together outside his truck in the pissing rain on some backstreet in Cajamarca, we were all glad to cough up the cash and be rid of him. By then it was one in the morning and we had spent the past hour trying to unload the mototaxi in the rain onto a mound of sand in some dark, depressing street. Of course, after the hasty engine rebuild and the rough journey and the rain and the cold, the mototaxi failed to start and we had to ask a passing taxi driver for a tow to a hotel. At 2am, after 22 hours of driving, struggling, trying, we got to that day's finish line. It felt like nothing of the sort.

We treated ourselves to a lie-in until 8am - four hours later than usual - and hoped for a better day to follow. But that day ended with a desperate drive into the dusk and then the night as the rain began to hammer down again. (It only seemed to rain when it was dark and when we needed it least.) That night, we camped under a farmer's back porch as the rain fell harder and with more spite than ever. We re-cooked some refried beans using the small gas stove that we were all thankful we had packed along with a tent in case of emergencies. After our warming repast we sat around the stove in the cold and drank pisco from a tin cup that we shared around. The stony ground beneath the porch, and the barking of the dogs and the blast of passing trucks' air horns, all ensured a night of little sleep.

When we awoke before dawn we found that our reserve fuel can, with four gallons of precious petrol, had been stolen in the night, cut loose from its strapping to the mototaxi. We also had a flat front tyre. As a result, team spirit was not great that morning. But we pushed on, pumped up the tyre, had breakfast in Cajabamba, moved on towards Santiago de Chuco.

But we did not reach that town. We never even got close. The front tyre went flat again and the analog display panel stopped working, so we were guessing what gear we were in and how fast we were going. We relied on hearing the engine above the din of the wind and rattling chassis and passing traffic. We stopped in Huamachuco to get these problems fixed and to assess our options. We had an abominable lunch and I was sick in the gutter outside the restaurant. We were all beat. That was where and when we all started talking about the pick-up truck.

It had started so well

The truth is that the first three days of driving had been great. We had crossed the Sechura Desert in good time and scaled the foothills of the Andes to reach Cochabamba in a spectacular lightning storm. We were pumped up, loving the adventure. But from the fourth day, when the roads fell apart and we needed to rebuild the engine, events and circumstances and luck just ran through our tired hands and bruised fingers like so much sand.

The start line in Colan.

The race began with a Le Mans style run to our vehicles at midday on the first day. That late start - caused by a nationwide election that closed everything down, including transport to the start line - ruined our ambitious plan to reach Pacora, 280km distant, on the first evening. Instead, we reached La Mantanza, east of Piura, before dark on that election day. The town's two hotels were closed because of the election. We spent an hour talking to the heavily armed police, explaining what we were doing and why, and asking for their help. A family across the road from the police station, eventually swayed by the tale of our charitable fundraising behind the crazy adventure, showed us proudly to an unfinished building around the corner. It had running water and a half-functioning bathroom, and a room at the back with some beds. It was perfect and we slept well apart from a zealous cockerel who called from well before dawn.

The next day we were tired but hungry for more adventure. And so, on the second day we crossed the Sechura Desert and ended the day with a terrifying drive amongst the traffic towards the coastal city of Chiclayo. We hired a taxi to show us the way to our hotel on the Plaza de Armas. There, we had showers and wore clean clothes and checked social media and drank beer. It was a good day.

Into the Andes

We awoke at 4.30am and retrieved the mototaxi from the cochera around the corner. We filled her tank and reserve can, and drove out of Chiclayo before it was light. The sun rose over the foothills of the Andes to the east, and we were all excited to be meeting the fabled mountains. In the small town of Chongoyape we had a breakfast of pig trotter, which I liked but the others did not. We were already climbing, ascending into the mountains, and with our goggles and caps and boots and transparent map case and compass and gloves we all felt like real-deal bad-asses. The road heading east into the Andes was good. It was marked yellow on my map, one grade lower than the main routes, marked as red. It would take us another day to find out that the notion of a "good" or a "better" road was completely arbitrary. The main, red roads could be as blasted to hell as the yellow roads; the yellow roads could be a delight to drive: smooth, flat, wide. But for now the going was good.

That said, on that first day of climbing on good roads we had inclines so steep the passengers had to jump off to allow the mototaxi and driver to make the climb. It was a practical necessity whose novelty soon wore off.

By the afternoon we were in the clouds and we all felt a bit light-headed with the altitude. It was much colder. We drove on, with me and Joe hitching a lift in a truck to ascend a steep section that Tom drove alone. The ten-minute ride saved us probably half an hour of crawling, jumping off and on the mototaxi to aid the climb. We drove over barren mountaintops and felt the chill in our fingers, and then started the descent into a broad valley as as dark clouds gathered overhead. I kept the vehicle in a high gear to speed the descent, often reaching up to 50kph. The engine cried with the strain, and the foot brake moaned as you took the strain out of the tight corners and hairpins.

Hitching a lift with the locals

Focused on the road and the tight bends, sounding the horn at each blind bend to alert less cautious drivers coming the other way, I only glimpsed the lightning that lit up the dark clouds now filling the whole darkening sky. The rain wet my leather gloves and my legs from the thigh down. The wind became cold and fresh. I took us into Cochabamba feeling like an adventurer of the highest order and parked our vehicle in the main square, pulling my antique googles down to hang around my neck. Tom and Joe found us a hotel and we had a room each. The shower was an outside shared one. It was cold but we all availed ourselves of it anyway. After a good meal just a few doors down the street from the hostel, we got to bed around 8pm.

The Incident

We left before sunrise. The roads were still good, better outside of the town centre. The buildings now were like those I'd seen in Nepal and Tibet: squat, square, often windowless but with low doorways with double wooden doors or shutters. The paint was often peeling near the ground, where the damp and the rain would eat away at the rudimentary plaster covering the mud bricks. Many houses were brightly painted, supporting local political parties and candidates in the elections. Lots of names and symbols, many of the latter with crosses through them, including trees and shovels and llamas. I never found out what it all meant, but I guessed the symbols might help the illiterate make the right choice.

Instead of learning about the politics that, we continued to learn the best way to ask for directions, to order breakfast, to explain our journey, to explain what was wrong with our vehicle. The latter was helpful when we reached Bambamarca, after the road beyond Chota fell apart. We had an incident where the front wheel almost shook off, the handlebars shredding Joe's gloves as he tried to reclaim control of the vehicle, and after that the steering was shot and none of the displays worked. The engine was screaming badly too, and the gear selector fought going down to first or neutral. In summary, she was a cold mess.

Yet another stop at the mechanics

So we finished the bad road as best we could, jolting and jarring and skidding and sliding into Bambamarca, where we head straight for a mechanic. He had a short drive of the vehicle and declared that the gearbox was finished, would need replacing. We knew nothing about the guts of a bike so we said okay. Hopeful it might ease the rest of the journey, which would inevitably include more climbs on the awful roads we'd already found so slow and excruciating, we agreed to pay 400 soles for the gearbox and an engine rebuild. It was then 3pm, and we agreed to collect our vehicle at 6pm.

In the meantime, we tried to arrange a lift for the mototaxi to our planned destination for the fourth night: the city of Cajamarca. That's where Nelson and his red polo shirt stained around the neck and navel come into the story. Fucking Nelson, and his red-eyed demands of "donde?" when we reached the city he knew so well and in which we'd never set foot. How the hell would we know the best place to unload a mototaxi in a storm in the middle of the night, and from a tipper truck totally unsuited to the task? What a colossal dick Nelson was. But we managed to retrieve our vehicle in the end and to rid ourselves of him, and then we blagged a precarious tow from a passing taxi halfway across town.

Petrol, pisco and re-fried beans

After more lost time in the morning at a mechanic to fix the starter motor, we head off towards Cajabamba, hopeful that things couldn't get much worse.

We were wrong.

After descending into an astonishing valley, we crossed a fragile bridge and saw a sign welcoming us to Cajabamba. But we soon learnt that this must have been a welcome to the district or region of Cajabamba, not the town itself, which was more than 10km distant. On such poor roads, we wouldn't cover that distance before dark. We'd been warned not to drive at night; it was too dangerous in the tiny, exposed vehicle we were driving, the condition of the roads too bad, the other road users too aggressive and irresponsible. But we thought we were near, so we pushed on, Tom and I lighting the road ahead with our torches to aid the feeble headlight. Then it started raining.

We all knew it was too dangerous to carry on so we stopped at the side of the road by a dark shape. This turned out to be a small squat building, which in turn turned out to be an un-electrified farmer's hut. When he heard us taking shelter under his porch, he offered us space behind his house to camp on. Under a wooden porch we pitched our tent on beaten-flat earth, in a space just big enough for the tent and three people to sit on a simple wooden bench. Tom cooked the re-fried beans and frankfurters we'd bought in Colan as insurance. We ate from one mess tin and drank neat pisco from a plastic cup we shared around. It tasted awful, but it warmed us and we laughed as each drinker winced in turn.

In the darkness of the morning we found that our petrol can had been cut from the bungees that lashed it to the mototaxi, which had been parked beside the hut at the side of the road. We also had a flat tyre. The farmer helped pump up the tyre and we paid him for his hospitality and his help, before we head off before the sun rose above the mountains.

Tough decisions

In the town of Cajabamba we had a poor breakfast in an incongruously flashy mall complex. Then we pushed on for Santiago de Chuco. The roads were good again and we enjoyed the drive. But the front tyre went flat again so we struggled with the poor steering as far as Huamachuco. We had the front inner tube replaced with a spare we'd also bought before the race began, in the port of Paita. By the time we'd had that repair done and struggled through the worst lunch I could ever recall eating, it was too late to risk heading for Santiago de Chuco, many kilometres distant through the mountains. We couldn't risk any more night driving, and we couldn't face another night stranded in the middle of nowhere. It was cold in the mountains. So, we found a family run hotel in Huamachuco and took some well-earned rest.

We needed it. The previous two days had rinsed us and we were beat, physically and emotionally. We talked to the hotel owners, explained our route. They said the yellow roads ahead of us on the map were very bad, would take days in a mototaxi. But we'd heard that before and been okay. But our vehicle was playing up badly, we kept losing too much time on major repairs. And we were exhausted.

We asked the hotel owners about arranging a truck to get us to Trujillo, on the coast. That would be the end of the race for us, where we would abandon the vehicle and seek to carry on to Cusco somehow, even if it meant taking a bus and then taking it easy when we got there. The hotel owners said they could arrange something for us to leave in two days' time. With heavy hearts we agreed. We'd ended our race.

Tough decisions, heavy hearts

In the morning we were better rested but a tangle of mixed emotions. We wanted to carry on, feeling refreshed and alert after a good night's sleep. The problem was simply our inability to cover the distance in the time left to us. We all had flights home or treks booked on the Inca Trail that we couldn't miss. The clock was ticking, we were way behind schedule, with no guarantee that the going would get any easier. If we carried on to Huaraz as we planned to, and decided to end the journey there, we'd have far fewer options for getting to Cusco. If we head for Trujillo, Peru's third largest city, we had far more options. Further along the road to Huaraz was a small white dot on the map called Shorey, where the road split. One way to Huaraz via lots of yellow roads; the other to Trujillo, down red highways all the way out of the Andes to the Pacific coast.

A very miserable breakfast became more cheerful once we decided to press on towards Huaraz. We packed up, thanked our wonderful hosts, and were underway by mid-morning. The ascent across barren mountaintops was a struggle, and now the air was thinning again, meaning the petrol burnt less efficiently in our already pretty inefficient and tiny engine. We got a tow from a man in a beat-up old estate, which probably saved us an hour. When we turned a corner at 3,500m and found Shorey, we also found our front tyre was flat again. The light was beginning to fade and we couldn't find a pump anywhere for love nor money, so we decided to wait until morning and then visit the petrol station we could see further down the valley, where we were hopeful we could buy some air. The mechanic in Huamachuco had clearly conned us, and not properly even attempted to fox our tyre. Frustratingly, from the people we had spoken to Shorey was too small for a mechanic. So, if we could pump the tyre and then press on to where we might find one, we could get it properly looked at again.

We had a good dinner at the hostel and felt heady after one beer each as we watched a surfing movie dubbed in Spanish. The rooms were basic and cold at that altitude, and we huddled in our sleeping bags in the bunk beds as we watched the movie Castaway on the small TV in the corner of our strip-light lit room. Tom felt unwell, possibly because of the altitude but also because it was so cold and we were all getting run down with fatigue. Two-hour shifts of driving, wrestling with the steering, needing an extra person to hold in the fuel valve as you started the engine, leaning all your body-weight on the throttle when going uphill - God, it was grim. It just wasn't fun anymore. It was only painful.

When we awoke at 4am to push on, and we found the petrol station didn't have an air pump and wasn't even open, and that, because it was Sunday, we couldn't get breakfast at the hostel as we waited to ask someone for help, we all finally felt that the odds were firmly stacked against us, and it wasn't meant to be.

A coach driver who arrived into a lay-by opposite the hostel inflated our tyre, but it was flat again in minutes. I walked uphill, back up the road by which we'd arrived in Shorey the night before, and spoke with the police and some highway maintenance men on their way to work. They gave me the name of a tyre specialist, Erasmus Perilla, and we rolled the mototaxi down the hill, further into Shorey, to find him. This chap, Erasmus, used the second spare inner tube we'd bought in advance. After a thorough search of the tyre, he found and showed us a large piece of wire that had been sticking out from the inner wall of the new tyre we'd bought in Huamachuco, and which had punctured the tube. With that luck, we felt we'd been given no chance.

By this point, dissecting everything over breakfast at the hostel, we'd made up our minds to head for Trujillo. We'd never make it to Cusco in the mototaxi; not in time for our further plans. Something needed to change. So, we head off for Trujillo and the warmth of the Pacific coast in search of that change.

I think Tom drove us down the first 1,500m or so. He hadn't driven much the previous day because he felt unwell, so he was keen to contribute. It felt good to have made our decision and to be heading towards better things. We were still all wrapped up in thermals and wet-weather gear, gloves and woollen hats, when I took over the driving at a small bridge over a stony river. The ride down that highway to Trujillo, on that lovely flat, gently meandering road, down a valley that seemed to have been pulled straight from the pages of God's portfolio, was one of the highlights of my life. I grinned from ear to ear during the whole two or three hours.

Going downhill, the steering was obedient and easy, so the whole experience was more enjoyable than at any previous time during the race. It got us thinking that maybe we'd made the wrong call, run for home too early when we could have carried on with a fixed tyre. But we knew in our hearts that we couldn't have gone on. The roads would have continued getting worse, there would have been more breakdowns, we never would have made it in time. No, we'd proved our mettle by pushing on from Huamachuco, and there was nothing to be gained by pushing on further to simply spite ourselves.

As the air warmed and the trees became more lush, as people became more numerous and grey stone became brown dust, our spirits lifted. Tom and Joe were busy discussing something behind me for much of the last half hour before we stopped for lunch, by then less than an hour outside the city of Trujillo. Tom's idea was to hire a car or pick-up truck here in Trujillo, as a support vehicle. With no luggage to haul and two fewer people on board, the mototaxi might be able to make it in good time. If it got stuck, we could tow it. The plan was sound; we all agreed to give it a go once we got into the city.

The main road into Trujillo was long and straight and flat, bordered by large, lush crops over eight feet tall. It seemed incredible that we had just come from a bleak and largely barren mountaintop that same morning. As the most experienced motorbike rider, and being a fan of crazy city driving, Joe took us into the city. By this time we all looked pretty grubby, tired, unshaven, dirty, and two hotels said no to us without checking their bookings. The third had a cochera for the mototaxi, and were happy to have us and our vehicle. Tom and I shared a room, while Joe had one to himself. Though the hotel reminded me of the one in The Shining, the rooms were lovely compared to the hostel the previous evening, even if the showers were still cold.

We were disappointed to find that car rental in Trujillo was only a local affair, meaning we couldn't hire one there and leave it in Cusco. If we wanted to continue the race and our route, the only option was to get to Lima and hire a pick-up truck there. We agreed to do just that, even though it would mean leaving the mototaxi in Trujillo, and continuing the journey by any means necessary.

To celebrate the end of one phase of our race, and the relief of having made it out of the mountains and back to civilisation, we went to the Hotel Libertador on the wonderful plaza de armas and drank more cocktails than any of us can remember. What we do recall is how much we enjoyed the absence of worry. That, and we were joined in our revelry by an American called Wayne Erbin Flax who claimed to have left his wallet in his hotel room but brought a thirst for Bacardi and coke.

The whole of the next morning was spent organising where to leave the mototaxi, and what our next steps should be. After several hours of negotiating, calling the race organisers, and speaking with the hotel staff, we were able to leave the mototaxi at a huge multi-storey car park in the city centre, where it could remain for up to a month until the race organisers could arrange for it to be collected. We booked an overnight bus to Lima, arriving in the capital at 7am the next morning, and booked a 4x4 for collection from the airport at 10am. With all that arranged, we took a taxi out to Chan Chan, the largest complex of adobe buildings in the world. Being history students, we all enjoyed it. Back in the city, we had a nice meal in a local restaurant on Calle Pizarro, watching a group of old men drink coffee and chat and doze as the sun set, as we waited for our bus to leave at 10pm.

We were all pleasantly surprised at how punctually the bus arrived in Lima the next morning. We were even more happy to find that our hire car had been upgraded free of charge to a Mazda 4x4 pick-up. By 11am I was tentatively negotiating the mad traffic of Lima's city centre, en route to Pan-American Norte for a race to resume our journey at Huaraz. It was 500km and nine hours away, but it was blissful driving in a vehicle that could do both the distance and the terrain.

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