On the Road in Peru – The Rent-a-Car Way
Of the 340 or so disembarking passengers, we were the only ones renting a car (Fiat Uno) at Limaâ€™s International Airport. I was surprised but not surprised. Without exception, the guidebooks to Peru either quietly or explicitly counsel against it, citing a litany of possible negative events, the majority of which happen in our own big city backyards everyday.
Spectacular ruins and wonderfully preserved Spanish colonial architecture notwithstanding; the true story of Peru is the road. From the majestic Atacama desert in the south, to the dune panoramas between Lima and Trujillo in the near north, to the impossibly fecund Thai-green Andes in the Cusco region, to the 4,000 meter high Lake Titicaca and the fascinating life that generates from it, Peru, with all due respect to Spain and Italy, is arguably one of the most beautifully varied countries on the planet. And the way to see it is by car. Exercising normal caution, there is no good reason not to rent a car and take to the much improved road network up and down Peruâ€™s Pan-American Highway, and the many arteries that worm their way inland up into the awesome Andes.
To Be Considered Before Renting From Lima
The guidebooks offer, at best, only cursory evaluation of Peruâ€™s gorgeous landscape because almost no one rents. They offer no practical instruction on how to get in and out of Lima, which is not only essential to your trip, but to the rest of your life.
Without mincing words, Lima – less Miraflores and a few other highly recommended areas – is the anus of Peru. To the tune of eight million, the wretched of the earth are gathered here, living in squalor the likes of which I havenâ€™t seen since India. If we are comfortable in India, itâ€™s because its poor have been ingeniously pacified (anaesthetized) by religion and the promise of an afterlife. Thereâ€™s no such hocus pocus in Lima. The disenfranchised live in windowless boxes plunked on the hard rock and sand of the surrounding, desiccated hillsides. Running water and electricity are in no supply. The crime rate is alarming. Never forget that the nearness of your shoulder bag is the song they canâ€™t refuse – that if El Dorado is myth come to earth, youâ€™re it.
Contrary to your reading of the map, when leaving Limaâ€™s airport to go south, do not take Av. Peru, even if it seems like the shortest route to the Pan-American Highway. Instead, take Elmer Faucet to Av. La Marina to Javier Prado (about 30 kilometers) which connects to the Pan-American South. If youâ€™re heading north, take Av. Tomas Valle to the Pan North (about five kilometers). From either direction, passing through Lima, you connect to either the North or South by taking the Via de Evitamiento (like the French Ã©viter, to avoid). No matter how deep is your atheism, a mistake here will have you reciting prayers you didnâ€™t know existed.
You have to be comfortable driving a standard transmission, ideally with some European-Alpine experience. And when the travelling day is done, without exception, park your car in either your hotelâ€™s private parking, la cochera, or a secure, nearby cochera.
It will help immensely if you can speak a little Spanish, at least enough to ask for directions and catch the response. Signs are practically non-existent in Peru. Youâ€™ll be dependent on well-intended instruction from a very hospitable and helpful people.
There are tolls everywhere; relatively expensive compared to everything else. If in the local markets, a three-course meal will set you back all of one Canadian dollar, tolls average two bucks for every 75 kilometers. The system is unique and labor effective: youâ€™re charged on all roads leading away from Lima. They are free in the opposite direction.
On The Road – El Sur
We logged 7,000 kilometers in just under a month. Leaving the capital going south, youâ€™ll immediately encounter mostly empty desert landscape, some of which is miraculously under cultivation. If this, the Atacama, is your first desert, youâ€™ll be impressed. But it doesnâ€™t compare to the Chilean Atacama, or for that matter to the Sahara in the Touggart-El Oued region of Algeria. The Chilean desert is so dry and utterly lifeless, that after 4,000 kilometers there wasnâ€™t a single squashed insect on our windshield.
Unlike the eerie, otherworldly route from San Pedro de Atacama to Antofagasta in Chile, the flattish desert region south of Lima simply isnâ€™t ugly enough to be fascinating. But from time to time, youâ€™ll light upon some excellent desert moments as the road winds its way through high dunes, picking up the sea at the 600 kilometer point at Puerta Inca all the way to Camana, 855 kilometers. Evaluating this road (always on a scale of one to three), this latter section merits a 2.5 while the first 600 kilometers, a 1.8. Bear in mind the universal tendency to fairly or unfairly compare oneâ€™s immediate landscape to what one has just seen, which is probably why the entire world outside of Canada strikes me as extraordinarily beautiful.
From Camana, the road climbs uneventfully – again compared to the eye opening southern version in Chile (Arica through Putre to the Bolivian border) – to Arequipa, 2,600 meters high. But from Arequipa to Chivay (3,800 meters), and a visit to the must-see Colca Valley, youâ€™ll discover the essential pulchritude and lush verdancy of the Andes on an aesthetic scale and grandeur with which very few places on the planet can compete.
From Arequipa to Chivay (where you access the Colca), you arrive at a junction (at 100 kilometers) that leaves you about 90 kilometers from Chivay. The first 25 kilometers of this road are dirt, with lots of sharp rocks. In our small car, it was barely doable as we slowed down to 15 kilometers per hour, always trying to keep to the smoother side. The remaining 65 kilometers are mostly newly paved. This entire route however, fog and mist permitting, is enchanted, leavened with llamas and alpacas grazing on grass and drinking from glacial pools only the gods could have provided. The journey from Chivay to the Colca Canyonâ€™s Condor Lookout will run you about 100 kilometers, but after Yanqui – an atmospheric town with a quaint plaza, 10 kilometers past Chivay – the road turns horrible and we had to stop. Our criterion for risking dirt roads is the absolute fear and dread of having to change a flat.
From Chivay, back to the junction, the excellent road to Juliaca (four hours) rates a 2.8 with many extended three sections. Donâ€™t leave yourself short on film here, or for the next 1,200 kilometers for that matter. Parts of this road rank with anything I have ever seen, especially around the three-quarter point where we happened upon an exquisitely shaped, pristine lake surrounded by smooth, pastel green mountains that you canâ€™t imagine being bettered by Lake Titicaca.
The 100 kilometers from Juliaco to Puno are surprisingly lackluster, especially in light of what has just preceded. In Juliaca, youâ€™ll be taken aback by a preponderance of mostly motor drawn rickshaws. By this time, youâ€™ll have realized that the rules of the road donâ€™t exist in Peru: heavy traffic does not necessarily keep to the right lane while the vehicle in front of you does as it pleases. From time to time youâ€™ll find yourself driving on whatever side of the road is most effective, swerving in and out of traffic as if you were in India. However disconcerting this sounds, unless you are latently homicidal or long for an extended period of exotic incarceration, you will make that swerve on each and every occasion.
Juliaca is a dirty city under extensive renovation, with cratered roads, whose main streets are lined with antiquated North American sewing machines for sale, the fact of which merits an economic digression. Peru, at $5,600 per capita income, is a major garment manufacturer, whose cheap labor is being undercut by the even cheaper labor in China. So in order not to lose the remaining threads of whatever competitive advantage remains, Peru is obliged to buy up western discards at currency-friendly prices.
Your first rendezvous with Lake Titicaca begins in Puno. Youâ€™ll stay there for practical, not aesthetic reasons: access to Lake Titicacaâ€™s many islands (most of which are worth a visit), and the unforgettable drive around the southern swing of the lake to the two-star Bolivian town of Copacabana, which is 10 kilometers across the border.
Lake Titicaca, at 3,800 meters, is not only the worldâ€™s highest navigable lake, but as large as Switzerland. Its hypnotic, ink-blue surface is impenetrable, and its limitless horizon as sharp as the edge of a knife. While our textbooks teach us from our earliest years that the earth is round, my experience on Titicaca reminded me that science couldnâ€™t explain everything.
From that very first glimpse that is forever etched in my mind, the lakeâ€™s razored horizon was so riveting, I knew I had to go there and see it in the flesh. So with a guide and small boat, we ventured out one brisk morning and sure enough, as if there were never any doubt, we rowed right up to the edge of what we knew not, where I dared to look over – and found ourselves gazing into the very face of the Godhead. My boatman also looked over, but did not see what I saw. What he said as he disappeared over the edge, I shall never repeat.
Like a benevolent deity, the lake is revered for the agriculture it sustains and the communal life that hasnâ€™t changed in centuries. The regionâ€™s unhurried rhythms are so natural, I would often find myself wondering why some cultures advance technologically while others donâ€™t. I provisionally concluded that the fortuitous presence of an extraordinary genius could make all the difference. Itâ€™s now a couple of months since Iâ€™ve been back in my quotidian, but from time to time, as if reliving a dream that cannot survive the morningâ€™s first light, I catch myself harkening back to that idyllic, pastoral tempo that unfolds around Lake Titicaca. I realize how privileged I felt to have been given the extraordinary opportunity to bear witness to a spirit and civilization that does not compare to the fast pace and cacophony of my own, and cannot help but wonder if the offspring of genius – progress – is a blessing or a curse.
Juliaca to Cusco (350 kilometers) constitutes yet another monumental route. The first 70 kilometers of this paved, but pot-holed road, take you through velvety, undulating mountains that leave you convinced that there is indeed a place reserved for heaven on earth, and that the deity youâ€™ve been looking for is just around the next turn. From 150 to 225 kilometers, the landscape turns Alpinish, with cultivated mountainsides running down into luxuriant valleys that feature both thatched and terracotta roofing. As if providing the perfect solution to urban congestion, the villages and their green spaces, over a 75-kilometer stretch, are seamlessly connected, eventually surrendering to the higher mountains of the Cusco region. This heavenly highway rates a 2.7 with many three sections.
From Cusco, there are numerous small side trips, all breathtaking. Leaving the city northward, you visit the Inca ruins at Sacayhuaman, where youâ€™ll discover first hand why the Incas are regarded as historyâ€™s greatest stone cutters. From there, this lush-with-life road that recalls Old Europe, twists its way to the ruins of Pisaq (about 45 kilometers), cul de sac-ing half way up a mountain. It would be hard to find a more satisfying view: everything is “here, there, and everywhere”. Looking up, the eye follows delightful pathways leading to three separate sites of well-preserved ruins. Straight ahead lies an exquisitely cut terrace that elegantly cascades to the valley below, each tablet velvet green and as smooth as fur. Looking down, the eye is treated to a Braque-like tableau of sun baked terracotta roofs backed up by deep green, flourishing mountain flanks. If Machu Pichu can beat this, show me.
Continuing from Pisaq to Urubumba is another princely 2.6 drive, and from Urubumba going south, at the 10 kilometer point, the road forks right to Maras, where a difficult seven kilometer, three-star dirt road cuts through preternaturally serene, sienna-brown, Basque-red landscape that recalls Andalusia (Antiquera region), conducting you into a brawny, boulder gorge where an implausibly extensive cache of salt terraces reside in their luminous, cubist splendor. Once again, donâ€™t leave yourself short of film. From Maras back to the main road, a less difficult but quietly awe-inspiring 10-kilometer dirt road drops you off at Moray, another worthwhile site.
If you decide to take the train from Ollantaytambo instead of Cusco to Machu Pichu, the route and the townâ€™s authentic charm are the reasons.
Machu Pichu, even at a $105.00 Can/person, didnâ€™t disappoint and ranks, along with Iguazu Falls, as the single most inspiring site I have ever witnessed.
The steep ascent from Cusco through Abancay to Nazca takes 12 hours and should be done in two days. On a newly paved, serpentine highway from Cusco to Abancay, youâ€™ll climb to 4,500 meters, but youâ€™re in the tropics. Instead of snow youâ€™ll be bowled over by the rice-paddy-green that characterizes the vast cultivation that makes this one of the richest agricultural areas in all of Peru. Youâ€™ll pass mango groves such as you have never seen, as well as papaya and banana plantations. This route merits a three.
Exiting Abancay, you pass through a 150-mile gorge after which the road gradually rises to 4,800 meters: thatâ€™s more than half way up Everest, making it one of the wordâ€™s highest paved highways. The views are of the stuff that make jaws drop. At the very top, the mist-wreathed landscape is lunar – a cold mix of glacial detritus, water puddles, stubble, and winter-garbed, Quecha-speaking herdsman trying to eke out a living raising alpacas.
At Puquio (two long hours from Nazca), where the paved road stops for about five horrendous kilometers, you descend to 500 meters on a route that winds and twists its way through sun-lashed, broke-back dry mountains that are weathered down into small stone and sand as Nazca appears like a desert mirage – which it isnâ€™t. This long section rates a 2.6, with three’s in the memorable upper reaches where the gods reside and clouds cling to the dew and valleys below.
This concludes the southern swing. The 1,800 kilometers from Chivay to Lake Titicaca on through Cusco to Nazca must surely constitute one of the worlds most extraordinary and varied long drives where youâ€™ll be hard pressed to find a single dull kilometer. And I say this having driven far and high and wide (eyed).
On The Road – El Norte
Heading north from Lima to Trujillo (570 kms), the desert, surprisingly, is more formidable than south of the capital. This section merits a two with several 2.7 stretches.
Huarmey is an excellent stopover town. On the way to Trujillo, you have to persevere through the degraded city of Chimbote. At its best, the place is merely ugly. At its worst, the rickshaw overrun outskirts are strewn with garbage and attendant pickers and squatters. Chimbote rudely reminds you that garbage disposal in Peru is not a science. Seventy kilometers before Trujillo, one of Peruâ€™s many desert marvels begin. Like the Israelis, the Peruvians make things grow out of sand. The result boggles the disbelieving eye as you drive past rice paddies, sugar cane fields and a poorly paid workforce at play in the fields of the lord. Where the desert hasnâ€™t been tamed, youâ€™ll observe heavy machinery cutting deep and wide furrows out of the sand into which bags of manure are spilled.
After Trujillo, the desert begins to flatten out as do the Andes on your right. Here, the true north begins, featuring more prosperous towns and cities. The route from Trujillo to Chiclayo is mostly flat and dull, the same from Chiclayo to Piura. However, 15 kilometers before Piura, scrub begins to appear, and then low shrub and trees, and then a string of desert defying villages lording over huts made of thatched bamboo. If itâ€™s Sunday, the locals will be vested in their domingo best, trudging over the low dunes to their simple places of worship. At Sulliana (45 kilometers north of Piura), the road veers seaward to Talara where coconut groves suddenly appear and disappear. For the next 50 kilometers, the road is mostly flat desert, eventually giving way to bare, shriven hills that turn into low mountains as the road hugs the coast through Mancora to Tumbes. The drive from Chiclayo to Sulliana weighs in at 1.5, from Sulliana to Tumbes a respectable 2.
There are four inland routes between Lima and Tumbes. We only had time for one. The Lima-La Oroya route is the most spectacular. Less recommended is the road from Chiclayo to Jaen. The route from Casma to Huaraz isnâ€™t paved, so we decided on the 2.7 route from Pacasmayo to Cajamarca.
If itâ€™s variety youâ€™re looking for, the road from the coast to Cajamarca has it all. This four-hour feast follows a river that is fed by mountain runoff all year long. The first 50 kilometers feature lush, labor-intensive rice fields and mango trees whose branches are bowed by the weight of their bounty. On both sides of the river and the fertile plain that hugs it, are dry gorges and sun blistered cliff sides, their muscled colors ranging from clay pot brown to burnt sienna. At the 100-kilometer point, the road begins to ascend in earnest as the mountains turn deliciously green. The climb rises to 3,000 meters before dipping to 2,700 and the preciously placed city of Cajamarca, where youâ€™ll be based.
Unfolding like a pastoral is the impressive 10-kilometer drive from Cajamarca to the fabulous funerary tombs of Ventanillas de Otusco. The tombs, and there are hundreds of them, have been dug out of the mountain side whose lower flank features a natural cactus garden and a charming path that leads you to the sun-tempered, amber tinted cliff side.
I believe the reason we travel (as opposed to going on vacation), and endure hardship and risks real travel often entails, is to expose the arbitrariness of the cultural imperatives that inform our tastes and preferences. We willingly submit to a kind of mental aerobics, painful mind-stretching exercises that force us to accommodate and embrace worlds very different from our own. At the end of the voyage, when the day is done, the suitcase unpacked, weâ€™re not so much wiser as more generous in our judgments, and sympathetic to the necessarily rude choices some people have to make.
While every region in the world can argue its case for beauty, some places are categorically more pulchritudinous than others, and Peru is one of them. There were at least 10 occasions where I was simply overcome, emotionally surfeited by the natural beauty of my surroundings. When giving thanks, that thought always included a nod to the irrational side of me that had the good sense and temerity to throw guidebook-caution to the wind and take to the road. For unless you have a year or two and boots made for walking, thereâ€™s no better way to unravel the marvels and mystery of Peru than by car.
From its aesthetic order to eating habits to market place customs, time spent in Peru turned my conceits about life into questions I would otherwise have never asked. For example, from dawn until dusk, in the garb of its womenfolk, Peru is a festival of colors and color combinations that makes no sense in our part of the world, but perfect sense in the context of an ethos that unfolds as naturally and unconsciously as our own – at least for the time being. Sadly, irreversibly, the color paradigm that has been synonymous with Peru for centuries is disappearing under the onslaught of Western culture. What excites the traveller today will probably not exist 50 years from now – outside of the museum.
Those of you now persuaded to take to the incomparable highways and byways of a country precariously perched between its present and future, I promise that by the time you get to Lake Titicaca, you will have already submitted my name for apotheosis. Less than that, I await your feedback. Buen viaja.