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Peru: First Venture into the Andes, 1978

March 14, 2011

Photos by Craig Olivier

In the bus depot all was chaos.  Dozens of campesinos pushed and shoved one another, jockeying for position in the crush to buy tickets.  Groups of women with round, soft faces under straw hats crouched in the corners, chattering among themselves.  Urchins plied the travelers with cigarettes and candies, scampering through the crowd and advertising their wares with loud cries.  Outside in the parking area, old and new and antique buses were parked haphazardly, pointing to all directions of the compass.  Some of the vehicles had their engines running, rumbling and belching purple-black exhaust.  Others remained quiet, resting with cracked windshields and rusting chrome, as if their days of service were over.  All had been painted garish colors, and they looked like a congregation of gigantic hippie vans at a Woodstock reunion.  Everywhere men from the functioning vehicles were shouting destinations, and confused passengers barked questions with equal enthusiasm.

Elbowed my way through the throngs, I wondered if an underlying system guided this mess, or whether the arrivals and departures were as randomly organized as they looked.  I was quite certain, however, that I’d find what I was seeking with my companions, the all-night bus to Huamachuco, a town nearly 140 miles due east into the Andes.  For a moment I was unsure which queue to join inside the terminal, so I stood on my toes to look over the heads of the shorter Peruvians, hoping to find some clues.

With me were my wife at the time and a pair of friends we had met somewhere in the Trujillo region.  Craig was a Canadian from a BC border town and his partner Letiticia hailed from… well, somewhere.  I have the impression that both of the sort of called the Pacific Northwest home, but after all these years it’s hard to be sure.

1) Letitia in 1978

Craig, I remember, was a solid, risk-taking kind of guy with long blond hair.  He complemented Letitica nicely.  She was small in stature but had a hard determination one doesn’t always see in travelers.  I wouldn’t have wanted to cross her in a bar fight. Perfect company for the trip, both of them.

Someone bumped against us and I detected a hand trying to insinuate itself into the front pocket of my pants.  I took a quick slap at it and an old woman broke away from me, muttering in an unrecognizable dialect.  A baby, swaddled across on her back in a plain woven manta, began to wail.  I sighed and continued the search, approaching a man in a tattered uniform who was obviously a cop.

Permiso, senor.  Sabe usted de donde sale el carro por Huamachuco?”

Si, si,” the man answered, scanning me from head to foot, probably appraising the fresh gringo for a potential bribe.  “Over there, to the left.”

Gracias.”  I hurried away, not anxious to make myself more conspicuous to an ‘officer’ of the law.  We saw another line forming near a ticket window and joined it.  A couple more questions to the men in front  confirmed our suspicion that, yes, this was indeed the right place to buy a ticket.  I felt in his front pocket again for his wallet; it was still there, but the odds were about even I’d lose it if I wasn’t careful.  Trujillo pickpockets had an awesome reputation.

Twenty minutes later, with flimsy bits of paper in our hands that authorized passage on Transportes Quiroz bus line, we made our way back into the street.  The man behind the ticket booth, an excitable gentleman, had informed us hurriedly that the bus left in half an hour, at  four p.m., just outside the door of the terminal.

Well, there it was, a converted school bus.  It was painted bright blue, and the windshield framed a collection of fringed and plastic ornaments. Catholic saints, heathen gods, and a photo of Michael Jackson hung above the chauffeur.   Evidently Peruvian bus drivers sought good luck from wherever they could grab it, not being known to believe in or particularly care about their driving talents.

We had spent enough time in Huanchaco to decide it was time to get out of town.  One night, while looking at a map, we had seen the name Huamachuco.  The its similarity of its name to that of the beach town intrigued us so we decided to go there, to see what might happen.  Our lives had become as undirected as those of tree limbs swinging precariously in the breeze.  In one sense this was good, in a kind of be-here-now fashion, but I realized we were all adrift.  Surely somewhere lay the answers to our many questions about life, about travel, and about ourselves, but the exact place to find our destinies had so far eluded us.

Anyway, we were going to have our first close-up glimpse of the northern Andes.

This little excursion had not started well.  Somebody;d the nerve to steal my sleeping bag, right out of a hotel room in downtown Trujillo.  It took me two days to find another one, second-hand, in the market.  It was a good one, no doubt stolen from a different hapless traveler.  Ah, the joys of living in Peru.

Now, as we boarded and found seats on the broken-down bus, I had all the essential gear.  One hand remained glued to my backpack while I stretched my legs under the seat in front.  I put my shoulder bag with camera, hammock, and books in the overhead rack.  No thief was going to pull a fast one on me and make off with my meager possessions while my attention was distracted.  Other passengers, mostly Indians and rural traders, loaded themselves on the bus with great noise and discussion, and gradually the vehicle filled.  At least we weren’t going to run out of air.  Half the windows in the vehicle were missing, although I couldn’t tell whether the glass had been removed or just had fallen out during previous on the bumpy, isolated mountain roads.

I should have known what would happen ten minutes after the decrepit old school bus crunched into gear and left the Trujillo depot.  The bus ride evolved into a real sideshow, albeit one with a minimal price of admission.  Passing through the suburbs at breakneck speed on the way out of the city seemed harmless enough.  Woe to any stray chickens or dogs that didn’t hurry out of their path in time, but hey, this was Peru.  I had a few moments to view the extensive sugar cane fields and irrigated farmland as they sped across the desert in the waning afternoon light toward the Andean foothills, visible to the east through a layer of haze.

Then I glanced up to the overhead rack to check on my shoulder bag.  It was gone.  Frantically I asked my wife is she had moved it; the answer was no.  Craig and Letiticia were oblivious as well and had had difficulty holding on to their own possessions.  Shit.  The camera was a beautiful and expensive miniature Rolei 35 mm.  Worst of all, a treasured music cassette had been in the bag, Jefferson Starship’s newest record, sent to him in Ecuador by his brother.  I cursed the Peruvians and hoped they hated the music and would fall out of the hammock drunk the first time they used it and break their goddam backs.

But really, as far as I remember, I calmed down quickly enough.  I mean, the bag didn’t contain any money or real valuables.  The hammock, bought seven months previously in the Yucatan, was nicely broken in, but had only cost ten bucks or so. And the camera, to be honest, was another gift. I knew there was exposed film in the bag too but wasn’t sure how much there was.

And so the bus moved steadily inland, gaining altitude with the terrain.

An hour later, life became distinctly less enjoyable for us clients of Transportes Quiroz.  It was now nearly dusk, a time when  normally I enjoyed relaxing with a cup of tea and a good book.  Instead I was clench-fisted and white-knuckled, uttering a silent prayer every time the bus charged into a blind hairpin turn, usually on the wrong side of the road. We climbed into the mountains while the driver seemed to be having the time of his life.

I observed the man while peering through the boxes of goods stacked in the aisle of the bus.  The driver was an immense, rotund fellow.  Every once in a while, after sliding maniacally around a bend in the dirt road, he would turn around and present his greasy, unshaven mug to the passengers, as if seeking their approval for another feat of derring-do.  I also noticed, with trepidation, that the man had a large bag of coca leaves conveniently installed next to a quart bottle of clear liquid, which no doubt held a full measure of aguardiente. He regularly shoved a sweaty handful of leaves into his mouth, chased with a swig of firewater.

Nevertheless, there were enough distractions outside the bus to occupy our time.  As we gained altitude, the vegetation and environment changed.   Passing from barren aridity, the land took on different aspects with the increasing elevation.  At first the hills became covered with hardy shrubs, a nice change from the featureless desert.  The road followed a river valley, and with every thousand feet of height new kinds of flora appeared.  At around four thousand feet  the beautiful San Pedro cactus began to dominate the slopes.  Here the mescaline-producing cacti grew, and were now in full bloom, something I’d never seen before.  The hillsides were dotted with the tall succulents, each producing gold-orange trumpet flowers like explosions of energy bursting from within.

The landscape soon gave way to meadows covered with wild flowers, and trees appeared we climbed higher.  The terrain slowly turned harsh again, with razor-edged peaks and cliffs breaking the horizon.  I wasn’t sure how high the road ascended but it certainly was cold.  The wind, which became bitter, rushed through the glassless windows.  It came up through holes in the floor and down from cracks in the roof.

I was wearing a heavy sweater and a windbreaker, but realized too late these were not sufficient to temper the draughty air.  So I froze, slowly and quietly.  Other passengers broke out their own packets of coca leaves; the driver, meanwhile, was going through his like popcorn and his eyes had dilated into blank sockets.

Well, what to do?  I certainly didn’t feel like doing any coca-based stimulants at this stage, so I lit cigarette after cigarette with shaking hands, imagining that the tiny coals at the end were warming my body.  I felt as if I was acquiring a pharmacy’s worth of addictions here in Peru.

How odd.  At different points in the dreamy night that had now fallen over the mountains, I caught a glimpse of a… a chairlift.  That made no sense.  The moon nearly full and it shone a stark light on the terrain, marking its features clearly, but still, I thought my eyes must be playing tricks.  There couldn’t be a chairlift here in the middle of nowhere.  Yet after a couple more hours the lift reappeared several times on the other side of the valley as the bus traversed the mountain slopes. Now there was no denying it; some company had constructed a giant ski rig that followed the road.

Anyone traveling in South America is used to seeing both the imponderable and the improbable, so I acted casually as and asked a man sitting across from him what on earth such a contraption was doing in the mountains of northern Peru.

The man nodded his head and replied sagely, his own cheeks bulging with coca.  “The chairlift runs from the town of Shorey to the coast.  The owners of the mines further into the mountains decided it was more practical to ship their copper ore down to the sea directly.  The roads are very bad” — whoever would have guessed? — “and trucks are scarce, so this was an easy solution for them.”

“Thank you,” I said to my informant.  It struck me as peculiar, and rather exploitative of the mining companies, to tear metals from the earth and then ship them out of the country without giving the locals any jobs in transportation.

Just before sunrise the bus approached the outskirts of Shorey, the mining town from where the chairlift began.

It was a disgusting place.

Shacks and hovels dotted the barren fields.  People dressed in rags shuffled about the main street, scarecrow-thin and unhealthy.  The poverty was grinding and total.

I was trying to figure out what was going on when I saw a sign in English:


So that was the answer.  Some foreign-owned gringo company had a chokehold on the local populace.

The bus stopped on a muddy street that passed through the town’s center.  The condition of the men and women who swarmed the bus was appalling.  Kicking and screaming, they fought to get on the bus while the driver barreled his way through them, letting on only a couple who offered money.  Apparently the majority were so destitute they tried to beg a free ride, one that would have cost them only pennies, and they couldn’t afford that meager sum.

Finally the doors closed and the driver settled the folds of his body into his seat.  The exhaust pipe blew a cloud of smoke as he cranked the starter, but the bus wouldn’t start.  The driver cursed and exited, wheezing and coughing.

I got out and looked around, appraising the situation.  It was a foregone conclusion; they weren’t going anywhere just yet, and probably not for another few hours.  The driver was now half-hidden under the hood of the engine compartment with his upper body positioned like that of a man bent over a guillotine.  Other passengers fled the bus and stood in the cold, milling about and trying to stay warm.

He looked over the town.  Desolation prevailed.  Shorey was built on a high, severe, and windswept plain.  Rounded hills protruded behind the edge of the community, most likely slag heaps from old mining operations.  A bitter wind pierced his clothes, making me realize again how inadequately prepared I was for the alpine climate.

A few people trudged along the street, slumped forward against the wind.  At the end of the road a small group of men haggled around a weary old station wagon.

The sky turned gray in the morning light and we finally departed.


The bus lurched to a stop and disgorged us.  How many hours late were we?  Who could tell?  We had stopped on the main square of Huamachuco.  The village was laid out in the manner of Spanish colonial towns everywhere, with a huge Plaza de Armas, from which radiated streets bordered by houses of whitewashed adobe.  The pueblo was nestled high on a spur of the northeastern cordillera.  Directly to the south stood a nameless peak, rising some three or four thousand feet higher.  To the north, a river valley cut deeply into the jagged landscape.

1) Huamachuco from above

The Incas had seen the strategic potential of the district long ago, and just outside town the imposing ruins of a military fortress dominated both the valley below and the mountain pass into which Huamachuco was built.  From there any colonizers could watch the main routes that traveled up from the wilderness of selva to the east, and also the approaches from the coastal areas to the west.  Taking in the scenery, I marveled at how the Incas were such canny masters of empire-building.

The fields near the village were covered in alpine vegetation, reminding me wistfully of the Rockies back home.  Meadows of luxuriant grass were fed by clear streams of mountain water.  The setting sun gave a wonderful warmth to every corner not yet cast in shade.  Waves of eucalyptus trees encircled the fields beyond the village, and the wind, now a faint breeze, rustled through them with gentle whispers.

We walked through the main square dominated by a modern, art-nouveau cathedral and headed up a side street, habing noticed a welcoming little plaque, Pension. The building sported a small, unpainted wood railing around the second floor balcony.  Its stone masonry hinted at a time when construction methods were taken more seriously.

We passed through a low door and was treated to a view of a small courtyard with fruit trees and flowering plants. Positively delightful.  Craig called for the dueno, or owner, and shortly a wiry man emerged from behind a door, peering at us suspiciously.  We were surprised at the coolness of his reception, so I said at once, “We have just arrived from the coast by bus.  Would you have a room available?”

The old fellow’s expression changed immediately.  We knew very well that one had to explain oneself in these remote areas since a lone gringo was a rarity.

The man spoke.  “Yes, yes, of course.  Welcome.  I am Sr. Caldez.”

“No, American.”  Sr. Caldez frowned again, so I continued, “We have come to your lovely town to do some hiking in the mountains, but  need a place for tonight.”  I thought perhaps Americans weren’t so popular up here near towns like Shorey where absentee corporate bigwigs looted the natural resources.

“That is fine.  Would you like a drink?  You must be thirsty from the trip.”  I realized we must look very bedraggled, and gratefully accepted a glass of water.  The owner then took a chain of keys from his pocket, and beckoned us to follow him.  We climbed upstairs and Sr. Caldez showed us two simple, yet charming, small rooms.  The beds had quilted covers; there were even chamber pots on the bureaus.

“This is very nice,” Letitia complimented him.  “It will be fine.”

“Tell me, where are you planning to hike?”

I doubt that any of us had really thought about hiking, but then I remembered the mountain behind the village. I gestured in its general direction and said, “Well, that peak behind town, I thought it would make a nice climb.”  The explanation was taken in stride and soon Sr. Caldez left us alone.

We went to the room’s window and opened it.

2) Street scene from the hotel window

The mountain was visible in the distance.

After depositing our gear at the pension, we took another stroll around Huamachuco.  The atmosphere leaned into spooky areas. There were no other people visible on the streets, and the village looked quite deserted. Long shadows spread over the main square, and the setting sun glowed over the mountains to the west.


The next morning a low mist hung over Huamachuco and the nearby hills.  As the sun rose higher, shimmering waves of moisture swirled through the village. And so we were welcomed and embraced by the Andes, the beginning of a life-long passion that has yet to see its conclusion.

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