It seemed logical, looking at a map. A to B, Nazca to Cusco. The unpaved road snaked out of town north-east. Admittedly it did cross the Andes, the Cordillera Occidental at some 5000 metres, but this was child’s play.
The problem arose with Peru’s volatile past, this area was still considered slightly dangerous. Off limits if you took your embassy’s advice, but then, in Peru if you took their advice you wouldn’t leave your room. This was where the Shining Path hung out, an alternative to Fujimori’s government, kidnapping and robbery formed their policies. Hence the area had a little catching up to do in the tourist stakes.
For us there was no South American Machismo involved, it was simply a matter of geography. We were here, there was a road, 250 miles to take us there. The two alternatives were;
1. Back track some 250 miles to Lima and catch a plane to Cusco.
2. Carry on down the Pan-American highway to Arequipa, then inland to Juliaca and finally to Cusco. A 450 mile round trip!
It only made sense to myself and Peter, my Dutch partner in crime from previous Latin adventures. We devised a fool-proof plan over pollo con papas. The rest of our companions, there were four of them, we trusted. Besides, we knew their addresses and would hunt them down if they crossed us. We laid our excess funds on them, along with our valuables. The journey by bus was to take two days, so calculating just enough money to see us through two meals a day this freed us from becoming robbery victims. Kidnapping we pushed to the extremities of our minds.
We had purchased tickets earlier that afternoon from our local guide, who was also our taxi driver. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen him actually driving the bus. There was no terminal in Nazca, the pre-arranged departure point was a restaurant on the edge of town. Provisions for our journey included a loaf of bread and the obligatory bottle of dark rum. We had already broken the seal, just to check the quality – you have to be careful of these things in South America.
With minutes to spare, as always seems to happen with alcohol and goodbyes we made the restaurant at 7pm, announcing our presence and brandishing our tickets to make it clear we were waiting for the bus. “Mas tarde!” was the waiter’s response. Asking for glasses we made ourselves comfortable at an outside table with good views of approaching buses. Neither of us had eaten and threw caution to the wind, ordering pollo con papas confident we could waff it down or ask for a doggy bag if the bus showed up. Fighting back indigestion we comfortably completed dinner, still no bus.
Buses were coming though, perhaps three or four had passed. Each time Peter or I would down the remains of our rum, run up and push our tickets in the driver’s face. “No!” every time. Buses were even going in the right direction, some even as far as Abancay, half way. But we had already bought our tickets for a specific company and were experiencing difficulty getting a refund. I put this down to the fact that we were both blind drunk and passed the stage of communication, my Spanish was flawless I know.
Three times I had asked for a refund, denied each time. Ordering another bottle of rum we set a deadline. It came and passed, our money was handed back to us. Four hours we had waited for the non-existent bus. We were already a couple of glasses into the new bottle, the perfect condition for a two day Andean pass bus journey.
The ride we chose was full, but it was getting on a bit now, we were keen to make tracks and were in danger of passing out. Taking up seats a few rows apart we departed to a chorus of: “Musica Maestro!” Music driver. “Chofer apaga la luz!” Driver turn off the light. Comforting cries to set you up for a South American bus ride.
That night was right up there under the heading of: “Worst Bus Journeys”. Totally self-inflicted, of course. Doze for a few hours, wake parched, hangover, no water. Blaring Latin grooves being strangled by the inadequate one speaker, whilst being levitated around in our seats. These buses are almost like trucks, huge re-tread tires and no suspension to speak of. ‘Course the road wasn’t up to much, we traveled at no more than 10 mph, stopping for recovery breaks two or three times a day.
With dawn there was a little more room inside and a little less vegetation outside. We had peaked on one of those barren plateaux, dusty beige boulders contrasted with clear blue skies the whole thing wrapped in a bitter cold wind. We each had a couple of cassettes with us and got them going through the bus’s stereo system, although we had now commandeered our own double seats they were towards the back and it was more comfortable to stand, and let our legs take the punishment. The whole day snow capped peaks of the Cordillera de Huanco rising 6000 metres rolled past our windows. Whilst we taught the local campesino’s the words to The Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic. I bet they still talk about it: “Ere, there were these two Gringos on the bus the other day, ‘ad this great music…”
“Ojo’s azul,” the locals would whisper behind their hands, as they gathered to look at us. As we gathered to look at them. We stood out, two tall Gringos, both with blue eyes. The fated Abancay came into view around 6am on the second day. This had been the lawless stronghold of The Shining Path. The bus station was actually fortified, huge steel doors to let the bus in, with armed guards in lookout posts, very welcoming. Our bus terminated here, Cusco was but a few short hours away.
Having purchased tickets, I ventured out of the terminal to locate some breakfast. A vendor was right outside, a cart with bread stacked high and a huge vat of something cooking. Blasé I ordered. Now I officially had no money until Cusco, another five or six hours. Accepting my bowl it dawned on me that it was “Mondongo” stew. This I had come across a few times in South America and vowed never to touch it again. Tripe or offal is how we know it. Cow or more likely goat stomach, a white fatty knobby meat, totally inedible. Skipping the meat I used the bread to soak up the sauce, and retired to the sanctuary of the terminal.