May 11, 2006 GMT
Katie and the Camións

"This isn´t a road, it´s a damn one-lane llama track! And a f*@king bad one at that!"

Words to that effect come up between Katie and me many times as we bounce, rattle and growl along in first gear for three days. But it isn´t the embedded rock, mud, neglected landslides, deep ruts, steep dropoffs or the heat that worry us. It´s the camións, those cab-over, stockrack three ton trucks that bear down on us like runaway Atlas missiles. Often dominating the road, the cab just visible ahead of a billowing black diesel and white dust contrail, these six wheeled rockets are deadly. We move over and stop if we get warning but the blind corners-with-no-options really have us on edge, so to speak.

I would like to show you a picture of Katie's nemesis but we are so busy staying upright and out of harm's way I have no time to get the camera out. Besides, the polvo (flour-fine dust) threatens everything so I keep the Canon well hidden most of the time.


In deciding to investigate the 400 kilometre carretera tierra (dirt road) from Abancay to Ayacucho, through a less-travelled area of mountainous Peru, I know it is less travelled by los touristas for good reason. But it is travelled by a surprising amount of trucks and for God´s Sakes, buses.


What happens when camión meets bus I can only guess for the carretera is contoured into the side of los montañas and it looks more like the Dewdney Trail than a national artery. Think of the Going To The Sun Road in Montana, narrow it to one lane, lay down flour-fine dust, loose rock and/or mud, your choice, and lift it to two miles above sea level. Then fill at random big vehicles with drivers having a frantic urgency to get to nowhere as fast as possible and there you have it, the road to Ayacucho.


Katie and I idle through many small mountain side pueblos. Life is basic. No electricity, no vehicles, no running water, no septic systems. Just adobe walls, dirt floors, tin roofs. Main street has crater sized potholes. No grader has seen these roads since they were built. I want to take pictures of the locals with their traditional dress but have been told the mountain folk don't take kindly to the invasion of their privacy. The women, almost all well under 5 feet tall, wear broad flared skirts, fedora or tall boler hats and carry multi-colored blankets on their backs like backpacks. The older men, also surprisingly short in height, usually wear dark sweaters under black wool suit jackets and sport a fedora of some shape. Los joven (the young), especially the boys, wear western wear, with t-shirts advertising the Chicago Bears, Adidas etc. My greatest admirers seem to be the ubiquitious perros. Often boiling out of nowhere, they give chase to Katie and I as we pass by, barking fiercely and putting on a great display as psuedo guard dogs. I ignore them and hope it's all for show. It is only the goofy perros that crisscross just ahead of the bike that worry me.


At the end of Day One I make it to Andahuaylas, just 138 kms from my starting point that morning. Even though it's only 3:30 PM, it's not smart to go on this late in the day. I check into the El Encanto de Oro Hotel and am wonderfully taken care of by Juan Jose, his wife and their young two sons, both of whom are also called Juan Jose. After dark I get the hankering for some helado (ice cream) so me and my two young companions walk down to the store. Right in the middle of negotiations, capably led by the older of the young Juans, a town wide power failure occurs and the store turns blacker than coal. Within a few moments candles are lit (they were mighty handy which makes me think this is not an uncommon occurance) and negotiations are resumed. We come away with an assortment of exotic looking ice cream and popsicle treats.


The vistas of los Andes are breathtaking when I do get a moment to stop and admire. For part of the time we are over 13, 000 feet and among the daytime culumus cloud. What distracts from this experience is Katie leaking fuel when hot. Long periods of uphill, slow going causes the radiator fan to run frequently. By some design fault the hot air expelled blows on the left fuel tank, forcing the contents to shunt into the right tank until it overfills. When that condition happens, Katie vents off as much fuel as she burns. Our range drops to 200 km, not giving much room for error. Also, the smell of gasoline near a hot engine is not comforting.


On Day Two, I am caught still two hours from destination in spite of my best efforts to cover 270 kms in a day. An inviting looking ridge top calls, so just before sundown me and Katie idle off the road a few hundred yards and set up camp. We're lucky, it is windless, even here at 12,000 feet. Great view, even a waxing half moon for company. We are high above the general population yet I can still hear dogs barking late into the night.


While sunflowers and cereal grains grow at river level, there are hillsides of corn higher, at two miles above sea level there coca leaves, onions and potatoes. Inbetween there are cultivated crops of stuff I´ve never seen before, but obviously has great importance in this market economy. Since the carretara is the life artery of these communities, sacks of goods are left beside the road, waiting for a certain camión to come along. Often the back of the truck is as full of people as produce.


On Day Three I arrive at 10,000' asl city of Ayacucho, founded in 1539 by the conquistadores. On December 9, 1824, the decisive battle of Ayacucho was fought, bringing Spanish rule to an end in Peru. Liberator Simón Bolivar decreed the city should be named Ayacucho, 'City of Blood', instead of its orginal name, Huamanga, given by my friends the Incas. More recently in the 1980's, the city was home to the terrorist group known to us as the Shining Path. Fujimoro's government cleaned up the place in the 90's, well before Katie and I ride into town and onto lovely pavement. So it was a busy place, what with all these takeovers but from the look of things it hasn't hurt business any.

After washing ten tons of polvo off Katie and I, we look for a place to stay. Hotel San Francisco is a little pricey at 40 Soles a night (US$12.12) but Katie gets pick-of-the-litter parking in the front lobby, with period piece manikins for company. For comparison, some other prices of things are: internet 33 cents an hour, supper $3.80, shoe shine 66 cents, taxi $1.00, gasoline $1.12 per litre.


After a nice day in Ayacucho, it's westward ho and onto Pisco, home of the famous pisco grape and fortified brandy. The drive from the sierras down to the coast is exceptally scenic and I enjoy the drive in spite of the 10 to 15 degree Celsius rarified air. Crossing Abra Apacheta pass at 15, 567 feet is the high point before starting the long descent to sea level and Pisco.


Hazard warnings often as hazardous as the object being warned about are placed on the road in illogical patterns. This one below is easy to figure out what the camión driver was thinking. What is not shown is how often after the main hazard is gone, the "warning signs" are still strewn about the pista.


Posted by Murray Castle at May 11, 2006 02:59 AM GMT

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