Overland miles: 14045 Bus hours: 428.5 Empanadar: 96
As our last weeks approached rapidly, we realised we needed to get away from llama jumper wearing gringos, test our true travelling mettle (no luxury buses) and see how ‘real’ Peruvians lived. Cusco had been a fun place to hang out in, ‘do’ Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley and some volunteering, but its transient population of travellers had started to wear on us. By this I mean the kind of people who sported quirky llama patterned knitwear because it thought it made them look native, had an SLR they didn’t know how to use casually slung over their shoulder and could generally be found in the vicinity of the town’s solitary Starbucks clutching an overpriced latte.
Our adventure started positively with a trip to the actual (non tourist) bus station in Cusco to get ourselves on a night bus to Ayacucho, a city so non-touristy it was only connected to the rest of the country when the government built a road to link it to the capital in 1999. Tickets bought, we sat down to wait in the crowded departure hall and within minutes, real, actual Peruvian people had struck up conversations with us. I found myself shooting the breeze with our buses’ driver, a man wearing a very fashionable cowboy hat and matching boots. I hoped his bus would be as smart as his taste in shoes. Another passenger, a genuine old Peruvian lady complete with missing teeth- not the kind touting her pet llama for photos – told us she’d already been travelling since early that morning after visiting friends and this bus journey was the last part of her trip. She was made of stronger stuff than us.
Our authentic Peruvian bus journey was very different from the tourist service we were used to. Entertainment was provided by loud 70s music videos and an equally loud action movie on DVD, the menu of which was allowed to loop continuously at top volume once it ended. On board food could be bought from small children offering a teeth-melting array of sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolate bars. Finally, having hardly slept at all, at 4am we pulled into a deserted bus station and were told this was as far as we were going and we’d need to transfer to a collectivo (a shared taxi or minibus) that was taking us to our final destination. The only slight irritations that this information caused was that we had originally been told with typical bus agent certainty that the bus would continue directly to its destination in Ayacucho, and that now our transfer would not be leaving this godforsaken backwater town till 7.30 am.
Despite our tiredness, on the next part of the journey we saw some of the most amazing views we’d had in all of Peru. The sun shone down on unspoilt mountainsides covered with wild flowers, solitary peasants’ houses and the occasional grazing llama. Thankfully, government investment in the region meant that we were driving along a new road. This being the Andean highlands however, we still had to hold on for dear life as our minibus careered round terrifying hair pin bends and dodged the evidence of recent landslides induced by the rainy season. The white-knuckle action abated only when the driver skidded to a halt to pick up or drop off the odd passenger in the middle of nowhere.
When we finally reached it at 11am that day, the quiet main square of Ayacucho was a thankfully llama jumper free zone. We could count the number of the gringos on one hand, and we did – there were just five – and three of them were Mormans.
After a couple of days of exploring we decided to move on to Huancavelica, a tiny and apparently even less touristy city. We thought we’d experienced gritty Peruvian travel on our last trip, but this next journey surpassed it by far. At 4am the next morning we duly arrived at Ayacucho’s collectivo pick up point (the only minibus with a guaranteed connection departed at this time) and stamped our feet in the freezing cold morning with an assortment of locals all being ushered onto various departing services. At this point we realised we were no longer the only foreigners: queueing for the same bus we spotted another pair of backpackers who were also crazy enough to go so far off the standard Lonely Planet approved itinerary. They introduced themselves as Beat (pronounced B-at) and Marilen, a Swiss couple who were just completing a Latin American trip of almost exactly the length of Prawns For Breakfast‘s.
Once on board, our bus sped out of town and into the mountains. It may have felt like the middle of the night and we were half asleep but we were glad our driver was alert as we swerved to avoid an oncoming juggernaut. As the sun rose, we were greeted with spectacular views of glittering lakes, and endlessly undulating Andean slopes blanketed with a gentle covering of snow. Although the towns we passed through were some of the poorest we’d seen, the people of this area are blessed with amazingly unspoilt surroundings.
Our collectivo took us as far as the bleak outskirts of Rumichaca, where we had to wait for the local bus. We headed to one of the nearby shacks with our new gringo friends to swap trip notes over bowls of steaming caldo de galina (chicken and noodle soup served with a boiled egg).
Two hours later our second, distinctly more decrepit bus decided it was time to leave. After about an hour, we stopped to pick up some special cargo. A local farmer was taking his llamas to the slaughterhouse. We couldn’t resist jumping out of the bus to stare at the spectacle of these huge beasts being tied up and calmly hauled up the side of our vehicle. The locals of course just sat there as if this was the kind of thing that happened every day – maybe it did?
Our reason for heading to Huancavelica had been to take “el Tren Macho“ – a train that trundles high across the Andes to nearby city, Huancayo, three times a week. Locals claim that this train famously “leaves when it wants and arrives when it can…”. We soon realised just how true this saying was. As we got of the bus, a group of excited school boys swarmed round us and offered to show us the hotel we wanted to stay in. We questioned them about our planned train trip and they explained there had been a major landslide during the rainy season and the line could be closed for years while it was repaired.
Over the next few days in Huancavelica and Huancayo we and our Swiss friends experienced some of the best Peruvian hospitality of our trip. It had already become apparent that tourists rarely visited these parts. We were generally stared at (especially the blond-haired Marilen), and the more courageous stopped us in the street to speak to us and tell us their life stories and offered us food from their May Day picnics. On a day exploring local towns, a woman on the dirt road to San Jeronimo even tried to sell us a huge plastic washing tub. Beat, not missing a beat, courteously explained that he wouldn’t be able to fit it in his backpack.
We visited some of the most colourful food markets we’ve ever seen, full of strange fruits, mound upon mound of homemade cheeses and stalls selling bits of animals the western world has long given up consuming. And of course, potatoes. A whole section of the market was given over to miles upon miles of potatoes in all different hues. Tubers of yellow, brown, purple, some so dark they were almost black were stacked up in baskets. We wouldn’t know where to start but the locals were buying them like they were going out of fashion.
We were even lucky enough to be invited into the homes of local crafts people to see how they made their wares. We found workshops weaving carpets and rugs made of llama wool. Then we visited the home of a local silversmith, Nelly Vasquez, an elderly matriarch with a wry sense of humour and fading eyesight. Working with tiny threads of silver at a rickety old table in her back yard, showing us each step in a process she calls ‘filigrana’, she told us how she started make jewellery after a serious bout of TB left her bedbound at a children’s hospital. It was an incredibly humbling experience.
It may have taken some of the most gruelling travelling of our trip to get here, and yet again we’d been thwarted in our efforts to make it on a train, but we were glad we found this (almost) gringo-free corner of Peru.