October 15 to 20, 2010
I beamed my flashlight into the Suzuki Samurai’s engine, hoping the light would reveal the cause of the truck’s total loss of power. I kept searching as cold rivulets of rain ran down my neck sending a shiver down my spine. Hmmm, this felt vaguely familiar. Last time, it was warm rain in a Costa Rican jungle near Drake’s Bay (LINK) – this time it was 20 km short of Cuzco, Peru, in cold rain and beside a busy roadway. And like last time, a hundred butterflies were doing somersaults in my belly and a nauseous anxiety welled up inside me because I didn’t know what to do. It was a helplessness that had no basis in reality and yet it still overwhelmed me. Rationally, I knew that I’d figure something out, but emotionally, I was panic stricken. It was moments like these when I wanted to sell the truck for scrap metal and go backpacking instead.
Thankfully, the panic attack passed, but I still didn’t know why we lost power. I shut the hood and got back into the truck. With no hope, I turned the key anyway. It started! Roz was elated and wondered what I did. I shrugged and, with a look over my shoulder, accelerated back into the evening traffic. The truck hesitated a few more times on our way into Cuzco, but I cursed and held my breath and that seemed to restore its power. In between sputters, as we rolled into town, I had to ask myself if all this stress and anxiety in distant, exotic lands was really worth it. Why did I insist on travelling this way? Certainly drinking a beer in a tour bus would be more relaxing.
As if to illustrate my point, the GPS decided to send me down the wrong way of a narrow one-way street in downtown Cuzco. Driving rain, foggy windows and fatigue contributed to my missing the no-entry sign, but the two angry taxi drivers flashing their lights and waving their fists at me alerted me to the error of my ways. I gave them my patented stupid gringo look with a sheepish shrug. I also vowed to be more lenient with idiot drivers like myself in the future.
The GPS then tried to take us up a number of steep staircases which it insisted were quite navigable. I suppose if we were being chased by zombies, Yuki, the Suzuki, could climb the stairs in four-wheel drive low, but I thought it better that we stick to the roads – this time. Have to remember to turn off that zombie attack setting on the GPS. Useful when you need it, but a pain in the ass when you don’t.
After a few more wrong turns we eventually found Quinta LaLa, an overlanders’ campground perched high atop a hill overlooking Cuzco. As we set up our tent in the cold, rainy darkness, tired and a little stressed from the day’s driving, I had to ask myself again, was all this crap worth it?
Thinking back on the last couple of days, I remembered that the driving had been pretty damn magnificent. We had climbed and descended beautiful mountain ranges that averaged 13,000 feet, saw llamas everywhere and luxuriated on the smoothest, newest asphalt road we’d driven on in months. Fresh yellow lines, cat’s eyes and autobahn engineering – this was road art! And it was nearly deserted. Oh to be riding a motorcycle! But I still wasn’t convinced that a day of beautiful roads and scenery was worth my 10 minutes of anxiety.
So, what else makes overland travel worth the stress? The villages, towns and cities are pretty interesting. And we had to be in one of the most interesting cities in the world – Cuzco. Everywhere we went we were reminded of this great city’s diverse culture and history. We saw lots of buildings that still retained their original Incan foundation of stones – so perfectly cut and assembled that you couldn’t slip a credit card into the cracks. Then on top of the old foundation would be a Spanish adobe wall, which was then topped off with a modern tin roof. Walking down the narrow stone alleyways and roads it was easy to imagine the Incan kings and Spanish conquistadors sharing our footsteps. The place was amazing.
(ROZ: Cuzco was one of those indescribably magical cities that, even though it was filled with tourists, it still retained its own charm and sense of place. Yes, there were the usual suspects of hustlers, tour guides and pickpockets, but generally people left you alone as you walked through the streets looking like a slack-jawed yokel at all the incredible architecture. I could go on and on about this fascinating city, but isn’t that what the internet is for? Just Google Cuzco and away you go. Two things I will mention to give an indication of Cuzco’s past and present importance – it was once the capital city of the vast Incan empire and in 1983 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Hmmm, gotta start keeping track of all those UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve been to).
Roz and I managed to explore a lot of Cuzco in a couple of days while on the hunt for some good coffee . We also met a number of expats living there for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that they just liked the “vibe” of the city. Some of the expats were “way out there man” energy freaks. That’s cool cuz I’m a bit like that too. My favourite freak was Timothy, who sold copies of the Cuzco Inti Tourist paper most days in front of Jack’s Cafe, a great little restaurant with tasty food. The paper tended to reflect Timothy’s rather esoteric and psychedelic view of life, with very interesting articles on ayahuasca, San Pedro and “light beings”. A slender 6′5″ American in his 50s, Timothy had been a biker, a bouncer and a host of other things before finding his “calling” in Cuzco. Wish I had a picture of him, but once again, we were so busy talking that we forgot to grab a snap.
So yeah, cities like Cuzco make up for some of the challenges of overland travel. But what else?
Ask Roz what the best part of travel is (and life in general) and she’ll likely scream, “The animals!” We’d enjoyed hanging out with some great animal friends throughout our journey and our campground at Quinta LaLa was no exception. The place was full of dogs, chickens, a cat, a lamb and (of course), llamas! A local woman brought her dozen llamas into the campground every day to eat the grass. The campground owners were happy. The lady was happy. The llamas were happy. But who was the happiest? Roz.
(ROZ: Wow, am I that obvious? Okay, Trond has lived with me for over 20 years, so I guess he’d have to be completely deaf and blind to not know how much I LOVE animals. It really was a little piece of animal paradise at the campground. One of my favourite animal memories (besides the chickens perched beside Trond as he wrote on the netbook) is the day I walked into the kitchen and saw a baby llama eating compost out of a kitchen pail.)
So, cool roads, ancient cities and animal friends make overland travel rewarding, but what really makes it so great is randomly meeting up with other like-minded travellers from around the globe. They’re usually outgoing and independent folk who don’t play (or travel) by the “normal” rules. They’re comfortable with constant change, enjoy veering off the beaten track and travelling on their own timetables. By their very nature, they’re hard to pin down, so to actually find a bunch together is a real treat.
The day after we arrived in Cuzco, a half-dozen travellers trickled into the Quinta LaLa campground and turned it into an overlanders’ convention. Couples and solo travellers worked the circuit, going from camp to camp to say hello and to share information on routes, destinations, border crossings, etc. A guide book is good for general information, but when you need to know if a border is open or if riots have shut down a town, there’s nothing like talking to someone who was just there. But mostly, it’s just nice sitting around a fire, drinking a beer and sharing stories in English with people who get your cultural references.
Below is a gallery of the travellers we met at the Quinta Lala campground.
Warren and Sara from the UK, driving a Toyota 4Runner. This young couple were still travelling and having fun despite being robbed in a hostel in Bogota, Colombia. Men wielding guns, knives and tasers forced themselves into their hostel and robbed a dozen travellers. Nobody was hurt, but they were quite traumatized by the incident. And yet, they never gave up and went home. Right on! But it does remind me to stick to wild camping whenever possible, thank you very much.
Guy the Belgium in an Iveco (Fiat) work van. Over an Indian dinner in downtown Cuzco, Guy told us how he had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twenty years earlier in his 40s. He didn’t mention if he climbed both peaks (Monty Python fans may snicker now).
Ollie and Sabine, two chefs from Germany, were a super sweet and fun couple. Ollie loved big American trucks so in Florida, they bought a monster Ford F350 double cab with an equally monstrous camper and shipped it to South America. Being a big guy, Ollie loved the spaciousness inside his rig. Unfortunately, he was having trouble finding brake parts in Cuzco because that model was only available in the States. It reminded us again how lucky we were to have scored with Yuki, our trustworthy Samurai. Since they had been manufactured in Colombia in the 1990s, we were always able to find parts when we needed them.
Dan the man, from Australia, but living in Canada, was driving his trusty Jeep from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. We had met him weeks earlier at Karajia (LINK) and since then, he had completed a 10-day solo hike in the Cordillera Huayhuash mountains, which he said was one of the highlights of his trip (LINK). As he told me his story, I rubbed my bulging beer belly and suddenly felt fat and lazy. Then I opened another beer and all was good again.
Arnt from Germany in a 4×4 VW Transporter. Even though I only had a few minutes to speak with him, he delighted in showing me his amazing camper conversion by www.zilka-mobile.de. If the thing had a little more ground clearance, it just might make the perfect overlander travel vehicle.
Remember all the anxiety I went through when Yuki’s engine died? One day in the campground I removed the fuel filter, cut it open and discovered all kinds of crud and goo in there. No wonder it was stalling. I visited the car parts section of Cuzco (every big town has one) and found a replacement filter for a few dollars. After installing it, Yuki never hesitated again. I don’t know why I was so worried.
(ROZ: Ah, yes, the car parts section of Cuzco. After spending an entire day walking around, trying to find the right store, then trying to communicate in our bad Spanish what part we required only to be told to go to another store, which took another hour to find, it was now my turn to wonder if all this overland travel was worth the headache. While searching for our parts, we bumped into Dan who had just spent an entire day trying to get new tires and was equally pooped and frustrated. Trond reminded us of the veteran overland traveller we had met years earlier at a Horizons Unlimited seminar. He said “if you only get one thing scratched off your list in a foreign city, that’s a good day”. Good point.)
A few days earlier, anxiety had gripped me in the guts and I felt awful. In the desperation of the moment, I guess I had some dark thoughts about overland travel. But then I recalled all the great roads, cities, animals and people we’ve enjoyed by taking this path of independent travel and I had to laugh at my silliness. Roz and I chose to travel this way because it IS challenging and it’s overcoming those challenges that makes it so rewarding. With each challenge I get a little wiser, a little humbler and best of all, I get one more story to tell at the nursing home when I get too old for this shit.
Next: The road to Machu Picchu!
END OF PART 34