The Gringo Trail, Part II of IV: Peru
In South America, poverty stares at you. From the bus. From the taxi. From the streets. To avoid it would mean your eyes are shut.
Heaps of trash are scattered along the highways. Most homes are unfinished projects, with rebar sprouting above crumbling mud-and-brick walls.
Finished homes tend to be clusters of shacks with cardboard or fiberglass walls. Roofs are made of similar material and always seem to be sagging. Rivers are places where people bathe, urinate, wash dishes, deposit trash and collect drinking water.
But in addition to the widespread filth, you also see lots of smiles in Third World countries. The poverty might make you cringe, but it’s the only way of life residents have ever known, and I found you don’t make friends by commenting on the rags people’s children wear.
To be fair, there is a hierarchy to overall poverty in South America’s Andean nations – Ecuador (poor), Peru (poorer) and Bolivia (poorest). So when my wife, Izzy, and I crossed the border from Ecuador, it didn’t take long to know we were in Peru, which we entered by walking across a bridge at 2 a.m.
Mounds of broken glass were piled outside the immigration and police offices. Chickens were tied together and tended by enterprising men who would gladly chop off a live chicken’s head and sell one for a day’s pay. About a dozen men, all unshaven with cold, hard stares, hovered under a street light.
It was an odd scene considering the closest town was more than an hour away, but we didn’t have much choice. The Macara border was an alternative to the more popular border crossing at Huaquillas, near the Pacific Ocean.
We met two people who had crossed at Huaquillas, where they hoped to catch a bus and continue south along the Peruvian coastline. Instead, they were picked up by a group of men in a truck who promised to take them to their bus. An hour later, the truck stopped.
The couple were escorted out of the truck, ushered into a shack and seated at a wooden table. One of the men placed a gun on the table and asked how much money they had.
The gringos said, “about 100 U.S. dollars.” The guy said it would cost “about 100 U.S. dollars” to drive them back to the border. Fair enough, they figured.
The men drove the gringos back to the border, unloaded their backpacks and even waved good bye to them. It was a well-behaved robbery: You have money, they don’t. It’s their way of balancing the inequity of the world, and it’s difficult to argue when the opposition is fingering a loaded weapon.
Needless to say, we were relieved when a bus waited for us while our passports were stamped.
As we approached Piura, a sprawling city of 300,000 in the country’s vast coastal desert, the rising sun cast a velvet glow over an endless canvas of chocolate-brown hills and sand dunes.
It was the bleakest terrain I’d ever seen. There weren’t any trees or other signs of life, except for abandoned concrete and brick structures erected along the highway’s edges.
Along with Chile’s Atacama Desert, the northern Peruvian coast is one of the driest regions on earth. The culprit for the aridity is the Humboldt Current, which influences the Pacific coastline from southern Ecuador to Chile.
It’s a cold current that creates low salt content and cools the marine air. As a result, precipitation is rarely generated. In fact, parts of the Atacama have never received rainfall. But as we entered Piura, slices of life emerged.
The streets were a menacing blend of motorized bike taxis, exhaust-belching trucks, merchants and beggars. There appeared to little order, with vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians fighting for position in a downright unruly manner. It was sensory overload, but against the awkwardness of the border crossing, I welcomed the chaos of Peru.
Ecuador was certainly different than Lake Tahoe, but it was tame and predictable because the Gringo Trail is well-defined there. If we wanted to avoid somebody in Ecuador, we couldn’t. And if we wanted to see somebody again, we never had to wait long.
We met Adam and Stacy, a couple from England, on “The Devil’s Nose” train ride outside Riobamba. Afterward, we rushed to board our bus to Cuenca, unable to exchange e-mail addresses with our new friends.
A week later, we saw Stacy riding a horse on a dirt street in Vilcabamba.
“You must go left or right to lose somebody on the Gringo Trail,” Adam said.
When we left Vilcabamba, we said to Adam and Stacy, “See you in Peru.”
We never did. We went left, not that we had much choice.
Entering Peru from Ecuador, backpackers have a decision to make as the Gringo Trail dies out. Other than the surf spots of Mancora and Huanchaco – and the ancient ruin site of Chan Chan – there isn’t much to see in northern Peru.
Some beeline for Lima to begin organizing transportation to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Others skip Cuzco and continue south from Lima along the coast to Pisco, Nazca and Arequipa.
This “choose your adventure” may appear to be a difficult choice, but backpackers eventually congregate in the town of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, near Peru’s border with Bolivia. Since both options take about the same amount of time, we risked bumping into the same people in Peru as we did in Ecuador.
We turned left toward the Andes and spent the next few weeks climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. Upon reaching Lima, we rejoined the trail, finding a new set of gringos to constantly bump into, and headed south for Pisco and Islas Ballestas, the poor man’s alternative to the Galapagos Islands.
The penguins, sea lions and birds were indeed memorable, but what we remember most are the things that are no longer there. On Aug. 15, 2007, while Izzy and I were relaxing in La Paz, Bolivia, the town of Pisco was rocked by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake.
Eighty percent of the town was destroyed, and more than 500 people died. The hostel we stayed in Pisco was located across the street from the cathedral that collapsed. Images of the rubble were seen from Tokyo to La Paz.
We began receiving e-mails from friends and family wondering if we were OK. The Angora fire happened a week after we arrived in Ecuador. The Pisco earthquake happened two months later.
It’s interesting that we create personal timelines by citing where we were when something disastrous occurs. Several months may seem like a long time in that sense, but it really isn’t when you need to traverse thousands of miles across some of the most impressive terrain on earth.
In Peru, a country we had already visited in 2005, we sped up our schedule. We got into a routine of doing a tourist attraction during the day, taking a night bus to the next town, then doing a tourist attraction the next day, and so on.
Izzy and I continued this rapid-fire approach until we reached the barren shores of Lake Titicaca. It was there, while crossing into Bolivia, that we witnessed poverty that made our hearts hurt.