Peru – the Kansas of South America

posted in: Peru | 3

Flies, garbage, graffiti, wide spread destruction from natural disasters, life size baby Jesus dolls – if it wasn’t for the salsa music blaring from gigantic blown speakers, we could be in Kansas.  Oh Peru, the photos of the llamas and the ruins look so beautiful but all we have seen is hot and sandy desert.  Desert with the sun beating mercilessly down upon the piles of garbage, black smoke from the tire fires billowing over the sand dunes, whole skinned guinea pigs with their eyes still in their heads spinning on rotisseries, a pig head (also with eyes) and spine suspended from a chain with all the meat stripped from the backbone –  this is the Peru we have been spending time in.

Lima looks like I imagine Beirut to look, sand dunes and rock mountains, houses made of bamboo rugs, occasional palm tree oasis.  It looks like the set of Moses (if you squint your eyes so you block out the burning tires and graffiti).

We have walked through garbage like leaves in the fall.  Once, we were filling up water into the water tank at a gas station near Trujillo and a man came over with a gallon used motor oil container he wanted to fill with water.  We figured it was for his car (overheating is a problem) but he filled that motor oil container with gas station water and drank it.  Bones are everywhere.  If they look human, people say they are ruins.  We can go anywhere a bus can go and that is a lot of places.  We spend a lot of nights in grifo camps, these are fields by a gas station / tienda where you can park overnight.  Some are guarded by men with automatic rifles and they always assure us we will be safe.  One night, after we went to sleep, three trucks pulled in near us – two were sodium cyanide trucks and one was filled with 55 gallon drums of toxic waste.  We had liked that spot, it was near a restaurant and tiende and we met a guy who had worked on a catcher processer out of Dutch Harbor. We woke up at 2am feeling sick so we left and drove down the road about 5 miles and parked again.  Mark lost his wallet, must have fallen out when we moved.  The next day, we looked all over for it and then one of the grifo guys insisted Mark go to the police station and he took Mark and Max into town.  The police wrote Mark a nice letter saying his wallet was stolen while he was in the shower (?) so he can show it to people if he needs to.  Then we cancelled all his credit cards using skype.  One good thing about Peru – we bought a modem with a sim card and 4GB of data so we have internet everywhere.  Later that day, we got pulled over by the first corrupt police we have ever encountered.  They wanted us to pay a fine for having really great insurance (we have a global policy through ICA).  Mark argued, they argued and then I told them a long and dramatic story about losing the wallet and the police and how we were on our way to the embassy to get a replacement – and they let us go.  Still.


The camper wheel caught on fire in Lima.  Again.  But Mark had extra bearings so that was good.  The brake drum was destroyed and there were no Dexter brake drums in all of Lima.  We know this because Ryan and Mark chartered a taxi for a day and went all over town with the happy taxi driver.  The camper had conveniently broken down on the side of the Pan American just to the south of Lima where there was a feeder road to pull over onto and a mechanic, some baking hot metal playgrounds and a few stores.  Instantly we are the focus of attention – and this has never been bad.  The kids and I stayed in the camper and in the little neighborhood while Mark & Ryan went searching for the Dexter brake drum.  The solution was to have one custom fabricated for us which involved welding, grinding, machining, and such – this cost $300 sols (about $120).  Mark & Ryan could not convey the need for a grease cap, so Mark made one using one of our metal cups and some epoxy.   Meanwhile, we found on the GPS a place nearby called El Ciduadad de los Ninos and we thought it might be something neat – but it was an orphanage.  And I promised no adopting babies on this trip.  Lucky the intense desert sun turned us back before we even got there.

The remanufactured brake drum
Subdivision near Lima
My favorite billboard in South America — Basement Military Glam!

We headed south and camped at a grifo camp on the beach with an armed guard and a grocery store (the grocery store sold imported Robert Mondavi Woodbridge wine for $38 USD – I have a photo!).  The next day, we disconnected the camper and spent the next three days  exploring Lima.  We found:

  1. There is no place to park
  2. Lima favors brutalist architecture which is in great contrast to colonial buildings
  3. They have a John Lennon Memorial Skate Park (Jack got his photo taken)
  4. We liked Lima (this is surprising to all of us)
Jack at the John Lennon Memorial Skate Park

We went to the National Museum of Peru, a gigantic brutalist building (oddly lit up at night with pink and purple lights) that looked like the Death Star married Folcrum and had an evil villain headquarters baby.  The museum was free to us, presumably because we were from Alaska.  It was $4 sols to everyone else, including the German folks in front of us.  The most evocative exhibit was a floor devoted to Peru’s civil war, which we had to sign into and we were warned to cover Annabelle and Sylvia’s eyes.  The exhibit featured photos developed from the cameras of journalists killed trying to report on atrocities committed by Shining Path (which were bad) and the police (sent to stop Shining Path which were much worse) and the army (sent to stop the police and Shining Path who may have been the worst, hard to tell).   Max saw a display on some ruins and we took a photo of the name and when we looked it up, it was 5 miles from our parking-overnight-spot.

National Museum of Peru
Van on the beach in Lima

That evening (and evening is the best time in the Peruvian desert) we went to The Circuito Mágico del Agua, a series of illuminated water fountains in the Parque de la Reserva, a massive urban park with all kinds of water fountains, ones you can run through, ones you can play in, ones with laser shows, ones for lovers to sit and watch in special love seats inscribed with love poems, and one that held a world record.  There was a teeny train we ALL rode in (even Ryan).   We had churros.  It was a good night.  We had a plan to stop and have dinner at a Chifa restaurant (this is Chinese food) but we were too long at the park.


Fountain you can run through!
Tiny Train

We spent a day driving around, looking for places to park so we could walk around, and generally liking Lima.  We went to visit Max’s ruins, Pachacamac, which involved a small museum and then they let us drive our van all around the World Heritage Site, which was great because we would have all succumbed to heat stroke if we had to walk.  We climbed (so much fun in the burning desert sun) to the top of the Sun Temple for a view of the Pacific Ocean and the massive sea rocks that sit off Lima’s coast.   There was a story about how the rocks were a mother and her baby which involved the mother being tricked into having a baby and then killing herself.  We returned hot and sweaty and agreed it was time to leave the desert coast and head to the Peru with the llamas and alpacas.

Hiking to the top of the Sun Temple
Top of the Sun Temple, Mother / Baby rocks in the background

However that involved more driving down the hot, desert coast.  We spent a night in a vineyard (irrigated by centuries old Inca irrigation canals) and then headed to Nasca to view the famous Nasca lines.  Which we did and they were cool, just like you would expect.  Nasca was destroyed in an earthquake in 1996 and was still looking like that.  Nasca, just so you know, means Pain & Suffering.  I have to agree with that because just viewing the Nasca lines is exhausting and hot and I cannot imagine making them.  Or living here.

Nasca Lines!!
Climbed this tower to see some of the Nasca Lines
You can see 4 fingers of The Hand to the left of the van – another UNESCO World Heritage Site we got to drive through.
Another hill we climbed to look at Nasca Lines
Ancient Incan irrigation canals look odd by the sand dunes

Nasca is where we had turn to get to Cusco so we departed from the Pan American Highway for the first time.

We left Nasca and drove 25 miles and we went from sea level to 14,989 ft.   Let me say that again – we went up 600 feet every mile.  We were higher than most mountains, 12 feet lower than helicopters can fly, three quarters of the way up Denali – and we had reached an altiplano.  No dropping back down for a 100 miles and we had to camp, it was getting dark – and the altiplano in Peru is no place to drive in the dark, too many curves and clouds.  And it was raining.  It was also 38 degrees.  It was a whole different world.  We camped next to a river and alpacas and vicuñas were bounding around.  We had to put on jackets!

The van camping at 15,000 feet

Ryan and Lucy

We were feeling the effects of the extreme altitude.  We couldn’t really cook – we tried to make rice but the water boiled so fast and such a low temperature that the rice was mushy and crunchy.  The next day, we continued our drive across the altiplano and climbed higher.  We kept expecting to drop down but it did not happen (the GPS doesn’t have topographic details for Peru).  We had eventually to camp because it was getting dark.  The second night, we were over 15,000 feet.  Even though it was cold out and we got to sleep with blankets for the first time in months, it was hard to sleep because of the altitude.  We had headaches, dizziness and Sylvia threw up – although she threw up the first time because Mark and Ryan bought a bag of cocoa leaves and we were supposed to chew them to help adjust to the altitude and they tasted horrible.  We woke up before dawn, (Sylvia was feeling nauseous again and threw up, this time without any cocoa leaves and I was worried) put the kids into the van and headed on and hopefully down.

It was a beautiful morning.  The drive was much more picturesque than coastal Peru.  We saw wild chinchillas and alpacas and llamas.  We stopped and made egg sandwiches by a field of llamas.  We had a destination – and that was an ATM.  Only two towns between Nasca and Cusco and the first one had a broken ATM.  We drove through the gorgeous Andes mountains – waterfalls, creeks, small towns, traditional houses, donkeys, babies carried in colorful blanket slings.  It is very slow traveling in the Andes.  The distance between Nasca and Cusco is 360 miles but it will take us four days of driving to get there – it is a 29 hour bus ride.  There are huge stretches where you can’t go much faster than 12mph.

Driving to Cusco

There are chinchillas down there on the rocks – and Sylvia is wrapped in my shawl, still suffering from altitude sickness

At 3pm, we arrived in Abancay, the second city on the highway and the place where there would be an ATM.  We came through town slowly behind a tractor trailer with a backhoe on the bed and with a huge bus behind us and came to a complete stop in the center of town.  The entire town was blocked off because there was a huge and elaborate carnival parade – hundreds of traditional dancers, hundreds of traditional musicians, floats, a carnival queen and princesses, confetti, water balloons and at least a thousand people.  The police officer said it would be 3 hours or more so we got out and watched the parade.  Sylvia got hit with water when a boy tried to hit a pretty girl in front of us with water.  Another girl got Jack.  There was no way to walk to the ATM, although we tried because we really wanted money.  Eventually the parade ended and the police officer waved us through and told us to follow the parade so right behind the last float and marching band went the tractor trailer, then us and then the bus – and the long line of trucks behind them.  We were a float in the parade and the van got covered with shaving cream and confetti and people waved at us.  We had to drive the entire parade route – it was a little tense, kids were everywhere and (it seemed to me) no one was watching any of them.  We made it through and followed the tractor trailer out of town.

The Carnival Parade!
Driving the Parade Route


It was getting dark and we really needed that ATM so we pulled into a restaurant and asked if we could park for the night.  The woman who owned it insisted we park as close as possible to the restaurant, which always seems odd to us but it is the way things are here.  Mark, Annabelle & Ryan caught a combi into town to get to the ATM and the restaurant lady and her little daughter hung out in the camper.  When they returned with eggs, water and cash, Annabelle, Jack, Max, Mark & I went to eat in the restaurant – it’s a plate dinner so no choices and that night it was chicken leg and pasta.  Jennah is a sometimes vegetarian, Ryan is vegan and Sylvia DOES NOT eat chicken so they stayed in the camper and had dinner.  The restaurant lady made us cocoa tea and we ate dinner and watched a great Peruvian variety show that featured bikini clad girls and men dressed as women and a dwarf, along with a salsa band and a handsome ballad singing man.

Today finds us still in Abancay.  The van needs to have its transmission fluid changed and it is part of the six day holiday of carnival, no place is open until Ash Wednesday.  We actually headed out to Cusco this morning but the road is twisty and up and down and we decided it would be better to change the fluid – besides, everyone wanted to stay for the rest of carnival.  We went about 5 miles out of town when we came upon a combi with a flat tire on the side of the road and two men and a little boy flagging us down.  Mark stopped and it turned out it was their cab driver from last night, his nephew and older brother.  We of course are fully prepared for all kinds of car situations so Mark not only had jacks and the longer lug wrench they needed but he had an air compressor and they were so impressed with the air compressor, they wanted to buy it.  Using the air compressor meant they blocked off one whole lane and it took a long time to fill the tire but we ate cookies with the little kid and talked and they left Mark their phone number so they could take him around town to get transmission fluid and such.  We are quite styling here in Abancay, we have 3G internet on the Claro stick and there is a party going on in town.

Fixing the taxi



3 Responses

  1. Denise Brottem

    I have really enjoyed reading all of your posts! So, glad that I finally checked out your Blog. You know I will be sharing parts of your story with the folks at IDEA tomorrow! Have you received my emails? Hope so, and look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Kay DeCorso

    Unbelievable log of events and photos. I’m tired just from reading all that you have done.! Guess that’s why us “seniors” stay closer to home at our age. What an adventurous trip. Take Love and hugs to all of you!

  3. Such an adventure! I love your storytelling! You crack me up. Travel safely!

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