I’m not entirely sure why any company would ONLY offer a night bus service for a journey that is just 5 hours long. But that’s exactly what Expreso Molina did between Huancavelica and Ayacucho (pronounced like ‘higher’ without the ‘h’ followed by ‘coocho’). So, having only boarded the bus at 12:30am, and finally finding some semblance of sleep at around 2 or 3am, we were rubbing our bleary eyes at around 5:30am as we pulled into a deserted bus station in Ayacucho – in the dark.
Not feeling completely with it when we disembarked, we thumbed through our guidebook until we found the map of Ayacucho, spotted ‘Espreso Molina’ next to a little symbol of a bus and assumed that’s where we’d been dropped off, about 400 metres from the Plaza de Armas. So we decided to walk.
We turned right out of the bus station, where a long straight road stretched out in front of us – exactly as the map indicated. However we started to become concerned after about 15 minutes. Considering we were supposed to be heading towards the central point of a city that is home to 151,000 inhabitants, we’d not passed a single shop, or cafe, or restaurant, and somehow the location just felt wrong.
We couldn’t see any street signs, or even any numbers on the houses, and barely any traffic was passing us, which also ruled out the option of catching a taxi. We finally reached what appeared to be a fairly major junction, and rejoiced when we spotted the name of a road nailed to the outside of one of the buildings.
Joy turned into exasperation as we realised that the road name we were staring at wasn’t on our map.
There was only one thing left to do – ask a local.
“¿Es la Plaza de Armas muy lejos de aquí?”
Turns out we were about 5 kilometres from where we needed to be, so having also obtained directions to a place from where we could hail a taxi, we thanked the helpful lady for her assistance, and continued along our merry way.
It was still only 6:30am when the taxi dropped us outside of the Hostal Tres Mascaras (nothing to do with eye make-up; ‘mascara’ means ‘mask’). We optimistically rang the doorbell and waited.
We rang it again.
We’d read in our guidebook that breakfast was served at the hostel, so we assumed that – even if the hostel owner was still in bed – the kitchen staff could probably let us in.
Or the little dog that was roaming around in the courtyard behind the locked gate.
No such luck.
Our only alternative was to take ourselves and our backpacks to the Plaza de Armas in the hope that we’d find a little cafe or coffee shop that could accommodate a couple of weary travellers for an hour or so.
The good news was that we had wandered in to one of the most attractive main squares in Peru, and one which was wonderfully devoid of the usual obstacles a photographer encounters: pedestrians and traffic. The bad news was that as we admired the well-preserved colonial buildings that lined all 3 sides of the Plaza de Armas (the 4th side is occupied by the city’s 17th century cathedral), we noticed that all the shutters underneath the arches and along the rows above them, were closed.
We also noticed that – bearing in mind it was still only 7am – Ayacucho was a hell of a lot warmer than Huancavelica. We’d lost 1000 metres in height above sea level and gained about 15 degrees in temperature.
We found the nearest empty bench in the middle of the square (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t exactly difficult) and lost the weight of our backpacks from our shoulders, followed by our scarves, lightly-padded down jackets, and alpaca jumpers.
And there we stayed, basking in the sunshine, until one of the nearby cafes opened its doors.
Via Via is definitely not one of the cheapest options in Ayacucho, but its upstairs plaza-facing balcony affords some killer views of the city, and we were too tired to consider looking around for any alternatives.
So one coffee turned into two, which turned into a full breakfast of fruit, eggs, and chapla (traditional local bread), followed by a third coffee. Whilst we were part the way through our third cup of coffee, we were approached by a friendly Peruvian gentleman carrying a bunch of flyers in his hand.
His name was Juan and we learned that he runs a paragliding outfit in Lima. Having been thoroughly blown away by our first paragliding experience in Pamukkale, Turkey, just a over a year beforehand, our interest was peaked by this discovery. Juan had spent some years in the U.S previously, which meant that he spoke perfect English, and after around 2 weeks of exploring Peru’s lesser-trodden backroads, it was so nice to be able to share a proper conversation with someone again.
Around an hour later we parted company and Stu and I headed back to the hostel in order to check in. Only now, instead of feeling tired, weary, and frustrated, we were grinning from ear to ear.
No it wasn’t as a result of the levels of caffeine we’d just consumed; we’d just agreed to go paragliding again.
Juan arrived at our hostel to collect us, and we were introduced to his friend, second driver and fellow-paraglider who would be assisting with the logistics of our flight. We’d not really had much of a chance to have a look around Ayacucho beforehand, so I had my face glued to the window as we drove through the city, and there it remained whilst we continued to follow the road as it meandered its way up the mountainside.
Excitement grew as I watched the buildings that lined the city’s streets and the cars that drove upon them become smaller and smaller with every bend we took. I didn’t think it was possible to get much higher than the viewpoint we’d ventured up to that morning, from where we could look down upon Ayacucho’s runway and on to the planes coming into land, but apparently it was.
There were a fair amount of twists and turns up that mountain side, and the poor road conditions and amount of dust that was being thrown up by the wheels meant that it was a long journey to the launch site, lengthened even further by the anticipation of the activity that awaited us, and the fact that Juan insisted on stopping the car on a regular basis to take photographs of the clouds.
I’ve never before seen anyone quite so enamoured by these fluffy white shapes in the sky, made from water droplets and ice crystals, but this guy was seriously ecstatic. Apparently these are the type of clouds a paraglider dreams about.
Cumulus clouds like these indicate that there are potentially thermals to be found, which gives the paraglider lift and therefore allows him (or her!) to fly for longer. Hey, I don’t know the first thing about favourable flying conditions and how to spot them (fortunately Stu – who trained to get his hand gliding licence when he was younger – was able to explain the basics to me), but I did know that the fact that an experienced paraglider was THAT excited about today’s flight, was a good thing.
Once we’d driven as close to the launch site as the road would allow, we abandoned the vehicle, grabbed the gear and camera equipment out of the boot and scrambled, past cactus and ichu plants, further up the grass-covered mountain. The slope was that steep that we had to be careful how we positioned any of the objects we deposited in order to avoid them finding their own way back to Ayacucho.
I volunteered to be the first out of the two of us to take to the skies, and knowing what I do now (Stu and Juan had the misfortune of getting caught in a downdraft during their flight), that was totally the right decision. Okay okay, you may be thinking that yes, from a selfish perspective it is. However in my defence, Stu landed the better paragliding instructor in Pamukkale, and was lucky enough to have a much longer flight and infinitely better Go Pro footage, than me. So I’ll call it karma.
It was concerning me somewhat that there didn’t appear to be much open land in front of us in order to complete the take-off. I had visions of my running in the direction of a huge cactus in the hope that, just in the nick of time, the wind would assist my avoidance of a rather prickly, painful encounter.
Fortunately I needn’t have worried, for as soon as the wind caught the parachute, my feet were already airborne before I had the chance to even think about running. One of the many benefits of being short and weighing just 47 kilos.
We managed to catch a couple of thermals, and although we were apparently flying for approximately 20 minutes, it only felt like 5. I guess you become so involved in soaking up the view from a perspective you very rarely get to experience that time appears to accelerate – or at least your perception of it does. I loved the sensation of floating like a feather on the breeze, noticing the patterns of the roads, the contours of the land, and the tiny cattle-shaped dots in the fields down below.
My fear of colliding with prickly objects almost came back to haunt me upon landing. Several small cactus and spiky flowering plants were scattered around the strip of land in which Juan decided to touch down, and we finally settled upon dry soil just inches from an extremely spiny young prickly pear.
Shortly after we arrived back on safe ground, we hot-footed it over the nearby gate just in time to see Stu and the other Peruvian gentleman (whose name I didn’t catch or can’t remember) heading towards us. They made a quick stop to load us and the gear back into the vehicle, before turning around and driving back up to the launch site in order to do it all again.
No sooner had I watched Stu and Juan take flight, I was being beckoned by our co-pilot to follow him in the direction of the car, which once again had been abandoned at the edge of the dusty mountain road about 50 metres away from us.
We’d climbed so high that it would take us the best part of 20 minutes to reach Juan and Stu’s landing spot much further down.
By the time we returned to Ayacucho later that afternoon, I was tired but still revelling in the experience of soaring high above the city. We’d agreed to meet Juan in Via Via during the early hours of the evening in order to collect my memory stick, on to which he was uploading the Go Pro footage from our flights, and also to give him the remainder of the money that we owed.
So, just hours later we found ourselves back in the company of Juan, and enjoying what would turn out to be one of our favourite meals in the whole of Peru. During our conversation, Juan informed us that his friend, Antonio (whose birthday it was today) was meeting him here at Via Via, and would we like to join them for a few drinks.
I’d already had a couple of beers with my meal (another plus for Via Via: they sell Cusqueña Roja), and my eyes were feeling increasingly heavy, but how could I possibly turn down an invitation like that?
For me, travel is all about the people you meet and the experiences you share, and what those factors can teach you about yourself and those around you, and that’s why I believe it’s important to seize opportunities when they arise.
So that’s exactly what we did.
Have you ever had a chance meeting on your travels that’s lead to an amazing or unique experience? Tell me about it in the comments below!
This is part of the #SundayTraveler link up, the spot to be to get the lowdown on all things travel.