Planning our onward journey from Huaraz was not an easy task. Most tourists choose the well-trodden route back to Lima, and then make their way south from there. However, knowing that we had our pre-booked Inca Trail trek not far ahead of us, we chose to stay at altitude (to save needing a few days to become accustomed again), and make our way to Cuzco the back way – via Tarma.
The only problem was that Tarma was 498 kilometres from Huaraz, and could only be reached along some narrow, poorly-maintained mountain roads. it was going to be one hell of a long arduous journey.
What’s more, there are no direct buses from Huaraz to Tarma, so the route planning required a little more creativity than usual. Fortunately we’d spent the last 6 mornings sharing breakfast up on the terrace of of our hostel in Huaraz with a bunch of cyclists. This meant that firstly they were in possession of a detailed road map, and secondly, they were armed with a wealth of knowledge about Peru’s alternative routes, and off the beaten track destinations.
In a way I admired their journey, which was in many ways a much more rewarding one than ours, and one which allowed them complete freedom and independence on the road. They carried tents with them, together with sleeping bags and cooking equipment and utensils. Wherever they chose to lay their heads was home for the night. They didn’t rely on awkward public transport schedules or have to spend hours researching the price, location, comfort and available amenities of a town or city’s accommodation offerings. The great outdoors was their home, and their journey took them in whatever direction they chose.
**As a side note, one of the cyclists, Nathan also blogs about his journey at Velo Freedom. His site is well worth a look**
So, after an evening of pouring over maps and exchanging notes from the road with some incredibly helpful 2-wheeled travellers, we had formulated an onward itinerary for our journey to Cuzco.
We’d travel Huaraz – Huallanca – Huanuco – Tarma – Huancayo – Huancavelica – Ayacucho – Abancay – Cuzco, and we’d got 14 days in which to do it. Easy, right?
Our first stop, Huallanca, was somewhere not even listed in our Lonely Planet guide. This unnerved Stu somewhat, but conversely I found myself giddy with excitement about having the opportunity to explore somewhere totally off the traveller radar.
It’s worth noting though that no-one speaks English where there are no tourists that require them to do so, which means that the path less trodden is often a far more challenging route to undertake…
Challenge 1: Finding Accommodation in Huallanca
The only bus to Huallanca left Huaraz at 1pm. Both the lady who sold us our tickets in Huaraz and the gentleman who unloaded our backpacks in Huallanca seemed confused that we weren’t travelling on as far as La Unión, but at the time we didn’t understand the reason for their confusion.
Feeling thirsty and is desperate need of the toilet (local buses never have toilets on board and hardly ever make toilet stops unless you specifically request the driver to do so) after our 4-hour journey, we piled into the first (and possibly only) cafe we came across. The lady behind the counter was polite and accommodating and gratefully served us a coffee and a hot cheese roll each for the bargain price of 6 soles (£1.26).
I then enquired as to whether she knew of anywhere that had a room available for the night. “Si. Hay habitaciónes aquí”, she responded and ushered me into a rather grotty back yard where a young boy directed me up some stairs and towards the ‘available’ room. As I entered I noticed the lock was hanging off the door, and inside was a very basic double room, and a T.V – which, oddly, was switched on. It was evident that someone had been using the room very recently, and – together with the dodgy door lock – made me feel incredibly on edge.
When I asked, “hay un baño?”, an older gentleman who was stood at the end of the corridor, retorted rather abruptly that this was a very economical price (I’d been quoted 20 soles) and that if I wanted a room with a bathroom, I’d have to pay around 80 soles.
Disgusted by his rudeness, and the general state of disrepair of the so-called ‘guest accommodation’, I decided to take my chances and try elsewhere. I felt almost embarrassed when I returned to the cafe, informed the lady that actually I’d like somewhere with a bathroom, and asked if she could recommend anywhere else. She took us through the back of the cafe (which actually turned out to be a rather large short-cut), pointed across the square to a hotel called Nancy Beatrix, and bid us a friendly farewell.
The staff at Nancy Beatrix offered us a perfectly acceptable double room, with a private bathroom, hot shower, and a lock on the door, for 35 soles. 80 soles indeed!
The only problem with this room was that the staff would not give us the key. The girl had obviously used the key to show us the room, but when I enquired about the possibility of having the key as she left, I was told to come back later, and unfortunately my very basic understanding of Spanish did not stretch to interpreting the reasoning behind this.
We’d already paid for the room, so the chances of us getting our money back if we left, were slim. Our only option was to stay in the room until the key materialised. By the time it did, it was dark outside. We decided that we would explore Huallanco in the morning, and that the best use of our time that evening would be to enquire about onward travel to Huanuco the next day.
Challenge 2: Getting to Huanuco – Or at Least Part the Way
Leaving Stu in the hotel room (he decided there wasn’t any point in his coming with me due to him not understanding or speaking more than about 10 words in the entire Spanish dictionary), I walked up and down Huallanco’s ‘main street’ looking for a travel agent that was advertising tickets to Huanuco. Every other nearby destination seemed to be on the list, apart from the one we were headed to.
Eventually I walked into one of the offices, and asked. No there weren’t any direct buses to Huanuco; we’d have to change at La Unión. So that explains why we got some rather puzzled looks when we expressed our desire to travel only as far as Huallanco.
So, even if we were able to buy a ticket here to La Unión (which we couldn’t; we simply had to turn up at the ‘bus stop’ and wait for a combi or collectivo (shared taxi) heading in that direction), we didn’t know, and had no way of finding out, what time the buses left La Unión for Huanuco. If we wanted to be sure of getting to Huanuco by nightfall, we had to sacrifice any time we had put aside for exploring Huallanca, and instead use that time to wait – possibly for hours – at Huallaco’s unofficial bus stop.
Before we even reached said bus stop the next morning, we were mobbed by collectivo drivers, all touting for our fare. Pleased that we’d even secured a ride, let alone so quickly, we were about to jump in the first collectivo we came across. That was until the second collectivo driver insisted that his car was newer and that he’d take us for the same fare. Even though the guy with the battered vehicle was probably more needy of the money (so that he could buy a new car and therefore secure more fares), this was my life I was entrusting the driver with, and I don’t think the rusty old banger would have offered much security in an accident.
Challenge 3: Finding the Bus Terminal at La Unión – Or Not
As soon as we got out of the collectivo at La Unión and the driver had popped open the boot so that we could retrieve our luggage, some guy (who I later discovered to be a collectivo driver) grabbed my backpack and put it in the boot of his car. Worried that I was being robbed, and simultaneously shocked by the utter cheek of his actions, I instinctively grabbed it back.
Whilst doing so I hadn’t noticed that a fight had broken out between the bag-stealer and presumably another one of the collectivo drivers. This wasn’t just a little scuffle, punches were being thrown, clothes were being torn, blood was being drawn, and spectators had formed a circle around the action, the odd one being brave enough to try and intercept the fight, and drag the pair away from each other.
I didn’t quite know what to do. This fight was clearly about us, or as a direct result of us being there. Maybe we were the first tourists they’d seen for weeks and our fare mattered that much it was worth fighting about!
Nonetheless, we decided to try and skulk away in the direction of the bus terminal.
Unfortunately skulking isn’t that easy when you’re clearly the only two foreigners on a street where everyone probably knows each other to some degree.
Besides, everyone we asked insisted that the bus terminal no longer existed and that the only way to get to Huanuco now was by collectivo for a cost of 25 soles each. We started to think that this was some kind of conspiracy between the locals designed to get more money out of the tourists, and I for one was convinced that the bus terminal must surely be “just around the corner.”
We walked up and down and round in circles for what seemed like forever, until we realised that the collectivo driver who had been driving alongside us for most of that time, was indeed the ‘other’ man (i.e not the bag-snatcher) in the fight. If nothing else we decided that he deserved top marks for endurance and persistence, and at the risk of killing each other if we stayed in La Unión any longer, Stu and I decided to give him our fare.
Challenge 4: Getting Unstuck Following a Mudslide
When we started the long 5-hour journey along some of the worst roads I’ve ever travelled upon, I could fully understand why the decision was made to stop the buses using the route. The roads (where they actually existed; numerous landslides had collapsed the passage ahead in several places) were narrow, uneven, extremely muddy, and downright dangerous!
Fortunately we seemed to have a relatively competent driver, and one who, despite having 2 passengers beside him, managed to change gear without touching the female in the middle too inappropriately. I’m not too sure that having one of your passengers sat on a blanket straddling the gear stick is legal even in Peru, but then I’m not sure anyone cares either.
The majority of our journey – despite the treacherous road conditions – was completed without too many problems. It was lovely driving through remote mountain villages, and I every time we were held up by locals herding their cows, donkeys, goats or pigs, it put a smile on my face. I also didn’t mind having to drive at 2 miles per hour whilst we followed a funeral procession through the streets of one of the settlements we passed.
I’ll admit to being a little worried when two workmen who were clearing the road following a landslide stopped us and attempted prevent our onward passage unless our driver made it worth their while (i.e gave them the required sum of money), but even that little issue seemed to resolve itself after a rather heated exchange of words in Spanish between the men and our driver, most of which I didn’t understand.
The real obstacle arose as we approached the mudslide. The mountainside had gotten so waterlogged that it could no longer hold its own weight, so part of it had slid down on to the already muddy road below. A huge pile of soil had landed on top of a tanker, forcing it to sink down into the soggy terrain, the tops of its wheels only just visible. Beside it a car had attempted to pass, and had also become trapped in the clay-like mix of thick mud and loose shale. Behind them a queue of traffic was lined up, the vehicles abandoned by their drivers, who were all gathered together presumably discussing exactly what they were going to do to resolve the situation.
We all got out of the car and subsequently helped the trapped locals to collect some large flat rocks, which they then proceeded to place on top of the mud in front of the lead vehicle, in order to make a stable surface for the car wheels to travel along. Someone had a rope with them, so with the aid of a length of rope, a team of strong men, and some helpful rock gatherers, our car and the numerous other vehicles in front of us, eventually made it through the mudslide. Successful camaraderie and team work truly is a beautiful thing to behold.
Challenge 5: Killing Time at (probably) the Highest Bus Station in Peru
Our time in Huanuco passed relatively uneventfully, aside from a chance meeting with a lovely Peruvian lady when we were on our way to find somewhere to eat that night. The conversation opened with her question, “de dónde es?”, and continued in a mix of Spanish and English. She asked what we were doing in Huanuco (I’m guessing not many tourists pass through), and then informed us that her grandmother (who’s in her 90’s) lives in Tarma. She sung Tarma’s praises and then proceeded to invite us back to her family home to enjoy some tea and live music.
Whilst I strongly believed her to be a genuinely warm and welcoming individual, and I would have loved to have visited her home (she wrote the address down for us on a scrap of paper), Stu felt uncomfortable about the idea (primarily due to his inability to communicate in Spanish at all) and so we didn’t go.
After a good night’s sleep in a comfortable hotel, we took the local bus (a rickety old thing which, had it been in England, would have found itself on the scrap heap years ago) to make the 3-hour run to Cerro de Pasco. This mining settlement is the highest place of its size in the world, and whilst it’s not an attractive place, it is definitely visually striking. Houses and streets are spread haphazardly around a gaping artificial hole, several kilometres wide. This is the catastrophic result of over-mining, which is causing the town to slowly collapse in on itself.
We had 3 hours to kill in Cerro de Pasco’s bus station, with nothing to do but drink coffee (although not too much; we had another 3-hour bus journey ahead of us) and people watch. It was a very long three hours!
Challenge 6: Two-way Traffic on a One-way Road, and Finding a Room at the Inn
It was dusk as we approached Tarma, a welcoming city that sits on the cusp of the Amazon jungle, and is unofficially recognised as the pearl of the Andes. One half of the only main road running through the city was being re-surfaced, meaning that two-way traffic was having to navigate its way along a one-way road. Normally the ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ workers help to control the traffic, ensuring that it continues to flow in both directions. However on this occasion most of these ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ workers seemed to have stopped and gone home! It took us approximately 1 hour to travel 11 kilometres into the centre of Tarma.
Considering that in the words of Lonely Planet, “travellers seldom make it to Tarma”, we assumed that securing a room in our hotel of choice would not be a problem. However we were turned away from our first 3 choices, due to them all being “completo.” Not really wanting to stray very far out of the centre, due to us being in an unfamiliar place in the dark with all our possessions on our back, we rocked up at the only remaining accommodation listing in our Lonely Planet guide.
Whilst the Hospedaje Central was described as an “aged hotel”, we didn’t anticipate that it would actually be falling apart. We ended up paying 45 soles for a room that I wouldn’t have paid more than 20 soles for (and that’s being generous!). The mattresses were sagging so much in the middle that I felt like I was sleeping on a lumpy crescent moon, the only plug socket in the room was being held on to the wall by selotape, and it was only possible to charge anything from it if you propped the plug, adaptor, cable, and electronic item up with exact precision, and then rigged up this elaborate structure in order to prevent any one of those objects from moving.
What’s more, there was no lock on the door – only a badly fitting padlock which, when closed, left a large enough gap between the door and the door frame for a passerby to see everything and everyone in the room. We ended up using our own padlock to allow us some semblance of security. When we finally settled down to sleep, we realised that there was a discotheque just metres from our window (which also didn’t close properly), meaning that the slim chance we had of getting any sleep (accounting for the saggy, uncomfortable mattresses, and lack of room security) was totally removed by loud music and drunken Peruvians. I think I eventually dropped off to sleep at around 4 or 5am when the discotheque closed.
Challenge 7: Moving Hostels
As soon as we realised what an over-priced hole we’d ended up in, we returned to El Vuelo del Condor (the hostel that had been our first choice) and rather desperately asked them if they could accommodate us the following night. They could but we weren’t permitted to reserve the room (God only knows why; we even offered to put down a deposit), so our only option was to turn up at 1pm the next day and hope for the best.
Anything was better than staying in our current hospedaje (I use that term loosely; its only saving grace was the hot shower in the shared bathroom), so the next morning we packed all our belongings (which had barely been unpacked anyway due to the dubious security in Hospedaje Central), confirmed what time check-out was (12 noon), and headed out in search of breakfast. At that stage I didn’t really care what breakfast consisted of as long as there was lots of coffee involved – I could barely keep my eyes open.
When we returned to Hospedaje Central, no sooner had we walked through the door we were approached by two members of staff. The lady had a bunch of keys in her hand, and seemed concerned that she could not get into our room. The reason for this was because we’d put our own padlock on the door, instead of the one that was supplied, for reasons that I’ve explained earlier in this blog post, and to be honest it was our prerogative to do so.
Feeling puzzled and acutely suspicious about why the staff would want to get into our room when we were checking out in less than an hour, we informed them “lo siento pero no lo entiendo” (which wasn’t actually far from the truth; I was interpreting hand signals, props and expressions more than I was the words coming out of their mouths) and walked away in the direction of our room.
They followed. We unlocked and removed the padlock from our door, and they followed us into the room. Before we even had the chance to ask them what the hell they thought they were doing, they had begun taking the sheets off our beds. Well, that was the final straw for me. We grabbed our backpacks, dropped the original padlock and key off at the empty reception desk, and successfully secured a lovely room at El Vuelo del Condor.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ll never describe intrepid travel as easy or hassle-free. It can be incredibly challenging, extremely stressful in parts, and sometimes you miss the beauty of your surroundings because you become embroiled in (what should be) the simple logistics of travel. A prime example of this is the distinct lack of photos in this post – I hardly took any.
By the same token though, once you stray from the tourist trail, and follow the path less trodden, that’s where you’ll find the real stories; the true adventures.
What do you think?
Do you like to stick to the well-trodden path, where you have reliable transport links, a good chance of being understood in your native language, and a multitude of sights and activities to keep you occupied?
Or would you rather stray far from the beaten track, in a quest to obtain unique and memorable experiences?
Let me know in the comments below!
This is part of the #SundayTraveler link up, the spot to be to get the lowdown on all things travel.