|Rob Ennals > Travel > Around Peru in Seven Days|
Day 3 - The Gringo Taxi Service
On our map, Cusco seemed tantalizingly close to the Amazon rainforest. It seemed all we needed to do was drive 150km and we would be in a world full of strange creatures and exciting adventures. With this in mind, we went to Hertz and hired a Toyota Yaris, telling him that we wanted to drive slowly and carefully around Cusco.
After an hour of driving, we we still in Cusco. We had a map of the city, but it doesn't seem to correspond very closely to the streets that were actually present on the ground, and whenever we found a road that seemed to go in the right direction we would run into a road block, or a one-way street. This is apparently a common problem in Peru, since much of the country is either unmapped, or covered only by maps that are old and inaccurate.
Eventually, we came to a road that we were convinced would get us out of Cusco, but which was blocked by a big red sign with an arrow pointed to the right. I suggested that this might mean that we were supposed to go right, rather than maneuver past the sign, but Simon was adamant that we should drive round it. As were we doing this, a policeman appeared from nearby, told us we were going the wrong way down a one way street, and asked us if we knew enough spanish to understand the road signs. This was clearly a trick question. If we did speak enough spanish then we had just willfully disobeyed a road sign. If we did not speak enough spanish then we could not legally drive in Peru. In a skilled piece of verbal judo, Simon changed topic to the question of how to get out of the city. The policeman forgot all about our traffic infraction and gave us some very useful directions that allowed us to eventually get out.
As we drove towards the Jungle, the road soon turned into a dirt track, and the dirt track gradually became less dirty and more rocky. We soon realized that the roads that were marked as nice, straight, direct, roads on our map, were in fact meandering switch-backs, cutting backwards and forwards across the steep cliffs we were driving through. This drive was clearly going to take a lot longer than we had planned.
Initially we drove quite slowly, but as we got more comfortable with the terrain, and with the handling of our car (a Toyota Yaris), we gradually picked up speed, until we were travelling at an average of around 50kmph. Despite numerous inquiries, we were never able to determine what the speed limit was, or even if there actually was one.
It soon became clear that we were getting low on fuel, which was worrying, because we were in the middle of nowhere and hadn't seen a single petrol station during our entire stay in Peru. Eventually, we decided to stop at a small village and ask where we could buy some petrol. The locals directed us to a small out-building, which we were assured was the petrol station. It turns out that a petrol station in Peru consists of a man with a bucket full of petrol and a hose pipe. To get the petrol into our tank, the man put the bucket on the roof of our car, and used the hose to siphon the petrol into our tank. Not quite what we were used to, but it worked.
We narrowly avoided having our car filled with Diesel, rather than Petrol, which would have wrecked our car and somewhat spoiled our holiday. It turns out that, in Peruvian spanish, the word for "Diesel" is "Petroleo". The conversation went something like this:
Us: Do you have Petrol? [in Spanish]
Us: Yes. Petroleo. Can you put some in our tank.
Them: [Get out a bucked of Diesel, and prepare to siphon it into our tank]
Me: Simon, are you sure that's Petrol? It smells like Diesel.
Them: Si. Petroleo.
Me: Look it up in the dictionary. I'm worried that that's not Petrol.
About a mile down the road from the town with the "petrol station" we encountered a group of school kids. They waved at us and we waved back. A few meters further on, we came across another group, who waved rather more vigorously. We realized that they wanted a lift. Seeing an opportunity for further adventure, we stopped to pick them up. Realizing that we only had four kids in the back, and the car was easily big enough for five, we decided to pick up another one. When we came across another group, Simon explained to them that we would hold a race, and that whoever came first could ride with us. Much to our surprise, the winner turned out to be a tiny little girl, who joined the rest of the children in the back of our car.
We thought to ourselves about how this would never happen in the UK. In Britain, children are constantly told that they should never get into a car with strangers, lest they do horrible things to them, yet here in Peru these children seemed to have absolutely no fear of us and were scrambling for the opportunity to get into our car. This may have been partly because the alternative to riding in our car was a long, long, long walk home from school.
A few miles down the road, I realized that one of the passenger doors wasn't shut properly. It was rattling as we drove and a warning light was flashing on the dashboard. In an attempt to resolve this, we stopped the car and Simon got out and opened and shut all the doors. As we drove on again, one of the children in the back started crying. Indeed she seemed to be quite terrified. This was worrying. It is one thing to have a car full of other people's children, but it is quite different when they are crying. Simon guessed that they wanted to be let out, and that they had thought that when we opened and shut all the doors we were refusing to let them out. As soon as we opened the doors again the girl started smiling again and jumped happily out of the car.
It was now becoming very clear that we weren't going to be able to get to the jungle. We had used up most of our allotted time, and yet we were only around half way there. Just as we were thinking about turning back, we were hailed by another prospective hitch hiker. This one was a teacher, and told us that the village he needed to go to was only seven kilometers away. Since the man clearly needed a lift, and seven kilometers wasn't very far, we decided to press on a little longer.
Twenty kilometers later, it became clear that our passenger's distance estimate had been rather optimistic. However, lacking either the spanish, the nerve, or the cruelty, to tell him to get out of our car, we pressed on until we reached his destination, at which point we paused for a couple of minutes to look at the extremely non-jungle-like place we had got to, and then turned the car round to go back.
And then it started raining. Driving the Yaris along dirt tracks had been relatively easy. Although they were bumpy, they provided reasonable traction, and the car had handled fairly well. But now the roads were gradually turning to mud. I was torn between driving faster, and hoping to be off the dirt tracks before they disintegrated, and driving slower, and being extra careful to not slide off the side of the mountain. Things were complicated by the fact that the car hire location closed at 7pm, and we had budgeted out time based on the assumption that we would drive back at the same speed that we had gone out.
The rain was definitely making the road more difficult than it had been on the way out. On several corners we could feel that back sliding out, including one, particularly worrying, time when we were on a narrow road on the edge of a cliff.
Things weren't helped by the local drivers either. We saw very few other drivers, but those we did come across were driving in the same manner as the drivers in Cusco. On several occasions we came across another vehicle coming round a blind corner towards us at speed. Naturally, the possibility of a high speed collision on the edge of a cliff didn't cause them to slow down, requiring us to carefully swerve out of their way. I was pleased that we were going to be taking busses for the rest of the journey.
Following the tradition we had established, we collected a number of other passengers on our way back, including a pair of belgians, who were out hiking, and a lady who wanted to pay us when we dropped her off (we managed to refuse).
Eventually, after much reckless driving, we arrived back in Cusco. Rather than take the Yaris back to Hertz covered in mud, having obviously been taken on inappropriate roads, we stopped a few blocks away to clean the car first. The only cleaning material we had was toilet paper, but it seemed to do the job reasonably well.
Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we pulled the car up to the Hertz site with a full twenty minutes to go before 7pm, to find it closed. The door was locked and shuttered, and a couple of annoying locals kept saying "cerrada", seemingly in the hope that this would make us go away.
This was rather annoying. We needed to board a bus in an hour's time and so couldn't wait until the next morning. Simon went off in search of a phone and a means of contacting the Hertz people, while I stayed behind at the hertz location and hammered on the door with my fists, ostensibly in an attempt to summon the hertz people, but primarily because I just wanted to hit something.
A few minutes later Simon had managed to summon the Hertz man, and I was worried that I might have broken a bone in my hand. The Hertz man insisted on inspecting the car, but since it was dark he didn't notice the patches of caked-on mud, or the fact that the interior of the car was filled with a thick layer of dust. We were pleased that he didn't attempt to inspect the car's suspension.
With the car dealt with, we proceeded to the bus station, to board our bus to Puno. The tour agent had gushed to us about the amazing luxury we would experience on this bus. Apparently we would be traveling "VIP" class. We would have ample leg room, fully reclining seats, an on-board meal service, and luxury the like of which had never been seen on a bus before. Our tickets even had photos on them of large, leather, business-class-style fully-reclined seats.
When we arrived at the bus station, we were slightly worried to see the the only bus in the station with the name of our bus company on it was an old, tatty-looking, 1980s-era bus, with the normal upright seats and minimal legroom. After a few minutes of denial, and statements about "some other bus that would soon arrive", we rapidly realized that our peruvian agent had been not entirely honest with us, and we our likelihood of getting any sleep would be rather low.