Escape from Peru

Driving the length of the Pan American isn’t the easiest enterprise but some circumstances just make it really, really hard. We recently had that happen during our time in Peru. It all started when we crossed the border from Ecuador. We’d picked the most remote border crossing possible, high in the mountains and near a town called Zumba. To get too Zumba requires driving a 50km dirt road which cuts along the western flank of the Andes. It’s incredibly scenic but very bumpy and it’s single lane  made for a very challenging drive, particularly when it started to rain on the second day. We finally got to the border after a night camping in the main plaza of Zumba. The border itself is a ramshackle collection of buildings. We were the only people crossing that morning. The immigration offical was blind drunk and actually collapsed before we could get him to stamp us out of the country. The guy who does our vehicle paperwork needed to do do that immigration stuff as well. Finally they unlocked the gate and let us across the bridge into Peru. And that’s when our van started playing up. At a gas station it look me a few tries to get the van started and then the engine shutdown while driving along a highway. We stumbled into the first major town in Peru, a nondescript little place called Jaen and outside a hotel the van conveniently completely broke down. This began a four day ordeal of trying to get the van fixed and electronics diagnosed over the New Year break while waiting it out in possibly the least visited city in Peru. It was touch and go. Old American Ford’s are very uncommon in South America and if the van had a significant issue then it could have been a real setback. Fortunately we just needed the Starter Motor fixed and cleaned up and one of the electrical systems mended. We were good go!

Street repairs in Jaen, Peru

The healthy state of the van didn’t reflect the appalling political conditions in Peru at this time. A few months earlier the ousting of a populist president had unleashed a wave of resentment among the indigenous lower class, the vast majority of Peruvians. They had taken to the streets and blocked roads, leading to fierce confrontations with the police. This was all transpiring in the touristy areas to the south of the country and there was nothing serious happening where we were in the north. We drove south, hopeful to avoid any issues. And so it was for the next 10 days or so. We drove up into the mountains, along the coast, explored central Lima and carried on to the famous Nazca plains without incident. It was here that we started hearing about roadblocks, stories from other travellers who’d been held up for days at a time, cities being cutoff from the reset of Peru and the Bolivian border having been blocked for several weeks. It didn’t look good, and it seemed to be getting worse. We resolved to make a dash for Chile, which still seemed open at the time.

The escapees

Fortunately we meet with a couple of other travellers, Sam and Anna, who were also driving south and in the same predicament. We resolved to convoy together to the border. The first day went well and we all camped on a cliff top overlooking the Pacific Ocean. However the next day things started to look bad. Anna was from Colombia and was able to get news from other drivers as we went. Our preferred route to the border was via the coast but we heard that this highway had been blocked off by angry protestors and traffic was backed up for miles. We took a less direct inland route and heard from a gas station attendant that the way to the border was 50/50 but that at 8am the next morning protestors were going to completely shut everything down. By this time it was 10pm at night and the golden rule in South America is never to drive at night. However, we kinda had no choice, we had to risk it, especially since it was only about another 100km. Thus began a 6 hour ordeal of navigating active and inactive roadblocks. At one stage we formed a little convoy with some local drivers who took us across 4WD trails to dodge a closed toll station. Our van got stuck in the sand on a nasty corner and we had to dig out a spinning back wheel. All the time we were having to drive through roads covered with rocks and burning tyres, some of which the protestors had removed to create a sort of channel that cars could pass through. Finally reached the Chilean border at 4AM, having been desperately driving for 20 hours. We crawled into the back of the van and collapsed to sleep, until 6:30am, when the border opened. We’d made it, but it’d been close.

Camping along the Pan American

The first town in Chile is a surfy holiday resort type place called Arica. After 2 weeks in turbulent Peru it was like paradise. It gave me a chance to reflect on the past fortnight, which has been a very challenging time. Despite all the problems they caused us I do have to sympathise with the protestors. Those who we met in our frantic drive out of Peru were always apologetic and explained the reason why they needed to protest. We did see for ourselves the contrast between the leafy suburbs of Lima, where the white political elite live, and the poverty in the pueblos. The problems with the van forced us to spend four days in a backwater and experience how the average Peruvian lives. Trying to sort everything out in my rudimentary Spanish was a great work out. We were forced to skip all the touristy bits of Peru – Cusco, Machu Picchu, Arequipa, the Sacred Valley, yet I feel we actually saw more of the country than most tourists. I have a feeling that when we finish this trip it’ll be those crazy weeks in Peru that we remember above all the others.

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