Why you should care
Going anywhere with cops without handcuffs is always going to be better than with.
“You’ll have to get out and walk,” said the prepubescent driver of the taxi I was sharing with a highlands abuela and three youngsters in knockoff baseball caps. “I’ll wait for you after the roadblock.” Not a good sign considering our destination — the Andean town of Huamachuco — was still more than four hours away.
I had noticed the driver’s fidgeting as soon as I got into his gleaming red Honda in the coastal city of Trujillo. But the other passengers didn’t appear worried, so I went with it. We’d barely left town when the grandmother next to me started vomiting into a flimsy plastic shopping bag. If she was carsick here — on an arrow-straight road through humid fields of sugar cane — what would she make of the serpentine ascent to the altiplano? As luck would have it, I never found out.
When we swapped cars a few minutes later — shifting our luggage and ourselves into a silver Hyundai for a couple of miles — the bag of ceviche vomit wasn’t the only thing that smelled fishy about the ride. But there weren’t any other cars offering to drive us to Huamachuco, so we stuck with it. By the time the driver asked us to get out and walk, we all knew it would end badly.
Resigned to our fate, I slung my mamba-green duffel bag over my shoulder, the abuela secured her groceries in a brightly colored blanket and we walked under the sweltering tropical sun. We managed to score a lift on the back of a tuk-tuk for a stint, but as soon as the police roadblock came into view we were on our own again.
We stood around sipping on fresh sugar cane juice and trying not to catch rabies.
When the cops asked why four Peruvians, one gringo and all their luggage were slogging up a deserted country byway, I pretended to speak only German. When they pointed at the red Honda, which was still visible in the distance, I proffered a feeble “Nein.”
They let us walk through the roadblock, but in hindsight I wish we’d been stopped. The road soon got a whole lot steeper and my bag, which contained a week’s worth of all-weather hiking gear, a whole lot heavier. I tried to convince myself it was great acclimatization training, but there was no escaping the fact that I was really pissed off with the pipsqueak in the red Honda.
Eventually we caught up with the car, but its driver was nowhere to be seen. He had pulled up alongside a tiny roadside kiosk and, without even bothering to close the car door, disappeared into the lush ravine below. We stood around for a while — sipping on fresh sugar cane juice and trying not to catch rabies from the resident mutts — but soon enough the same cops who’d just interrogated us arrived. They were surprisingly sympathetic, but not much help in securing us an alternative ride.
One by one, all four of the Honda’s other occupants managed to score lifts to Huamachuco: The vomiting abuela was picked up by an unsuspecting businessman in a fancy sedan, the others managed to squeeze into overcrowded buses, leaving only sad, solitary me. Over the next four hours I chewed my way through an armadillo-size pile of sugar cane. Thinking it might be the reason no one wanted me in their vehicle, I gradually let my mute German persona slip.
Just when I was starting to give up hope of ever joining my buddy on his six-month escapade along the ancient Inca highway, a swanky new Hilux containing three Peruvian troopers pulled up. The beefy, acne-splattered youngsters were headed to Huamachuco for a three-month tour; once they moved a box of ammunition from the backseat, they had room for me.
We sped up the surprisingly smooth asphalt contortions that would eventually take us to a 14,000-foot altitude, chatting as we went. They showed me GIFs of their girlfriends and near girlfriends back in Trujillo, and I returned the favor with shots of my wife, kids and rescue dogs in far-off South Africa.
We talked about Nelson Mandela, the 2010 World Cup and — while snapping a selfie on a perilous hairpin bend with a sheer 3,000-foot drop next to it — a horrific car accident on this very road that had claimed the lives of four of their colleagues. Just when the rapid ascent to altitude and the very real prospect of impending death were getting too much to bear, we screeched to a halt at a restaurant called El Viajero, which boasted a verdant garden of arum lilies and a remarkably fine selection of imitation Barbie dolls.
After a slap-up lunch — I went for soup followed by crispy fried trout — and some watery Nescafé, we got back in the Hilux for the final hour of the journey, passing some icy-looking Andean lakes and a lot of colorful political graffiti on the way. As we approached Huamachuco, we seemed to gather speed, quite something in alleyways designed for llamas, not cars. Before I knew it, I was bear-hugging my new friends at the town plaza.
I sent my friend a Whatsapp message to let him know that I would, after all, be able to join his expedition to Mollebamba the following morning. Being alive, not arrested and in Huamachuco and all.