Peru: Crossing the Andes

Posted by Arlo on Apr 4, 2009 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Typical view of our road to the jungle

New Years Eve in Cusco. Fireworks, drunken revelry, pouring rain. Alison, Megan, and I had a 5:30am van picking us up for our five-day jungle trek and there wasn’t much sleep to be had in our hostel that night. For example, when Alison stepped out in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, she came back to find someone sleeping in her bed. And that was just the first time a stranger tried to crash in our room.

Somehow we were awake to meet our driver, and after a few stops to pick up equipment and food, we were on our way out of town. Perhaps only getting three hours of sleep was a blessing in disguise. With a whole mountain range separating us from the Amazon basin, it was going to take upwards of 12 hours to reach the Manu Reserve. We’d have ample time to catch up on our sleep.

After crossing a rickety iron, single-lane bridge over the churning Vilcanota (Urubama) river, we said goodbye to smooth pavement. Our drive was now punctuated by streams coming out of the mountains, eroding small, rocky creeks into the hard-packed dirt.

As we climbed high above the valley, the narrow dirt road, hundreds of switchbacks, and nearly vertical, open cliffs along every inch of the pass reminded me of bussing in Ecuador. If for any reason our van went over the edge, there wasn’t even a slim chance of surviving the wreck. One could easily imagine the van tumbling, literally, a kilometer or more, to the valley below. There wasn’t a guardrail in sight, but I was enjoying the view.

As the road neared the peak of the first mountain, clouds closed in around us and our driver leaned on his custom air horn before every corner. Megan, previously asleep in the seat before me, woke up and looked out the window. We were so close to the edge that, even with your forehead against the glass, you couldn’t see the road. She turned around, her eyes wide.

While I was fascinated by the view, only slightly morbidly so, Megan was a bit panicked. She asked me – no, she told me – to tell the driver to move back to the right side of the road. I approached the front of the van and spoke with our guide, Julio, calmly explaining that his passengers were a little worried about how close we were skirting the edge. I chose not to speak with the driver directly, because I didn’t want to take any of his attention off the road.

Julio spoke with him and, to his credit, our driver did back off a bit. We were told not to worry, that he was driving close to the edge only because the road was smoother and there was less of a chance of being hit by falling rocks from the mountain side. No mention was made of oncoming traffic.

We continued along the road another ten minutes before he was back to his old driving tactics. This time, Megan spoke didn’t hesitate; she let the driver have it with her broken Spanish. Understanding the urgency in her voice more than the words she spoke, he went back to the correct lane and even slowed down a bit. I heard him complain about a longer day of driving, however.

We stopped off in a tiny, roadside village for breakfast, and then, about five hours into our drive, made a rest stop out of the only decent sized town in those mountains, Paucartambo. Megan stayed in the van while Alison and I quested for snacks and ponchos.

We climbed up into the mountains again after leaving Paucartambo. Our driver was behaving himself and we were all falling into a routine of blaring air horns, bouncing seats, and the occasional, bottom-scraping crawl over the streams in our way. Presently, we came around an S-shaped curve to find a white station wagon parked in the middle of our lane. It looked like a taxi, pausing perhaps, for its passengers to take a picture.
Only in retrospect did it seem a little odd. This was such an untraveled road, especially so on New Year’s Day, that we could have counted the number of oncoming cars we’d passed on one hand. To overtake a car on such a desolate road? What are the odds?

As our van came up behind the taxi, our driver gave a polite little toot on the horn. Those of us that hadn’t been paying attention to the world outside the van looked up. The taxi gave a little jolt, as if the driver popped the clutch just a little too fast, and started to accelerate into the next bend.

Right then, without any warning whatsoever, a large bus came around the next curve. The taxi braked instantly – it wasn’t going that fast in the first place and was mostly in its own lane anyway – but the bus was going too fast. In terrible slow motion we watched it charge forward towards the outer edge of the curve. Wheels locked up, the driver lost whatever steering control he’d had. The bus plowed into a low pile of rocks, destroying the bumper and flattening a tire. It slowed, but not quickly enough. The outer tires, front and back, went over the edge of the cliff and the bus began to tip….

…until it came to rest against a single, skinny eucalyptus tree, about where the first row of seats began. The bus came to a rest at 45-degree angle along its length, the passengers on the right-hand side, no doubt with their weight against their windows, must have been staring straight into a hundred-foot-plus drop.

I remember stepping out of our van with everyone else. I remember reaching the bus’s open door– the driver had fled through it almost before the bus had stopped – but I have no recollection of crossing the distance between. I was concentrating on the panicked shouts I was hearing in Spanish and, presumably, Quechua. Get out now! No, don’t move! Open the windows!

A window popped out on the uphill side and a spy young man quickly hauled himself through it. The driver’s door was hanging open, and the first passenger was scampering out. I glanced back to see the taxi we’d come up behind already driving away. All four of our jungle guides were standing back by our van.

I stepped up to the driver’s side door. I didn’t know what to do. It seemed reasonable to expect that there were injured people on the bus. I wanted to climb in and help, but as precariously as the bus was positioned in the cliff, I realized that was a supremely stupid idea. People were still shouting inside and I could see two more people squirming their way into the tilted driver’s compartment – the only other door now opened on a vertical drop. I decided to stay where I was, to lend a hand to anyone that needed assistance making the jump down to the road. A jittery, adrenalized voice inside my head kept repeating, “Be ready to jump and hang on the bus as long as you can! Be ready to jump and hang on the bus as long as you can!” With the load inside constantly shifting, the possibility of the bus still going over the edge seemed very real.

Passengers began to flow toward me. The musician with his guitar case, farmers, sun-wrinkled women in heavy traditional clothes. No tourists. In my memories they all blur together. Some took my hand gratefully, to help them balance on the edge before jumping to the tumbled rock pile I was standing on, others shrugged off the offer of assistance. I remember being amazed at the dexterity, strength, and grace evident in the elderly women’s legs and they spryly jumped down and their momentum carried them from rock to rock. I remember choking back a lump in my throat when a mother nodded permission for me to lift down her 4- or 5-year old daughter. “Hola,” I said, “¿Cómo estás?”

“Hola,” she answered in a sing-song voice, completely unaware of just how close she had come to dying. “Bien.”

The stream of people rushing out slowed, then stopped. It was impossible to see beyond the driver’s partition and all of the windows were too high off the ground. I took a deep breath and looked around. Julio was standing next to me. I took a deep breath, and in a shaky voice, I said, “¿Ahora? Vamos a tener un problema.” I don’t know why I was speaking in Spanish; he was our English-speaking guide.

Julio tried to reassure me that everything was okay, no one was hurt, another bus would be along soon to pick everyone up, and a big backhoe or something would be brought to pull the bus back onto the road. I listened with half an ear and looked around for Alison and Megan. Especially Megan.

They were standing together back down the road. Way back down the road. I looked at Julio, who was still talking, and waved my hand toward the girls as if to say, “You see?” I asked him to wait with the van while I talked with them.

We had an interesting conversation. Megan was teary-eyed with anxiety about continuing on the road, I was shaking uncontrollably, coming down off an immense adrenaline high, and my voice kept cracking like a teenager’s. Alison, for her part, seemed relatively collected.

The bus crash left us all shaken and Megan was very vocal about not continuing, but we were essentially at the half-way point and only real alternative was to turn around and drive back along the same, dangerous road. We brainstormed just one possible solution during our little conference. After walking slowly back to the scene of the accident, I asked Julio if it would be possible to fly back to Cusco – who cares about what it would cost us? – after our five days in the jungle. He said it was a definite possibility and that he would be happy to look into as soon as we reached our first-night’s lodging in Pilcopata.

Reluctantly, we climbed back into the van and Megan made our driver promise to drive even slower, no matter how late it would push back our arrival time. We were all glad she did.

We still had seven or eight hours to go. Megan never did really calm down. For the next few hours, I concentrated on affecting an air of confidence and stability, because the alternative was to dwell on the image in my head – that of a large bus tumbling over and over, down a hill. I did my best to steer the conversation to other topics, I massaged her shoulders to keep her from thinking about the road.

Unfortunately, when we entered the cloud forest in the middle of the mountain range, the roads became ten times worse.

Lunch stop in the cloud forest, photo by Alison

Our driver didn’t want to stop because, he said, it was the middle of the rainy season and landslides were a real concern. Sure enough, we soon came across a wide swath of mud that had flowed down the steep mountain, crossing three or four switchbacks in the road. It had obviously happened some time before, because the road had already been cleared, but what remained was still unsettling. Instead of hard-packed dirt, that section of the road had turned to thick, wet mud. Standing water stood in the wheel ruts that other vehicles had carved through it. More importantly, the sharp outer edge of the road was now wet, slippery, and indistinct, leading to wide swath of mud and trickling water leading all the way down to the next switchback. Any trees that might have clutched at the van and kept it from tumbling down the hill had been swept away by the mud slide.

Megan wanted out. I managed to talk her into staying inside the van for the first crossing. Engine revving, back end fishtailing, the driver gunned it over the muddy hump. The second time, I kept her in place with a gentle downward pressure on her shoulders. The third time, well, there was no holding her back at all. Megan forced the driver to stop, Julio and I got out with her, and the van went ahead without us. Frankly, getting a close up view of the landslide as we climbed over its remains only revitalized my fear.

Mudslide on the road, and a veritable traffic jam

Fortunately, we were closing in on the end of the trip. Nearing the bottom of the cloud forest’s valley, we crossed more rivers, literally drove under waterfalls, through caves, and over rusting bridges… but at least the landslide zone was behind us. Before long, we were driving at high speeds along blissfully straight (if still a little bumpy) dirt roads. Megan relaxed enough to fall into a cathartic sleep. I watched her head bumping against the window and tried to get those tumbling-bus images out of my head.

That night, in Pilcopata, we learned that buying plane tickets back to Cusco was never really an option. The rainy season was in full effect and the weather was too unpredictable for a pilot keep flying in and out of the Amazon basin. For the next few days, at least, we didn’t worry about it. Our minds were occupied by all the new things we were seeing and doing: Macheteing through the jungle, swimming in the rivers and simmering in the hot springs, hunting caiman and capybaras, dodging poisonous fer-de-lances, stalking nocturnal animals, eating termites, visiting tribal villages, sucking the pulp from cacao (chocolate) pods, and being eaten alive by bugs.

The eventual ride back, despite a fresh mud slide almost completely blocking our route, was slightly less stressful, if only because we knew what to expect. On the ride back, Megan asked me, incredulously, why our tour agency never mentioned how scary and dangerous the hellish 12-hour mountain crossing was going to be. I think, in this case, truth in advertising might have put them out of business.

(Same goes for the bug bites!)

Coda: After the bus accident, Julio asked me if I’d taken a photo of the wreckage. I didn’t — I don’t think any of us did. Somehow, it didn’t seem right to record the tragedy that way, especially with all the affected people milling in the road like a scene out of Romancing the Stone. I wish I had, though. It’s a miracle that bus didn’t go over the edge and I wish I could show you just how close it really was.

Update: I interviewed Alison and Megan about the road and edited together a video about it here.