We arrived by bus late in the day at Camana, a tiny town north of the Chilean border. The famed Nazca Lines, those massive and inscrutable geometric patterns carved by some ancient civilization, are a few hundred miles to the north. I was looking forward to seeing the area’s famous beaches.
Camana is set back from the water about 3 miles, so visiting the sea immediately after our ride was not possible. Instead, we booked into a cheap hotel and went exploring.
Western tourists and even Peruvians are said to flock to this town during the searing summer heat, but they were nowhere to be seen. We were the only gringos in town, and there didn’t appear to be many native Peruvians holidaying there. Market stalls lined many of the streets as vendors hawked everything: balls of twine, avocados, bananas, oranges, slabs of beef, planks of ribs, chicken feet, pineapples, fish, gewgaws, and spices. Fowl, pigs, and donkeys rooted everywhere and were as numerous as people. To our eyes, imported merchandise was fairly expensive; local products cheap.
We had to carry enough food for about a week. After that, we figured we would reach Corire, a town where we could resupply. We stocked up on rice, dried beans, lentils, oatmeal, salt, flour, a kilo of rank-smelling cheese, some equally redolent salted meat, onions, potatoes, garlic, peppers, powdered milk, sugar, spices, and some Nescafe coffee.
Across from our hotel a young boy sat beside a blanket displaying multicolored combs. I watched him for a long time. No one gave him a glance. In the evening I bought a bright-orange comb. The boy grabbed the money wordlessly with a dirty, scabby hand–the blank expression on his face did not change even though I gave him five times the price and declined change. His cold indifference saddened me. Later, I gave the comb to a crazy old woman with thick, matted hair who was delighted with it and smiled with tea-colored teeth. Welcome to Peru–a country so grindingly poor that teachers officially earn about US 2 dollars a day.
Peru is the third-largest country in South America. Lima is as sophisticated and spectacular as any European capital, yet the country has been an economic and social mess for more than a century. Two guerrilla groups intent on revolution refuse to die. Millions live in abject poverty, and the entire institutional infrastructure is decrepit. The senior political and intellectual elite is corrupt or complicit. To me, it is unfathomable how a nation can survive like this. But government never was my strong suit.
Day 1: September 13, 1999
Outside the hostal a beat-up 1970s Toyota Corona presented itself in a cloud of dust, just after sunrise. We loaded our packs in the lidless trunk, and the decrepit automobile lurched to life. The driver did everything at top speed, and we arrived at our destination within minutes.
My visions of a Hawaiian-style beach were shattered by the long stretch of dirty, foul-smelling sand that greeted us. The driver grinned, exposing a row of yellow, rotting teeth as we unloaded our gear.
“La Punta Bonita!” he gestured at the sand, cackling at the incredulity pasted on our faces.
Garbage spilled across the sand like dirty socks strewn about a dormitory. The air was clammy under a canopy of high haze, a reminder of the foggy weather that guidebooks warned us plagued the area. Numerous buildings lined the beach, but they were not the holiday homes I had envisioned. Some were roofless, and the walls of others were crumbling.
At first it seemed as though we were on the edge of a ghost town. But soon I noticed an urchin slipping among the apparent ruins and, far in the distance, two men dragging a gnarled dead tree. It was as if we’d walked into a set for Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
“I guess we won’t be having that beer in a seaside bar to celebrate our departure,” Scott said.
“What on earth brings the tourists here in high season?” I asked.
“Let’s test the stove and get on the road,” Ben retorted.
We had not been able to find naphtha the day before, so we bought gasoline as a substitute, hoping it might work. We didn’t want to test it in the hotel room in case it erupted in a fireball. I turned so Ben could get the small Coleman from my pack.
He pulled out the stove, gingerly filled it with the fuel, and tightened the cap. Scott anxiously primed the pump with a few quick motions, opened the jet, sparked the lighter, and jumped back, anticipating an explosion.
He chuckled–“See, nothing to it”–as small bright-blue flames flickered and the stove hissed contentedly.
We high-fived each other, shut it down, and repacked it. We were off. Suddenly, a little girl appeared.
“What are you guys doing?” she asked in Spanish.
“We are going to cross South America,” I replied.
She stared at me for a while.
“My daddy sells cigarettes.”
“Ciao,” we nodded.
We left her standing there and went to dip our boots in the Pacific Ocean, a ritual to mark our departure.
There were enormous breakers. Trying to get the timing right, we ran after the receding water like three loaded camels, splashed momentarily in the water, and retreated. Scott was too slow and the wave caught him. He laughed, but that was before he knew of the blisters the wet leather would gnaw into his feet by lunchtime.
With that inelegant two-step, we strode down a misty dirt road, our journey begun. We were free. We were self-contained. We had only to follow the path far enough and we would cross a continent.
We had plotted our route using a series of topographical maps purchased in Lima, the colonial Spanish capital of the country. We spent hours poring over the detailed charts, trying to determine the most direct route to the continental divide from the coast. It was impossible to follow a straight path.
The topography of southwestern Peru is a washboard of mountain ranges. The landscape consists of hellishly deep canyons separated by mountain badlands and endless stretches of puna, the savage alpine desert. The mountain ranges are arrayed in a series of cordillera, or spines, running parallel to the coast from north to south. Each successive picket of peaks is higher than the last, until they crest and plunge into the Amazon jungle. We would ascend and cross every range until we reached the 5,900-yard divide.
The roar of the ocean faded as we walked into the R’o Camana Valley. The birdsong and insect drone provided a soft fluctuating hum of white noise. Occasionally the bark of an underfed, abused dog pierced the air. Viewed from above, the river valley was a green ribbon of irrigated farmland running across a strip of desert scrubland that extended up and down the coast. Virtually no rain falls here, and the water brought down from the mountains by the Majes River originates far away. Laborers paused from working the fields and watched us stroll past. They didn’t often see three gringos with enormous bags on their backs.
My mind wandered as my legs settled into the routine. Everything seemed slightly unreal. I had dreamt about this day for so long that it was difficult to believe it was actually here. Every minute brought us closer to the Atlantic Ocean. I tried to imagine what obstacles we’d encounter, what kind of people we’d meet, what hardships we would endure. Would any of us bail? Ben’s voice interrupted the thought.
“There’s a picture opportunity that could speak a few thousand words,” he said, pointing at a billboard for VISA that loomed over a wrinkled old man in tattered clothes hoeing corn with a bent stick. As we walked by, the campesino’s eyes did not rise from the soil.
After a few miles, the 70-pound weight of my pack made my shoulders ache. I reassured myself that my muscles and joints would gradually adapt. The morning fog burned off, but a thick haze obscured the sun. Our conversation quickly became sporadic, each of us lost in his own thoughts as we passed rich fields of corn, melons, tomatoes, and onions. Occasionally, we saw lush jade-colored levees choked with rice.
As we got farther away from Camana, the small, self-contained farms gave way to sprawling ranches. We could see the makeshift bamboo-and-mud hovels of local farm workers clinging to the valley’s encroaching gravel walls. The dirt road gradually became a rutted lane, skirting the edge of the fields, winding toward the head of the valley. The rich loamy earth smelled good, and clouds of gnats rode the breeze.
Periodically the lane stumbled upon a cluster of adobe-and-thatch shacks. Children paused, mouths agape, when they caught sight of us. Sometimes nervous mothers snatched the children up and ran inside. We could feel their eyes watch us as we passed. The men we encountered were inquisitive and less afraid. “Where do you come from? Where are you going? Why don’t you go by bus?” We struggled to understand and answer in broken Spanish.
Toward mid-afternoon we met two women sifting corn in front of a home that squatted beside the lane. They warily watched us approach, but held their ground. They were native Peruvians wearing black bowler hats and sweaters of vivid blue and pink. I found it impossible to tell their age within a generation: one was older, and the other could have been her daughter.
“Hola,” I said, smiling.
The twentysomething broke into a broad smile, but her elder companion maintained a businesslike tone: “Buenas tardes.”
You could feel the tension. The two women spoke quickly to each other, the younger one apparently more inclined to be hospitable. After a moment she turned and asked us to excuse her friend. She explained that she was more familiar with gringos.
They wanted to know what brought us so far from the main highway and where were we going? We explained as best we could, but it was clear the older woman wanted nothing to do with us. “I’m surprised you are here,” she said ominously. “No fear bandits?” Her rough, callused hands continued to sift the corn. “Many bandits up ahead,” she said, “a-a-e-e . . .” She wailed and shook her head at the thought of some tragedy. She spoke rapidly to the younger woman.
“She’s right–they did terrible things,” the younger woman said. “You must be careful.”
I looked at Ben and Scott. “Let’s move,” came the clear message from their eyes.
“Muchas gracias,” I repeated.
We walked debating among ourselves how much credence to put in the woman’s warning. We presumed she was exaggerating.
Soon we were on the lookout for a good spot to camp on our first night. We found a perfect place overlooking the river. Scrubby brush grew among the pebbles and sand. It was inconspicuous and invisible from the road. Although no one would acknowledge it, the old woman’s cry still echoed in our minds.
I made a dinner of rice, veggies, and dried beef while Ben pitched the tent. Scott went to the riverside to pump water through our filter into empty plastic Coke bottles. We were true neophytes, fumbling and hesitant with the new equipment.
Soon after it got dark, we turned off our lights so we were invisible to anyone coming along the lane. We sat under a starless sky, the firmament obscured by the high haze, talking softly. The gnats, which had devoured us throughout the day, vanished with the setting sun. We sat peacefully for an hour. Then, while I was brushing my teeth, I spotted the flickering light of two lanterns drawing near. I held my breath nervously, as they grew larger, passed by, and finally winked out.
Day 2: September 14, 1999
The morning was gray, thick with haze. Shortly after leaving camp we passed through a small village–if that’s what you call a scrum of shacks in a dust bowl. The villagers stared warily when we appeared, and kept their distance as we walked past.
About five minutes after passing the settlement, Scott noticed a large bone sticking out of the sand. We looked closer. There were clumps of mealy white flesh clinging to the jawbone. I nudged at the sand with my foot, scraping to expose more of the clearly human remains. Scott coughed uneasily. “Take a look back,” he said in a whisper.
About twenty men clutching hoes and scythes had followed us along the trail and were watching us intently. It was a Hitchcock moment–the gloomy light, the remains, and the silent, stone-faced sentinels.
“Maybe we should get a move on,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ben and Scott muttered in tandem, and we began to stroll away.
It was difficult not to bolt, but we maintained our usual pace. I glanced back a few times, nervous that the villagers might be following us like demented Children of the Corn. They weren’t.
“Where did that old lady say the banditos were?” Scott asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ben replied. “Somewhere up the valley.”
“How far up?”
“I don’t know.”
We fell into silence. We were only about 18 miles from Camana, the closest police office.
“I say we forget about it,” I ventured after a while. “None of our business.”
We walked in silence. I felt nauseated. I didn’t want to think about what had happened back there. It wasn’t pretty, it sure wasn’t lawful, and we didn’t want any part of it.
The haze created a greenhouse effect, turning the valley into a sweaty sauna. The gnats swarmed and feasted on any bit of exposed skin. The bug repellant worked for only a few minutes before it was washed away by the waves of sweat that rolled off us.
In the early afternoon we came upon another village at the end of the lane. Only a footpath continued beyond. We met up with a few people around the huts and they treated us in a friendlier manner. They smiled when we approached and were gracious when we asked directions in our limited Spanish.
It was late in the day when we encountered steep cliffs that cut across the trail in the narrowing valley. The only way to continue was to ford the river and walk along the other bank. But the river was 100 yards wide, the current swift, and, as far as we could tell, the water at least waist deep. There was no way we could carry our packs across.
Leaving Ben and Scott with the gear, I scrambled up the cliff to see if there was any way to continue on the same side of the river. The angled granite rose into a vertical wall. With our gear, we could never hope to scale it.
I returned to find Ben and Scott with two teenaged boys. I understood only bits and pieces of what they were saying. Scott said they were offering to get us across the river. We nodded dumbly and the boys disappeared.