Riding in Cars with Strangers

Normally when my trip gets more interesting, it’s when things have gone wrong,  like the sailboat getting stuck on rocks in Belize, or the numerous bus breakdowns in Bolivia (maybe I have a problem with “B”countries?). Anyway, for once my journey became easier AND more ineresting, though there was a small hiccup or two before that. 

I arrived in Huancayo on Monday after a dreary few days in Lima and as per usual the bus was late so my original plan to wander the town for some suitable accomadation was out the window. Stranges cities in the dark do not lend themselves to wandering. I picked a place out of the Lonely Planet and flagged down a taxi. He dropped me off in front of a large metal gate with a small sign reading “La Casa de La Abuela”; House of the Grandmother. The sign was inviting but the exterior was not. I rang the bell and waited about 5 minutes before I heard a voice on the other side call “Ola?”. I responded and the man behind the voice opened the door. Inside was a lovely courtyard with hammocks and a cat and dog come to great me. By this time it was past 10pm but the man invited me in for some coca tea and his wife appeared to say hello.

As far as I could gather with my crappy Spanish skills, they were a pair of proffesors and they ran the hostel as a hobby. They were so nice I kind of wished they were actually my grandparents. I was shown to the dorms and I realized that I had the place to myself. Not bad for $12.  

The next morning I went wandering the town and hiked up to a cool rock formation way up in the hills among the local farms. Forgetting I was at 3600m above sea level, I got a little light-headed before tracking down a bodega that sold water. As I walked back to town, an old man started following me and when I said hello he started chatting with me in very fast Spanish. I am pretty sure he was just asking how I liked the rocks, but I am still not sure.


Early Wednesday morning, I bid farewell to my proffesors and caught a taxi to the train station. Though it was recommended to me to take the bus, I have always had a soft spot for trains, so at 6:30am we pulled out of the station headed toward the mountain town of Huancavelica. The train isn’t exactly what you might call a modern piece of engineering (Ha, PUN!). The main line from Lima to Huancayo only runs as a tourist trip every two weeks during high season, but the route I took was used primarily by locals, and thus got much more punishment. It was also damn cold, sitting somewhere close to 5 degrees with no heating and a few permanently open windows. Awesome. I dosed off about 2 hours into the 3 hour journey, wrapped in my sleeping bag; when I woke up it was almost 11. Hmm. 



I looked out the window and saw a lot of black smoke, and while it is a diesel engine, I’ve been around enough malfunctioning tractors to know happy exhaust and angry exhaust. There were several stops and starts while I was sleeping and a few more after, but we eventually rolled into town 5 hours after departure.


Huancavalica was everything I wanted it to be. A gorgeous town with mountains all around and the streets filled with locals selling everything from oranges to ponchos. And once again not another backpacker in sight. I have a feeling if this place was slightly more accessable, it would be overrun. Not that I’m complaining- the lack of tourists was also a great way to bring back some of my Spanish skills I had forgotten- the last person I met who spoke English was back in the Lima bus station.



Reading up on the area, I realized that I wouldn’t have to backtrack to Lima to get to Cusco (and Machu Picchu) if I caught a bus at 4:30am to Ayacycho and continued south-east from there. Even more off the beaten track, the guide book warned that it would be a gruelling 12 hour trip with few paved roads. Sounds like fun! 

I dragged myself out of bed at 3:15am as the hotel clerk had warned me to be at the departure point early because the driver’s schedue was rather fluid sometimes. Failing to find a taxi, I made my way to the main square, hoping to have better luck there. The place was well lit and as I got closer, two police officers approached. They asked me where I was headed and I explained I was going to another square where I was to meet my bus. They misunderstood and thought I was going to walk the whole way in the dark, and insisted on accompanying me to my destination. Can’t go wrong with a police escort, right?  Arriving at the bus stop, they chatted with another pair of police there who agreed to keep an eye on me while I waited for my bus. On the corner there was an old lady selling some kind of breakfast drink and a young man sitting on a car next to her shouting “Ayachuco!”. He was a tout who ferried passengers to the main terminal where the bus now departed from.  

With official identification and labeled and licensed vehicle, I doubted he was here in an elaborate scheme to kidnap me but just in case I glanced over to the police officers who nodded afirmatively when I pointed to the tout. Before we left I had one of the weird breakfast drinks which was made up of hot orange juice, quinoa, and macca. The old lady kept laughing at me and I thought it was because of my Spanish, but I looked it up later and it turns out macca is supposed to be an aphrodisiac and I was about to get in a car with this young man. She was a cheeky little thing.

When we arrived at the bus station, the bus was gone, as the hotel clerk had warned me. The tout then offered to drive me to Ayacucho for double the price of the bus. My other option would be to wait in Huancavelica for another day or risk haning out in the dark bus station in the hope another bus might come along. I chose the car. He picked up a couple more late passengers and we were off. The 12 hour grueling journey turned out to be a lovely 4.5 hour cruise, as the road was now paved (though still only one lane which made some of the switchbacks entertaining). Along the way we came across a huge tour bus in the ditch and the tout (his name was Orlando), indicated the bus driver likely fell asleep at the wheel. Yet another reason I hate overnight buses.

I got to Ayacucho in the late morning just as some sort of rally was kicking off in the middle of the square. I asked three different people what was going on and got three different answers, ranging from a soccer party to a political rally.  I think it was a volunteer drive for the upcoming election, but never figured it out. There were bands and street performers and a bunch of other random stuff but all I wanted to do was sit and have a coffee. 

The more I travel, the less need I feel to go “see the sights”. There were some ruins outside of town from the ancient Wari civilization, who were rivals to the Inca, but I spent most of the day wandering and trying to plan onward travel. The next segment on my hopscotch across the central highlands was not going to be so easy as it had been so far. And to think most people just fly into Cusco from Lima in an afternoon. BORING.

Author: Amy D. Nelson

Wanderer, hack writer, aspirational hobo, part time aerial surveyor, geologist, forester and whatever else I can do to pay for a plane ticket. Is that sentence fragmental enough?

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