Driving to the Tambopata, Peru, June, 2000

PERU ADVENTURE by Helen Findley

“Tomorrow we hit the mud,” Greg announced as we sat eating our evening meal in the Sandia hotel.  It was June, 2000 and the “we” were myself, my three adult sons, Brian, Keith, and Greg, my 13 year old grandson David (Keith’s son), and Charlie Fox, Brian’s friend and co-worker and Willie, our Peruvian guide.

“I can’t wait,” was David’s eager reply.  “You may be sorry,” Greg warned him.

We had spent a long day of driving across the Andes from Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Peru, toward our destination of Putina Punco on the banks of the Rio Tambopata.  Puno had been very interesting, we had enjoyed the market where we bought alpaca gloves, scarves and sweaters knitted by local women and sold for incredibly low prices after the mandatory bargaining.  Even better was visiting ancient tombs built by the predecessors of the Incas and then the boat ride on Lake Titicaca to see the floating reed islands still inhabited by the Uros people.  The highlight there was visiting the floating schoolhouse and having the children sing to us, their weather beaten red cheeks and runny noses showing the effects of the winter cold and the altitude of 12,000 feet.  At our hotel we had gratefully accepted cups of coca tea to help us deal with the altitude, but even so, David had succumbed to it, throwing up his dinner that evening.

The next morning Willie had joined us with our rafting gear, and we started toward the adventure part of our trip.  A van took us to Juliaca, where we and all our supplies, two inflatable rafts an inflatable cataraft, camping gear and food were loaded on to a bus that had been rented for the expedition. We weren’t happy about the bus, which reeked of the oil spread all over the floor.  We couldn’t wipe it completely up, and later learned it served a purpose, that of keeping down the dust from the dirt roads. Now, besides our original group we added our bus driver, the bus’s owner, Nancy, and her friend, who wanted to go along for the ride as far as the river.

The adventure started about 45 minutes after leaving Juliaca.  The highway had just turned from pavement to dirt surface when our bus gave a screech and died.  The driver tinkered a while with the motor to no avail.  The only thing to do was to sit there until a huge open truck loaded with goods and people sitting on top of the goods stopped to help us.  After much jimmying, the two drivers  got the bus started and we were on our way again.

We were climbing the western slope of the Andes Mountains, but the climb was gentle with no sharp turns or drop-offs.  The land was barren and dry; after all, it was winter.  We saw a few small houses which appeared to be made of adobe and children herding groups of llamas.   Greg pointed out a group of vicuna, animals which have wool even softer than alpacas.  As we got higher there were no more houses and the groups of animals were no longer herded but seemed to be left to roam unattended.  It was a bleak and forbidding landscape.

Soon we hit an area with a light covering of snow, and then it began spitting snow.  Greg took readings on his GPS and determined that we were close to 16,000 feet in altitude.  Brian turned to me and said in amazement, “Mom, your lips are purple!”  We laughed as we saw what the altitude had done to our complexions and were glad we had taken our doses of diamox.  Even so, we all were very lethargic and several of our party complained of splitting headaches.

At the top of the pass we had a rest stop, and Nancy, the owner went into a metal shed-like building.  Curious, I followed her, to discover that it was a chapel and she had gone to pray for safe travel.  Good thing she did, as we had enough troubles ahead even with her saints protecting us!

Going down the eastern side was very different from going up.  It was much more rugged, there were hairpin turns, and the drop offs were steep.  It was also much greener—all the moisture from the ocean is dropped on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains.  Gradually we drove out of the snow and came to lush foliage which brought “oohs” and “ahs” from all of us.

It was dusk by the time we reached the little town of Sandia, our destination for the night.  As we drove through the town looking for our hotel we had to drive twice through the stream which wound rushing through the middle of the town.

Greg, who had taken clients on this same trip just two weeks earlier, assured us that this was a new hotel, less than a year old, and provided the best accommodations available.  What a hoot!  It was dirty, it looked like the painters had left in the middle of their job, and nothing worked.  Keith thought he’d take a shower before dinner and found only a cold water tap, but turning it on yielded nothing.  Keith awoke in the middle of the night to find the water running from that tap!  During the night I rolled over in bed and heard a loud crash under me.  No light would go on, and since the bed seemed to be OK, I went back to sleep.  In the morning’s light I discovered that a slat supporting the mattress had fallen off my bed.

Raul, our main guide, arrived as we were eating breakfast the next morning.  Because of weather he hadn’t been able to get a plane from Puerto Maldonaldo to Juliaca  so had been forced to drive all night to meet us, but now our little expedition was complete.

As we left Sandia we were thrilled to pass through the Sunday market.  We could forget our night’s primitive accommodations as we enjoyed the picturesque town perched on the side of the mountain.  At the market women wearing  their bowler hats and  full skirts that stuck out almost like tutus were carrying colorful blankets filled with their  goods to sell.  We hated to leave, but our destination was the river and white water rafting, and we needed to go on.

The drive down the mountainside was enchanting.  Everywhere  there were flowering trees and vines.  The road led us through mountain streams, and we stopped to enjoy several beautiful waterfalls.  Mid morning we stopped in a little town for a break and a snack of fruit.  “When are we coming to that mud?” David asked eagerly.  “Very soon,” was Greg’s reply as David danced a jig in anticipation..  That glee soon turned into dismay for the rest of us.   Rains, unusual for what was supposed to be the dry season, had turned the roads to a morass. Just outside the town the wet, single lane road became mud.  Big busses and trucks, like the one that had rescued us the day before, seemed to be the only traffic, and their huge tires and heavy loads had created deep ruts in the road.  Soon we were mired.   Out came the shovels and pick axes to dig us out and lower the road where we were high centered.  We passengers got out, rolled up our pant legs, and tried to help.

This scenario was repeated every few miles.  One place we met a big bus coming from the opposite direction.  We couldn’t move at all, and they couldn’t get past us.  Somehow a chain materialized and the bigger bus pulled us down the mountain until we came to a spot wide enough for the two to pass.

Mid afternoon we came to a little village where there were people milling about or sitting on the ground.  We learned that there were ten or twelve busses and trucks stuck down the road ahead of us and these were the passengers who had walked on ahead.  We were told we had to wait until their vehicles had gone past before there would even be room for us to go ahead.  If these powerful vehicles were having trouble, we knew our little bus would never make it.  What to do?

Finally it was decided that we would wait in this little town until a truck going our way came along.  We would see if it would take us and our gear the rest of the way to Putina Punco while Nancy and her bus would have to find some way to get themselves home.  Turning around seemed impossible on this narrow road hemmed in by houses in the village and with no shoulder in the countryside.  Nancy, the owner was very unhappy, but there was nothing we could do about getting her back home to Juliaca  and the party she was to attend that night.

People in the village told us a truck was expected to come through around 10 pm.  It was now about 3:30, and we hadn’t had lunch yet, as it was waiting at the river, Raul and Willie decided to see what they could find for us to eat, and left to explore the village, which consisted of just this one road and a few houses.  We amused ourselves by walking down the road a bit to see if any of the stuck trucks were coming, and the people in the village amused themselves by watching us.  One by one the vehicles blocking our way freed themselves and roared up the road on their way to Juliaca.

Finally Raul and Willie came back with the news that the only food the village offered was a live chicken which they described as very “athletic.”  The only way it would be edible was as soup.  It wasn’t much food, but it was good and complemented the snacks we had dug out from our gear.   Cold, wet, and muddy, we ate our supper on the crowded bus.

Darkness fell, and so did rain.  We tried to make ourselves comfortable in the bus, but the arms on the seats made it impossible for us to stretch out and the oil on the floor made that unthinkable.   About 11 pm, two trucks came by.  One drove right on past us, but the other agreed to take us on after the driver had a sleep.  He said we would leave around 3 am.

Chilled in the mountain air, we huddled in our rain gear and tried to sleep.  I had finally   dozed off when we were roused and they started loading our gear on a huge, high-sided open-topped truck.  It was 4 am and drizzling.   At last everything was on top of the already heavily loaded truck, and we climbed a ladder to get aboard, trying to settle ourselves somewhat comfortably amid metal raft frames, oars, and boxes of gear.  There were passengers already on the truck, riding under a canopy just behind the cab, and they weren’t happy with the delay.  “Vamose!” they shouted to the driver, banging on the rear cab window above them, and giving us dirty looks because of the delay.

Our relief at being on our way soon turned to terror.  The truck lurched and swayed as it waddled through the mud and ruts.  In the darkness we were unable to see the road, but we knew that on one side of us was the mountain, while on the other was a sheer drop off.  The potholes were huge, some four feet or more deep, and it felt as if we would plunge down the mountainside at any moment.  Once the truck fishtailed, then tilted hard toward the cliff side. Sure that we were going over, I quietly said my goodbyes to the world.  It was OK for me to die, but for my sons and grandson, who had so much life ahead of them, it would be terrible.   Despite our being wet and cold as well as frightened,  no one said a word of complaint.  I was especially proud of David, who only years later admitted to having been afraid.

Finally it grew light and our mental picture of the hazards was confirmed.  At times it seemed we would crash into the side of the mountain, and then we would come perilously close to toppling over the cliff on the other side.  Despite all this, the local passengers seemed unperturbed.  The mothers nursed their babies, the children slept peacefully, and the adults just sat calmly.

As we came to villages on this only road in the whole area, people would get off and goods purchased in Juliaca, the only commercial center anywhere near, would be unloaded—bags of potatoes, eggs, school books, rubber boots, bottles of soda pop, and other unknown articles.  As the truck emptied, I could now try to get comfortable by standing braced against the metal raft frame. A big lurch sent me flying so I that I banged my head on a pole and then landed on top of Brian with my foot wedged between two crates.  If he hadn’t been there I could easily have broken my leg.  Next I tried sitting up high on some of the gear, but decided to move lower when I realized that another lurch could have thrown me onto the blade of a shovel stashed there.

The process of meeting and passing vehicles coming from the other way was amazing.  One of the vehicles would have to back up until a wide spot in the road was reached.  Then the two would squeeze past each other, with only inches between them and inches away from dropping off the cliff. Involuntarily we held our breaths until we had passed.

About 10:30 in the morning the truck came to a halt in a clearing surrounded by several houses.  This was Putina Punco, the end of the road and of our ride.  The last passengers got off and the remaining goods were unloaded.  Then the truck backed down an incline leading to a footbridge across the river.  Local people crowded around, ready to help carry our gear across to our first campsite.   To save carrying the heaviest loads, Raul and Willie lowered several  casks of supplies over the cliff to the water’s edge. The rope broke on the second cask and it went crashing down into the river where the rushing water carried it away, never to be seen again.  Luckily it contained only things we didn’t absolutely need.

Despite that mishap we soon setting up our tents in the tangerine grove belonging to Felix and Rosita.  We had come for a rafting adventure only to find that getting to the rafting was the biggest adventure of all!