The road from the Peruvian coastal town of Chiclayo to Cajamarca paces out to a tad more than 150 miles, but don't let that fool you. It takes a good three days to negotiate it.
Now, in my book, that's praise of the highest sort. Because people don't venture out on a narrow dirt road that soars from sea level to 13,000 feet hugging mountainsides almost all the way unless they live there, or they want to experience a side of Mother Nature that both literally and figuratively takes the breath away.
My wife, two children and I found ourselves at that crossroads outside Chiclayo in December, several years ago. Three-and-a-half months and 9,000 miles earlier, we had set out from Washington in our VW camper, determined to find roads less traveled. And we had largely succeeded: Already under our belts were the jungle roads of Belize and central Guatemala and the nervous military checkpoints of civil-war-torn Nicaragua.
Now, we kissed the Pan American Highway goodbye once again, and never even hesitated. I flipped the left-turn signal, and we headed toward the Andes.
Some 450 years before, conquistador Francisco Pizarro, his head filled with tales of gold and silver, had led 200 men up a similar Peruvian valley. His goal was the same as ours -- Cajamarca. There he was to square off against an army of 30,000 Incans, kidnap the emperor Atahualpa and bring the Incan empire to its knees for Mother Spain. In the process, Atahualpa's minions would try to ransom him back by filling his Cajamarcan prison cell (which still stands) with gold, and the myth of riches for the taking was to be cemented in the minds of Spanish adventurers for centuries to come.
Our journey was not to be quite so momentous, but it would prove fascinating just the same.
For the first hour, the road edged between the mountain and brilliantly green rice paddies, then, crossing the narrowing valley, it began digging its heels into the scrub-covered flanks of the Andean foothills. By noon, the valley was far below and the dust haze that had dulled the sky had given way to a deeper blue dotted with sharply defined white clouds. The dashboard altimeter had us at about 4,000 feet.
As we drove, a curious relationship between man and environment was becoming apparent: The more rocky, steep and dry the mountainside, the more likely we were to come across the simple, deep-brown, adobe-brick huts of the Peruvian Indians. It was hard to imagine how these small, sinewy people with bright, dark eyes and jet black hair could coax from the dust enough to feed and clothe themselves.
At one point, we rounded a curve and found pressing up against the road a structure that was clearly the closest thing we were going to see to a rest stop. It was a typical adobe building, differing from the others only by the sign over the doorway -- a battered red "Bebe Coca Cola" sign, vintage 1945. Give or take a decade. We stopped and were shyly greeted by two Indian women, both wearing broad-brimmed straw hats. We treated the kids to warm Cokes (no electricity or refrigerators here) and drove on.
The road switched back and forth as we climbed past adobe villages with tiled red roofs and dirt streets. Every few miles we passed an Indian woman walking alongside the road, her hands automatically spinning raw wool onto a bobbin.
By late afternoon we were in Chongoyape, a handsome but impoverished village that boasted a traditional colonial Spanish square and a 20-mile vista of the approaching green Andean highlands. We stopped to talk to locals about a minor car repair, only to be suddenly surrounded by dozens of children just let out of school. So awed were the local children by my son's blond hair that they all tried to touch it. Both kids retreated to the van in embarrassment, shutting the door and closing the curtains, much to the locals' amusement -- and ours.
That night we parked in the courtyard of the headquarters for the local road-repair team. Our strange vehicle drew a steady stream of youngsters and adults into the darkness, and we gladly showed them our van's layout until the night watchman shooed them away. The next morning we awoke to more curious people standing just outside the gate.
We reached Chota by mid-morning, after buying some gas along the way. The "gas station" consisted of an old shack housing open barrels filled to the brim with gasoline. The local mechanic repaired the van -- and spent an hour hammering a shock absorber back into shape. (No one throws anything away in South America, especially not a mechanic. There are no new replacement parts to be had.) The bill for the repairs: $1.
Outside Bambamarca, an old mining town with an impressive Spanish square and church, the road began to climb again. The hillsides grew greener and the road more pathetic, until finally it resembled a stream bed more than a road. The air grew thin and cold as we passed 11,000 feet. We drove until we found a broad pasture just off the road with a panoramic view -- from a high green ridge behind us over tall trees as thin as the air, across a torrent of valleys and hillsides far below.
The owner of the property lived a quarter mile down a gully in a hut with his wife and son. With simple grace, he granted permission for us to camp there.
The next day we climbed higher, and the trees became fewer and fewer. Ahead we could see a pass dotted with buildings. When we finally reached it, we discovered it was a mine, located in an area that had provided rich ore to the Spaniards centuries before and was still producing.
Soon we found ourselves on the altiplano -- the high plains of the Andes. The altimeter read 13,000 feet.
Here was primal beauty -- the sky blue and delicate, the greens tinged with yellow. There was no one else for miles, nothing but gently rolling tundra.
Then suddenly we rounded a corner, dodged a wildly careering bus filled with dark faces and came upon a hut.
A man, his pants rolled up to his knees, was standing deep in mud, leading a horse around and around while another stood outside the circle of mud, shoveling it back under the horse's hooves. The horse-leader was adding a room to his hut, in turned out, and the mud, mixed with straw, was to provide him with the basic ingredient: bricks. He posed proudly for a picture.
By nightfall, the lights of Cajamarca, at 9,000 feet, were flickering in the valley below. I was sorry to see them.