Sunday Times Feature-Peru Safari
My deep, dark Peru safari-
A guided back-roads odyssey lets everyday drivers release their inner Clarkson
Chris Haslam-Senior Travel Correspondent-Sunday Times
July 3 2016, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
Off the beaten Inca Trail: some of Peru’s most spectacular sights can only be accessed by 4x4
The world’s most redundant road sign stands on the side of the mountain track from Pampas to Mantacra in Peru’s Acraquia district — an inconceivably enormous landscape of 18,000ft mountains, blue-black skies and soaring condors with 10ft wingspans. Sensible roads stay low, snaking through the valleys and taking the long way round, but this highway is stupid. It zigzags up and up and up, turning drivers’ lips blue and making wheezing cripples out of hard-nut 4x4s, before diving down like a broken rollercoaster. The gravel track is exactly one car wide, bordered on the offside by an overhanging cliff with a constant trickle of small stones and, occasionally, bus-swatting boulders. On the nearside, there’s a Wile E Coyote-esque freefall into a thundering river. And it is right here that some clown in the Peruvian Ministry of Transportation and Communications has erected a sign: it says, “No U-turns”.
You won’t find this sign — much less venture onto roads measured in memorial crosses instead of milestones — on the average trip to Peru. But the first guided self-drive to combine this magnificent nation’s coast, mountains and jungles in one whirlwind 15-day expedition is far from average.
“The idea,” says my guide, Paul Boardman, formerly of Lancashire constabulary and now the MD of Perusafari.com, “is that you see the coast, the desert, the mountains and the jungle in a single, epic trip.” And that means long days driving on unforgiving mountain roads that demand confidence, concentration and, when sharing space with speeding school buses, playing chicken with speeding petrol tankers and overtaking speeding explosives trucks, a lot of what the locals call cojones.
It starts in Lima, at rush hour, with a baptism of expletives on the fog-bound Pan American Highway. I’m at the wheel of a brutish three-litre Toyota Hilux 4x4 named Pacha — the Quechua word for earth. It’s superbly equipped, with everything from bottled oxygen to wet wipes and a bag of toffees. Somewhere ahead of me, Paul, at the wheel of Wind (I assume Fire is in the garage), is on the radio, urging me to drive aggressively. But defensively. Buses cut me up. Taxis undertake me. Mopeds with whole families on board weave in and out of my blind spots.
Watch Chris’s video from his self-drive safari in Peru
We swing east, climbing away from the madness and out of the fog. The monstrous wall that is the Andes appears, so huge and so high that I mistake it at first for an approaching storm.
At Chosica, we turn off a perfectly good road onto a rocky track leading into those mountains. The landscape is as terrifying as it is magnificent: raging rivers, thundering waterfalls and llama-flecked mountainsides scarred by massive landslides, one of which forces us to turn back and find an alternative route. But there’s little opportunity to admire the scenery because this switchback road, the crumbling equivalent of a ledge around a skyscraper, demands total concentration.
And that becomes a problem as we climb higher. Five hours ago, I was at sea level. Now, with no chance to acclimatise, I’m close to God. Paul’s crackling voice is counting off the altitude. At 14,500ft, I’ve got a bit of a headache. By 15,750ft, my lips have turned blue, and as we top out at 16,404ft, my vision is blurred and even the car is struggling for oxygen, crawling over the roof of Latin America in first gear. Then, the swirling clouds part, revealing an arena of jagged, snowcapped Andean peaks.
Dinner is on the far side of the mountains in the flower-growing town of Tarma. Tour groups don’t come here, so they never find the Hacienda Santa Maria, a faded Peruvian Downton Abbey with views across the valley and hand-painted wallpaper in the huge dining room.
Llama drama: the animals dot the mountains
“My ancestors ordered it from Paris in the 18th century,” says Paul’s wife, Marisol. “It was brought over the Andes by mule.” The Louis XV furniture came the same way. The original deeds to the property, signed by the king of Spain in 1715, are in a drawer in the room next door. And in an upstairs bedroom, a fleeing pro-Spanish general once hid during Peru’s war of independence. Along with his horse.
Next day, we drive to Tarmatambo, a village on the Inca Trail. Not the Inca Trail with herds of backpackers; the Inca Trail with herds of cows. This tiny, eerily quiet settlement was once a major administrative centre for Atahualpa’s empire. The Spanish put an end to that.
“Pizarro and his men arrived in October 1533,” says Paul. “There was an Inca temple here, so they pulled it down and built the chapel.” It’s small and white and doesn’t look like much until you learn that of all the churches built in Latin America, this was probably the first. This was where all the triumphs and terrors of Catholicism started.
The stone colcas up on the mountainside, used by the Incas for the storage of grain, wool and weapons, are still intact, as is their ancient aqueduct. There’s a ruined palace in one corner, a temple to the dead next door, and the Premier League-sized village football pitch is the turfed-over Inca ceremonial square. It should be teeming with tourists, but, once again, if you don’t have your own wheels, you’ll never find it.
We push east, rolling downhill past roadside piles of drying coffee beans to the exact spot where, contends Paul, the Andes meet the Amazonian jungle. I’m sceptical, expecting a gradual change from the mountains to the rainforest, but he’s right: at Pan de Sucre bridge it’s adios condors and hola macaws. We follow a thrilling jungle track to its end, splashing through streams, dodging fallen trees and resolutely ignoring the drop-offs, and then continue on foot, crossing gorges on log bridges, wading across rivers and cutting a trail through a benign forest in which no one has ever taken a selfie.
Living tapestry: in remote villages, ancient crafts still survive
Sitting on a log, eating sweet wild lemons and watching the birdlife that explodes like a fireworks display, Paul is eager to dispel the image that his trip is a petrolhead beano. “Yes, it’s a challenge,” he says. “It’s not a normal package holiday, and if you’re not a confident driver, it’s probably not for you. But it’s not Top Gear. The vehicles are just the means by which we can get off the tourist trail” — he glances around at the waterfall, the wild orchids, the clouds of palm-sized blue morpho butterflies and the squawking scarlet macaw above our heads — “and discover places like this.”
I wish I’d had the time to drive the full 15-day route, which takes in Nazca, Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, staying in a mixture of desert inns, rural haciendas and colonial-era hotels. Had I done so, I’d have crawled into desert tombs to encounter the pre-Columbian dead; seen dolphins, sea lions and boobies at the Islas Ballestas, Peru’s Galapagos, and joined the crowds at Machu Picchu.
Instead, I say farewell to Pacha in Ayacucho, a city lost during the dark years of the Shining Path insurrection. The terrorists, who used the colonial city as their base, have gone, and the tourists are slowly returning.
There are 35 ludicrously gilded churches here — one, they say, for every year of Christ’s life (shouldn’t it be 33?) — a terrific market selling everything from sacks of the superfood maca to live guinea pigs, and a buzzing folk-music scene, but, as I sip a pisco sour on the terrace of my hotel, gazing across the tiled roofs to the distant mountains, I keep wondering what mysteries are out there. Without Pacha, I’ll never know.
Sunday Times Feature-Peru Safari
Chris Haslam was a guest of British Airways, which flies direct to Lima three times a week from £542 return (0344 493 0787, ba.com), and Steppes Travel, which offers a 17-day guided self-drive trip from £3,735pp, including flights, accommodation and all meals (0843 778 9926, steppestravel.co.uk/peru)