Sometimes the navigation apps on my phone send us along some crazy routes. Luckily this time, some nice locals were on hand to A. laugh at our folly and B. direct us to the correct route to our destination. We were muscling up a washed-out switchback that, in hindsight, we had a pretty good chance of making it up. Like a strong 50%. We heard some whistling and caught sight of a group of men on the road above waving at us frantically.
They pointed us to the detour route around the bend. We thanked them later when our paths crossed on the correct road and confirmed that the road did indeed lead to Laguna Auquiscocha. I butchered the name of the lake but they knew what we were talking about. We drove past a few trout farms and finally ran out of road at the end of a beautiful valley.
We set up camp among some large boulders and enjoyed a couple of nights of solitude. It was just us and some donkeys. We were at a sweet spot elevation-wise. Not so high to be freezing cold and not so low that there were bugs. It was perfect. The hike up to the laguna started right behind our campsite. Unfortunately, we lost the trail right after it started. We were too busy yakking to notice the prominent orange arrows pointing up the side of the hill. We found ourselves at the base of a waterfall at the very end of the canyon with no choice but to scramble up the mountainside until we crossed paths with the trail. Luckily for us, maps.me was extremely accurate on the location of the trail and we were able to find our way back on track. It was a pretty intense uphill slog. We followed some flumes for a while and then unrelenting switchbacks led us up to a swath of water-rounded granite formations at the top of a huge waterfall. We connected the orange dots and arrows leading us over the rocks. At one point the trail became so steep that they had installed chains to assist us with the traverse. We crossed one very sketchy bridge before being rewarded with Laguna Auquiscocha in all of her glory. She was surrounded in snow-covered peaks and we had her to ourselves. We snacked on some peanuts and crackers and headed back down. This time we had no trouble staying on the trail.
Leaving our tranquil campsite, we aimed our truck toward the town of Huaraz. It is not a beautiful town. There is not an abundance of camping places nor affordable places to stay with parking. We are pretty adamant about finding secure parking for The Joan whenever we stay in towns. We knocked on the door of a hostel that we knew to have one parking place. Unfortunately, there was a van housing a kind Ecuadorian family occupying the space. But luck was on our side as they were warming up their engine to leave just then. While we waited for them to move another couple in a van drove up hoping to snag the spot. We were just in time! We found out later that the couple who arrived after us opted to park in the street at a hostel a couple of blocks away and had their spare tire stolen off the back of their van in the night. We felt a mix of gratitude and guilt for our good fortune. For us, Huaraz was all about groceries and grub. We were able to stock up on delightful road-snacks at the grocery stores and fill our bellies with all you can eat vegan food.
After we left Huaraz it was another marathon scenic drive. It started with crossing the Cordillera Blanca through the highest elevation tunnel in the world! The views were magnificent! We stopped to take some pictures and a huge hail storm swallowed us up from behind. It left as quickly as it arrived. We spent the night in a cute little town that was adorned in beautifully carved wood. All of the buildings on the square and surrounding streets had ornately carved balconies and doors. A stooped old man assured us that our truck would be safe parked on the street in front of our hotel. It was a pretty sleepy town and we could see it from our window so we chanced it (with our most valuable items in the room with us).
Driving down along the east side of the Cordillera Blanca, our navigation app once again led us astray. Everything looked good as we headed up a narrow road that would keep us from having to drive through an open-pit mine. We crossed a couple of bridges that were under construction and had to lift up a plastic water pipe spanning the road so that The Joan could drive under. As we drove higher the road became more decrepit. There were plenty of landslides to keep our attention as we followed the switchbacks ever higher. The landscape opened up into llama and sheep pastures and the road became a moist track. Eventually, it became overgrown with short vegetation. We persisted. The road did not. We could see where the road re-formed in the distance so we engaged the 4WD and rolled over a wet quagmire to reconnect with the road. Moments after we were back on track, the road ended for good. Well, for us anyway. We were met with a long rock wall delimiting the boundary of a mine. The road passed through but was blocked by cement pillars essentially marking the end of our endeavor. We had been on this road for over two hours and were flirting with twilight. Faced with choosing between camping up on that narrow road at well over 14,000 feet elevation and driving into the night to find a hostel we opted to drive down. We ended up in a small town called Chavin where we treated our navigational wounds with a family-sized pizza (sans cheese) and what, unbeknownst to Scott at the time, was the last beer he would drink in 2019.
After the disappearing road debacle, we weren’t feeling wholly confident in my navigational skills. It turns out that there was a warning about that road on iOverlander. I had just neglected to read it. We headed up another tiny mountain road hoping that it would actually drop us off on the other side of the pass. I had read that there was a gate at the end of the road that may or may not be open. With our fingers crossed, we rolled forward. In no time we were again enshrouded in beauty. Mordor-esque vistas passed by our windows as the clouds began to thicken. Eventually, we were surrounded in a gray mist. Silhouettes of llamas and sheep emerged and receded into the fog. We were spared the view down the steep hillsides. We passed no other cars. Save for one friendly shepherd, we were alone on that road. Eventually, the gate in question came into view. Open. The gate was open. Such a relief! Night was falling and we needed to find a place to camp.
A hot spring was nearby and we were hoping to camp in the parking lot. We arrived moments after dark and the place was full of bathers. Apparently, the nearest town was celebrating its saint that day. Santa Catalina. Scott wandered around looking for someone to ask if it was okay to camp for the night. He never found that someone but he did find Freddy. Freddy introduced himself, “Me llamo Freddy, como Freddy Krueger.” Freddy was a little bit drunk and very friendly. He invited us to stay over at his house. We were pretty tired and Freddy had a good vibe so we followed him home. He lives with his sister and her husband. We sat in his kitchen and had a cup of tea with him. He offered us bananas and grapes to eat. Scott had a banana and I had some grapes. The third one was salty and gritty. I stopped eating at that point. Our Spanish isn’t great and he was a bit tipsy but I think we talked about the paranormal, the supernatural, aliens, preppers, and 70’s rock and roll. He had a cassette player and a tape of The Who. Freddy pulled out his guitar and played some songs for us. Then he brought out another guitar and he and Scott played together. I did my best to sing along. Eventually, Freddy put us to bed and headed out on the town to continue partying. It was staying with Freddy that gave us insight into why nobody seems to hate the roosters. They can’t hear them. The thick mud-brick walls block out all of the morning cacophonies. When morning came, we tried to lay around long enough for Freddy to wake up so we could thank him for his hospitality and say goodbye. Eventually, we gave up, wrote him a note and hit the road.
I’m pretty sure it was the grapes that Freddy gave me. It is a hard-fast rule of foreign travel. Never eat fruit that you don’t peel. Spending over a year on the road has left me a touch cavalier about hard-fast rules of foreign travel. Around mid-day, after leaving Freddy’s place I started to feel a distinctly stabby sensation in my gut. It wasn’t the worst feeling I have ever had but it wasn’t good. We were at a place called Bosque de Piedras. Freddy said it had special powers. I was hoping they were healing powers. We had to wait for a quick hail storm to pass before hiking. I used that time to purge my insides of whatever demon was haunting my gut. The adrenalin rush resulting from the exorcism powered me through our hike. It was beautiful and it did have great vibes as Freddy promised. By the time we were done hiking around, I had decided that we were not going to be camping. The stabby feeling was becoming more frequent. I had my heart set on getting a hotel room with an attached bathroom. This was no time for the wilderness and a shovel.
We spent the next four days in the town of La Oroya. The hotel we stayed in had secure parking but we could only access our truck for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening. The guy running the parking lot also ran the attached coffin store. Apparently, in Peru, you have to diversify. Scott would go out to the truck and cook food for us when the parking lot was open. He was quite a draw to the locals. This was not a tourist town. I allowed Scott to wait on me hand and foot for a couple of days. Scott would go down to the parking lot to perform his Gringo Tailgate Cooking Show and I would stay up in our room searching the internet for information on how long it takes for bedsores to form and the lifecycles of common stomach bugs. We were really living it up! Eventually, my gut flora stabilized and I was able to join Scott down in the parking lot for the Gringo Tailgate Cooking Show. After giving a tour of our kitchen; here is the stove, here is the propane tank, here is our refrigerator to one family they offered us some of their dough to try. They had a large pot full of dough with them. If our Spanish was better, we would have found out why they traveled with dough but that shall remain a mystery. They explained to me that I needed to roll the dough in balls, then stretch it out and cook it in our frying pan. Scott was hesitant to accept the gift of dough. I, having learned nothing from the previous week’s experience recovering from accepting food from strangers, was happy to sample their dough. I thought I was agreeing to a couple of dough-balls. They insisted on giving us the entire pot-full of dough. We had to provide our own grocery bag to hold it though. We cooked up a couple of dough balls to go with our dinner and put the rest in our refrigerator. It was delicious but sweet. So, we made plans to cook up more the next day to go with our morning coffee.
Leaving La Oroya was not a simple task. We moved out of our hotel room, cooked a pile of dough slabs, only to find that the truck wouldn’t start when we turned the key. We poked at all of the usual things that might make the truck start and were unsuccessful. The man in the coffin shop was getting antsy to close the parking lot down so we had to very quickly move back into our hotel and figure out how to get the truck started. The nice folks at the hotel called a mechanic for us and a guy whose English was about as good as our Spanish hung around to help translate. This is how we learned the word, chispa. It means spark. We had chispa, and the starter was turning, and the battery was connected, and there was gas in the tank, and, and, and, it still wouldn’t start. The mechanic called a tow truck to bring us to his shop which was on the other side of town. A guy showed up and asked us if we needed a tow. We told him that a tow truck had already been called and we were just waiting. It turned out that he was the mechanic’s brother and he was here to tow us… with a delicate-looking steel cable and his tiny Toyota wagon. He was confident that he and his tiny car were up for the job so we hooked the cable to The Joan’s frame hook and crossed our fingers hoping we would arrive at the shop unscathed. Scott stayed behind the wheel of The Joan and I rode with the “tow-truck” driver. It was as close to rush hour as La Oroya gets and it was crazy. People were trying to cut into the space between us threatening to drive over the tow cable. Scott was honking and gesturing but honking and gesturing are just a part of everyday driving so it really did no good. We were towed for a couple of kilometers and then it came to pushing the truck through a couple of side streets to get to the mechanic’s shop. The shop was really just a back yard but it had a roof over it and a cement slab floor. This was good because it had started to rain. The mechanic poked at all of the things, tested the fuel pump, replaced the fuel filter, poked at a few more things, got the engine to turn over but not stay running. He sent us home with directions to return at 8:00 am the next morning.
The next morning, when we arrived about 45 minutes late, he handed us the keys and a note. The note, in English, told us that the cold start sensor had failed and we may want to look into replacing it if it fails again. He charged us 80 soles for his trouble. We thanked him profusely, paid him 100 soles, and headed on our way. 100 soles is about $29. Labor is cheap in Peru.
It was a little disconcerting driving away from there. Our mechanic had not changed anything on the truck. It was a mystery to us what exactly he poked at to get it to start. If it should fail to start again we would very likely be stranded. Knowing this, we shrugged our shoulders and drove off in the direction of a remote park called Reserva Paisajistica-NorYauyos-Cochas. In no time we were back on tiny dirt roads with nobody around to assist us should we run into trouble with the truck. It was really no different than all of the other times we had been alone in the middle of nowhere except now we hold our breath whenever we turn the key.