We have spent most of the past two months in Ollantaytambo, where most people get on the train to Machu Picchu. That means tons of tourists come through, many for just a few hours. It’s a small town, though, and being around for this long, plus being part of the Casa de Wow community, means that we have become friends with lots of Peruvians. At the same time, there is a constant stream of travelers – most of them English-speaking, and so the U.S. doesn’t seem that far away.
The Plaza de Armas in the center of Cusco is overrun with tourists, mostly also just in town for a few days. They come from all over the world, and are followed around by people trying to sell them hats, shirts, selfie sticks, keychains, weavings, paintings, and all manner of other artisanal goods. Women with llamas (or baby llamas in arms) walk around waiting for you to take their picture for a few soles. On Hatunrumiyoc, the pedestrian-only street with famous Inca walls and a friendly guy portraying Pachacutec, I chatted (in Spanish) with a guy selling paintings. In the middle of the conversation, in English, he said “maybe some weed?” “Como?” I replied. When my mind is running in Spanish, I often have trouble parsing English words as such, especially in a Peruvian accent. “It’s good Inca weed, very natural.” So yes, we have spent most of our time on – or close to – the Gringo Trail.
On the road to Abancay
In early April, though, we left Cusco for Abancay, stepping quickly off the Trail. In the bus terminals, you’ll often hear people calling out destinations, and sometimes they will come over to you, ask where you are going, and try to get you on their bus. But we haven’t experienced anything like what happened when we left Cusco. We came in the doors, loaded front and back with our little and big packs, and a few people yelled destinations at us. Perhaps it was a mistake to say “Abancay”, for then we had two guys and a woman all trying to pull us to their offices. I went with the woman, who promised (falsely, it turned out) a bus leaving 30 to 60 minutes before the others. When I came back to share information with Leticia, the other guys were back too, and we had five different companies bidding for our business. This meant that the price came down from 20 soles per person to 15, then 14, then 13, and then they were all bidding 13, saying that their bus was newer, the seats were more comfortable, that driver over there was a drunk, and probably more we didn’t catch. In the end we rode with Ampay, which left ten minutes after the Bredde bus, and evidently before the others.
We had travelled the road between Cusco and Abancay once before, in February 2012 on the twenty-hour ride from Lima to Cusco, but we did it in the middle of the night, so the sights were all new. The drive starts like the drive down to the Sacred Valley, but at some point around Anta you head west instead of north. After a bit in the valley, we crested a pass and started our way down, the kind of descent where you can see the bottom of the valley, but don’t get there for half an hour. The bus was equipped with a sign displaying the current speed, and this never got above 70km/hour, spending a lot of time between 30 and 50 km/h. The bus assistant came through stamping tickets, reminding everyone that the bathroom in the back of the bus was just for pee. Once in the valley we rolled through Limatambo, even hitting 90 km/hour on a straight section, the fastest I saw all day. Near Limatambo we joined a rushing creek filled to bursting with red water. This eventually joined a much larger, cleaner (up until the junction) river that had to be the Apurimac, the largest river in the region. We followed the Apurimac for a while, then left it, heading up the south side of the valley. To the north were impressive snow-capped mountains, peeking between the clouds, and also between the curtains, the non-working (thankfully) televisions, the emergency hammer, and the head of the sleeping people across the aisle (hence no photos of the snow-capped mountains). Twice we went back down to river level and then hundreds of feet above it when the canyon narrowed, and finally we started up the far end of the valley, past Curahuasi, which looked like a fun small town to explore, past Sahuite, where there is a great carved stone, and past the turnoff for Cachora, where a French couple, the only other foreigners on the bus, got off, presumably to trek to Choquequirao, some impressive Inca ruins accessible only by two days of walking. Can you be mobbed by three people? From the window it seemed that they were, in fact, mobbed by three cab drivers, all wanting to take them the 15km to Cachora. With all the flooding in the north and on the coast, tourism is way down in Peru, which perhaps explains the frantic competition for any business at all.
At the far end of the valley we could look back and see the switchbacks we had come down over two hours before. There is a part of me that still holds the landscape of my childhood – the flat streets of Indianapolis and the cornfields of northern Indiana – as what the world is like, and it rebels at the verticality of this landscape. It seems…unnatural.
Street scene, Abancay
Not long after that we were over another pass, heading down toward a big-looking place that had to be – and was – Abancay. Our seven-year-old Lonely Planet says there are only 14,000 people in Abancay, but it has to be larger than that. We found a taxi, and found a hotel. After Cusco, which is overrun with hotels and hostels catering to foreigners, it is startling to find no hostels with kitchens, common areas, book exchanges and the sort of things foreigners like. Our hotel seemed mostly geared for business travelers and party-goers.
Math at Hotel Saywa
Because Abancay is a party town. The road up and down the hostel was lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs with strobe lights on as we walked to find supper, ice cream shops, a casino, liquor stores, and tons of pharmacies. It is about 3000 feet lower than Cusco, and so a lot warmer. We saw hardly anyone in traditional indigenous dress, and even a few tank tops and shorts. We went to sleep to a symphony of thumping beats and car alarms. We saw no gringos in two days there and none at the bus station on our way out.
And so we headed on, toward Andahauylas…