(Excerpted from Chapter 17: The Inca Trail: The Grateful Unrich…)
Lima, Peru 1-25-95
Arequipa reeks of fish processing. It is non-descript at best, so despite a chronic lack of sleep over the past 48 hours, we quickly grab a bus for Lima.
We pass through a vast desert, humongous sand dunes pocked occasionally with a copper or gold mine. It is surreal and feels like I think it must feel on the moon.
Soon after entering Lima city limits, I know that it will rate right up there with Manila as one of the biggest shitholes on the planet. Think Manila minus the whorehouses and double the amount of garbage haphazardly tossed about on filthy streets. It feels like all six million of the desperate Peruvians who call Lima home are now staring intensely at our money belts. In our sleep-deprived delirium, we see them licking their lips, ready to pounce. The bus station is in a part of town that can only be described as terrifying.
Many Lima residents say the revolutionary struggles of Tupac Amaru and Sendero Luminoso have given way to common thuggery, rampant now even within those two groups. It is what happens when the people are reduced to a once a week meal of beans and rice, while Fujimori and his multinational corporate pals are exporting tons of $350/oz gold every week to be stored under some London bank owned by the inbred Rothschild family.
We arrive in Lima at 5:30 AM and leave at 8:00 PM. We do not sleep. Our foreheads grimy with black soot, our shoes caked with sticky garbage, we board a night bus for Trujillo. Just north of Lima there is yet another police check point. This must be the 10th or 11th of the trip. Peru is turning into an Orwellian B-grade science fiction movie and is about to get worse. The police look over the bus and ask one person to get up and come with them. That person is me. They order me to bring my bag and usher me into a tiny concrete room, just as another gringo is leaving. This must have something to do with Jennifer Harbury – the American woman jailed for supporting the Tupac Amaru. The exiting gringo looks terrorized. I hear one cop say he had some ganja on him. Apparently they let it slide. I brace myself.
As the young soldier searches my bag I tell him in Espanol that it is the rich people and the CIA who run the drugs through Peru, so why are they messing with me – a nickel and dime job on a night bus out of Lima. None present disagree. Embarrassed, their eyes sink into the backs of their heads. I am sent packing in a hurry, after getting the feeling that more than one of these Catholic underlings had something he needed to tell a priest. On my way out I shout that there are way too many cops in Peru, more even than in the fascist United States.
At Huanchaco – where the Pan American Highway meets the Pacific Ocean – we finally stop. We meet two pony-tailed Peruvian surfer artisans named Antonio and Martin. They roll a fat joint and we talk under a palapa, watching cold waves crash and clouds roll in. They say they subscribe to High Times and that a recent issue featured an article detailing Bush and Clinton’s involvement in the CIA cocaine trade. We talk of the Peruvian roll in this scheme. They are from the mountains, here to peddle their hand-made jewelry, most all with pot motifs. We buy a bunch of it.
Jill and I go looking for a room, but the hotels are chock full of Peruvian tourists. We are offered a bed at a private residence for $2.50/night. We gladly accept. We haven’t slept in seventy-two hours. Breakfast brings a new perspective. Coffee, avocado and bread are offered by our hosts for one sole ($.45). A late 2:30 lunch is two soles and consists of tuna steaks, salad, chunky chicken soup and papaya juice.
The beach scene is a nice break from the series of long bus rides. Still, I am glad we covered all this ground, since we had planned to spend most of our time in Bolivia and Ecuador. Judging from the mostly tense vibe here in Peru, I think we had it right. The sweltering heat here is welcome after too many cold Andean nights. There is a feeling of general animosity towards foreigners in Peru, which I can’t remember ever feeling in another country. I can almost feel the hunger here – intense poverty gnawing at people, testing their wills, allowing them to contemplate knocking over some gringo for dinner.
Refreshed – we head north through Chiclayo, Piura and Tumbles. We arrive at the Ecuadorian border early in the morning. The bus goes straight into Ecuador, where we are informed we must take a motorcycle taxi 2 km back to Peru to get an exit stamp. When we return to Ecuadorian customs, throngs of money changers grab at our shirts and yell at us in rapid-fire Spanish. Later we are told that this band of thieves runs on rigged calculators designed to rip off greenhorn travelers. We wait to change money in town. Changing at the border is always a bad idea.
The bus passes huge banana plantations and arrives at a quaint colonial settlement. Cuenca is an oasis after the mean streets of Peru. There is good coffee, good food, comfortable beds, clean linen and cleaner streets. We are out of the war zone and the difference in attitudes is palpable. I like both kinds of travel – the intense treacherous traverse and the tranquilo kicked-back being in the now. The latter after the former is perfect – a Katmandu after a Bombay, a Bangkok after a Shanghai.
We decide we deserve to pig out and are craving lasagna. We walk into a restaurant whose entrance is marked by a smoldering barbecue spit, a rusty barrel over which small animals are skewered – head and all. They are cuy we are told – guinea pigs – a real delicacy in Ecuador. We think lasagna is still our best bet, so we ask the waiter if there is any available here. He’s not sure and runs to the kitchen to explain this dish to the cook. He returns smiling and says it is possible, then quickly leaves to buy the ingredients. We wait about an hour, smoking at a sunny window overlooking the Andean foothills. Finally, the waiter proudly sets our meals before us. The “lasagna” consists of fried eggs atop spaghetti noodles with chunks of roasted goat mixed in for good measure. He asks if it is right. We insist that it is the best lasagna we’ve ever had.
The best part of traveling is done outside of major cities. Banos, though it gets its share of tourists owing to its hot mineral baths, is a small town in a beautiful rural setting. As such it is home to many expatriates, some of whom operate restaurants and hotels here. Their restaurants serve the best and most varied food in Ecuador. Still, we won’t ask for lasagna. La Petit is French-owned, Cafe Aleman serves up German cuisine and Karlsen’s Cafe specializes in Scandinavian fare. There are numerous jungle and mountaineering guide companies here in this crossroads village, where the Amazon Basin meets the towering Andes.
We mostly shun the foreign restaurants, tour companies and backpacker scene. There are many beautiful walks nearby that require no money or guides. Today we cross a swing bridge over a 500’ foot river gorge heading out of town just opposite the bus station. The trail winds its way up a mountain between milpas growing corn, dry beans, potatoes, pumpkins, melons, mangos, limes and plums. Several farmers pass us pulling donkeys with children on their backs, returning to their country homes after a day of gathering supplies at the Banos market. We watch the donkeys make their way gingerly across the wooden swing bridge, steadying themselves to protect their valuable cargo. Some farmers pass riding horses. We think these farmers must have bigger plots. The trail seems to go up into the mountains indefinitely. The silence eases our big city bus station-weary minds.
We take a room at Residencial Puerta del Salado – up the big hill from town and right next to the famous hot springs. There are no foreigners here. They are all down in Banos taking part in the hippie fashion show. The Super Bowl is today. Nothing is heard of it here. Instead there is a call for a march at 8:00 PM to show support for Ecuadorian forces, who have come under attack by the Peruvian Army in the long-disputed Cordillera del Condor. Previous territorial grudge matches have consistently gone to the better equipped Peruvians, but this time the Ecuadorians seem particularly pissed off. They have good reason. Last night twenty Ecuadorians were killed near the border we just crossed. This time the outcome could be different. We are rooting, as usual, for the underdogs.
The owner of Paolo’s Pizzeria – a backpackerless local joint where we frequently eat dinner – tells us the Peruvian incursion is all about oil. The disputed region has recently been found to contain millions of barrels of crude. People forget that Ecuador is an OPEC nation, albeit its smallest member. He suspects that Texaco may be behind the Peruvian provocation, since they know they would be able to more easily bribe and control Fujimori than they will the leftist government in Quito, which currently controls the oil reserves via a state oil company. The multinational oil companies have only recently become active in the disputed region.
This morning we decide we will soak all day at the springs, then take a night bus to Quito. It is a pleasant day followed by a nice ride. We have front row seats and the bus is nearly empty. We arrive in Quito and take an $8 room at the Grand Hotel – a welcome step up from recent accommodations and a refuge from the bustling streets outside. Quito is perhaps the most beautiful capital city I have seen. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks at an elevation of 9,000 feet, the climate on this plateau – which bridges two ranges of the Andes loaded with active volcanoes – is also perfect. The people are friendly as well. Ecuador is quickly becoming my favorite South American country.
We take a city bus to the centro to change money for our trip north to Otavalo. In downtown Quito there are gringos everywhere – lounging in expansive sidewalk cafes, signing up for jungle tours to “authentic Indian villages” and gawking at cathedrals, fountains and parks. Ecuadorian flags are flying everywhere as the citizens of this tiny nation rally behind their troops in this time of war. There is talk that civilians are volunteering with the Army near the border en masse. A feeling of unity and solidarity floats on the cool mountain breeze – a just patriotism, different from the phony version I’ve grown so accustomed to scorning every time my country needs to justify its colonial aggression somewhere in the world.
Otavalo has both a strong dignified Indian culture and a decidedly left-of-center political outlook. The Otavalenos are the proudest indigenous people I have ever met. They have transformed their ancient aesthetic prowess into a burgeoning craft market – the largest and most famous in South America. They are Indians with money. Every Saturday foreign and Ecuadorian tourists alike flock into the city to test their bargaining skills, taking home high quality alpaca wool rugs, silver earrings, ceramic beads , llama wool sweaters and beautiful handbags.
Despite this hectic commerce – or maybe because of it – if the hammer and sickle graffiti adorning most available walls in town is any indication, communism is very popular here. In Banos we had heard from fair-skinned Ecuadorians that “the Indians are spreading communist ideas”. The leftist logos all over town confirm this worst nightmare of the Tradicion y Propriedad right-wing death squad faction – whose rise throughout Latin America was facilitated by the CIA and their international banker bosses. But Ecuador is no Guatemala. One senses that the Otavalenos hold an upper hand that the Quechuas never had. This is born out in election results, which despite the best attempts of the CIA, have shown consistent Ecuadorian preference for socialism. There will be no bloodbath here.
Otavalo is one of those rare places where it feels right to stay a long time and never do a whole lot. A simple walk around the city is a mind-bending experience on par with Varanasi, India. Otavaleno men proudly ply the streets wearing their traditional outfits – blue poncho, white pants and leather sandals. All have long pony-tails. The women are adorned with what must be thousands of dollars worth of gold chains around their necks. They wear blue and white dresses and fold scarves of various colors atop their smooth-skinned heads.
Old men tend Holstein cows, moving from one small plot of city grass to the next, unhindered by cops. Some cows keep the grass down along the Pan American Highway, which runs through town. Small children throw water balloons from second story balconies that line the main street then run into hidden rooms giggling hysterically. Their main targets seem to be uniformed high school girls. We are told that this is a yearly tradition that precedes carnivale. The precocious ninos are not above lobbing their grenades at tourists either. An unspoken rule is that should one of these wet bombs explode on your head, do not get angry. Older boys spend their days playing soccer at the outskirts of town.
This morning we hop a bus that will pass a nature preserve we want to see. All is fine until two children suddenly appear in the road. One is kneeling right in the middle of the highway, head bowed as if in prayer. The other is standing off to the side waving frantically at the bus driver. We grind to a halt. I am expecting Columbian FARQ guerrillas to come out of hiding and to hijack the bus. But the situation is far more serious.
The driver quickly tosses a handful of candy in the direction of the two mop headed campesino rag-a-muffins. They move out of the road and the driver roars onward with a straight face as if this sort of extortion is a daily occurrence. Less than two miles down the road three more children have stretched a roll of bailing twine across the road. The driver – who does not appear as though he would have a large candy budget – mumbles to himself, slows down, then stomps down on the accelerator, sending the tiny banditos scattering into either ditch.
We jump off at the entrance to Laguna Cuicocha Ecological Preserve. A trail climbs sharply past flowers of every hue. Ecuador is a major exporter of flowers. There is even a green flower beside the trail, the first I have ever seen. After a steep three kilometer ascent we are in the clouds, following a narrow crevice that the trail has suddenly fallen into. Occasionally we emerge from the confines of the granite walls and are greeted with spectacular views of a blue-green lake that fills the caldera of this volcano, which has long since blown its top. At times the terrain changes into a snarl of high altitude jungle, abuzz with the songs of a thousand different birds, as colorful as the flowers.
The quiet here produces the inner calm needed to make an important decision. Though we purchased two round-trip tickets from Miami to La Paz, the courier flights only cost $300 each. With the border war still raging and the distance from Bolivia increasing daily, it is wiser at this point to keep heading north.
Back in Otavalo, we find one-way ticket from Caracas to Miami for around $100. Our bags now chock full of Ecuadorian handicrafts, we head for the Columbia border.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com