A little further south I stop in at the Leimebamba Museum, where mummies found at the nearby, very famous, Laguna de los Cóndores are now on display. I’m happy to see the entire museum is community owned and run and everyone around is beaming with pride. The unwrapped mummies are particularly cool.
In need of gas, I go hunting for the station I was told about numerous times. Somehow I can’t find it, even though there is only one road out of town. After being escorted by a friendly guy on a motorbike it turns out I couldn’t see it because it’s not a gas station at all, merely a guy on the side of the road selling 5 gallon containers, for the crazy price of US$5.25/gal. I’m a little concerned when I see him wiping out containers and funnels with a dirty old rag, though he assures me his homemade funnel has two different filters, and it’s all good. Riiight. After bypassing the little security latch on the filler in the Jeep, I hold the funnel steady while he slowly adds gas with a soup ladle, slowly being the key to actually make it go in, not all over my hands and flip-flops.
I think this takes the cake for the most expensive gas so far and also the most amusing.
To swap to the other side of the Andes I take a crazy mountain road, apparently glued to the side of sheer cliffs. The views are breathtaking, though I try hard to keep my eyes on the road, a little gun shy of the inevitable suicidal truck drivers on the blind corners. Dropping down out of the mountains to sea level for the first time in many months is a crazy feeling, and I move from lush vegetation, through arid, barren mountainsides all the way down to lush green valleys where rice and tropical fruits are bountiful.
Arriving at the Pan American highway is like a huge slap in the face – one I had no idea was coming. All around I see row upon row of crumbling shacks scattered with enormous piles of trash (some of them burning unattended), trucks and tuk-tuks spewing smoke and people throwing trash out car and bus windows. Even the trees and shrubs are collecting plastic blowing in the wind and where the earth has been turned over for farming, it’s also thick with trash. The air, too, is choked and disgusting – a combination of exhaust fumes, dust and burning trash. Each town I pass through is the same – an enormous dust bowl of crumbing buildings, overflowing with trucks and virtual mountains of trash.
Maybe being off the road for so long has made me soft, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen outright poverty like this since … well, … ever.
This is not the Peru I’ve heard and read about for so long. Somehow this part seems to get left out.
There are, however, a couple of benefits to driving the Pan-Am – gas is noticeably cheaper, it’s almost impossible to get lost (The Pan-Am is by far the biggest road around) and I can comfortably sit on about 90km/h, a speed I’ve not seen for a while. After a couple of hours of extremely flat, windswept desert landscape I turn off and happily head back up into the mountains.
As I climb up once again, the scenery plays out much like the morning in reverse; from dusty filth, to lush green valleys, to arid mountain rockiness.