We crossed the Bolivian-Peruvian border which is located right next to Lake Titicaca, the highest fresh water lake in the world and entered
Peru, the 16th country on our epic journey. Every time we enter a new country, we feel a bit nervous, but are always full of curiosity and excitement about the coming days. As we started driving into Peru, we felt a sense of relief and were in fact laughing about having survived the hardships of Bolivia.
We were on our way to Cusco, one of the most beautiful cities in Peru and the gateway to Machu Picchu. The drive to Cusco was long but when you have a lake as beautiful as Lake Titicaca for company, it is easy to enjoy the drive. We were still driving on the Andes which stretch from Argentina right up to Venezuela. Just like Himalayas, we had developed a relationship and a friendship with the Andes now. We felt that the Andes in every country knew us now and were welcoming us. It seemed like a familiar environment.
We reached Cusco by midnight and stayed at a place called the Loki Hostel where Ravi, who flew all the way from
Argentina to travel with us over the next few days in Peru. The Loki Hostel was his idea,
“It is the best hostel for travellers in Peru. If you don’t stay at Loki, you will miss something unique about Peru” he had said.
He was absolutely right. Loki hostel did seem like a lot of fun. The hostel was jam packed with travellers all of whom were there for one reason. Machu Picchu. The only difference between us and them was that we would be driving as close to Machu Picchu as possible while most of them would be doing a 4 day long trek. We are not lazy, we just umm, didn’t have the time to trek for 4 days. Ya ok, we are a bit lazy too!
After settling down at the hostel, the following day we walked around Cusco city and saw some absolutely gorgeous sights. A fascinating city, Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire. A UNESCO World Heritage Site with well preserved colonial architecture, you can see the layers of history in Cusco by merely walking the streets. Spanish colonial buildings erected directly atop Inca walls line the square, while the modern tourist nightlife flourishes in their midst.
We took a tourist bus to look around the city but when it came to visiting the monuments and ruins, we had to stay out. We couldn’t afford the entry tickets and sometimes, we bought only one ticket which we would give to Prasad so that he could go inside and do some filming. Sanjay and I were happy staying out and having “Helado” – the local homemade ice cream. Unfortunately, during one of our “Helado” stops in Cusco, another incident happened. We bought ice cream, walked out of the shop and as we were totally focused on eating our “Helados”, Sanjay said,
“Umm, where is my camera?”
“What?” Sanjay’s camera was also gone.
Sleeping bags and camping gear in Argentina, Prasad’s camera in Chile, Vehicle breakdowns in Bolivia and Sanjay’s camera in Peru. What is in store for us in Ecuador and Colombia?
We tried to think of the last time Sanjay had his camera with him and we concluded that he left it in the ice cream parlour. We went back to the shop to enquire, but got a cold no from the owner. There was no way we were going to get that camera back.
Sanjay tried to laugh it off but it was another bad experience that was dampening our spirits.
“What’s going on here, every week a disaster is happening” I said
“Look at the good parts, South America is fascinating” Sanjay was still positive
We went back to the hostel and tried to put the incident behind us by having a drink. In the bar, the backpackers were having a party and it seemed like a good opportunity to do some filming.
“We are doing a show for Discovery Channel and would like to cover your bar in our show”, I told the manager. He was very excited to hear about our journey and offered us complimentary drinks!
“Try the Blood Bomb, the signature drink of Loki Hostel” he said cheerfully.
We were all given a shot each of a “Blood Bomb” a local vodka cocktail, there was a little ritual to follow before you take the shot. The Bartender shouted,
“Loki! Loki! Loki!” and the crowd shouted back “Oye! Oye! Oye!” The screaming was followed by tapping the glass on the table and then gulping down the drink in one go.
After a late night party and a couple of hours of sleep, we were up at 4 AM to do what we were in Peru for. Machu Picchu. A lot of groups were gearing up for the long 4 day trek at the hostel and were being given instructions by their leaders. It was a serious trek and everyone was listening intently as the leader was guiding them through the risks, precautions and what they were going to be experiencing over the next 4 days. As for us, we packed our bags, switched on the ignition and drove for 8 hours as close as the car could go to Machu Picchu. We parked our vehicle at Hydro Electric Plant, took a 20 minute train ride and then got on a 10 minute bus ride that took us right up to Machu Picchu.
“Can anybody be as lazy as us? first the car, then train and finally the bus. We made sure we didn’t have to walk a single step in a place where people walk over high mountains for days just to get a glimpse of Machu Picchu” I said.
“We are exclusive, why do what everyone does? If we trekked for 4 days, we would be part of the crowd but now, we are exclusive!” Sanjay laughed
We spent a few hours witnessing one of the oldest ruins in the world, an entire city built on top of a hill and surrounded by mountains in all directions. It is without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca site located 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level. We learnt that Machu Picchu was inhabited mainly by the ‘brainy’ lot of the Incas i.e. the doctors, scientists, astronomers who would carry out their research and exploration work here.
We left Machu Picchu the following day, drove 27 hours straight over the Andes to reach Lima the next evening. Why the
rush? We had a meeting scheduled with the Indian Ambassador in Lima and the only way we could make it on time was by driving continuously overnight. Sanjay and I never have a problem with continuous long distance over night driving, we kept on switching the drivers’ seat, talking to each other just for the heck of it to keep us awake, survived temperature below -7 degrees Celsius on the Andes and finally reached Lima and switched off the ignition at the doorstep of the Indian Embassy. After meeting the Ambassador and the staff at the Embassy, the First Secretary Mr Ajay, invited us for dinner at his place.
“Where are you guys staying in Lima?” Mr Ajay, a short, almost bald, middle aged man, asked us.
“We don’t have a booking yet, if you want, we will come and stay at your house” Sanjay said carelessly.
“Umm, ya, ya, sure, why not, I live alone, my family is in India, you can stay” he replied hesitatingly
“What are you doing? Are we forcing ourselves at peoples’ home now?” I whispered to Sanjay
“It ok, don’t worry, we will save some more, besides he lives alone, we are doing him a favour by staying with him, he must be so bored and needing someone to talk to.” Sanjay had his way with words. We went to Mr Ajays’ lavish apartment where he had invited a few Indians to meet us over dinner. One of them Mr Ravi Krishna, was the Director of the largest hotel chain in Peru.
“Why didn’t you guys contact me before, I would have given you free stays throughout Peru” he said
“Well, we still have a couple of days left in Peru, can you book us rooms in your hotels?” I asked him bluntly
“Absolutely, consider it done” he called his secretary and in 2 minutes we were booked in a luxury resort for our last 2 days in Peru.
We stayed at Mr Ajay’s house that night and left early the next morning to continue our journey north. We were cruising on the Pan American Highway and after a few hours we stopped for lunch at a small cafe called “Restaurante Balsa at km 347”. It was located 347 km from Lima. We had no idea what we were going to experience when we parked and entered the restaurant. An old man greeted us with a warm smile and after seeing our vehicle, the expression on his face was one of pure excitement. He disappeared for a minute and returned with a scrap book which had messages from travellers who had travelled by car, bike, cycle and even on foot on the Pan American Highway over the last 30 years. Whoever stopped at the cafe would write a message for the old man in his scrap book and would leave a small souvenir behind. He was so proud of his scrap book, and when he asked us write a message in the book too, we all felt honoured. We ate lunch and were not surprised when he refused to take money from us. I dont know what happened, but seeing his warm smile, the kindness on his face, the concern he felt for us for doing such a long journey, I felt very emotional and even got teary eyed
“You remind me of my grand father” I told him. He addressed me as his grandson in Spanish and we hugged. We both were teary eyed. Prasad’s eyes were also wet.
Before leaving, I touched his feet and told him
“We touch our elder’s feet in India as a mark of respect. From now onwards, you are my Peruvian Grandfather.” We hugged once again and bid goodbye. In the rear view mirror, I could see that he continued looking in our direction till our vehicle faded away in the horizon.
It took a few minutes before we all were back to our normal selves. In a few hours, we reached “Casa Andina”, Mr Ravi’s hotel chain. As we reached the resort in a town called Tumbes near the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border, we were given a fantastic welcome by the staff. We were made to try every local drink and the dinner table was laid with every local speciality which included Oysters, Lobsters, Prawns, Shrimp, Sweet Potatoes and a lot more! After drinking to our heart’s content and binging on the sea food, we had a nice sleep on our last night in Peru.
The following day we left early to reach the Ecuadorian border. “This border is considered one of the worst border
crossings in South America” declared Lonely Planet. We reached the border mentally prepared for spending a long time dealing with corrupt officers, street vendors, traffic and chaos, maybe some drug peddlers too. But the border was a bit different. It seemed like a brand new complex, absolutely clean, no people lurking around, very quiet, looked like a corporate office with clear sign boards for various departments.
“I keep saying, everyone is wrong about foreign countries. This is by far the best border crossing we have seen!” I said. It was true, we got our Ecuadorian visa in 15 minutes and were free to go. We had no idea what to expect from Ecuador. We had not had any time to do any research on the country, all we knew was that Quito is the capital city and that we could cross it to get to Colombia. We didn’t even have a detailed road map for Ecuador so by followed a very basic map of Ecuador in Lonely Planet, we continued driving north towards Quito. Ecuador appeared very green, very fertile; it felt like we are driving in Himachal Pradesh. We were still driving on the Andes and as it got dark in the evening, we decided to call it a day in a city called Riobamba where we discovered something that got us all very excited. It was the cost of Diesel. We saw USD 1 written at fuel pumps and after filling up 60 litres in our tank, we thought we need to pay 60 dollars.
“15 dollars please” asked the guy at the fuel pump.
“What? 15 dollars? What?” we could not believe it, 1 gallon is equal to 4 litres and we had just filled up 60 litres for a mere 15 dollars! Welcome to Ecuador, we were already in love with the country. It was the cheapest diesel we had bought in all the countries where we had travelled till now in 4 continents! 1 litre diesel cost approx. Rs 15! That was unbelievable.
“Ecuador is the third largest producer of oil in South America” is what I found later on google. That was probably the reason for the cheap fuel prices.
Next day, we drove to Quito, capital of Ecuador and also the highest official capital in the world. We stayed at a hostel called “Colonial House” where a middle aged Ecuadorian woman welcomed us. She greeted us with a warm smile and instantly we clicked with her. People in South America love Indians. Every country from Argentina, to Chile, Bolivia, Peru and now Ecuador, wherever we went, as soon as we said we were “Indu”, every person flashed a big smile and wanted to talk to us. We were pleasantly surprised to see that Indians are so well respected and loved in South America. “Ornelia”, the hostel owner in Quito was no exception. We chatted with her at the hostel and told her about what we were doing. She couldn’t speak much English but offered to show us around Quito. She even called one of her staff members Parco, a young Mexican boy who could speak English to accompany us for a Quito tour the next day.
Ornelia and Parco took us to see the Equator which passes a bit in the north of Quito. We had already seen the Equator
in Kenya but in Geography books, Ecuador is considered the centre of Earth and in fact, the name “Ecuador” is derived from the word “Equator”. A lot of our myths were cleared when we reached the Equator. I had heard somewhere that in the Northern Hemisphere, if you pour water in a basin, it will travel anticlockwise and in the Southern Hemisphere it travels clockwise. Absolutely right. The guide at the Equator did the experiment for us and proved it to be true. He also poured water in a basin placing it directly on the Equator line and guess what? Water didn’t go either clockwise or anticlockwise, it went straight down!
At the Equator we also visited an Amazon museum where a lot of statues, pictures and other items were displayed depicting the life of the Amazon tribes. One of the tribes called the “Shayar” tribe had a weird custom of paying respect to their departed ones. When a family member passed away, they would cut off the head, remove the skull and bones from inside the head, pour the hollow face in steam to evaporate the moisture and shrink the face to the size of a ball, fill the hollow space inside the face with a stone, tie it up and wear it around their neck. In case they killed an enemy, the same procedure of baking and shrinking the head would be followed but the head would be placed on top a long stick used as a weapon instead of being worn around the neck.
Another tribe called “Wuaorani” did something even more weird but practical. The region where this tribe was based in the Amazon had very slimy fish in the waters where the men would go fishing. These fish get attracted by the smell of ammonia and would enter a man’s body through his penis. Once it entered the body, it would expand inside and damage the intestines. To avoid this, the men would lift up their penis, point it upwards, tie it with a string strapped all the way around their waist and that’s how they protected themselves from the fish. Both these tribes still exist in the Amazon region in Ecuador and follow their traditions and rituals even today.
2 days were spent very quickly in Ecuador and after saying our goodbyes to Ornelia, we were on our way to Colombia,
the last country on our South American Leg. We had only heard negative things about Colombia. “Be careful, a lot of travellers like you are kidnapped and assaulted. A lot of drug trafficking happens in Colombia, never ever drive at night, make sure to be very careful with your belongings” these and many more warnings were given to us by a lot of travellers before we reached Colombia.
“Colombia is safe now. I have travelled there 3 times. First time, our bus went in a convoy of 5 buses, second time, our bus was given a police escort and third time, our bus was given an army escort” Parco, our Mexican friend in Ecuador told us.
“What? And you say it’s safe? Of course you were safe going in a convoy or with army and police escort. We are going alone! We are on our own! Will we be safe or should we take an escort?” I had asked him nervously.
“Maybe you can take an escort, we can check at the border” Ornelia and Parco travelled with us till the Ecuador-Colombia border. We asked a police officer on the Colombian side,
“We need a police escort to go to Bogota, can you help us?”
“What? Why? A police escort?” he looked confused. When we explained to him about our safety concern of driving in Colombia, he felt offended but laughed.
“Please don’t believe everything you hear about Colombia, it is a safe country, there are police and army at regular distances, lot of tourists come here, a few odd incidents can happen in any country, don’t worry at all, you don’t need any escort, enjoy the drive and go on your own to Bogota. I promise you nothing will happen. But yes, do take precautions and don’t drive at night time” he explained
That’s all we wanted to hear. We felt relived and entered Colombia, the 18th country on our journey. The police officer was right, we saw police and army camps at regular distances which did mean that there must be some disturbance but we didn’t feel nervous or insecure at all. Our 900 km drive to Bogota was perfectly safe. We did get stuck in the worst traffic jam in the Andes for 5 hours where we were surrounded by thousands of trucks. After driving through the jam, we were still 300 km away from Bogota.
“Bogota is being very difficult. It is the final driving day in South America, I wish it was smoother, it is like we are chasing a moving target” I said feeling frustrated
Our frustration got worse as we continued passing the toll booths on the highway. Every toll charged 4 dollars on average and we didn’t have enough money. Eventually, all our local currency ran out and when we reached the next toll, they refused to let us go.
“No Passe” the women at the toll kept on saying. She wouldn’t let us go without paying the toll. I went to a local shop and exchanged the last 50 dollar bill that we had on us and cleared the toll. We reached Bogota in the night and finally completed our 15000 km trek through South America.
“If nature wants to support you, it will move mountains” Sanjay had said once. We were left with less than 50 dollars but still had to spend a couple of days in Bogota before we took a break and went back to India. While approaching Bogota, I got a call from the Indian Embassy,
“Tushar, please take down the number of Mr Upinder, he is a very resourceful Indian in Bogota, and as per your request for accommodation, Mr Upinder has taken care of all expenses for your accommodation and meals for the next 2 days. Also, we are organising a get together to welcome your team at the Embassy tomorrow evening.”
Done. We would be going back home with the remaining dollars. We reached Bogota, met Upinder, a 35 year old man from Punjab who had established himself in Bogota and was a very successful garment exporter well respected by the local community.
“I came here 5 years back with 500 dollars, today I have 15 showrooms selling Indian clothes and handicrafts all over Colombia and Argentina. People in Colombia love Indians, I don’t think Indians can command so much love and respect anywhere else in the world”.
On our final day in South America, we went to the Indian Embassy in Bogota, where we were greeted by the Indian
Ambassador, a small gathering of Indians and Colombians and were also welcomed by a group of Colombian girls who performed a “Katthak” dance for us. We received dinner invites from at least 4 families which included both Indians and Colombians. We also met an old Indian man called Arun Pal, who rode a bicycle for 4 years from India to Colombia way back in 1972.
“I reached Colombia after riding my cycle through Iran, Turkey, Eastern and Western Europe, US, Central America and finally Colombia” he told us
“Why did you stop in Colombia?” I asked him
“Because I fell in love with a beautiful Colombian woman and married her” he said smiling.
Our South American leg was completed. We had driven 15000 km from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia to Bogota. As I had expected, South America was the most challenging of all the continents so far. It tested us in all ways, its challenged us, it even broke us down at times, but we didn’t give up, we carried on with a positive mind, we carried on counting our blessings, we carried on enjoying every moment and realising that even the hardships, the breakdowns and the tough terrains would give us stories and make new memories that we will continue to remember for the rest of our lives. South America is by far my favourite destination in the world.
If you haven’t been to South America, you are missing out on the warmest and the most friendly people, the most exotic food on our planet, the volcanoes, glaciers, snowy mountains, deserts, jungles and of course, the biggest smiles and the warmest hugs that would greet you if you are an “Indu” (Indian).