Between a rock and a hard place….

Between a rock and a hard place….

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This installment should have been posted before our “Sacred Valley” portion because it occurred when we were traveling to Cuzco, but hey, it’s South America, things happen differently here!

While planning this trip, we had always talked about parking the plane and taking ground transportation to those parts of the continent that are inaccessible to us via air. The Andean highlands of Peru is one such region. With valleys as high as 15,000 feet and peaks at 19,000 feet, it’s pretty obvious that the terrain is out of reach for Emcinco. Coupled with the fact that it was the rainy season in Cuzco at that time of year and that aviation weather resources are limited, taking a bus was certainly in our future.

There are some great long distance bus options in Central and South America, nice modern motor coaches with reclining seats, toilets onboard, movies and wifi. We bought tickets for the Nazca to Cuzco overnight bus for about $35 each. For a 14 hour trip, it’s an inexpensive way to travel.

After parking the plane at the Nazca airport, we wandered around town for the afternoon killing time before we got on the bus at around 9 PM. This massive two story motor coach pulled up to the terminal and soon we were on our way, winding along a steep valley road towards the east.
We had dinner, watched a bad movie, then settled in to try and sleep.

Around 5 am, just as dawn was breaking, the bus came to a stop. We were already half awake so we peered out of the windows to see what was happening. Nothing was that obvious to us at first glance, perhaps they were swapping out drivers as they usually do every few hours.
We sat there for about 40 minutes and finally I figured it was worth venturing outside to see what was going on.

The first thing I saw were rocks in the road, a landslide perhaps? It didn’t look like a normal landslide with dirt and debris though, it looked as if the rocks were put there by somebody.
I chatted to some fellow bus mates from Brazil and they had heard that the road was blocked by protestors from the nearby village. The villagers were protesting because they wanted a new road through their small settlement. What better way to get your point across than blocking the only good road that runs past the village! We walked up and down the road for a while, looking at rocks and the long line of stopped vehicles and wondered when the road would be opened again.

At first we were told it would open at 4 PM, then someone said 12 hours, then it was 24. The information we were getting was vague and always changing. So we sat there. And we sat there some more. Hours went by. It was getting warmer. We were going through water at a fast pace. People were getting grumpy. The toilets were getting nasty!

After a while, a group of about 100 police dressed in riot gear marched down the road, past the bus and towards the protest. Our spirits were lifted. We were going to be moving soon enough. We heard some clashes up ahead, saw some smoke from burning tires, the party was winding down and we could get going. Or so we thought.

The bus fired up and started inching up the road, then it stopped, turned around and went back down the road. Wait……..what? We parked again and shut down the engine. “The road will open tomorrow or the next day” they said. We asked the drivers and the little conductor guy ( I’m convinced he was about 15) what they had figured out as an alternative plan. Well……nothing! They had no idea what to do next.

Ok, time to figure out our own plan. The guys from the bus company said that we might turn around and go back to the last town and get food, water maybe even a hotel for the night. This sounded dubious to us since all the other information so far was unsubstantiated, and seemed to change hourly. The bus company were clearly trying to put a positive spin on things and create a false sense of hope. We had heard that you could walk past the protest, through the rocks and along the the road to the next village about 5 kms away and catch another bus or taxi to our intended destination. This was a risky strategy but perhaps we had more control over our own destiny than staying and being fed bad information by the bus company and the police. It was a difficult decision to make, we were tired and a little scared of what we might find around the corner. We felt anxious about not knowing if we should stay or if we should leave the bus. After lots of back and forth it was time to grab our bags and go.

Not so fast! The little conductor didn’t want to release our bags! He wouldn’t open the baggage compartment without authorization from the company. Well now he was about to experience a mutiny from the angry bus passengers who would form their own protest if he didn’t give us our bags.

Tempers flared, water was running low, some people had been ill before starting the journey and were feeling worse, and pre-booked expensive tours in the Sacred Valley were in danger of being ruined. We demanded our bags and got them. 17 of us left the bus with all of our stuff and started walking up the road. The Brazilians and a few others stayed behind, believing that the bus would go back to another town for the night as promised. It was slow going. Some of us had backpacks, others had the hard sided suitcases that don’t roll well. Of course no one had a rolling suitcase that was designed to go 5 kilometers over rocks and debris!

The first part of the road had a few rocks scattered across, a couple of tree limbs too. The closer we got to the village the more rocks we saw. We walked past some tires smoldering in the road.

The police were sitting around watching football on TV with the villagers!

Up on the steep slopes above the road, protestors had scrambled up and were rolling rocks down on the road below. This was the scary part, the risk was that a big rock would splinter when hitting the road, and there would be flying debris. They had even diverted an irrigation canal in the hopes of creating a mudslide.

We kept weaving in and out of the debris on the road which was getting thicker as we went along. At one point the police stopped us because the rocks were being flung down the slopes and crashing onto the roadway just ahead of us. It looked like we were stuck. The police yelled at the protestors to stop throwing rocks, there was no guarantee that they would comply.
We waited. I left my bag and scouted out a possible route through the bushes on the side of the road. It looked doable since the bushes provided a bit of cover so we went for it, in groups of 2 and 3, leaving a smaller target for the protestors to aim for with rolling rocks.

We would be lying if we said that weren’t a bit scared at that point.

Eventually all of us got past the choke point unscathed and made our way through some more rocks for about another kilometer before coming to the open section of road.

The taxis and mini busses were there waiting for us licking their lips! We were just glad to get through the carnage and find more transport options available to us. By now it was getting dark. We fiercely negotiated the best possible price all the way to Cuzco ( a 6 hour drive ) and hit the road, stopping only for fuel, snacks from a little shop and a resupply of coca leaves that the driver offered at a chapel at the top of a pass.

The adventure wasn’t over yet! Driving up a steep mountain pass in the cloud with zero visibility at night had us all wondering if we would ever get to Cuzco in one piece. At this stage we had been going for about 22 hours and were very tired. The mini bus was packed solid so sleeping was impossible. In our group there were Argentines, Germans, some Spaniards, a Dutch guy and a guy from South Korea. The only thing to do was hang on when we went around the corners and chew coca leaves to stay awake.

This was the day that would never end. But it finally did, when we rolled into Cuzco at 11:30 PM in a rain shower. We had made it! 26 hours after leaving Nazca.
We flopped into bed exhausted.

5 days later we were walking through Machu Picchu and bumped into the Brazilians from the bus. We were curious how it had worked out for them and eagerly swapped stories. The guys from the bus company had lied to them again. They had spent another night on that bus on the side of the road in complete misery! Fed up, they walked out the next day, following in our footsteps.