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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Inca's backyards

Old indigenous lady waiting for a bus in one of Andean towns
After getting my passport back I was directed to the tourist office which was next door. I'd never seen an immigration officer doing that, well I actually had never seen a tourist office in the same building with Customs and Immigration. Paraguay was in fact the most forgotten and undiscovered country on the continent, not only by gringos,* but even by its neighbours and maybe that's why they tried to sell it just at the entrance point. I stashed free maps and started to walk along the main road overwhelmed by the ads shouting from every wall. Ciudad del Este was a duty free zone and cheap electronics and clothes were sold in many shopping centres and on the streets. I was always trying to not have prejudices about places I didn't know, but it's easy to get them installed by others. Drivers from Argentina and even my friends from Brazil were warning me to be careful in Paraguay, they described the place as messy and disorganised. And my first impression was close to their description. But after a bus ride to far outskirts I started to change my mind. Never judge a country by its border towns, they're usually the worst representation. You can apply this rule to almost every country in the world.

I got off in Minga Guazú next to a petrol station and a supermarket and started to hitch on the traffic lights. It took me maybe two hours to find the first ride in Paraguay, and it was a short lift to nearby tolls. The place was well lit, so I decided to try by night, but I gave up after an hour. The tolls were not only friendly for hitchhikers, but also for bus and taxi passengers and even worked as a truck stop. I moved to a petrol station and I was welcomed by a security worker with a massive shot gun, something I hadn't seen since some remote areas of northern Brazil. There was no wifi around, but I had a safe place to crush and clean toilets with a shower. Not bad.

In the morning I needed a few hours to find a lift, so it wasn't as fast as I expected, however I was hitching with a sign saying Asunción which considering the size of the country was far, three hundred kilometres away. I was picked up directly to the capital city by a trucker and I was surprised with his version of Spanish, it was so spiced up by indigenous Guarani language, that I had problems to understand it sometimes. And I bet my driver was trying hard to use the standard Spanish for me as much as he could. We were going through mostly flat areas, only closer to Asunción it became hilly, roadside mango trees were in blossom, small households looked neat and taken care off. I could feel some sense of aesthetics, it felt nice. And it's nice when it's nice.

In the capital I was awaited by Chalo from CS. When I arrived in his little flat he was just working with Geographic Information System for his thesis and it was great to chat about something related to my education. He explained me also a lot about the story with Guarani language. Paraguay was actually bilingual country and while it used to be associated with lower classes and farmers, in recent years it became trendy and many people from the capital city started to study Guarani and show off their language skills. It also became a kind of posh to pronounce the Spanish letter 'r' the same way like in American English, which was unusual and that was influenced by Guarani as well. It was a huge revival of this indigenous language, something not seen in Americas on such a scale. In the city and its surroundings I visited the lazy town of Areguá and the nearby Icaparaí Lake where many locals were chilling out on weekends. I also went to the famous and quite photogenic Mercado 4, a dirty and stinky market where supposedly you could buy anything from fruits and veggies to fire arms and human organs. I hadn't seen any of the latter, though I didn't look under the butcher's counter.

Sculptures by the roadside in Paraguay
Sculptures by the roadside in Paraguay
In Asunción I was considering going straight to Bolivia through the Paraguayan Chaco, but I was told that the road there was in pieces. I loved the idea of hitching such roads, just like my previous trip in the Brazilian Amazon, but now I had a deadline called Aileen. I decided to hitch the Argentinian national road 81 going parallel to the frontier. It was used by trucks bringing cheap cars from Chile's duty free zone in Iquique to Paraguay. After a long bus ride from the capital I arrived in Puerto Falcón where I crossed the border on foot around 8 p.m. So back to Argentina, with good wifi and fantastic espresso on their petrol stations.

After breakfast it took me half an hour to find the first lift. It was a girl on a motorbike who brought me to a checkpoint of Gendarmería where she was working. After another half an hour I got a ride thanks to the officers who asked one Paraguayan driver to pick me up. Cheers lads. I was brought to Formosa early in the afternoon and quickly after I got a ride with another Paraguayan truck. That road would be completely empty without them. In the evening he invited me for a barbecue in one of the roadside restaurants and after a few hours nap we continued together until 1 p.m. the next day. We crossed together almost all the Argentinian Chaco with cacti and bottle shape trees on both sides of the road as straight as an arrow. I was dropped at the junction with Ruta Nacional 34. In one and a half day I did nearly eight hundred kilometres, I was very close to Bolivian border.

At the junction I found a station with showers, so I first washed myself and then my clothes which in the heat of Chaco dried up within an hour. In a few minutes I got a lift to Tartagal and by the end of the day with two more rides I arrived in the border town of Pocitos where I camped next to a police checkpoint. In the morning I spent the last Argentinian pesos which were worthless outside the country and crossed the border with that beautiful mix of excitement and fear. Again, I heard some stories about Bolivia, everyone was saying that it was the poorest and the least developed country on the continent. From one side it meant that everything was really cheap and I devoured a massive amount of empanadas right after the border. From the other side I was wondering how was the safety like, how hitchhiking would be or such a trivial thing as public transport. I couldn't see any buses, only tiny minibuses without too much signage, imported usually from Asian countries. One of them took me for a few cents to the Customs Office in Pajoso where truck drivers were doing they papers. From there I was picked up in just a few minutes. Was hitchwiki wrong?

I read there that hitchhiking wasn't easy in Bolivia and that locals expected to be paid for a lift. Speaking Spanish was probably helping me and it wasn't a problem to ask the driver if he could pick me up for free. The surprising thing was that he said he would never take any money from a hitchhiker. Was he an exception? When he found out that I had a decent camera he asked me for a photo session with his lorry and then invited me for dinner. We parted in Villamontes from where I got a lift for another ten kilometres very soon. I quickly learned that cars with stickers along the top of the windscreen were taxis and I started to ignore their beeping and other attempts to take me for a fare. After a few minutes wait I was picked up by a sports car with Argentinian plates. The guy was Bolivian living for years in Salta and now on his way to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. We had a few beers on the way and at the end he told me I changed his life. Sometimes hitchhiker works as a psychoanalyst, the anonymity lets people open up. I shook his hand wishing all the best.

It was late when I got off the car, to the city centre and all the hostels was still far and I was so wrecked that I decided to crush wherever, even on a secluded street, specially that it looked like a safe, well off area. It was my first day in Bolivia and already all the fear of unknown was gone. I got up before the sunrise and went to the centre to look for a hostel. Santa Cruz was an old colonial town with beautiful architecture and a peaceful vibe. It felt a bit like Brazil, most people were of mixed ethnicity and they seemed very friendly and open to foreigners. Even though no one from Couchsurfing could host me, many people wanted to hang out and I had to choose with whom to go out that evening. First I grabbed a few beers with Julia and later I was invited for dinner by Ericka. She had to work till late, but because she was the manager, she decided to invite me to the restaurant where she was working. Combining work and fun is possible. After closing we went out dancing with some nice electro beats and I could hear another shocking life story.

Ericka was born in Santa Cruz, but her parents migrated to Spain when she was a kid. On her trip to France a few years ago she was stopped by police and even though she spent most of her life in Europe her papers were not totally okay. She was arrested, sent to a camp for illegal immigrants and deported to Bolivia. Her parents still lived in Spain. That's what civilised western world was doing all the time, separating families. It was hard for her to find herself in the new reality, she had no friends, almost no relatives, she felt like a stranger. Crazy shit. The next day we went for lunch together and filled it up with ice cream and coffee on the beautiful Plaza Principal enjoying the lazy Sunday afternoon. Soon after I grabbed my backpack from the hostel and hit the road again hoping that Ericka would have a chance to travel freely like citizens of Europe, Chile or Brazil and that she would see her parents again. Life can be so unfair sometimes. We don't choose a place to be born.

In order to start hitching I had to avoid the madness of suburbs so I first took a taxi to Satelite Norte and than another one to Warnes. It took me a while to sort out where I could pick it up from and I arrived at a petrol station when it was almost dark. Local stations were different than the ones I knew so far. International brands didn't exist anymore on this market after the nationalisation brought by Evo Morales, the socialist president. Their standard was low, there were no shops or cafeterias, no wifi, however some still had showers, especially in the lowlands with its extreme heat. After nighttime fight with leafcutter ants, which ended up with a broken tent pole, I got to Montero early in the morning. I jumped there on a cheap motorcycle taxi to get closer to the toll booth and police checkpoint in one.

I got the next ride almost immediately with a truck and something was not adding up again. I heard and read before that hitchhiking was slow in Bolivia also because all the vehicles were very old. I couldn't see any of that. Many trucks still had their original license plates so it was easy to tell where they were imported from. Sweden, Norway, Germany and other European countries. They were all quite new. My driver told me that Morales changed the law and the tax for second hand vehicles wasn't high, but it was illegal now to import cars and trucks older than five years. Smart. By the end of the day I arrived in Ivirgarzama after getting stuck at one point for a few hours. Locals showed me coliseo, a roofed basketball field when I asked them where I could camp. Perfect protection from the storm building up that evening. There was a sign cemented to the wall which read: 'Co-financed by the European Union.' In Bolivia?

There were other projects like that, for a long time Europe was trying to create jobs and take people away from growing coca. Americans were doing that in a different way, they had their troops and DEA** agents in the area to destroy plantations from air. Morales, as an ex coca grower, kicked the Americans out. Coca was grown and used by the locals for centuries, even before the Inca Empire times. Only in the end of nineteenth century German scientists isolated cocaine from leaves. The majority was grown for local consumption in the form of leaves that were chewed or used for teas and medicine and now it was legal again in Bolivia. In the same time farmers who sold them on the black market were prosecuted, following the policy called 'Coca yes, cocaine no!'*** This policy started to bring positive effects, United States didn't want to acknowledge that though. Morales had courage to tell the great America: 'out of my backyard' and try a new approach to the problem. European Union, against the US, started to support him in that financing for instance electronic system of registration of the farmers and transports. Will America start seeing things soberly one day?

Cable car in La Paz Bolivia
Cable car in La Paz
Early in the morning I got a lift very quickly and that lorry was going all the way to Cochabamba. Following a few hours of easy drive through the plains the road started to wind up the mountains. Dark green jungle soon disappeared in a thick fog. We were swimming in this milk for an hour or two and when it finally started to water down, I saw pine trees, lakes and potato fields. The tropics in the morning and temperate climate by midday. I had a quick look on the historic centre and then started to look for a minibus to get me out of the city. I wanted to keep on going, somebody was already waiting for me in La Paz.

I first took a minibus to Colcapirhua and then one more to Vinto. There was probably a way to get directly to the petrol station in Vinto, but it was hard to find such bus. The station wasn't the best place to hitch, mostly taxis and buses were using it, so I took a taxi to get to the tolls in Suticollo. Half the booths were not operating, there was some kind of holiday going on and a good crowd, with beers in their hands, was dancing to loud music. Yes, at the toll station! What a free country.

The night was cold, I was actually shaking while packing my broken tent on a potato field in the morning. At the tolls I saw people, usually old ladies in their traditional clothes, hitchhiking. They were offering money, probably less than a bus fare, so here I definitely needed to mention the word free to not be surprised. After a few hours I got a ride with one family to Parotani. Behind that village the road was climbing even higher up onto the top of the freezing Altiplano. In half an hour I was picked up by a truck with extremely heavy load and our speed rarely exceeded fifty kilometres per hour. We reached the roof of Americas after many hours of breathtaking drive.

From Caracollo we were driving along a dual carriageway which was still under construction, so even though it was finally flat, our speed was low anyways due to the roadworks. Beside some short urban sections, this was the first proper express road being built in Bolivia, maybe the highest road like that in the world. It would connect La Paz with Oruro, cities located more than two hundred kilometres away from each other. Another myth about Bolivia busted. I heard only complaints about the condition of their roads and maybe secondary roads were in a bed shape, but the main roads I saw were absolutely fine. Morales was pumping gas money not only in the infrastructure, as a matter of fact, but in many social projects as well. The country was going through rapid changes and it looked like the society was benefiting. There was one concern about Morales though, he was trying to tamper with the constitution in order to stay in power. He was elected democratically, and in democracy no one stays in charge forever.

'Here's five Bolivianos for the taxi.'
'No it's okay, I can walk,' I refused while putting my backpack on.
'The junction is too far, just take it. Tell the driver you wanna get to the junction with Ruta 4.'
'All right, thanks man.'
A minute later I was inside a taxi and he was right, the junction was quite far on the other side of Patacamaya. The national road 4 was used by many trucks bringing stuff from Chile, it could be a good spot, but once I arrived it was already dark. Camping here, in the Altiplano? No way, I had to continue. I put my fluorescent vest, scribbled La Paz and the first lorry stopped. Two hours later I was inside the cosy and warm apartment of Guely.

I met Guely in Valpo, she stayed in La Valija Hostel for about two weeks. She was an artist producing noise music and that was the reason she went to Chile, they had a noise festival in Valparaíso. I spent a few days in La Paz and we were usually hanging out at her place and messing with music, but we also went out to some events organised by her and her friends or did some sightseeing. One day we went to El Alto, the satellite city built on the verge of the plateau which became larger than La Paz itself. The latter, located in a natural bowl, simply started to run out of land to spread. In El Alto there was a massive flea market every Sunday, probably the largest in South America and the view during the shopping was amazing. Old ladies in their traditional clothes, La Paz at the bottom and the white majestic Mount of Illimani reaching the deep blue skies.

La Paz was the seat of the country's government and obviously was going through many changes even more intensely. The municipality introduced the first few lines of proper city buses with large comfortable vehicles with wifi on board. The idea was to eradicate all the minibuses that were uncomfortable and caused massive traffic. Getting to one with my backpack was a real hassle. The government decided to connect La Paz and El Alto in even more effective way than buses. It started to built a few lines of cable cars. The first line was freshly opened and we took it with Guely on our way back from the flea market. It could take ten passengers every twelve seconds and the ticket cost almost as little as the bus ride. The thrilling view was included.

After the nice chill out in La Paz I headed further northwest, towards the largest lake on the continent, the famous Titicaca. I first got to El Alto and then got stuck trying to figure out which minibus could bring me to the city limits. There were hundreds of them. The traffic in El Alto was immense and the interesting thing was that the traffic cops there were women wearing the traditionally looking dresses as well as reflective vests. I had to go through the pain of packing and unpacking my stuff into these tiny buses three times to get me to the tolls in Vilaque. Shortly after I got a lift with an old man to Huarina. The traffic became scarce, trucks used different road to get to the Peruvian border, so I was down to tourists and pilgrims going to Copacabana. I walked for a few miles until a four by four stopped to bring me to the ferry crossing in San Pablo de Tiquina. Red evening sky was reflecting in the crystal clear water of the lake. The wooden ferry was very wobbly, but it brought me safely to the other side of the narrow strait between two basins. Once it got dark I could see lightnings in the distance, I started to look for some shelter. One lady suggested me to pitch the tent in front of her house and I agreed, however, after hearing the first drops I moved to a construction site round the corner. My cheap tent wasn't good enough for a storm, especially now with a broken pole.

The nights weren't as cold as I first thought, it was around zero at dusk, doable. It took me two lifts and maybe five hours to reach Copacabana. The town was full of pilgrims, local basilica was a shrine famous throughout Bolivia and Peru and people were just celebrating one of the most important holidays of the year. All the vehicles had windscreens colourfully decorated. Crucial part of these celebrations was taking place on the Calvary Hill and I climbed it with other pilgrims with all my stuff on my back. At the top shamans were doing ceremonies holding crucifixes and large bottles of chicha**** or beer in their hands, always spilling a bit for Pachamama before taking a sip. The sun was reflecting at the endless waters of the lake, the scent of burning wax was mixing with a smell of flowers and herbs just like Catholicism was mixing here with local beliefs. It felt beautifully weird and weirdly beautiful.

The border with Peru was only ten kilometres away and I got there just before the sunset with a couple who never picked up a European before. The first thing I noticed after crossing the border were the three wheeled auto rickshaws, just like the ones on the streets of Asian cities. I didn't expect them at all. After maybe an hour spent in one internet café the town had a sudden blackout, probably caused by the upcoming storm. Buildings around the main square had arcades so I sit there wondering where I could camp. I couldn't see anything, total darkness. A few minutes later some guys with uniforms and torches showed up so I asked them outright if I could camp where I was sitting. They didn't mind. I had no clue who they were, it wasn't police, more like private guards. Why did they spent all night there? The first day in a new country.

After grabbing a warming drink, and locals on both sides of the border had yummy hot beverages made of corn, quinoa and other grains and seeds, I marched till the end of town where I got stuck for a few hours. The only cars were unmarked taxis and minibuses, no trucks whatsoever. I took one of the buses to the junction with the main road but there wasn't much more traffic either. It looked like even less people had private cars here than in Bolivia and if someone had one, it was operating as a taxi. A few cars stopped, but when I mentioned a free ride they drove off without a word. Around midday finally someone was curious enough to listen to my story and not charge me for a lift.

People in the Altiplano looked so different than in other regions, their faces, the colour of their skin, their clothes. They were mostly Aymara and Quechua peoples. They not only looked different, they were behaving differently, they seemed more distant and cold, they were replying with just a few words and not asking too many questions, they had no curiosity of who I was and what I was doing in their land. Of course there were exceptions, but that was my general impression. Was it caused by geography only, the harshness of the climate, or maybe after the arrival of Spaniards they became like that to protect themselves and their culture. Or, maybe I was doing something wrong. Anyways, the cultural difference was huge.

An hour later I ended up in the town of Juli. Marching towards its outskirts I was wondering how long would I wait this time. How shocked I was when the first car stopped and the couple replied to my question: 'of course we'll give you a lift for free!' They dropped me off in Puno where I grabbed a local fish from Titicaca lake for lunch and jumped on a minibus to the periphery. Peruvian cities away from tourist routes had a strange feel. Already in Bolivian Altiplano they seemed exotic, all those houses with unplastered rough brick walls and huge metal doors. In Peru they looked similar, but hundreds of the auto rickshaws on the streets gave them even more oriental vibe. Just after getting off the bus a familiarly looking car stopped in front of me. 'Get in, we gotta go to Juliaca.' Another lift with the same couple!

Around three pm I arrived in another chaotic city. A bus that even had a number displayed, got me to a police checkpoint far outside the centre. It took me maybe an hour to find a lift, this time with a prison guard on his way to Ayaviri. We drove through the tundra like environment, dark apocalyptic clouds were hanging low. Our conversation looked like an interview, first he asked me dozens of questions about my trip, then it was my turn, I still didn't understand so many things in this place. I got off on the bypass hoping to find another lift before the dusk, but the plan didn't work, so I walked to the roadside restaurant to warm my body with a coffee. The owners were very forthcoming and invited me to try kankacho, grilled lamb which was a speciality of Ayaviri. They also told me there was a newly built bus terminal in town and I could crash there for the night. Brilliant.

It took me only ten minutes to find a ride the next morning and it wash a truck going straight to Cusco. The driver didn't expect any money for the lift and told me that truckers usually gave lifts for free. It was a different story with many private cars, they were expensive and there was no way to bring second hand ones to the country. That's why so many vehicles were cheap Asian brands including all the rickshaws. Buying a car was an investment that had to be paid off some way, running a taxi was one of the options. My driver did trips to neighbouring countries and we played the comparison game. I received also many tips about food and what was worth trying. Peruvian cuisine was famous all over South America and maybe even further, and the best was that I could get two course lunch here for as little as one dollar and fifty cents.

Walking in Cusco was like walking in a dream. The colonial architecture with stone walls and Mediterranean style roofs was absolutely beautiful. And all the churches every few steps, it was like a Peruvian version of Kraków. As one of Peru's top tourist destinations the city was well taken care of and the chaos of other cities seemed so distant. In the evening I ended up in a hostel run by a guy called Pakari, his hostel was called in exactly the same way. It was cheap and located only a minute walk from the main square. Pakari found me there a spare tent pole. Cool spot. One of the first things I wanted to do was confirming what I'd already found out about the cheapest way of getting to Machu Picchu. I couldn't imagine skipping this wonder.

Ruins of Machu Picchu Peru
Machu Picchu
Most backpackers were getting there after a few days trek along the Inca Trail, from the other side most tourist were taking the fast train from Cusco. Both options were quite expensive. Of course I could try to hitch as close as possible, but it could take days as it wasn't close to any main road and most traffic would be tourist related. I had twenty three hundred kilometres and two weeks left to make it to Tumbes for the arrival of Aileen. I had to make an exception from the hitchhiking only rule. The best option was a a six hours bus to Santa María, then another two hours bus ride to Santa Teresa and finally a taxi to Hydroelectric Plant. From there by foot. And that's what I did after two days spent in Cusco. I left most of the stuff I wouldn't need in the hostel. Climbing Machu Picchu with twenty kilos on my back could be painful.

The bus ride was boring as hell, how people could travel this way. No chance to speak with the driver, no view of the road stretching in front of me. Most people with earphones in their ears or snoring. There were three other travellers on the bus, but I had a chance to speak with them only after arriving in Santa María. Two of them stayed for the night in the next town and I continued the trip with a tall Viking looking guy called Ernesto, who in reality was from Argentina. We quickly realised we were on the same wavelength. After getting to the plant we filled up our stomachs and started to march along the train tracks surrounded by jungle. It was hard to believe that I was shivering the same morning.

We walked for two hours out of which the last twenty minutes in the darkness. In Aguas Calientes we went straight to the ticket office and I got my ticket without problems, but Ernesto ended up with nothing. He thought that as a citizen of Mercosur country he would have a discount, but it was available only for residents of the Andean Community. He didn't have enough money and straight away started to send messages to his family and friends in Argentina to get some help. To be so close and not enter? The same evening we met with Taisa, the Polish Brazilian from Foz do Iguaçu. We were in touch since I left Brazil and I knew she would have a uni field trip to Peru, but I was still surprised that the timing was so good for both of us that we managed to meet. First she popped in to my hostel and now we were both at the gates of Machu Picchu. After a few beers I went with Ernesto to the only camping in the village. I wanted to get up well before the sunrise.

I met with Taisa and her Peruvian friends at the entrance gate, where the queue was already building up. All of us wanted to climb the Machu Picchu before the hordes of tourist would come there by buses. We started to climb the neverending stairs around 6 a.m. It was a trek full of sweat and short breaths. After an hour we reached another gate where our tickets were checked and I was forced to leave my backpack in a locker and pay extra fee even though everyone else was entering with backpacks. Why? Because. Great service ladies and gentlemen. I was trying to ignore it, I knew that after a few more steps I would see it. The sun was already brightening the highest peaks surrounding the Inca's town. The first view was definitely breathtaking, specially after the trek. How did they build it? And why here? This place had something, though, I wasn't one of those who felt connection with ancient civilisations, cosmos or aliens, it didn't have any spirituality to me that so many people claimed it to have. Maybe I wasn't that spiritual, or more likely, my spirituality had nothing to do with places like that, for me it was just a beautiful place. And I mean really beautiful.

Walking downhill to Aguas Calientes was much easier and we had a lovely chat with Taisa on our way back. I was happy to see her again, that was the real beauty of travelling, not just meeting people but meeting them again. At the camping I talked with Ernesto and two couples from Chile who just arrived. Everyone wanted to know how was it and I preferred to say: you'll see it yourself. I came back to Cusco the same evening and after one more day in the city I hit the road again.

I wanted to go straight to Lima, but one couchsurfer from the capital told me she would be in Huancayo with friends for the weekend and I was more than welcome there. I heard that most drivers going to Lima were choosing the road PE-30A via Nazca and then along the coast. However, the distance between Cusco and Lima via Huancayo was nearly the same. And now I had someone to visit there. Let's do it.

I had a lazy morning and pretty much like always arrived to a good spot very late. From the final stop of the minibus I started to walk towards the last petrol station in Poroy. Suddenly I heard: 'hey, polaco!' Who the hell knows me here? It was one of the couples I met in the camping site in Aguas Calientes. We tried to hitch together for a while, but it looked impossible to find a ride by night. Ochin and Max wanted to look for some flat meadow, but I told them to camp at the petrol station. They'd never really done it before and were surprised seeing our tents pitched just like that at the staff car park. The night was freezing, but how enjoyable was the hot shower in the morning. It was hard to close the tap.

I was really surprised with the amount of traffic, I was hoping for plenty of trucks, but the road was kind of deserted. We met two lorry drivers at the station who were willing to take us, but they were still waiting for a phone call from their boss, they would move maybe in one hour, maybe the next day. The time was passing lazingly on the roadside, we grabbed one beer, then another one and another. It was nice to hear the Chilean accent again. Finally late in the afternoon, the two drivers waved at us shouting: 'pack your stuff in, we're going! Ochin and Max jumped into one truck I moved to another. After maybe an hour of talking I fell asleep, the beers did their job.

I woke up when the lorry stopped. I quickly checked the map. Fuck, we passed the junction for Huancayo.
'I'm getting off here, I told you I want to go to Huancayo,' I said still half asleep.
'But you gotta go to Lima first.'
'Why? There's a road from Abancay that goes to Ayacucho and then to Huancayo.'
'No truck is taking that road.'
'Well, there should be some cars at least.'
'Maybe, I don't know, I would go to Lima first.'
'That's like twice as far, I will check that road.
I said goodbye to the drivers and my hitching compañeros and started to look for any open shop, I was starving. It was 2 a.m., but I still found one and then I camped until five.

I was picked up in the morning within ten minutes and after one hour I was back to the junction. It didn't feel like I lost that much time. For another lift I waited one hour, this time it was an old four wheel drive with a young lad inside. He dropped in Carhuacahua where I quickly found another ride at the bed of a small truck. The air smelled with eucalyptus, snow capped Andean peaks were surrounding me. It was perfect morning. After arriving in another village I switched my map on to see what was its name. What? Where the hell am I? It looked like I missed the junction while going with the 4x4. But I hadn't seen any. I asked the road workers and they told me this was the main road to Ayacucho. Were both the maps I had wrong? I decided to continue, but the only traffic I saw was heavy machinery paving the road. After a few more hours I realised this road was being closed from time to time, my chances to pass through were close to zero. The lorry driver was right, I had to go by Lima. And he was driving all the way there. Eh, let's go back again.

After an hour I had a lift back to the junction with the main road. With a bit of luck getting to Huancayo for the weekend was still possible. One hour passed and nothing, another hour, no change. I asked one guy walking by where I could get water and his answer was: 'river'. On my way to check it out I saw a small truck so I waved from the distance and he stopped. I climbed through the open roof to the empty back and first saw two backpacks and then two guys lying on the floor. Colombians. One of them was deaf so his friend was translating, but they both had a brilliant sense of humour. Suddenly we stopped, the side door opened and two more hitchhikers jumped in. Holy shit! Pancha and Pelao, the second Chilean couple from the camping near Machu Picchu. Unbelievable.

The road was winding up the mountains and we were talking, walking in circles, taking pictures or lying motionless. Guys were also juggling and making jewellery to sell on the streets. The only thing missing was water, no one had any left. With every hour passing it was getting colder, we started to put more clothes and finally we all ended up wrapped with our sleeping bags. The night was really cold, but I managed to had a few hours sleep. When the truck stopped it was just before the sunrise and when I heard from the driver his trip was over I ran straight to a nearby stall to grab water. I drank like a camel.

Road PE-1N through desert north of Lima Peru
National Road PE-1N north of Lima
I was in the city of Nazca, surrounded by the desert with its famous geoglyphs. After walking for a bit together I wished the Colombians luck in their further trip. Pancha and Pelao left earlier in the search of cheap accommodation. When I trudged to the city limits I refreshed myself as much as I could and stuck my thumb again. A moment later I was sitting in a comfy lorry's cabin. The road PE-1 was the main artery of the country spreading from the border with Chile to the border with Ecuador. Its large part was in the motorway standard and it was packed with trucks.

I was dropped just behind Ica and got stuck there for a few good hours. It was like 2 p.m. when I finally hitched a ride to Lima. Those few wasted hours could had been enough to find a lift from Lima to Huancayo and arrive there late in the evening. But now I had to forget about it, it was too late. Once I spotted the waves of the Pacific the road turned into the motorway and we drove mostly in silence for another few hours. I got off close to the historical centre of the city. I had two things to do that evening: call people in Huancayo so they wouldn't wait for me and find a cheap accommodation. I was in bed by ten.

Lima felt grey, maybe because of the constant curtain of fog and clouds hanging above the city. I didn't feel like staying there for another night. The interesting thing was that it had a big China Town with really good and affordable restaurants locally known as chifas. Lima had the largest Chinese community in Latin America. In the evening I took a bus to Ancón and got off at the weighbridge close to which I camped. I still had seven days and only twelve hundred kilometres to the meeting point with Aileen. Hitchhiking was relatively good most of the time and I made that distance in three and a half day, usually with trucks. Behind the windows for all that time I had different shades of white, yellow and grey, the desert that began in central Chile was spreading almost until the frontier with Ecuador. Thousands of miles of wilderness with only small patches of green in the valleys.

Instead of going straight to Tumbes where the airport was located I spent the last three days in Máncora. It was the most popular tourist destination in the north of Peru, mostly because of the good waves for surfing. The town had plenty of hotels and hostels, restaurants served cuisine from different parts of the world, it was clean and tidy for Peruvian standards and the sun was shining all year round. I spent most of that time near hostel's pool or on the beach, which meant ouch sunburn. I went to Tumbes the day before Aileen's flight and it wasn't an easy hitch this time. It took me five hours to find a lift to the city that was only hundred kilometres away. Five hours in the sun. Auch. I crushed for the night in yet another petrol station and in the morning marched to the city centre. 'At one o'clock, on the cathedral stairs on Plaza de Armas.' That was our deal. I checked the time, four hours left. Only four hours.

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* Gringo - in most Latin American countries this word means foreigner, usually white, from places other than South and Central America. In some countries its meaning is narrowed to people from the United States only.
** DEA - Drug Enforcement Administration is United States federal agency tasked with combating drug smuggling within the country and abroad.
*** Coca yes, cocaine no! - a colloquial name of the policy. More info and data available on Andean Information Network website.
**** Chicha - in Bolivia it's a fermented alcoholic beverage made of maize. In other Latin countries other ingredients can be used and it can be non-alcoholic.