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Ellen and I arrived in the jungle city of Iquitos early in the evening, and decided to get a room and relax rather than running around looking for internet to check if we’d been expected by our couchsurfing hosts. The city was full of touts trying to book us on jungle tours and expeditions. Since the cheapest ones were seven times our daily budget of $5 apiece, we weren’t particularly interested in hearing the sales pitches.

Upon failing to reach our host the next morning, Ellen and I grabbed a stack of brochures from an info booth, headed to a market area, and sat down over beer to make a plan. There were a few tourist attractions within our price range, so we had a couple of days’ worth of adventures to have in Iquitos. When we went to find a phone booth to call our host, someone called out Ellen’s name from a passing motocar. Iquitos, it seems, is small enough for someone to find us just by asking around. Walter, our couchsurfing host, took us to the waterfront to chat. Clearly, his idea of couchsurfing differed from ours – he immediately launched into a sales pitch for different wilderness lodges in the jungle. When it became clear to him that we couldn’t pay, he encouraged us to spend a few days at his uncle’s place, where we could fish and explore the jungle at our own pace. All we’d have to do was bring some food for the family. This we agreed was in our budget, so Walter was all set to take us back to the hostel. “Umm…” said Ellen, “Aren’t we supposed to be staying with you?”

Once that confusion was sorted out, we started in on the next one. What food should we take to Uncle’s place? Walter insisted on shopping for us, but wanted 200 soles – $70, more or less. That is well beyond a reasonable price for groceries. We talked him down to a much lower price, but the next morning when we saw what he’d bought, we knew we’d been ripped off. What we saw in front of us, a small bag of rice, some pasta, and toilet paper, couldn’t have cost more than $5. Clearly, Walter’s commission for sending us to Uncle’s was about 85%. We were pretty pissed off because it made us look like we were taking advantage of Uncle, rather than Walter doing so.

Finally, we got on a river bus, one of the local boats doing the chicken-run service from village to village. We felt half-excited and quite apprehensive. Was this all a scam, or were we in for the time of our lives?

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Ellen and I spent five days on a riverboat, on our way to the Amazon Jungle. We’d wanted to visit the Amazon but hadn’t thought we would have time. However, as the Andes were getting a little cold for us, we decided to head east into the jungle and see where we ended up. We arrived in the river town of Pucallpa last Saturday, where boats trundle their way toward the Amazon. The locals were quite insistent that we leave right away, as there wouldn’t be a Sunday boat. Ellen and I resisted for a few minutes – the Amazon is north, and we had planned to go south – but in the end agreed that a trip into the Amazon jungle would be pretty awesome. The trip was to cost $30 each for four days’ hammock space on the deck and food. This was a little over our $5 a day budget, but we splurged on the experience.

We were packed in tightly, but not as badly as I expected. Three rows of hammocks lined the decks, most of them thick cloth rather than the woven tourist hammocks we’d seen in Central America. Ellen and I had clearly purchased the bargain basement version – narrow nets of knotted cord. I lined mine with a blanket for comfort and to avoid mosquito bites, but it was too hot to sleep in and the angle of my back was too sharp. I gratefully lay out my bed roll on the cool metal floor and slept under my sarong instead. Ellen slept on the upper deck under the stars, an option I later decided to try when the weather cooperated.

Although the boat was almost a full day late leaving, people were in high spirits. The first night we had to go to shore to buy dinner because the boat didn’t provide meals when we hadn’t left yet. The guys in our section came back with beer and cigarettes that they passed around to all takers. Music played well into the night as groups sat up at the dining table playing cards until the power was shut off in the early hours before dawn. I slept restlessly – I’d had a sore back for days – and eventually gave up in favour of reading.

A variety of locals wander up to talk to me and Ellen throughout the days on the boat. They are eager to check that we’re having a good time and are getting a good impression of Peru. The resident children spend much of their time sitting next to us watching us play cards. They also swing wildly from hammocks and life jackets hanging from the ceilings, hare around the decks giggling and shrieking, and run through the captain’s steering compartment. Nobody seems to be bothered by them at all.

The journey is a mixture of relaxing and annoying. There’s no escaping the people. Whenever Ellen and I sit, a crowd gathers to watch us play dice or cards. When we stand and look out over the river, our tranquility is disturbed by a constant stream of people wanting to chat with us. It’s very sweet, but privacy and quiet time are clearly undervalued here. I moved out onto the deck to get some sleep, and someone stole my phone while I was unconscious. On the other hand, we had nothing to do on the boat but have fun. We had no commitments: we didn’t have to procure or cook our own dinner, as three tasty meals a day were provided to us. Our bags were not on our shoulders, and we didn’t have to set up camp for the night. All we needed to do was admire the scenery, nap when the mood struck, and play games. We taught our dice games to a group of guys, and spent many lively hours laughing, cheering, and groaning. They taught me a dice game in return, which involved rolling to win a house, then a bed, then one or more bed partners, the object being to win more lovers than your opponents. Much joking and laughing was involved. One guy insisted on me teaching him cribbage, which I managed to explain passably well – it’s complicated for beginners!

On our last days on the boat, we wished for a stop in a port. We ran out of water – somebody stole one of the several bottles we’d prepared – and the drinks on the ship were pricy. In the first few days’ stops, vendors sold water and pop, but in the last days they were absent. We stopped at a port in the middle of the night, and several of our gaming partners decided to get off to buy beer. The boat left without them, and Ellen and I felt grateful that we stayed in bed. We, at least, arrived in Iquitos, in the Amazon jungle, as planned.

When Ellen and I were first planning this trip, we expected the roads in Latin America to be awful. We envisioned winding dirt roads surrounded by jungles. In my head I saw sharp curves right at the edges of mountainsides, where a misjudged turn would send you tumbling down cliffs. I pictured roads wiped out by mudslides and bridges on the verge of collapse. I imagined we’d be taking our lives in our hands every time we got into a vehicle.

A winding mountain highway

A winding mountain highway in Peru

Now that we’re here, walking and driving these roads, they don’t seem nearly as terrifying as we anticipated. Yes, many of the roads through the mountains and jungles are unpaved, full of potholes and large stones to avoid, but they aren’t much worse than the logging roads we regularly drive on in the forests of British Columbia. The roads through the mountains are indeed full of switchbacks, hairpin turns, and blind corners, and they have no barriers to prevent you from driving straight off the edge of the road into the valley far below, but they really aren’t so difficult to navigate. The drivers honk their horns at most corners, and keep to the centre of the road rather than approaching the edge. The roads are often too narrow to let two cars pass each other safely, but there are ample pullouts, and most drivers pull their vehicles over as soon as they see another car approaching, rather than risk not being able to get past an oncoming car. Our highway from the coast to the sierra was full of long tunnels and bridges where only one car at a time could pass, but a honk of the horn was enough to determine that no other vehicles were approaching from the other side before we drove on. As for the condition of the roads themselves, we regularly see road workers improving the surfaces and clearing obstacles from the road’s edge. In Colombia, where a few highways didn’t seem to be under anybody’s control, local residents filled potholes and held their hands out for change from passing cars. Here in Peru, we see more highway workers than private cars.

Oops! Not enough room in the tunnel for the both of us!

Oops! Not enough room in the tunnel for the both of us!

Even with all that work, though, accidents still happen. I’m convinced the cities are much more dangerous than the mountain roads, with more cars, motorbikes, trucks, and pedestrians all vying for their share of the streets. However, it’s in the countryside where you see the reminders of the accidents long after they’re gone. I suppose in the city all traces of collisions are cleared up right away, while in the mountains people have space to memorialize the victims. It’s sad, but strangely fascinating to see how different the roadside tributes are from country to country. In Colombia, they reminded me of those at home: a simple white cross with a name on it was the most common marker of a life lost in a collision. In Ecuador, somebody painted a blue heart on the asphalt surface of the road at the scene of each accident. I liked that – even if a driver wasn’t looking at the crosses on the road’s edge, he could still be reminded of the danger of this place in the road. Here in Peru, the people build little shrines for every life lost on a mountain highway. Every now and again as you drive, you’ll see a tiny house open to the road, just big enough for a garden gnome. Some are filled with flowers, others a cross, and many hold statues of Jesus or Mary. The most moving part of the display is that the tiny shrines are rarely alone. Very few people drive private cars here, so most traffic is communal. Sadly, when an accident happens, the car is usually holding from eight to twenty people. One place I noticed had thirteen matching shrines in a row, followed closely by six more of another design.

Despite the road conditions and the reminders of accidents past, Ellen and I feel very secure here in the mountains. Nobody here questions whether it’s safe to hitchhike – the worst the driver would do is ask for money. When we tell people we’re travelling on foot and by car toward the south, they don’t see any cause for concern. We’ve had a few people voice objections to us camping, but mostly due to their fear that we’ll get too cold at night. (That’s a reasonable objection here near Huaraz – I’m going to buy an extra blanket!)

Snowy mountain near Huaraz - Ellen and I shivered in our shared one-man tent and decided to invest in a warm blanket

Snowy mountain near Huaraz – Ellen and I shivered in our shared one-man tent and decided to invest in a warm blanket

Unlike on the coast, where robberies of tourists aren’t uncommon, in the mountains not much is likely to happen to us. We try to camp away from the road and prying eyes, but the small towns police their own and nobody would risk stealing. In a town of a few hundred people, you wouldn’t want the reputation of a thief. Our biggest fears while we’re hitchhiking are usually minor issues: whether we’ll find flat ground to camp on before dark, whether there’s enough dry wood around for a campfire, and whether we brought enough drinking water with us to spend a couple of nights in the same place. It feels liberating to worry about such basic, essential issues. There’s no radio, no television, no news, no politics, no crime – just feeding and sheltering ourselves, and choosing the next place to rest and explore. It’s easy to feel relaxed and free when we travel like this. The only reminder of the more serious side of life is the occasional cross on the side of the road.

If you had asked me three weeks ago whether I wanted to go trekking in the Andes, I’d have answered “absolutely not!” I don’t particularly like walking up hills, never mind carrying all my bags up the mountains with me. However, as Ellen and I have been hitchhiking through the Sierra in Peru, everybody has been asking us whether we’re travelling on foot. When we explain that we’re hitchhiking, the locals look at us blankly. There are no cars here, they insist. We must be walking. End of story.

A stunning viewpoint that we might have missed from inside a bus or car

A stunning viewpoint that we might have missed from inside a bus or car

After a few days arguing with the locals about whether hitchhiking is possible, Ellen and I have just started walking out of town rather than searching for rides. Here in the Sierra, there really aren’t many cars. We could wait by the side of the road for hours and not have a single vehicle bigger than a motorbike or a mule pass us by. If we pass the time trekking rather than standing still, we have the chance to see the countryside and meet more people. We’re not going very quickly – neither of us is in good enough shape to be speedwalking up the Andean hillsides with all our gear – but at least we’re getting somewhere. Our progress is also slowed by stopping to chat to the locals. On the road, we get people stopping us every ten minutes. Some want photographs with us, others want to know where we’re from, and many give us food (fruit, bread, and water) or advice (most of it conflicting) about where to go from here. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Peruvians are ridiculously nice!

World class hikers, right here! Stopped by locals to take our picture, yet again

World class hikers, right here! Stopped by locals to take our picture, yet again

Some days we’ll walk for several hours before a car passes us, whereas other times we won’t even make it out of town. Here in the highlands, though, almost every car that drives by stops, and even the ones going the other way pause to apologize for not stopping. In the past few days, Ellen and I haven’t had a car refuse to pick us up. The drivers and passengers are eager to be part of our journey and to give us a good impression of their country. They don’t get many travellers in these mountain villages, but that we should be here, hiking to the next town, is taken as perfectly reasonable.

A winding mountain road that the locals assume we can trek with ease

A winding mountain road that the locals assume we can trek with ease

We’ve taken to telling people that we’re walking to Bolivia, little by little. “That’s a long way to go on foot,” they’ll say. “Yes,” we say, “but we’ll take rides in cars when we can.” The locals nod seriously. “Oh yes, that’s good. But there are no cars here on Mondays.” “Then I guess we’d better start hiking,” we say, and Ellen and I smile at each other. We’d never have expected to be in Peru trekking in the Andes, but now that we’re here, we’re loving every minute of it.

After the chaos that was the city of Trujillo, Ellen and I decided to take to the back roads of the Andean Sierra. A variety of people warned us that hitchhiking is impossible here, but it didn’t take us long to get a free lift once we were outside of city limits. Within a couple of hours, we had left the desert wasteland surrounding Trujillo behind us and were high in the mountains. Our driver dropped us off in a quiet mountain town and told us to turn left at the crossroads. Instead, we decided we liked the look of the place and didn’t fancy waiting for a ride through the construction zone on the way out of town. It didn’t take us long to find a family willing to have us camp in their back yard.

We shared our campsite with these adorable donkeys

We shared our campsite with these adorable donkeys

Paula, our host, was ridiculously kind to us. We arrived at four and I promptly fell asleep in my tent. At 7pm, it was cold and rainy out, and Paula came over to our campsite to invite us in for hot soup. Their home was spacious and the kitchen was warm and hospitable. Paula served us cups of hot water followed by a vegetable soup. She sent us off to bed again with thick wool blankets to keep us warm. I slept better than I had in weeks. In the morning, she served us another helping of soup for breakfast and wished us well on our journey.

Our second day of mountain travel was just as good. We got a ride to a mining town, Shorey, where over a cup of hot coffee we learned that the road north we were planning to travel on was closed and wouldn’t reopen for some time. We had picked our destination, Huamachuco, from a map, having no idea of the lay of the land or conditions of the road. Unconcerned with this obstacle to our plans, we paid for a ride south to a town called Santiago de Chuco instead, where the temperature was slightly warmer (12 degrees instead of 5) and the views were incredible.

Some of the afternoon's visitors to our campsite

Some of the afternoon’s visitors to our campsite

Our attempts to find a place to camp were less immediately successful – people kept pointing and saying “that way” – but paid off big-time. We eventually found a grassy meadow where (unbeknownst to us at the time) the local children take their families’ sheep and donkeys to graze. We set up our tents and were soon surrounded by a dozen kids asking us to teach them card games. A gorgeous view of the valley and a bottle of merlot that Ellen was able to open with her pocket knife added to the pleasant atmosphere. At the end of the day, Ellen and I decided to watch a movie on my laptop before bed, which we did with several kids’ noses pressed against the screen door of my tent.

Opening wine without a bottle opener - Success!

Opening wine without a bottle opener – Success!

In the morning, Ellen went into town to buy breakfast and find out about traffic south. The roads were almost deserted, so we paid for our spaces in a van heading to the next town over, which was locally famous for hot springs. We stopped and paid a dollar each for our first private hot bath since we left Canada. Leaving town was a bit more difficult, as no cars seemed to be driving after lunchtime, whether we offered to pay them or not. We sat down at a little bar for a noontime beer while we decided what to do, and a local girl offered us her aunt’s yard to camp in.

Little did we know when we accepted her suggestion that Auntie’s house was an hour’s hike up a mountain in the rain. We trudged up the hills with our heavy packs and half-slid down the muddy trail down again. We’re lucky we took her up on the offer, though, because we ended up in another amazing valley. Tia Sabina, our hostess, turned out to have a raised covered platform with a splendid view, right across from a natural hot spring with seperate pools for drinking water and bathing. The springs were sourrounded by earthen walls for privacy, so Ellen and I closed the door and soaked our aching muscles after our unexpected hike. With our tents kept dry by the grass-covered roof of our sleeping platform, and our makeshift hot water bottles filled from the hot springs, Ellen and I were warm and comfortable in the brisk mountain air. We may not be going very far each day, but we’re certainly living it up in the Andean Highlands.

The perfect campsite, right by the hot springs!

The perfect campsite, right by the hot springs!