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.