We thought we had it figured out. We would tour Lake Titicaca and get back to Puno at 3:30PM, catch a bus from Puno to Cuzco at 4PM, arrive in Cuzco late that night and get a room at Loki, a backpacker hot spot. Keep dreaming boy, that only works in Germany. This is 3rd world territory, shit-happens-country, and you better come prepared to deal with derailed plans. It was the summer of strikes in Peru; we really should have known better.
Our bus is finally ready for us around 10PM. With the old buses and out of date roads, a 6 hour delay is not unusual for Peru. At this point, however, our journey is no longer a straight shot. The staff makes us aware of the ongoing strikes and blocked roads. The new plan is to ride to the town of Sicuani, get out and walk a blocked section to the next town (a 30 minute walk, we were told), and catch a cab from there that would take us the remaining 6 hours to Cuzco. Still optimistic, we roll with the punches and get ready for a 12 hour overnight journey. Of course as soon as we leave the bus turns into a refrigerator because the heat doesn’t work. Typical. I’m cold and I can’t fall asleep, so I sit and nurse a Cusqueńa, the local brew.
The roads are blocked off by the people of local towns who are taking issue with recent Peruvian legislation. In April, the government agreed to sell mines, parts of the rain forest, and local water supplies to foreign companies. In exchange, the government profits, while locals see their resources and their livelihood pillaged. All in all, 2 out of 3 major roadways to Cuzco are at least partially blockaded.
We get to Sicuani around 2AM and start walking, all the while looking for a cab or a bus. The scene is surreal: miles of semi trucks full of cargo line the road, waiting for the roads to open. Rocks of all sizes are dispersed everywhere. Strikers keeping night watch are huddled around a burning barrel in the middle of the street. And here we are, a group of 12 or so gringos, backpacks on our back, in the middle of the Andes Mountains in the middle of the night, stepping over rocks and trying to avoid stares as we pass group after group of strikers. On top of that, the cold, sleepless bus ride leaves me feeling discombobulated.
We get into the heart of Sicuani and it’s a ghost town. Not a sound, not a soul in sight, except a few presumably drunken homeless passed out in the cold street. We still don’t see any cabs, let alone any cars whatsoever. A lone local on a bicycle approaches us and asks us what we’re up to, where we’re headed. We tell him our plans. His reply sealed our fate. There are no cabs any time soon, he tells us. He says our best chance at finding a cab is 80km away. The news slowly sets in. I see fear and desperation around me, and I feel the tension and worry. For me, however, this is the beginning of the adventure I was looking for when I set my sights on Peru.
My desire for all things epic and heroic only pumps me up for this supposed 60 mile walk. I don’t think ahead much, but at the moment 80km of trekking in sketchy striker back-country at night without proper gear and little food seemed like the ultimate survivalist undertaking. Could we do it?
We get walking and stay close together. Once we leave Sicuani, we are in between cities in the mountains, so you can imagine how dark it is. More strikers, huddled among rocks and burning barrels in the middle of the road, intimidate us with the occasional holler. We are keeping good pace though, even the poor few that are dragging rolling suitcases through this mess of a road. As we keep trekking, I continually add layers, but I start noticing that it’s getting cold. And I’m getting cold, really, really cold. I start to worry, but I keep walking, not saying a word. Yet after three hours my toes start to stiff up and my knees feel like hard, frozen metal. Every step is getting heavier. Even my upper body is getting numb. Unfortunately for me, I’m stubborn, I don’t want to sound like a wimp, and I don’t want to slow down the group, so I keep it to myself. By 5:30AM, after three and a half hours of walking, the sun offers me a ray of hope as it starts to peek from beyond the mountains. My mood is boosted and I am optimistic that I will warm up soon. Alas, the temperature keeps dropping, and I realize it will probably take a few hours for the mountains to warm. Eventually I start lagging behind the group, my mind is tiring, and my eyelids are getting heavy. My body is screaming at me to lay down on the side of the road and fall asleep. Hypothermia. Your body starts shutting down. It was now setting in.
Strikers are not scattered the entire length of the road, but rather blockades work like checkpoints. In between blockades, opportunities arise for an occasional ride. Locals make a few dollars by offering transportation – be it on a bike, cart, motorcycle, or truck – across the few kilometers between one blockade and the next. The trick is to stop short of the blockade; otherwise your tires are mercilessly slashed. Finding a ride becomes increasingly difficult with 12 people, but we managed to get picked up by a farmer in his truck. As we ride in the bed of his pickup truck, every bone, joint, and muscle in my body is trembling. I am passing in and out of consciousness, and I can barely hold my body up. Our group starts to notice. I’m asked if I am alright – no response, I pretend I didn’t hear. We get off the truck and I’m faced with a decision: Either I tell people I can’t continue unless we take a break and I layer up, or I risk passing out in the middle of the Andes and losing a foot to gangrene. Of course, telling meant I would also have to get over my ego as well, and the last thing I wanted was to be viewed as weak. But enough was enough, so I gathered myself and in a faint and distant voice I let everybody know, “I don’t think I can go on. I’ll get hypothermia.” So much for my heroic adventure.
“Well, we got a problem then, don’t we?” responded Jane, with her Australian twang. Looking back, how glad I was for her. She took my situation seriously. She encouraged people to give me clothes and got me into as many layers as possible. She got some food and liquids together for me. She even took my backpack and carried it for me, ignoring my appeals. At the time, I don’t think anyone else, including me, realized how dire my situation was except for her.
I bundle up and I start warming up very, very slowly, but I’m not strong enough to keep up and I quickly find myself in back of the pack again, lagging behind. My will to walk is depleting, and my desire to sleep is strong. My numbed feet are defrosting but they start to hurt. My legs are tired. Every step takes a conscious effort. One leg in front of the other, and again, and again, I tell myself. I’m starting to notice that my mind is not working right anymore. I can barely keep my focus on the road and I start forgetting where I am. Emotionally, I am falling apart. I tear up because I already know what will happen next and it won’t make this any easier – I am going to get extremely sick.
It is 9AM now. Seven hours of walking through the desolate Andes. I am still out of it but now the fever starts setting in. We stop at a gas station to ask for directions and I run to the bathroom. Diarrhea. My mind flashes to a few days back, when I took a fateful sip of tap water on the isle of Amantani on Lake Titicaca. Damn, I was told not to drink tap water in Peru. I’m sure it’s food poisoning. Still, I have to give it my all not to pass out on the toilet seat.
I come out of the bathroom and we continue on. I feel like I am wading through a desert, either high or dehydrated, with no one in sight, and no one to help me. Katie and the group are talking with somebody. In the back of my head a word registers, “hostel.” “Hostel ahead – next city – 6 km.” I have no idea who said it, but I wake up from my daze for just a bit. Get to the hostel, rest. Bed, blanket, sleep. Either recovery or death, but I have to get there, or I don’t stand a chance. We find a young kid on a bike cart, and I climb in. I pass out for a little. I wake up and look behind me, and I see Katie is pedaling. What the…? The kid was running behind us, apparently too weak to push me. I cared very little, nor did I comprehend it very well. I was in a miserable state. It didn’t matter what happened now, just get me to a bed.
We finally get to the town and find the hostel. Aside from my fleeting health, we have another problem. Our group split hours ago, and Jane is now miles ahead. Not realizing we would be forced to stop for the night, she is still carrying my backpack. All our medication is in my pack, and so is my passport. The extent of medicine in this little village is aspirin and some herbs. The nearest hospital is 30 miles away. The roads are blocked, so good luck getting to the hospital, and if you make it there, have fun getting admitted without identification. It was troubling, but there was nothing we could do, and at the time, I was too weak to care.
Around 11AM, after walking 22 miles, I get into bed and pass out immediately. I sleep for a very long time. In the meantime, Katie gets me some food and lots of fluids. Really, God bless her. She was wonderful, caring, and understanding. She was with me the whole time, getting me anything I needed in my time of dying or recovering. Not that she had much of a choice, but she even put up with my frequent bathroom breaks, which made the room smell like illness and disparity.
I sleep all day, only interrupted by an occasional snack or drink. My fever breaks in the middle of the night, as I wake up gasping for breath and shaking tremendously. Every part of me is shivering, but I know this is good news and I just need to get back to sleep so I can have a chance at making the rest of the journey tomorrow.
We wake up the next morning and go over the pros and cons of continuing the journey. I feel much better than the previous day and I think we can make it. My passport, all my clothes, and medication are somewhere in Cuzco, and so are hospitals, if anything goes wrong. We decide our only option is to tough it out and finish the remaining 15 or so miles.
Physically I’m feeling better as we walk, and I’m glad we’re on the road. My emotions are mixed, though. I’m happy that I’m enduring this journey, but I’m upset that I got sick in the first place. My constant need for a toilet leaves me feeling uncomfortable, but most of all, I’m angry. I’m angry at the protesters and blockades, I’m angry I had to undertake this walk, and I’m angry at Peru.
Traveling with just the two of us, we make up ground fast. As a pair, it’s a lot easier to catch rides. In total, we end up walking no more than 8 miles. Our savior comes in the form of a Peruvian man on a motorcycle wearing a Canadian tuxedo.
Not once, but twice, in our weakest moments, this man picks us up and gives us a lift. We ride on his motorcycle, and I realize the fact I have no backpack is the only reason all three of us fit on his bike. How ironic. As we turn the corner of a mountain, a line of semis stretching over a mile, just like outside Sicuani in the beginning of this journey, appears ahead. I can’t believe what I’m seeing; we must be close to the end! Our chauffeur says he can’t take us further, and we get off his bike and pay him generously. Just as we prepare to hike the last couple of miles, a truck full of jubilant Peruvians pulls up. Peruvians of all varieties – farmers, businessmen, teenagers, mothers with children, you name it. The same people we have encountered on the entire walk. There are no exceptions to who can and can’t drive when a road is blocked off. Everybody has to walk and hitchhike. ‘Get in, get in,’ they shout in Spanish. We hurry to get in the truck before it drives away. Although I don’t speak Spanish, I can read body language. The camaraderie is great; people are cracking jokes, laughing, and ecstatic about reaching the finish line.
We get off the truck and I can hardly believe it. We made it. We get into a taxi and ride. Mellencamp is playing on the radio, followed by Cindy Lauper’s “Girls,” a staple in Peru. I’m sitting in the front seat in tears. I’m not crying, but I’m teary. Teary because, somehow, someway, we made it. We made it and I’m not dead but okay and we’re in a cab and we’re going to be in Cuzco soon. 40 miles I walked, all while nursing a fever, food poisoning and almost falling to hypothermia. I’m filled with emotion, and although I try not to show it, the tears say everything about the past couple of days.
Over the next few days, I still linger bitterness over the whole situation. My backpack, intact with documents and medication, awaits us at Loki hostel. I’m still battling the food poisoning and exhaustion, and I can barely eat. But I am truly lucky. I am lucky I survived intact. What a journey, and what a story.