Sunday, August 15th: Cuenca to Macara
One hundred kilometers south of Loja is a city so unsure of its character that no sign announces its name. The Pan-American Highway leads you in and dumps you at a round-about. There were no signs of any kind to indicate which way one should proceed. You either know your way or you stop to ask. Chances are the person you pick will rattle on endlessly, repeating as much (or as little) as he knows, until you drive off to the next uncertain choice. There were unmarked "Y" splits and unmarked "T" junctions. Occasionally, three or four roads will converge. Two-way roads suddenly become one-way, forcing a turn off what appeared to a promising path. "Desvias" (detours) have the first turn marked. After that, you're on your own. Following bus traffic helps. Stop and ask, stop and ask again and again until you reach the other side of the city. And once more after you're back on the highway, just to make sure.
The hotel in the "frontier" (border) town of Macara, billed as "new in 2002", was quickly dismissed as too much like a jail cell, not having any windows in the room. The hotel we finally picked had a large swimming pool, filled with the city's kids on a Sunday afternoon outing. Five-foot-tall speakers boomed out over the pool, causing double-vision with every thumping bass note. We agreed to check in when we were told the music would stop at 5:00PM, sharp. That turned into 5:00 PM or 6:00PM, "at the most". At 7:00PM, they finally carried the speakers away, moving them to a party area directly below our room. When the music started again at 10:00PM, I went down and turned the system off, reminding the manager of his promise. All he could say was, "Oh". It was irrelevant; the dog-concert started at midnight, roosters started crowing at 2:00 AM, their biological clocks badly askew, and the traffic noise never died down. At least the birds had the common courtesy to keep quiet until the sun came up.
Monday, August 16th: Peruvian border to Chiclayo
The border crossing into Peru was quick, painless and, for the first time, free! The Ecuadorian Customs people couldn't print the file their Jefe needed to autograph to get our car off their books, so they copied the file to a floppy disk and headed into town to print it there. As they drove off, Elsa noticed a Mercedes van with German license plates which indicated it was from her home in Stuttgart. Introducing herself, she found that the owners had shipped the vehicle from Hamburg to Buenas Aires three years ago and had been traveling around South America in it ever since. We felt like rank beginners, with only four months on the road.
Crossing from Ecuador to Peru was, like crossing from Mexico to Guatemala, as though someone flipped a switch. In this case, however, the switch was flipped to OFF.
The winding mountain road at 10,000 feet dropped down to sea level at the border and became as straight as an arrow. Hills covered with plants and shrubs turned into sand dunes, supporting only weeds, covered with wind-blown plastic shopping bags. Clear air of the mountains was replaced by a low overcast and visibility limited to 5 miles in haze. The sun disappeared, only gloom remained.
Welcome to Peru.
If there was any question about which economy is stronger, Ecuador's or Peru's, the answer was found in the first city we entered. In Ecuador, real cars, small, but economical, are used as taxis. In Peru, most taxis are motorcycles, made into tricycles by adding a second wheel in back and an enclosure for two people to sit in. They dart in an out of the rest of the traffic with wreckless abandon. Large American cars of the boat-anchor era also act as taxis, their gas-guzzling engines replaced with diesel engines to beat the otherwise crippling cost of gas at $3.50 US per gallon.
Tuesday, August 17th: Chiclayo to Casma
Five more hours of driving through the desert, which, except for small villages, is featureless in the gray haze. It's not hot, as one might expect of a desert; it's cold enough to require a jacket.
Chimbote provided comic relief with the most aggressive fleet of tricycle-taxis and passenger cars we had seen. Everybody thought your space was really intended for him and crowded and jostled to get in front. Traffic was heavy and horns were used frequently to clear other drivers minds. We were glad there was no reason to slow down, much less stop.
Casma, variously reported as 40 or 80 km beyond Chimbote, was our destination for the day. Fortunately, the character of the city was the opposite of its neighbor to the north. Traffic was light and the horns were quiet. We easily found the hotel the guide-book suggested and checked in. Before taking us in a tricycle-taxi to Sequin, one of Peru's better known archaeological sites, our driver stopped to buy half a gallon of gas.
At dinner, we met a German couple, Franz and Trautl Magerl, who had lived in Peru and Chile many years ago and were traveling through again to renew old memories. They offered a wealth of tips on the road ahead and suggested the Hotel Aleman, German owned, in Lima.
Wednesday, August 18th
Another long drive along a sand-blown road under cold, gray skies. About 20 miles outside Lima we were stopped by the police for speeding. At first they wanted 320 Peruvian Soles, but quickly reduced it to 160 Soles. Forty Soles (about $11 US), tucked carefully into the officers clipboard, got us speeding again, on the road to Lima.
Driving in the city of Lima is an adventure all by itself. Dodging cars and trucks with horns blaring, every one wanting your space, departing the main road on a "one-sign" desvia, spending an hour trying to find a freeway exit that didn't exist, asking locals who knew less than we did (how far is 164 cuadra, anyhow?), finally became too much to bear. We hired a taxi to guide us to the Hotel Aleman, twenty Soles well spent.
Thursday, August 19th: Maintenance Day
The Jeep went in the shop for new spark plugs, air and fuel filters and a general check-up. The computer diagnostic equipment reported that the 33 sensors it checked were all in order, the most extensive program it has been put through since departing. Elsa went in the shop for a chiropractic tune-up, hair repair, a manicure and a pedicure.
Friday, August 20th: City tour of Lima
We spent the morning under what are called "Donkey Belly" skies (for the light shade of gray), taking a bus tour of Lima. The city center is full of huge government buildings, churches and hotels, like any other city of more than 8 million people. A gazillion little school kids were being herded around the same central square we were in, braving the drizzle and cold, for their chance to see another cathedral. They would have loved the one we saw; the basement was full of leg-bones and skulls, some arrayed in geometrical designs, others piled in dusty bins. The life of a pauper has an inglorious end.
The Malecon runs high above the ocean, which disappears in the winter haze, lasting from May to December.
Saturday, August 21st
We walked from the hotel to the ocean, maybe a half-mile, to visit the lighthouse where the Radio Club Peruana had set up a ham-radio station to operate on Lighthouse Day. Jorge, OA4BHY, was the operator when we arrived. After lunch at Larco Mar, Elsa went back to the hotel and I went to the radio club's station a few miles away. My friend Jack, N6XQ, from San Diego, visiting in Peru, stepped out of his taxi a moment after I arrived, helping me become an instant member of the club, necessary for entry to the "social club" they established to support their building, antennas and equipment. We sampled several rounds of the Peruvian "Pisco Sour" until a few "real" radio operators arrived, taking us on a tour of their station. Nobody seemed interested in operating, so I stepped up to the mike and made contact with the Radio Club de Panama, operating their own Lighthouse Day from Gamboa, midpoint of the Panama Canal.