How to drive in the Andes

Ah, Cusco. Ancient capital of the Inca empire and modern crossroad to all the goods Peru has to offer. It had captured my imagination years ago and finally I convinced my girlfriend to give it a go. After the last lockdown came crashing down it seemed like a really good moment to escape the cold and the empty streets and fly back to South America!

Thing is, since all the flights are to the coastal capital Lima, it is necessary to figure out how to actually get to Cusco, which is still around 1100km away. One option is to fly, but I personally try to fly as little  as possible. Faithful readers may remember my aversion to skipping from one place to  the next without seeing anything in between. Then there is the bus, which is a grueling twenty-four-hour-plus ride few people would recommend unless on a tight budget. Faced with these options, we decided nothing beats a  good old road trip. No face mask, stop wherever you want, see all the best views and quaint mountain villages at leisure. The freedom to roam and explore.

So let’s  get right to it. Step one is to acquire a car of course. Since we arrived for New Years’ Eve we figured we’d use the lazy first day of the year to call some rental companies. Well, turns out that even though Lima is a bustling metropolis of more than ten million souls, you will not find a single rental company available on the first day of the year.

Nor on the day after, which was a Sunday.

Well, at least we could compare some cars online to get into the vibe. All you have to do is click and order, and collect the car next morning!

Or so it says on the website. When we got there at 8:30 the next morning, it turned out a single smiling lady behind the desk represented all the international car companies we had been comparing. It also turned out they were all completely out of cars.

“Oh but don’t worry, I have a car coming in this afternoon you might like”. She showed us a picture of a car I deemed safari-worthy, offering it to us for a mere 2500 dollars a month, over three times the  amount they mentioned on the website. Turns out the website was mistaken: only the smallest two-seater was available at a price we deemed reasonable, but without insurance and without the permit to take it out of the capital. “I might have it ready for you next week, would that work for you?” she managed to utter through her all-teeth smile. We took the hint and left.

In the end we made a deal with a rather shady company advertised through the hostel clerk. The next morning their driver would drop off a pretty nice Sedan for about a thousand dollars a month. Despite all his assurances of full risk insurance, this did of course not turn out to be the case next morning.

A burly, tattooed Peruvian man showed us the rather gangster-looking car, complete with shaded windows. A contract never surfaced, and neither did the insurance papers. We got a scribbled receipt for the payment and a website link where we could supposedly find the car insurance. The spare tire had been replaced by a natural gas tank and the supposedly brand new car turned out to have been bought four years ago, having driven almost 120,000 in the meantime. Both the natural gas and the benzine tank were close to empty. The car was also littered with personal belongings, most suspiciously two A4 sized selfies of the supposed owner.

But hey, we had a car! Our road trip could finally commence and on the upside: apart from the cash, they had nothing on us. No deposit, no copies of our passports or drivers licenses, no signed contract. Either they are very gullible scammers or a very amateuristic car rental firm. We went with the second option, gladly took the keys and started on our adventure.

As we drove out the city, we quickly noticed the pacific coast here is nothing to write home about. Heavy industry, all sorts of shacks and hovels hugging the highway whenever possible and most of all: loads of trash and dust. So we decided to hit the mountains early to get some fresh air and sights. It is good to know that Peru is basically 2500 km of coast hugged by the longest (and second highest) mountain chain in the world: the Andes. Between the high plateau (the altiplano) and the coast lie some of the highest peaks in the southern hemisphere. Since time immemorial people have relied on infrequent mountain passes to cross over, and we (looking gullibly at google maps and decided this one was as good as any. So after climbing to about 700  meters we put up our tent in someone’s backyard as we did not intend to challenge the mountains in the dark, getting perforated by clouds of mosquitos as we set up the tent.

Our particular gateway to the altiplano came into view late next morning. The altitude kept on rising while the road deteriorated. By the time we crossed the pass I was laughing maniacally behind the wheel. My extremities were getting a bit numb and I was having trouble staying focused. The sign said we had arrived at 4727 meters above sea level which explained the onset of  serious altitude sickness. Normally you acclimatize for a while around 3000 meters in order to be able to ascend to the more extreme heights. We had just climbed almost five kilometers in less than 24 hours, which is just plainly a very bad idea. In my defense, I knew the bus to Cusco had to do something similar, but turns out the bus takes a much lower pass and still has plenty of reviewers vomiting. The pass itself was being subjected to a hail storm as we drove past, making the experience even more terrifying.

Late in the afternoon we finally drove into the regional capital Huancayo, where I basically went straight to bed after eating some terrible Chinese food (which I chose to get a break from the ubiquitous chicken-with-rice-and-potatoes), compounding the altitude sickness. We had reached the highlands after two days of driving, and four more would follow before we were to reach Cusco.

This might be a good moment to write a word or two on driving in Peru. Basically, you will not ever do better than 50km per hour on average, and 30 is much more usual. This is because of a number of factors, most of them fairly hilarious to drivers from western countries.

  • The roads. Simply put, even the main arteries aren’t completely paved, and potholes are plentiful, as is more extensive damage from falling rocks, mudslides and earthquakes. Occasionally the road suddenly drops by ten to twenty centimeters, which is denoted by signs basically saying ‘geological failure’ in Spanish.
  • Slow traffic. As roads are usually just two lanes, anything slower than you will force you to keep their pace until you can see far enough ahead to overtake, which in the Andes is relatively rare. As the roads are used by anything from old, smoke belching trucks to donkey carts prepare to take your time
  • Speed bumps. Every village sells something. The fastest (or only) route is straight through a village and every village wants you to slow down for safety and trade. As three hovels seems to be the threshold for being a village, this means lots and lots of speedbumps, which are best negotiated in first gear below 20km/h. The meanest ones are high and steep enough that no normal car can pass them without taking a hit to the chassis.
  • Hawkers and touts. Love to jump in front of your car whenever you slow down to loudly pitch their wares, which are usually pretty limited in their diversity. Common items include fruit, chewing gum, paper towels, bottles of water and stale-looking popcorn.
  • Police checkpoints. There are plenty around, and they want to see all the paperwork before they let you pass. Contrary to reports we read, they were friendly and helpful to us.
  • I have never seen a country with so many dogs, and they love the road. Some like lying down on the warm pavement, to the frustration of all traffic. Some travel along the road, presumably going from town to town. And some protect their territory by pissing on your car when it is stationary or trying to attack it (basically jumping in front) when passing by. All are borderline suicidal and I try to avoid hitting them a little bit less every time.
  • Herders and their flocks often return to their villages using the main road, and although they are skilled people there is usually at least one recalcitrant sheep/pig/llama/goat that prefers to lounge in front of your car with a confused look on its face.
  • Toll-booths. To really pour salt in the wounds, it seems a lot of roads are privatized and thus liable for exploitation, leading to massive slowdowns in front of the toll booths.
  • Endless hairpin turns. This, compared with daily altitude differences of over 2km, is your main occupation as a driver in Peru. Try to keep up with a Peruvian driver for a while and you’ll learn a lot about driving in the mountains, like honking at every turn to alert others to your presence.

There, that should give you an impression of what my first week in Peru was like. The people are very friendly, the climate is excellent, the views are stunning and the beer is good. I would definitely recommend renting a car and driving around for a bit, because the population is mostly rural. To really get a taste of the culture, you need to get out of the big cities and the big tourist destinations. Locals become friendlier and life becomes more relaxed as your travel further out. At some point we got stranded in a mountain village where we were charged less than two euros per person for our room and further along the road a great fresh fish dinner including a liter of fresh juice was less than five euros as well.

After six days of adventure, camping and intense driving we finally arrived in Cusco two days ago, where we were immediately greeted by a charming old town, good food and great music. Hang in there all of you and thanks for making it this far!



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