The Man Who Pays His Way: With no food left and no sign of rescue, fellow travellers look appetising
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 02 February 2008
By the ninth hour of being stranded on a high Andean pass, some of my 52 fellow passengers began to look really rather tasty.
The film Missing depicts the true story of a plane crash on the mountainous spine of South America, in which the survivors could remain alive only by eating the remains of passengers who had perished in the accident.
My chosen form of trans-Andean transport was a bus, not an aircraft. But with the on-board supplies of food exhausted and no immediate sign of rescue, the Hannibal Lecter cookbook began to seem like a good investment.
OF ALL the transportational sciences, arguably the most inexact is bus travel in Latin America. On the average journey from small town to small town, to be told the bus is leaving ahora ("now") usually means "Get on board and we may go in an hour or so when a few more passengers show up"; ahorita literally means "right now", but in practice translates as, "Well, we will start moving sometime soon but before we leave town we're going to drive around the Plaza Mayor (main square) a few times to drum up more business." And even when a specific departure time is shown on the schedule at the bus station, a timing such as "18.30" is merely an indication that, in an ideal world, the company would get the bus to depart at 6.30pm.
Turn up at the Cruz del Sur bus station in Cusco 10 minutes before the advertised 18.30 departure to Nazca, though, and you will be stuck for the night. The timetable on display is four years out of date; the double-deck Imperial coach, as black as the Peruvian night, is actually scheduled to leave at 6pm. It will get going around a quarter-of-an-hour late because of the stringent security.
In the manner of an old-style photographer preparing for a family tableau, the security guard sets up a video camera to get a wide shot of everyone having their tickets checked against passports and their hand baggage searched. Before the bus can leave, everyone has to smile for the camera a second time, as the future feature-film director takes a tracking shot of the entire length of both decks. Terrorism is an all-too recent memory here. As in-bus entertainment, the resulting video would make for more tranquil viewing than the violent DVDs that are shown on board, with the volume turned on full.
Nevertheless, the overnight bus from Cusco to Nazca is the perfect departure for anyone keen to maximise their time in Peru. You can spend a full day wandering the ancient Inca streets, then sleep as you cross the mountains to the town that trades on tourists visiting the cryptic "Nazca Lines". The bus is due to arrive at 7am, which is, conveniently, the time the first sightseeing flight takes off to view these mysterious geometric shapes – known as geoglyphs – that were created a couple of millennia ago. But that schedule does not allow for mudslides.
At 4,300m, the Huashuaccasa Pass is vulnerable to landslips after heavy rain. The embankment over the only highway in this region of Peru gave way, spreading hundreds of tons of mud across the road. Fortunately, no one was harmed; the first vehicle on the scene, which happened to be the noon bus from Cusco to Lima, stopped just short of the roadblock at 8pm. Traffic news on Peruvian Radio is evidently lacking, because my bus was around six hours away when the landslip happened. Yet it merrily continued to the pass that had become an impasse, arriving at 1am. Well above the tree line and just below the snow line, the landscape is lunar. And with the nearest emergency services many hours away, we might as well have been on the moon.
The first rule of travel in Latin America: always have a Plan B. A few unfortunate tourists had not built in an extra day or two to allow for exigencies of travel in Peru. When dawn broke, one German traveller climbed around the mudslide to reach the traffic on the far side. With the help of a wad of dollars, he persuaded someone to drive the 60 miles to the nearest town so he could try to reach Lima airport, and his flight home, that night.
At 8am, 12 hours after the landslip occurred, a dozen men from the highway authority turned up. The nearest bulldozer was apparently 200 miles away, so they could use only shovels and wheelbarrows.
The task of clearing a path through the heavy, sticky blockage would have taken all day, were it it not for the assistance of a truck driver who agreed to use his tail-lift as a kind of rudimentary digger, repeatedly reversing into the mud to scoop out bucketsful of Andean sludge.
I counted 40 buses on "my" side of the landslip; assuming each was full (usually a safe bet in Peru, where public transport is environmentally hyper-efficient), that means 2,000 people were stranded on the eastern side of the range wanting to go west, with a similar number heading in the opposite direction.
To incentivise the dozen workers to go just a little faster, an enterprising woman from the first coach in line brought a hat around asking for one sol (20p) from each passenger as a bonus for the crew.
After three hours (or, from the point of view of the first bus to find the road blocked, 15 hours) they cleared a channel just wide enough for vehicles to squeeze through. The 10-hour wait was over.
Two hours further on we reached the first town, Puquio. The crew planned to continue for another five hours straight through to Nazca, but a passenger mutiny forced a pit stop to buy bread, corn and bananas. After the first meal for many hours, we could at last stop inspecting each other from a nutritional point of view.
In this land of hopes and glories, you need not look for adventure; it will find you.
At Gatwick airport, I used to clean out Sir Freddie Laker's Skytrain DC10s after they had touched down at the end of overnight flights from America. After a seven- hour stint from New York, the cabin was rarely wholesome. Likewise, the interior of the bus from Cusco was in far-from-pristine condition by the time it rolled into Nazca.
We passengers were in even worse shape. Many were carrying on to Lima, another seven hours further on, by which time it would be Day Three of their trip. Pity the poor cleaner at Lima...
On a wing and a prayer
"Jesus Christ" is what you say whenever you raise your eyes above the ancient Inca streets of Cusco. That is because a white statue of the Saviour stands overlooking the city. But the same phrase is likely to be uttered by pilots when they approach the Peruvian city's airport for the first time.
Cusco's runway stands at 3,400m above sea level, making it a prime candidate – along with La Paz across the border in Bolivia – for the ultimate "hot and high" airport.
"Low and cold" is the usual preference among pilots, because at sea level at cold temperatures the air is conveniently dense, making landing more of a pleasure. In the rarefied atmosphere of Cusco and La Paz, touching down at at the right velocity is quite a challenge. And while the airport serving the Bolivian capital is on a plateau with no higher ground for miles, Cusco airport is ringed by mountains, allowing precious little room for error on the part of the pilot.
Taking off is exciting, too, as the weary old jets that tend to be deployed on the route to Lima struggle for enough lift to climb above the mountains – and the statue of Christ.
Even though no-frills airlines such as Star Peru offer fares only slightly above those of first-class buses, many locals still prefer to endure a trip of 24 hours, or more, by road.
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