TBT - (2004) "The High Road To Adventure"

Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in the world - geographically and culturally. Like Mexico, Peru has had a long history of interesting advanced civilizations prior to the conquest and colonization by Spain in the 16th century. Even today there are still indigenous peoples in both countries that have preserved their culture and language from pre-colonial times.

In 1998 my old friend from the exotic animal biz in Honduras, Charlie MacGowan, had relocated to the headwaters of the Amazon (called the Ucayali River) in Peru. He had settled into a small town near Pucallpa, on Largo Yarinacocha, and invited me to visit. Flying into the capital city Lima on the Pacific coast - to get to Pucallpa I had to decide on taking a commuter flight over the Andes to the Amazon basin or take the long bus trip through the coastal desert, alpine highlands, Andes Mountains and then down to the steamy jungles of the Amazon. I figured there was more adventure in the bus trip.

The buses are big - but without any special amenities. It was supposed to be a 30 hour trip to Pucallpa, as long as there was no break downs, mud slides, rock slides, or bandits - all fairly common occurrences on the only paved road in South America that goes from the Pacific Ocean to the Amazon River. Knowing it was going to be a long trip I stocked up on snacks and put them in my back pack just prior to leaving Lima.

The trip up the west side of the Andes was uneventful - but the scenery was spectacular. The changes in elevation bring about interesting changes in the topography. But that night as we approached the highest pass on the road (about 16,000') I felt an unusual shortness of breath - and then the bus stopped because of a flat tire. We were told to go ahead and exit the bus to relieve ourselves - but I was hit with a freezing rain when I got out and I could not do anything - even if I could find it with my shaking cold hands! Back in the bus, breathing hard and holding it in, we started down the east side (there are actually three ridges to negotiate in the Andes) and found ourselves in a traffic jam that morning where the road had turned to mud. A big Volvo lumber truck was pulling vehicles through the quagmire. That took a couple hours.

After Tingo Maria (the area most noted for bandits) we started following a road high above a local river. This part of the road had recently caved into the river so we were on a narrow gravel track recently cut into the hillside. As I had a window seat on the canyon side I poked my head out to look at how close the rear wheels were to the edge. Looked like a 50-50 chance of a bad tumble as the outside wheel was halfway into thin air over the canyon and gravel was falling away to the water far below.

So 36 hours after leaving Lima we arrive in Pucallpa - longest bus trip ever. Charlie met me at the bus station and we headed for the docks at Yarinacocha for the short boat trip to his compound in the little community of San Jose. We arrive and he tells me to give my laundry to the maid - and that is when I discover that some of the chocolate bars that were in the same compartment of the backpack as my clean underwear had split open and melted over my undershorts. As I handed the shorts to the maid I tried to explain what happened - but neither her Spanish (she was a Shipibo Indian) not mine was that great - and so as a means of demonstrating what I was saying about the mess being chocolate candy I commenced to lick the dark clumps off my shorts. She bolted from the room screaming.

I am now known in the upper reaches of the Amazon River by a unique Shipibo Indian name - the translation of which I will leave to your imagination.