Over the Andes from Nasca to Cuzco

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Friday, September 10, 2004

Stark, desolate, bleak, barren, wild, cold and windswept.....these adjectives appropriately sum up the landscape along the steep ascent from the desert coast in Nazca, to the Reserva Nacional Pampas Galeras. Within less than 90 km, we had left the desert heat behind and were shivering in the clouds at 12,900 ft. Although the area is barely inhabited by humans, the vicuņa population appears to be thriving in a designated sanctuary. Smallest of all the highland animals, the rare vicuņa produces the finest wool in the world. Previously used solely for making the Inca's clothes, vicuņa wool today is exorbitantly expensive, so it is little wonder that the endangered animals are officially protected.

We couldn't resist pursuing a mountain track in search of a campsite near the aloof and elusive animals. We enjoyed being perched high on the pampa at close to 13,000 ft, watching the surrounding hills starkly silhouetted against the deep azure sky as night fell. We were prepared for the cold with our longjohns and sleeping bags, but hadn't counted on being hit with 'soroche' - the inevitable altitude sickness. Thus, after a somewhat sleepless night we decided to make an early start on the downward slope. Fortunately the headaches had eased by time we reached the small town of Puquio. We had intended to stop only for a minute to pick up some buns for lunch, but soon found ourselves engrossed in a very colourful Sunday flag raising parade, and chatting to some of the local townsfolk.

The road from Puquio once again became a series of sharp curves as it rose out of the valley back up to a height of well over 13,000 ft. Vicuņa were no longer in evidence, but were replaced by hundreds of cuddly alpaca - white, brown, black, gray and even multi-coloured - feeding on what seemed to be little other than 'ichu' grass. A series of high-altitude, desolate lakes provided a haven for cold-weather pink flamingoes, and a perfect setting - albeit somewhat higher than we were comfortable with - for our lunchtime cheese and tomato buns.

In striking contrast to this arid landscape, the road soon dropped down through a deep, ruggedly spectacular canyon. A newly-built highway (Japanese funded) made for a very pleasant drive through the gorge to Abancay. We had no problem finding places along the river to camp during the nights, and enjoyed stopping in small villages for our evening meals. Imagine getting a hearty creamed vegetable soup, fried breaded chicken with rice, french fries and a salad, and a steaming cup of sweet herbal tea for a mere Cdn $1.00!!

The last 80 km from Limatambo to Cuzco traversed a lush agricultural plain, backed by the snow capped mountains of the Cordillerro Vilcabamba. With the rains expected shortly, the fields were crowded with teams of oxen busy ploughing, and even some campesinos beginning the seeding process. In close proximity to Cuzco, the wealth of the area was evident through all the newly constructed, handsome adobe houses. Our first glimpse of Cuzco came from the upper rim of the bowl in which the city is nestled - a sea of red-tiled roofs dwarfed by numerous towers and spires of the world famous cathedrals and churches. Winding our way slowly down into the heart of the city, we could feel our excitement rising in anticipation of exploring the ancient Incan capital.

However, before even thinking about visiting the multitude of Incan and Spanish sites, we had to attend to a basic housekeeping chore - filling our propane tank. Not such an onerous sounding task, you say? Well, after being told by many individuals that Cuzco didn't have a propane gas plant, we persevered and did manage to locate one on the outskirts of town - but by the time we got there they were closed for the day. The next day we went back, and were glad to see that they had a small tanker with the North American hose and connection that fit our tank. Problem solved?....not so fast! They couldn't fill our tank unless we could take it off the van to take into the plant, as it was against the law to fill it attached to the vehicle. No problem, maybe they could fill us up as the tanker was leaving the plant on it's way to fill up hotel tanks. No way, absolutely impossible as they wouldn't know how to bill us (we weren't regular hotel customers!!). We suggested that we follow the tanker to a hotel, have our mere three gallons filled at the same time and simply pay the extra cost to the hotel. Sounds reasonable? Guess not, as the accounting and paperwork problems would just be insurmountable! Another day gone.

By day three we managed to find a mechanic who had converted a few cars to run on propane and could fill our tank if we had the right connection. He put us in touch with a machinist who worked on his lathe for half a day and produced a nice bronze adaptor for us. That now enabled the mechanic to fill our tank from his cylinder fitted up with a jury-rigged hand pump - all a bit of a dubious set up, but it seemed to be the only way to get our fridge and stove back into operation. When the hose split in the middle of the fill-up, with a tremendous bang and spewing gas in all directions, we thought we were all done for! No problem, this was all in a day's work for the mechanic, and with the help of a bit more wire and some baler twine we were back in business. So, by the end of the third day, our tank was again full and we were ready to think about exploring the marvels of Cuzco.
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