Thursday, June 04, 2009

From the Snows to the Jungle

"Abra Malaga" has a romantic, almost mystical ring to it, and it was this vague promise evoked by the name of the pass we were to cross that I set against the concrete forebodings inspired by "Cuzco", "jungle", "road" and "bus".

My premonitions of a painful journey over narrow and potholed byways were mostly misinformed. After the rolling descent from Cuzco to Urubamba and the obligatory detour through the ancient cobblestone streets of Ollantaytambo, a smooth, broad and superbly-engineered road serpentined its way up to 4,316 metres above sea level, bringing to mind the highway that climbs across the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza. The ashphalt then continued most of the way down to the Urubamba river, only losing a little shape after crossing three or four waterfalls, and eventually giving way to a well-maintained and relatively smooth dirt road along the side of the valley for the last hour or so to the town of Santa Maria.

The promise of exotic landscapes, however, was more than fulfilled. As the bus finally ground its way to the top of the pass, tour groups on bicycles with matching jackets were preparing for their descent next to a sign that warned of a "Zone of Mists", which itself was nearly swallowed by swirling, watery cloud.

A couple of s-bends below the pass, the mist parted enough to reveal an enormous glacier on the flank of 5,682-metre Nevado Veronica, its icy teeth seeming almost close enough to touch (more awe-inspiring than suggested by the photo above of the entire peak, taken in clear early morning skies on the return trip).

Further below, the straw grass of the puna rapidly turned to moss-draped cloud forest, while the thinning mist revealed broad swathes of hillside covered in dark greenery sweeping steeply down to the tight serpentines of the Urubamba river, far below. As the altitude lessened, the cloud forest turned to subtropical trees and ferns, and the familar flat leaves of banana plants began to appear.

After the bus dropped onto the dirt road that worked its way down the valley towards Quillabamba, little villages began to appear, bougainvillea brightening the rustic buildings of partially-painted adobe and corrugated iron. Walls were invariably covered with giant upper case letters promoting the candidacy of one candidate or another for the district mayoralty. The roadside was hedged with cultivation, of maize, bananas, papaya, mangoes, mandarins, coffee, and tea. One small village announced that it was the "national capital of tea", and just beyond, people with baskets worked in tidily cultivated plantations that looked straight out of a Dilmah advertisment.

Yet, despite how pleasant all this sounds, this oversensitive gringo was in significant discomfort for much of the way, and had to make a considerable mental effort to take in and enjoy the sights.

The previous night I had taken the bus from Arequipa to Cuzco with Lizbeth's sister Karina who was heading back to work at Hugo's Lodge. At just over nine hours, the Arequopa-Cuzco journey is not overly arduous, but I hardly slept a wink as the bus heating was kept on full blast. I watched miserably as the screen at the front of the cabin that showed the time and temperature ticked upwards from a pleasant 22 degrees when we left Arequipa to eventually stall on 28 degrees.

Before the start of the journey, I had insisted that I wanted to do it in stages, since I had already had two trips of over 15 hours in the previous week and was only just getting over the jet lag. We talked of the possibility of staying the night in Cuzco or Ollantaytambo before continuing onwards. However, this suggestion kind of got overridden by Hugo's urgent message that he needed meat for a large group that was arriving at his hotel, and could we please bring him some from Cuzco.

Arrival in Cuzco was scheduled for 5:00 am, but we didn't get in until 6:30. The bus for Santa Maria left at 8:00, so it was a rushed hour and a half to buy the tickets (at a different terminal), grab some breakfast, go to the market to buy some meat, and get back to the terminal in time to load the luggage and get on the bus.

By the time we arrived in Urubamba a little over an hour later, I was still a bit dazed, but starting to appreciate the landscape and the journey. Here I made my great mistake. As luggage and passengers were loaded, many of the Cuzco passengers filed off to use the toilets in back of a local comedor. I decided I couldn't be bothered, owing to some combination of the long line, the distinctly rustic state of the toilets, and not really needing to go.

Around half an hour later, when the bus passed through Ollantaytambo, my long cup of black coffee from breakfast had caught up with me and I felt like I could use a bathroom. In another little while, as the road started to serpentine upwards, this feeling started to gain urgency. When the bus stopped at the last sign of civilization, two thirds of the way up to the pass to fill up with water, I was hoping for a genuine mechanical problem that would allow passengers to get off the bus and relieve themselves. When we reached the top of Abra Malaga, there was little else on my mind. Half way down the other side, I could barely move, and I let out a loud groan when an older guy who had got on at Urubamba estimated that it was "about another hour and a half" to Santa Maria. "I really need to go to the bathroom too", he said.

Some readers might have seen my piece about "bus buskers". On this trip there were two. The second busker, who waited patiently for twenty minutes while a young guy told jokes and did tricks, was selling Chinese herbal remedies, pills with a mixture of ginseng and resihi mushrooms. After the usual long spiel about the terrible state of the Peruvian diet, he moved on to describing specific problems with the liver and kidneys which these remedies could ameliorate, as well as their effectiveness in preventing (for the men) an inflamed prostate and (for the women) vaginal infections.

The bus busker made a particular example of himself. His other job was working as a conductor for rival company Ampay, which did not have a bus running this particular day. He assured us that his frequent journeys between Cuzco and Quillabamba required him to maintain a regular intake of the remedies. "I damage my kidneys every day", he said.

As the bus left the asphalt and wound its way along the valley, I was sure that we would soon be in Santa Maria. Each time the vegetation started to be dotted with banana plants and electric cables appeared overhead, I chanted a little mantra under of breath of "be Santa Maria, please be Santa Maria". But each time, it was only a small settlement with a handful of corrugated iron roofs, and yet more political advertisments.

Finally, there was a shout of "who's getting off in Huyro?" We were about to arrive in the capital of the Huayopata district, and the bus would stop. While a couple of passengers were extracting their luggage, I and the older guy jumped off the bus and sprinted across the road. A woman with a kiosk outside the municipality building answered my urgent query. "Through the building, to the right, and to the right again".

As I finally obtained relief, I noted that the other guy must have been even more disoriented than I. He never appeared in the bathroom whiel I was there, and he only got back on the bus some minutes after I did.

From there I could sit back and enjoy the rest of the journey, which only lasted another twenty or so minutes before we finally got off in Santa Maria, to a warm wash of tropical air, and a hand that pulled at my backpack as we waited to unload the luggage. It was Hugo, playing the clown. His Hyundai 4X4 was parked a few metres away, and after grabbing some lunch in a nearby comedor, we set out on the 45-minute drive along a narrow dirt road above the precipitous river gorge, to the town of Santa Teresa, and down to the fabulous new hot springs complex of Cocalmayo. That was the end of the road, so we parked the truck, and walked the five minutes across the bridge and up the path to my first view of the famous Hugo's Lodge.

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