South America for Beginners II

By Marc Musgrove

Marc Musgrove and Emma Woods spent much of 2000 and 2001 on a World Tour.

We did some humming and harring in Ecuador about whether to bother with Peru. We had the impression from the Lonely Planet that it was a 'dodgy' country, and had all but the sketchiest of river guides cobbled together from the internet with some good info from Paul Cripps. Tom Hughes is apparently working on a river guide, but that hadn't materialized by the time we set off.

Getting across the border from Ecuador to Peru was one of the major challenges. After a ten hour schlep down from Baos on a local Ecuadorian bus, which almost ended in a punch up with the driver over boat transportation costs, we arrived in Huaquillas. This delightful town hosts the international border, which is essentially a single lane road bridge. However, the authorities have decided that no traffic can cross the bridge so we ended up once again fully laden carrying kayaks, ruckies and paddle bags. We were slightly concerned about our kit on the Ecuadorian side, but it was nothing compared to the Peruvian side of the town.

We managed to quickly sort out a very small car as our taxi to the immigration post (ten kilometers away), which crawled off through a very crowded market. Kees van Kuipers had joined us again for this leg of the trip, so we had bags and kit hanging out of the open boot of the car. As we drove through a crowd of very dodgy blokes started to follow the car and the driver told us to hang onto our stuff. We thought that was it. About half an hour down the highway, the car started to splutter and coasted to a stop. We were in the middle of nowhere and immediately suspected a set up and waited for bandidos to jump us. Kees and I both went for our river knives and strangely the driver managed to get the car started again. Welcome to Peru!

Luckily we escaped and via a variety of different kinds of transport ended up on our way south. Peru has either swanky international buses or what they call 'collectivos', essentially minibuses that wait until it has a full complement of paying passengers before it sets off. We only realized that after sitting in a sweltering can for an hour and a half. If you want to get going quicker, just offer to pay for the empty seats.

First stop was Mancora, a cool surf town on the Northern Peruvian coast. It's right on the edge of the desert so the beach just runs on and on. We found a nice break there and spent a few days in the kayaks and attempting to board surf. The locals seemed pretty friendly and were happy to offer all kinds of interesting local Peruvian supplies once beyond the safety of the break.

The main international bus to Lima stops right in the center of Mancora so getting on and off is pretty easy. There's also supposed to the longest wave in the world about 10 hours south at Puerto Chicama. It was only then that we realized quite how long a country Peru is - getting from the northern border to Lima takes over 20 hours, and is pretty much desert all the way. In fact most of Peru until you get into the Andes or Amazon basin is either desert or barren altiplano.

Lima is one of the dodgiest cities in South America, so we hotfooted it out as soon as possible and ended up in Arequipa, only another 18 hour bus ride. Kees was running out of time so went on ahead to probe while we spent an expensive night in an old lady's house behind comforting iron bars. When we arrived in Arequipa it seemed like we'd already been there for a week.

Luckily Arequipa has a couple of rafting companies [Need Web Address for Gianmarco] so we ended up paddling with the Italian/Peruvian Vellutino boys who own XXX. We were now in early December and the rainy season had unusually not started yet (early September is more usual). We had aimed to try to blast down the Colca Canyon or the Cotahuasi, but local intelligence suggested that if we got on, the rains would inevitably start in a couple of days. For a 5 day self support in allegedly one of the deepest canyons in the world with a must-make final eddy, that didn't seem a sensible option.

We managed to get some boating done on the Rio Chili, which is pretty close to town though. The scenery is weird. We basically paddled on a grade 4 river through the middle of a sterile desert with cactuses all around. It also sports a fine lefty pourover rock at the top that you can't stop wheeling on.

With time pressing for Kees to return back to paddle in his local eddy in Holland, we pushed on to Cusco. The road from Arequipa to Lima crosses right over the altiplano and takes forever on one of the worst roads I've had the privilege of sitting on. Make sure you don't get the back seat if you do this one. In fact consider flying everywhere if you're pushed for time - it's much more sensible and pleasant (you can get a 30 day fly anywhere pass).

As we crossed the pass snow started to fall, which meant taking a leak in tevas was a chilly prospect. That was the day we would have got off the Colca, so we could probably have run it OK. Easy with the benefit of hindsight.

Cusco is one of the ancient cities of the Incas and like Arequipa has a mix of Inca and Spanish architecture (although the recent earthquake gave Arequipa a battering). There are a number of rafting companies in Cusco who will help you out with boats and shuttles if you need - Eric's Adventures are ripoff merchants, but Chando at Mayuc ( was very helpful and even gave us some safety boating work.

With the rains starting, he was running one last trip down the Apurimac river, which we hopped on. It's usually run as a 3 dayer, but to get Kees back for his flight, we were going to run it in two. After another five hour bus journey we had dropped from the 3,200m at Cusco down to 2,400m at the put in, where the temperature rises considerably and you get reasonably warm water. As we got on, the sun was shining and the river had a brown tinge.

The first day is solid class 4 with a couple of portages. In Peruvian speak, that means getting the punters out while the raft guides run the drops and have carnage in the holes at the bottom. At the overnight spot, clouds were building so we put up Kees's small 1 man tent. I should probably more correctly refer to it as a wendy house. It was a single skin job, and the poles had been left in Cusco to save weight. We rigged it up with the splits and throwrope. Kees took one look and wisely chose to sleep under a cliff.

During the night, it started to absolutely lash it down. It was then that we realized the tent didn't work at all. As we started to get wet, Emma ventured out to try to find the cliff that Kees was under. As he had taken the headtorch, that wasn't easy. She came back with tail between her legs and we resigned ourselves to holding the tent wall away from us with one arm. The sleeping bags were soaked and I don't think we slept that night.

When we got up, the river was brown and churning. Luckily I'd tied the boats up the night before so they were still there. We ran the 'second day' stretch with the rafts in about 3 hours including tidying up the carnage. At the second camp we left them to run down through the final big drops. I'm happy to say we snuck a fair proportion of them that afternoon.

The final run out was supposed to be class 2, but even that was one non-stop big water rollercoaster. We got out wondering how on earth we would manage to get Kees back to town for his flight the next morning, when by a stroke of luck, the only bus to Cusco that day turned up. It capped a great couple of days on the river.

There's more day stuff to do round Cusco including a couple of creeks flowing into the Apurimac. We ran down the Chuqui section of the Urubamba river on a cold day. Christmas was coming so we needed a plan. Wandering through town we surprisingly found Simon Westgarth and Katrin Prasse again, who'd headed off earlier from Ecuador. They'd just walked the Inca trail and talked of it in glowing terms so that was our Xmas plan decided.

We hiked four days along the ancient highway of the Incas (in Tevas) and ate a hearty Xmas lunch of cheese sandwiches at 4,200m on the top of the Dead Woman's pass. Altitude sickness kicks in up there, but we had brought supplies of Coca leaves. The Incas used to chew a handful mixed with ash to activate them. It numbs your mouth well, and leaves you spitting green chunks all afternoon, but whether it gives you a pep is another question. Dropping down to Macchu Picchu after four days of isolation was an amazing sight - if you ignore the hundreds of tourists who've just come up on the bus from Aguas Calientes. The Peruvian government changed the rules the day after we finished it so you now have to go with an organized group.

Walking back up the road from Macchu Picchu to the hot springs, we passed a section of the Urumbamba which has incredible white water. It goes off as far as you can see. Apparently it hasn't been run in its entirety and the last Japanese group to attempt it came back without two of the team. We left it for another trip, and headed back to Cusco to catch another pleasant 32 hour bus back to Lima in time to make new year in Santiago de Chile.

Peru was a bit of a mission to paddle in, mainly because the country is huge and logistics are a little tricky, but well worth it. Aim to spend some time there to get the most from it, or maybe consider going on one of the two weekers that Paul Cripps is now organizing.

Marc Musgrove and Emma Wood would like to thank sponsors Liquidlogic, Playboater, Werner Paddles, Bomber Gear and AS Watersports.

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