Monday, August 08, 2011

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

Part 1 – Peru to Ecuador in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

I really, really, really like driving through South America. This is one of my favorite things to do. Lately, since we have children now and my life has changed somewhat, this does not happen as much as I would like, but every now and then I get to hit the road again. Last December I got lucky, a good friend of mine, Johan van Rijswijck, asked me if I would like to come on a trip with him to scout out part of a rally he was planning. Johan owns Sapapana Travel, a Dutch tour operator specializing in Latin America. We often work together, however, on this particular rally we had decided not to (Class Adventure Travel have a large Dakar Rally event at roughly the same time), but of course I was more than happy to help out and be Johan’s co-driver on the journey from Lima to Cartagena.

The trip was supposed to take place at the end of September, but during the previous stretch (Buenos Aires-Lima) Johan and his other co-driver had had a streak of bad luck ending in a blown-up engine some 300 miles before arriving in the City of Kings. Both he and I had to fly back home (I was already waiting for him in Lima) as repairing the engine of his 1968 Volvo Amazon was going to take quite some time. Parts are not really available in Latin America these days and most had to come from Germany and Sweden. Luckily there is a Volvo Club in Lima and its then president, Karl Spihlman, himself a totalVolvo aficionado, was of enormous help and rebuilt the engine from scratch. At the beginning of December we both flew back to Lima to begin our journey.

After picking up the car, we left on Saturday morning 9am, 11 December. We had 850km to go and that meant a full day’s driving. It is a little bit of a hassle to leave Lima to the north, and probably due to the upcoming elections, road-works were in progress virtually everywhere. It took us three hours to get out of the city and it wasn’t until noon that we were really able to get moving…

The new engine also meant that we had to take it easy for the first 1,000 km: 80kph max. While the almost perfectly asphalted open roads really invited us to drive faster. But there was no way around it - we weren’t going to break the engine again - so we settled for a nice long drive in the Peruvian sun. The coastal desert road we were following sometimes gave way to stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and other times took us over impressive sand dunes. We were already driving in the dark before we reached Trujillo, but we weren’t at our destination yet. The driving was good, but after Trujillo we entered a more populated area so the traffic increased and made it difficult to push on through to Chiclayo, our planned destination for that day. We finally arrived past midnight, found our hotel, checked in and hit the sack immediately. We had a 9am start the next day.

Sunday started like a breeze, we had Chiclayo behind us and were back on the Pan-American Highway in no time. The road was in perfect condition, but we still couldn’t drive over 80kph and could only change the oil and filters after a minimum of 1,000km. Still, we managed to reach Piura in the early afternoon, picked up some snacks for the road, filled the tank and found a garage to change the oil, before hitting the road again. We decided to push the engine a little and see how fast we could go, so we made some good mileage. We left the coast behind us and drove northeast. Slowly but surely the landscape changed; the desert morphed into more tropical surroundings and we even passed some rice-fields. Around 4pm we reached the Ecuadorian border. It was a great setting, a river meandering down from the mountains, crossed by an old bridge, bordered on one side by a large gate saying ‘Peru’ and on the other by a huge sign indicating one was entering Ecuador. Formalities on the Peruvian side only took 15 minutes and it seemed we would have a similarly easy entry into Ecuador, but that turned out a little bit differently. The customs officers were as charmed by the old automobile as everyone we had passed along the way and the stamps in our passports were arranged within minutes. Only when we tried to check in the car it turned out that there was only one officer that was allowed to give clearance, and the said gentleman was out for lunch with his girlfriend in a village nearby… So, there was nothing to do but wait and we started up a conversation with an Argentine couple from Mendoza on their way to Caracas (Why not? Nice drive!). Luckily it only took half an hour for the officer to return to his post and formalities here turned out to actually be as easy as on the other side; after 15 minutes we were back on track.

In Ecuador the road led us directly into the mountains. Beautiful scenery, but the quality of the road surface was a lot less than what we had gotten used to in Peru. Luckily there were so many signs (sometimes up to three identical signs in the same place) that it was hard to miss the direction to the town of Loja. We were lucky to have filled up our tank in Piura as most gas stations in this part of Ecuador were closed as it was Sunday. Due to the road conditions and many curves we moved a lot slower on this stretch. Initially we expected to arrive in Loja around 7pm, but quickly had to reset our ETA to 9pm. After 6pm the sun was gone, which reminded us how close we were to the equator. This meant extra careful driving, especially when we suddenly entered an area of very dense fog. We could see around 2-3 meters ahead of us if we were lucky, sometimes we simply had to feel if our tires hit the sides of the road, so you can imagine we took our time to get through this area. We had just about moved our ETA to midnight when the mist disappeared just as suddenly as it had appeared, the clouds lifted from the mountain and we were driving on, eventually reaching Loja at 8.30pm. Loja is situated at an altitude of 2100masl, which gives the town a very nice climate. Never extremely hot or cold and situated in a beautiful green setting surrounded by nature, Loja promises some great outings for a future trip to Ecuador. Upon arrival in the hotel we ordered some food and of course a couple of beers, but this turned out to be impossible. Recently a law was passed in Ecuador prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on Sunday afternoons after 4pm (which reminds me I need to write a piece on seriously funny laws in Latin America; have seen a couple in Peru lately that caught my eye…). Our Colombian waiter tried to explain this to us, but when he saw the disbelief in our faces he was friendly enough to make an exception, so we could enjoy a nice illegal beer before turning in.

Monday consisted of a relatively short drive to Cuenca, some 200km from Loja, and departing on time we made it there by lunch time. Cuenca is worth a visit, with its beautifully preserved colonial city center and amazing cathedral. It is generally regarded as Ecuador’s most beautiful city. It took us just 3.5 hours driving over a perfectly asphalted road through the mountains, climbing to 3500masl before descending into the adjacent valley. A nicely curved road through a green, mountainous landscape made this a short, but attractive driving day.

To be continued...

No comments: