Lance Cherry

It is very hard country. Dry country. Stony country. Arid country. Barren country. A barely hospitable landscape. Sand and grit, rock and pebble. Desert mountains and empty seaward lowlands. Not semi-arid. For vast tracts there is no vegetation. A single very hardy thistle of spiky grass, or rare cactus, startles. It is so ugly it is almost beautiful.

The Peruvian desert, that includes most of the nation’s western flank between the Andes Mountains and Pacific Ocean, is not of any exceptional width, between 100km and 200km. But it is a long land of nigh nothing, a moonscape, running near the length of the country, 3,000km, 10 percent of the nation..

A few tatty towns dot the local base of the raised spine along the entire continent: from heavy snow and ‘Swiss lakes’ in deep-south Patagonia northwards across the equator to become flanked with tropical jungle in Colombia.

To boot, along much of Peru’s coastline, sparse, scattered, scraggy seaside towns struggle to slake their thirst and survive in their little mini-ecosystems. There is no, or almost no, water.

The only thing binds them is the gargantuan Pan-American Highway, a 30,000km stretch from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska (barring the Darien Gap, a practically non-navigable stretch of swamp, forest, and mountain between Colombia and Panama).

Some of these lightly populated residential ‘oases’ in southern Peru are more one-donkey towns than anything else (cruelly referred to by the more affluent as pueblitos, little villages).

Through which thunder a frightening, never-ending convoy of 20-30-tonne trucks, international, trans-continental import-and-export hell for small-town folk.

Picture by Lance Cherry

At most, the truckers might stop to buy an¬†empanada (local-style pie), taco, or some libation. They do not ‘bring a business,’ as one might assume. Perhaps some brief entertainment. Drivers sleep in their cabins at the side of the road on the long stretches of nothing. Even walking across the road in the villages is not for the faint of heart, from one family corner cafe to the cantina on the other side.

The 20-wheeled behemoths are destined for the big city depots, to the north, Lima, Trujillo, Quito, Medellin, and beyond, and to the south into Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.

Initially, it doesn’t seem possible that thousands of people in each town can make do mostly without running water.

Most of the tatty towns are at the sea end of small mountain streams almost petered out after the scavenge of sun and sand. Barely enough water left but to perhaps feed a few acres of lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes and corn.

Spend a few days. Before long, the town’s mobile water system, fleets of water-supply trucks, become apparent.

Ask for a cup of coffee in Chala. The cafe’s water is often dispensed from a 100-litre barrel. There might be five or 10 barrels next to each other. Large water tankers go from door to door, dispensing precious “Agua potable” into a plethora of containers. Many residences and businesses have 5,000-litre water tanks on their roofs. They are more than ubiquitous. Pump the water up to get some pressure down through household taps.

In Nazca, land of the old magical, mysterious geoglyphs (lines, drawings in the sand), inland and closer to the base of the mountains, there is some ground water (below the surface of the land). Those who are connected to a small elites-only water grid have their flow turned on for an hour a day. Different parts of the town get their fill at different times. Forget to open the tap and fill the header tank, and you’re thirsty or dirty until tomorrow. Some homes have expensive boreholes. Most have nothing, and buy water each day. An average of 2mm of rain a year, perhaps a teaspoon full.

There is a rainbow! First of two years, locals have it. Up above the mountain peaks 20km away is evidence of the finest of drizzles.

A travelling African juju-man might have brought a miracle, it is suggested?

Guffaws! Correctly so!

And yet in a land of strange contradictions, 60 percent of the population live along this mostly untamed shoreline, nearly all in three of four big cities that have somehow broken the desert trap: Lima (10 million), Trujillo, Chuclayo. Thirty percent of the country is mountain, 60 percent roadless near-uninhabited rainforest only navigable by water. Peru has the fourth highest proportion of rainforest per nation after Brazil, Congo, and Indonesia, very much belying its snowcapped, mountain Inca stereotype.

But it is the small coastal havens that are the magnets for this amble. Inland, four months up Argentina and across Bolivia. The syrens sing sweet.

Hit the beach in Mollendo, southern end of Peru, close to the Chilean border. Realise I have now traversed the continent, ocean to ocean, for the third time. First two crossings were 80 percent by water, along the Amazon and its long arms: 300km-wide river-mouth city Belem to Atalaya, deep in central Peru, and a short bus hop to Lima. After a ramble, Machu Picchu etc, back from Porto Velho, in Brazil along the Rio Madeira and on to Belem.

This has been the scenic route, Rio de Janeiro on the Atlantic, down to Ushuaia, and finally up to Mollendo, on the Pacific. Roughly 12,000km to cover the 3,500km east to west ride by crow navigation.

Put a toe in some icy seawater, have a chuckle, chill out and suck on a few pisco sours and some very fresh ceviche, Peru’s national food.

Whilst the small towns might be at the edge of never-never land, they have access to one of the world’s great fisheries.

Small boats. Picture by Lance Cherry

The small boats go out daily, mostly returning with healthy spoils. Every morning tuna, corvina, mackerel, squid, octopus, clams are carried directly to the little local eateries, quickly to be diced and soaked in each chef’s secret, lemony ceviche marinade. Something like sashimi on steroids. Not as ‘pure’, but just as titillating.

The towns are slow. There are no foreign visitors. Why would they want to come here. There is no mountain peak, no ancient city ruin, no jungle animal paradise. In fact, the perfect getaway.

Inhabitants who have not been swamped by flashy, overnighter ‘done that’ dollar-wielders are polite and curious, showing even more kindness that in truth has been on offer and display all along the long road.

Strange towns, quirky towns. Mollendo is at the end of an old long-distance freight railway line from Cuzco via Lake Titicaca, constructed between 1871 and 1908.

Mollendo’s lack of a modern, practical port has downgraded its rail status to ‘barely functional’. The half-dozen tracks run mere metres behind the main, 2km-long beach. Scores of old carriages litter the siding.

A peculiar feel of a very industrial beach, which people flock to from Arequipa, two hours away, Peru’s biggest city away from the seaboard, and historically enriched by being the halfway stop for a mountain of silver carried from central Bolivia to Lima (read Madrid).

Find the perfect coffee cove in the central market. A wet market, dry market, fresh market, fish market and all day eating market. Pigs heads, delicious fruit and veg (not sure if locally grown or trucked in), breads, pastries, rails and trails of all the offal known to a beast, rows of plucked, shiny disembowelled chickens, slabs and slabs of fresh fish, and buckets of useless shark fins.

A large gentleman in a thick plastic apron heaves a cleaver, back and forth, slicing off the tails and fins of small 3kg sharks, chucking the offcuts aside.

Knowing some predilections for a pricey soup, I inquire as to the price of a kilogram of shark fin. “We throw them away,” is the reply.

Finless sharks go for $3 per kilo, better stock, like a local-style salmon goes for near $10 per kilo. I bite my tongue not to reveal what the fins would be worth in a different market.

Different town, different market, live rabbits, ducks, chickens, budgies, turkeys, hamsters. Food or pets? There are an estimated 4,000 kinds of potatoes in Peru, including white, yellow, brown, pink, black and even purple, which are delicious and creamy. Street market farmer’s day, many on display, including a purple maize.

And then there’s the mist. Great swathes of it that engulf the shoreline each morning, so stiff the traffic slows or stops. Look out the window and not be sure whether it is 6am or 8am, when it slowly begins to succumb to the heat of the tropical sun.

Another quirky contradiction, to go down a wormhole. All of the country lies north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Its northern tip a mere 3.3km from the equator. There is snow on the mountains, and the sea water is bitterly cold.

This, a country on the same latitudes as northern Angola, the Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Indonesia, the top end of Queensland. Jungle countries, and very warm water seas.

The mean annual temperature of the sea off Peru’s coast is 15.9 deg C. Off Indonesia 26, Kenya 29. Similar misty, desert Namibia is 13.6, naturally, being thousands of kilometres further south.

The very cold Benguela current drives the mist over Namibia’s coast, the Humboldt current does the same for Peru. The mist is generated by an unusual inversion process, where the air above the water is cooler than the air higher up which is driven by warm desert winds.

There is, in general, common consensus regarding ‘why’ the pyramids in Egypt were built.

The big mystery is ‘how’ they were built some 5,000 years ago. It is fairly easy to discern how the Nazca lines were etched into the desert sands of southern Peru around 2,000 years back.

But nobody has any definable idea ‘why’ the geometric, and somewhat surreal, shapes were drawn.

Theories range from crackpot Martian landing strips to alignments with constellations, pictures for the gods to enjoy, social celebration arenas, directions to rare water resources, and the obvious ceremonial, functional or religious relationships with the landscape and local society.

The heart of the Nazca empire, estimated some 200BC – 600AD, before the Incas moved south. So easy for foolish travellers to also confuse the whole of Peru and the whole of South America with other great empires like Olmecs, Mayans, Paracans, Aztecs …

A living town of true history. Not ‘merely’ a magnificent city of ruins, so many of which dot the country’s varied landscapes.

History literally seethes around, and seeps out of Nazca. It is not only the lines which tell the tale of yore, but too, the 1,500-year-old aqueducts that still flow into the valley and water the field and crops. A cemetery field nearby revealed hundreds of years of buried mummies, some now on display.

The extremely dry climate has protected the mummies, as well as the lines, etched into the hard, brown top soil to expose a lighter colour of sand below.

There are two ways to see the lines. A 13m-high tower allows one to see three of the drawings, commonly referred to as the tree, hands and lizard.

Or jump into a six seater single-engine Cessna 206, or similar, and take a half-an-hour flip over a dozen of the better known marks. There are over 1,000 examples of the lines, defined by ‘straight lines’ (some up to 50km long), geometric figures and animal and plant designs.

Seems I have been misled for many years, or perhaps it is just another case of naivety about a matter that has always piqued my curiosity.

All the pictures seem to show the animals and plants stretching wayyyyyy out into the desert, raising great intrigue around how they were designed.

Turns out, the longest part of the plants and animals range between 20m and 400m, etched into the ground in roughly 30cm-wide grooves.

Flying overhead, I was expecting huuuuge outlines, yet without having the pilot point out the figures, it would have been hard to spot them, so big is the actual desert itself, which stretches into the horizon in all directions.

Awesome, with a tinge of ‘underwhelming-ness’.

The aqueduct system consists of dozens of underground tunnels that were built as, it is suspected, the climate changed, or local water or rain slowly disappeared. They tap into the creeks that flow down the mountains, were built with millions of stones about the size of squared soccer balls some 5m into the ground, then covered with various materials, and lined on top with similar stones, then soil. Every 10m there is an ‘eye’, akin to a manhole, that spirals down to the flow of water, for maintenance. Stand above and watch the crystal clear water flow past. All gravity fed, into the fields in the lowest lying areas, currently many acres happily covered with the greenery of crop.

But the long road is not all about awe, or new, or kilometre drift.

Snafu time.

An ATM machine decides to eat a credit card while attempting to withdraw some local currency. Displayed reason was that I had used an incorrect PIN number too many times. I had only entered one number.

Enter the bank, next to the machine, and ask if they might return my card, please.

Impasse, a stand-off, contact with Lima, the head branch of the bank, and an emailed computer printout decrees I had indeed broken the golden PIN number rule. Under these conditions, that bank will not return the card. Naturally, there is suspicion that a thief was trying his luck.

Show the passport, show my bank details on a computer, finally get them to accept that it is my card: but still “no, there is a process that we cannot overturn”.

After hours of humming and aaah-ing, I request that I see them cut the card.

No problem. They place the card on the table in front of me. I pick it up. It would be so easy to contact the bank and request a new PIN number.


It is pure Fawlty Pythonesque.

Ingratiating, smiling, indentured Manuel says: “Si senor. You can touch your card, you can hold your card, you can stroke your card, you can kiss your card, but you cannot ‘ave your card. Now give it to me so I can kill it!”

It is cut in front of me. Somewhat painful to observe such illogically logical intransigence.

Order a new one. Easy. But … discover (or, should have known) DHL etc will not courier cards or cash. Yup, or “ja, nee” (yes, no), South African patois for ‘amused fateful resignation’. Now refer to Plan 53-b.

Snafu 2

Next country is Ecuador, amidst some internal strife. Drug gang leaders are escaping prison and running amok. The president has decreed all those who enter by land need a police clearance certificate. This includes a specific SA police document fingerprinted with all my fingers, and annotated.

Head to Lima, and the South African consulate. Google points me easily to the address, which is in ’embassy row’. Walk into a large building with a number of consulates, and be told by the desk attendant that there is no South African consulate any more, they having packed up after Covid, and left.

How to find their address then. Dig a bit deeper, and discover there is no South African representative in Bolivia, Peru or Ecuador! Do not lose your passport, or get seriously robbed! Just upped, and gone, and nobody has bothered to clean up the mess left on the internet.

There is a mob in SA that will get the document, but the hoops one must jump through are astonishing. Find some legal representative in Lima, who has a fingerprinting facility, to listen to my request in very broken Spanish, pay him a small fortune, courier said document home, wait a month, pay said mob a not-inconsequential sum, and have the document finally couriered back. Mostly just a bureaucratic nightmare, but in attempting to find the right person hit wall after wall. “No sir, we don’t do that. We don’t know who does it for foreigners.” Nobody? Somebody must do it. But hanging in Lima forever feels like a poor option.

Flying into Quito, capital of Ecuador, does not require the document. For a quarter of the price. Easy. And yet the zen of bottom to top is tampered with. And there is no tampering with zen. It either is, or isn’t.

Or is it simply a message from an old Inca god?

(After thousands of kilometres, if it all goes to plan, it can get boring.)

Think I’ll just sit on a small Peruvian beach for a while and wait for the mist to clear.