Peruvian Steam Train Romance
No series of adventures would be complete without some romance, and as it turns out, I am no exception. Nearly a year after my Mozambique adventure, I headed off to South America with Mike Grainger (who was with me on the big adventure), and Lindsay Rickard from Melbourne.
Lindsay worked as a driver of steam at Pietermaritzburg on the fabulous Natal line. He still works for the tramways in Melbourne, Australia, and is one of the contributors to http://steamtrainstories.com
It was a well planned trip, and the subject of more fabulous photos and stories. We landed in Rio De Janeiro and I distinctly remember passing right under the nose of the “Concord” supersonic jetliner on the tarmac. I will be detailing this trip later, but Rio was totally scary after the quiet of South Africa. We were so put out, instead of booking a hotel, we headed straight out of town on the first train!
After a few fabulous weeks in Brazil we visited Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, then Bolivia, where our steam tour ended rather suddenly when I rolled our Toyota Lancruiser early one morning literally in the middle of nowhere. The plan was to return the car to La Paz, and then travel on to Lake Titicaca and Cuzco.
When we lost the car and abandoned it as a matter of survival, just as some friends did before us, Lindsay, whose name was on the rental agreement, and I decided it bets to get him out of the country before anyone realised what had happened.
Well, Mike decided it didn’t affect him and headed north, and I never saw him again until I reached England some months later. We worked out the quickest way out was to head south back into Argentina. We crossed for the second time, the rail link between Salta and Antofagasta, crossing the Andes. Only a few months before our visit this line had steam, but now the loco depot in Antofagasta was full of non working locomotives.
Next was a bus ride to Tacna where we crossed the border into Arica in Peru. Again, there were a bunch of locomotives in Arica, but alas, steam had finished on this isolated railway too. The final rid in the bus was to Arequipa, in southern Peru, where the rail link to Cuzco and Maccu Piccu commenced.
A Missed Train Changed My Life
The “Express” to Cuzco was due out at 10 pm, and we had plenty of time, except we didn’t allow for the many slow security checks in Peru. Our bus was stopped just outside the town, and boarded by soldiers. After half an hour we were released, only to be 5 minutes late for the train.
Now if you are familiar with South America, you will know that most trains run late, but this time it didn’t! We were forced to stay overnight and catch the day train next morning to Juliaca. This took all day and then there was another night waiting for the connection from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco.
I remember well the long climb from sea level to some 10,000 feet or more as we wounld our way up the Andes. At times I felt out of breath and dizzy. Certainly the slow train trip made it much easier to adjust. I pity those who fly from sea level straight into Cuzco at 3,300 meters or around 10,800 ft, not as high as we went in Bolivia, but high enough to take your breath away literally!
After a trouble free diesel ride to Juliaca, a trip to the local market to purchase an Alpaca jumper, and a good night’s rest, we boarded our train for Cuzco. There wasn’t much room, but we found a seat opposite two young women. I remember one was named Diana, and the other Luz.
We Chat To Some Girls On The Train
Back in South Africa before I journeyed to South America, I learned Spanish for a number of weeks in preparation for the trip. It was indeed useful, and I saw this situation as an opportunity to practice my Spanish. The girls wanted to practice their English too, so we had long, awkward conversations along the way. I have to admit I rather fancied Diana, however fate had different ideas for me! Conversation turned to where we would stay in Cuzco, and mouths opened aghast when I described our destination, the Hotel Procuradores.
There were a couple of recommended backpacker residences in the town. They had dorm rooms with beds and foam mattresses. You supplied all the bedding. There were hooks on the ceiling to hang any food so the rats couldn’t eat it! Cuzco was a dangerous place with frequent robberies and pickpockets. You had to keep your possessions with you at all times, and be on the watch for suspicious characters. These establishments were clearly not first class, but they cost 60c a night, so we didn’t care.
Luz was saving money, and the temptation of keeping her travel allowance (she was on a work trip) was too much, so she tagged along with us. Next morning Lindsay and I climbed the hill behind the city and took some photos of the relief train with a magnificent 2-8-0 on the front. They were to be my last photos in South America.
Figure 2 Day Train To Machu Picchu Climbs Out Of Cuzco
After a day in Cuzco we caught the evening train to Aguas Calientes, and as Luz had finished her business, she decided to join us. At this stage the romance was blossoming somewhat and we went for a walk down the track towards Machu Picchu for some privacy.
I Tip Over The Bed Late At Night!
I had a top bunk in the accommodation which was at the local railway station! It was a big dorm for the backpackers. I remember a steam train arriving during the evening. It was all very exciting.
Well, after the walk, back to the station accommodation, and getting into my top bunk, I managed to tip the whole thing over and wake everyone up! I was mortified. Yet another adventure I won’t forget.
Machu Picchu At Dawn
Next morning a large group of us left at 5am and walked up the tracks through a long tunnel to Machu Picchu station and headed up the hill. Many people have been robbed in this area, so safety in numbers was important. We were after the spectacular sunrise over Machu Picchu. Luz, Lindsay and I spent the day photographing and viewing everything. It was quite magnificent.
That night we returned to Cuzco and the Procuradores and the next morning we farewelled Luz on the bus to Lima. I thought that might be the last I saw of her, as I had plans to return to Chile and work in Valparaiso where I had a job lined up.
There are times in your life where you really wonder whether life is conspiring to move you a certain way, and this was one of them. The next day we boarded our bus to Lima. It was quite a trip.
A Long Ride
The buses were not too bad by South American standards. They had padded bench seats a ladder to the roof and plenty of luggage space on top. Cargo and animals were secured on the roof, and the same drivers were there for the whole journey. We had read of many buses sailing off the roads in the Andes, and were amused by the designation of “Piloto” and “Copiloto”, in Spanish Pilot and Co-pilot for the drivers! Clearly they were used to flying.
Remember, Cuzco was nearly 11,000 ft above sea level and our journey would end at the coast. Clearly we had a hill or two to traverse! As we set off, we would come to the top of a pass in the mountains and see the next town nestled in the valley, some distance away. For the next 6 or 7 hours, our bus would slowly negotiate mud slides, pieces of road with no road base under them, frequent crosses on the roadside representing a death each, and an occasional shrine where a bus went over the edge, And countless llamas and other herd animals. I remember at the end of the first day, we didn’t make it into town until after dark. As it turned out, the petrol station had closed and no amount of banging on the owners door could stir him into action!
The driver parked the bus and waited until morning. We lost a lot of time! Eventually we were underway again.
The Descent Into Hell
On the roof of our bus were a pig and a goat. They rode all the way to Lima. We were entertained by a group of French tourists singing songs at regular intervals.
After two days of pure torture, having already bitten our arms down to the elbows, we started the descent to the coast. The top of the pass is at Abra Huashuaccasa which is around 5300 m above sea level. The road clings to one side of a narrow gorge with loose rocks everywhere. It was dirt, dusty, and sandy in places making the bus swerve frequently.
To top it all off, we did the entire descent in “Angel Gear”, or neutral, relying on the brakes to pull us up! It was one of the most scary trips of my life. From Nazca it was a comfortable ride along a bitumen road to Lima, where we alighted in a large market area. If you have done any third world bus travel, you will know that markets at night are not the safest places.
My Cameras Stolen
I was feeling pretty good about the fact I had survived the Andes without losing anything to thieves. I was unbelievably exhausted and for a second put my camera bag down to ask directions. In a flash it was gone, complete with all my pictures of Machu Picchu. This totally ruined my plans.
We booked a room for $2 a night at the Hotel Europa, near the catacombs and Sao Francisco square. The room had no windows and was whitewashed. Basic, but adequate. Lindsay was due to catch a plane back to Australia in a few days, so we headed up the Central Of Peru Railway to Huancayo.
Figure 3 Normally I Don’t Share Diesel Photos. This One One The Central Of Peru Was Taken By Lindsay Rickard
This is a one day journey to the highest railway elevation on earth at La Cima, 4,835m above sea level. The train crosses 41 bridges, 60 tunnels and around 13 zig zags, taking approximately 8 hours up-hill to reach the Galera tunnel. It is an engineering masterpiece.
The Huancavelica 3 Foot Gauge Line
This section was diesel, and not our main aim. From Huancayo to Huancavellica, we were very fortunate to have a Baldwin 2-6-0 number 101 on this 3 foot gauge line. These days the line is converted to standard gauge, so it is no longer possible for this engine to operate, although I believe it still exists.
Figure 4 Lady collects hot water from Baldwin 2-6-0 no 101 Photo Lindsay Rickard
The line twists along a gorge for much of its journey passing through rough rock tunnels at frequent intervals. It really was like the Wild West, with box cars and a ladder leading to the roof. The carriages were open ended platform types. The engine and train would have to be one of the most aesthetic I have seen.
I spent some time riding on top of the first carriage, ducking as we approached tunnels and frequently being asked to get down by railway attendants. It really was a fun journey.
Lindsay Goes Home
Back in Lima, I said my farewells to Lindsay and changed to a single room at the hotel. I had asked my mum to send over a spare SLR camera I had left at home, so decided to stay in Lima for a week or so to wait for it to arrive.
Yes, I was a little naive in those days. I since learned that at that time cameras were a prized commodity in Lima. To get an idea, cars didn’t have windscreen wipers, because if you left them on the car they would be stolen! The camera never came. It was almost certainly acquired by some customs official. Perhaps if I had bribed the right person, it would have got there!
Stranded Without A Camera
Stuck in Lima, with nothing to do, I decided to contact Luz and say hello. We had a few picnics on the outskirts of town, and kept in touch. I ate my first avocado on one of those picnics. This food was not well known in Australia at that time.
I had some pretty amazing experiences in Lima, and as there weren’t too many foreigners visiting at that point in time, thought a bit of history might be of interest.
Lima Was Like No Other Place On Earth
Lima was a city where it hardly ever rained. That is one reason why cars had no wipers on them. It was hot and very dusty as a result. The good news was at Miraflores, a short drive away were some lovely beaches.
Travel was by minibus where people would climb no the roof and use every square inch of space, or collective. These were old cars that would move up and down main thoroughfares taking on paying passengers. As for Taxis, I saw a couple of Model T fords being used as Taxi Cabs
There was a large park in town, which had markets. I saw a sixteenth century organ grinder, complete with monkey with a little hat on, soliciting donations with a little tin cup! If you ventured out in shorts, you would be pinched on the bum. That was for gays only. I remember one person staying at the hotel went for a walk and came running back very quickly due to this! He never wore shorts again.
Lima had a raging black market for Soles. The official rate was 35 per US dollar. You could get 65 without too much trouble, but it was dangerous. If caught, Peruvian prisons were not a nice place to spend your vacation! We dealt through an Australian, Simon, who was married to a Peruvian, and had access to the wealthy, most of whom had a thirst for US dollars. We received 80 Soles per dollar and it was much safer!
It is hard to imagine this, but in 1976, there were three international hotels. The Bolivar cost $36 a night, the Sheraton was $33 a night and I can’t recall the other. Just think what top hotels charge now! There was one Escalator in the entire country, and I think a couple of sets of Traffic Lights.
The Macabre And Bizarre
I had occasion to visit the Lima Zoo. This one took the cake. In the middle there was an exhibition of the Amazon Rainforest. Complete with a resident tribe. Yes, they lived there! Imagine that in a US Zoo.
There was a midnight curfew. I would drink “emoliente” purchased from a street stall late at night. These were heated herb juices with various special herbs added- delicious. Then scurry back to my room.
One afternoon, I was resting as I had a full day. I fell asleep on the single bed. Then I felt myself rising up into the air. I looked down and saw myself asleep on the bed. It was such a shock, I was jolted out of my out of body experience and woke up. This was a very real experience for me.
Another time two Aussie girls turned up in the Hotel, and invited everyone around for Vegemite sandwiches. The few Aussies quickly descended on their room and we all had a great party.
Lima was a rather macabre place. It wasn’t just the Zoo, but a couple of very interesting attractions right near the hotel. One was the Museum Of The Inquisition, where dummies were set up to show how the various torture methods worked. They had the Garrotte, the Rack, replicas of being drawn and quartered, the whole bit. Glad I wasn’t around back in those days. It was a very well laid out display though, and captured what it would have been like.
The other was the Catacombs underneath the church of San Francisco, across the square. There are human bones from some 70,000 people buried there and it lay undiscovered until 1943. In true Peruvian style, they exhumed the bodies and laid them out in patterns!
One last place I remember well was the chapel of Santa Rosa De Lima, Peru’s only Saint. Another macabre story, she would beat herself and from the age of 20, wore a crown made of silver, with small spikes on the inside, reminiscent of the crown of thorns worn by Christ. In fairness, she was known for charity to the poor, but the self flagellation was really extreme. The whole place was very dark, and it left me in full certainty I was not interested in Catholicism or sainthood if that’s what it took!
I know I am painting a bleak picture of the place, but this is how Lima was back then. There was one bright spot, the Museum Of Archaeology, which had a large collection of Inca objects taken from such places as Machu Picchu. It was wonderful and full of Peruvian history.
Lima is definitely worth a visit. It really is a fascinating place, and I am sure the accommodation is much better now. Unfortunately, you probably won’t see the Model T taxis anymore!
Time To Leave
Well, after several weeks, I could wait no longer. I was seeing Luz regularly and going on dates to the beach, picnics up the hills behind Lima and various other outings. I was on a really tight budget. I would eat a can of tuna one day, fried rice another, and a plate of salad on the third. I ate Cebiche (a delicious meal of raw fish marinated in lemon with a touch of Chile), and fried fish off the street markets. Luz told me they would never do that and how come I wasn’t sick!
I tossed and turned at what to do, and eventually, my heart took over and I asked Luz to come with me. It wasn’t an easy decision for either of us. I had to get going and she had no money, so it would severely curtail my travels. She had an old boyfriend who was hanging around and some family. To make matters worse, the government charge a tourist tax for locals leaving the country.
Luz Travels North With Me
We headed north and at the border paid for a week in Ecuador. I don’t know if she ever went back to Peru.
On the steam side, we did travel on the famous Ecuador line from Riobamba to Guayaquil. I rode in the cab of a train as far as Alausi, which was a thrill. I didn’t see another steam loco until San Salvador in El Salvador.
To finish the story we travelled together through Central America to Mexico. She couldn’t get a US VISA, so I travelled overland to Canada and flew from Montreal to London. Luz went to Spain and flew from there. I have no idea how she managed to make it to England.
A little while later, I returned home to work and get some more money. It took a long time to get her a VISA, and it only happened after I started harassing the Immigration department here.
We parted ways in 1987, after an interesting, if sometimes stormy relationship. I guess it was meant to be!
That’s my romantic story with steam, what’s yours?