Driving 'The Beast' through South-America


By Isabelle Demaeght, September 8, 2019

After a quick border check, we arrived in Peru. At the Peruvian checkpoint my name was called. It was my lucky day: I had dropped my bank card at the Brazilian border post and was able to recover it by driving back into Brazil.

Within a few kilometers, we experience a culture shock. Everything is so different here. In Brazil we saw mixed races of people, here we see mainly indigenous people who are too shy to greet us. In any case, they seem less friendly. In Brazil everyone said, "Welcome to our country!" but here, we are barely looked at. The houses are much more impoverished. We can't find a supermarket, colorful markets are everywhere. We enjoy visiting them and eating there at the Mamas who sell meals. Three-wheeled motorcycles with a container at the back to transport people or goods and overcrowded minibuses define the street scene.

Public transport in Peru

Eating at the market

Nature changed from tropical Amazon jungle to cooler Andean high mountains. The second day we realized (at 3160 meters) that we were still capable of being cold, after straight 5 months of Brazilian heat. These experienced travelers decided, after the low-elevation Amazon, to go to sleep at +3000 meters (and drink a Caipirinha cocktail they brought with them). And yes: during the night and the next day I am altitude sick: nausea and severe headache.

The high sleeping place is next to the town of Marcapata, where we find ourselves in a party the next day. Every year the roof of the church is renewed with new dried grass over three days. We feast our eyes on the celebrating people and silently follow all the rites. It is a colorful feast. We are the only ones with a European appearance (and less colorful clothing).




Once in Cusco the altitude sickness continues during the following night. Adriaan ( thus ) arranges a hotel in the lower Sacred Valley (in the town of Ollantaytambo), where we not only visit beautiful ruins, but also make a super hike (almost 1000 meter difference in altitude), and were I also get better soon.





Machu Picchu From Ollantaytambo we drive to a camp site near one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and therefore the tourist attraction par excellence: Machu Picchu. The next day we walk around the mountain with the Inca city on top. The Incas built this city on a mountain, which is located in the meander of a river. The walls are very steep. The whole 12 kilometer walk along the river (around the mountain) the city on top remains invisible. Meanwhile Adriaan transfers his newly acquired knowledge about the Inca culture to me, and that knowledge is enriching while discovering the most beautiful place in the world, according to a Belgian magazine (Knack). To get to the top (almost 500 meters higher) we take a bus. The city is very beautiful. The sun temple (which was used to mark the solstices of June 21 and December 21) impresses Adriaan again. Meanwhile I try to ignore the mass of visitors, although twice I am literally pushed out of the picture of people taking 'selfies'...

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

A bus back to the foot of the mountain seems an almost impossible option because of the many people waiting. So we go on foot and later again to our car where we arrive dead tired but satisfied.

Guide After a short stop and a delicious breakfast at Olga's cocoa and coffee plantation, we revisit Cusco, and the Inca and Spanish sites there. We are completely captivated by the Inca culture. A free walking tour is one way to get to know a city, as pointed out by (son) Matthias. People gather, a guide joins them and together they walk past interesting points of the city. Afterwards, the participants decide what the guide is 'worth': the more interesting we find it, the greater their income. We do this walk together with Lisa (daughter of my friend Veerle) and her boyfriend Ben, who started their journey as backpackers but now travel with a motorcycle. It is striking how many things they and we have in common. Cusco is a beautiful city and that attracts many tourists here as well. The Peruvians behave accordingly because everywhere there are little old ladies with a llama or a goat begging for a paying photograph. Sometimes we think they see us as ATMs ...


Isabelle, Ben and Lisa


Colored mountains We drive south towards Arequipa, Peru's second city. The first 'stop' is at the Rainbow Mountains (Montañas de Siete Colores) where it is again time to catch our breath. This mountain is over 5000 meters high but the trip to the top is definitely worth it. As the name suggests, the mountain has different colors (of the rainbow? Well - a piece of the rainbow). These colors are created by different minerals and rocks separated by their difference in weight. Because of the altitude there is also no vegetation and the colors come out very well.

Colored mountains

Because we are traveling through the imposing Andes Mountains, we are staying at a high altitude, where we can't just pick a deep, sheltered, warm valley. The night we sleep in our tent at 4000 meters, I wake up during the night because my sock-clad feet feel like ice cubes that can't be warmed up. Eventually I fall back asleep but in the morning I understand completely. The thermometer reads -10°C. We resolved to sleep in hotels for the next few days....

Very cold night

After leaving quickly (in the heated car, but with no breakfast and no washing) we travel through the desolate, rugged nature of the Tres Cañones. A rocky plateau divided into three by rivers that have carved their way right through it, over millions of years. We climb a lookout point (9:00 in the morning, after more than an hour of driving) and later find a river (to wash ourselves) and a parking place in the sun. When we have just got dressed again, a pickup truck stops, the driver of which appears to be interested in our car. Juan invites us to his home.

Tres Cañones

In the Colca Cañon, a river has also done its years of grinding work. After a long trek through difficult but impressive terrain, we arrive at this staggeringly deep canyon that is 3500 meters deep in some places. We visit the "geyser" where hot water bubbles from the earth. On Sunday morning we visit the Cruz del Condor. The condor is the second largest bird in the world (and of mythological importance in the Inca religion). Between seven and nine in the morning, this lookout point is populated with people who are rewarded with a view of the hovering condors. Very beautiful how they hovered above our heads. 'Accidentally' we end up at another very nice wild camping spot where the next day we clamber up 500 meters and see the gorge in all its glory (and depth!).



Again a super place

The next few days we visit Arequipa where we stay with Juan and Tuayla whom we met earlier on our way through the canyons. Juan guides us through the colonial city with a central square that is one of the most beautiful in Peru, surrounded by colonial houses and a very majestic cathedral. The various monasteries occupy a large area in the city and a special place in its history. The Catalina convent is very large because each nun had her own house and four slaves.


Later we visit the museum with the frozen body of 'Juanita', one of the children sacrificed by the Incas to their gods about 500 years ago and excavated by a National Geographic team in 1995. She now 'lies' in a glass freezer in the museum. That the Incas sacrificed young children to their gods was new to us.

From Arequipa we go to Lake Titicaca, at 3810 meters, the highest navigable lake in the world. There we take a boat to two of the 90 floating islands. These islands are inhabited by the Aymara Indians who were expelled from the mainland by the Incas. About 30 people live on each island, mostly in families. Everything on the islands is made of reed. I found it amusing that when the inhabitants no longer live in harmony with each other they can simply turn their (lightweight) reed house or if the dispute gets even bigger they can (simply) saw the island in two.

Lake Titicaca


We are going to cross the border into Bolivia for a while and then drive north along the coast of Peru. We will keep you posted!