April 17, 2013
Traveling may be thrilling, exhausting, dangerous, mind-opening and, occasionally, boring. But more than anything else, going to faraway places is easier talked about than done. Thus, we find history riddled with quiet rumors and full-fledged scandals surrounding claims of heroic journeys that turned out to be tales woven with lies. Other adventurers’ claims, while not known hoaxes, have dwelt in the limbo of critical doubt for years or decades. Following is a listing of some of the best and least known of the world’s travel hoaxes.
Donald Crowhurst and the Solo Sailing Race Fraud.
In the late ’60s, Donald Crowhurst had the world believing that he was sailing around the world at a record-smashing pace—but skeptics today believe that Donald Crowhurst fictionalized nearly every mile of his 1968-69 solo voyage. The British amateur was racing against seven others in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a round-the-world race that began and ended in southern England. Crowhurst was vying for the large cash prize while also hoping to generate publicity for his marine navigational hardware company.
But Crowhurst, an inexperienced sailor, had barely begun when he began to doubt he had any chance of winning—or perhaps even surviving—the global voyage. His boat began to leak, and he was falling far behind the competition. So he gave up—without telling anyone. While his competitors sailed southward to the Southern Ocean and then eastward, Crowhurst never left the Atlantic, all the while sending falsified radio reports to listeners of his progress. Perhaps by accident, Crowhurst put himself far in the lead—and, what’s more, on a course to break the world’s record for the same route. As the competition dropped out of the race one by one for various reasons, more and more eyes turned to the horizon, awaiting the appearance of Crowhurst, the heroic underdog. But Crowhurst never showed. While Robin Knox-Johnston returned to England as the race’s only finisher, Crowhurst seems to have panicked, doubtful he could pull off the fraud and terrified of the shame he would face. His boat was found adrift on July 10, 1969, in the Caribbean. Of Crowhurst himself there was not a sign. Many believe he committed suicide. His boat was towed ashore and today remains a rotting tourist attraction on the beach, on the island of Cayman Brac.
Christian Stangl and K2.
After three summers spent on K2 and not once looking down from the coveted summit, Austrian climber Christian Stangl returned to lower altitudes in August 2010 and told the world he had done it—climbed the world’s second-highest mountain in what would have been a phenomenal time of four days round-trip from the base camp. No one else reached the peak that year, and one climber died trying—but quickly, climbing experts began asking if Stangl had, either. Stangl, after all, was never seen above Camp 3, and he produced no GPS signals from the summit. He also had just one summit photo to prove his achievement—and something was funny about it; Stangl’s photo, it appeared, was taken from lower on the mountain than other existing summit shots.
Eventually, Stangl came clean, admitting his deception but explaining that he had begun to hallucinate on the mountain due to the thin air. He says he descended (after a bizarre face-off with what may have been a snow leopard) truly believing he had stood on K2′s summit. To his genuine credit, Stangl climbed K2 in a confirmed summit attempt in 2012. He sent out his coordinates signal 21 times and took a 360-panorama video sequence to prove his claim, and for this stubborn and accomplished Austrian alpinist, redemption arrived.
Frederick Cook and the Mount McKinley Hoax.
Frederick Cook almost certainly set foot in many places where previously no person had before—but the New York-born explorer is also seen as one of modern exploration’s most notorious fraudsters. He participated in three significant expeditions between 1891 and 1903, two of them into the Arctic and the latter a circumnavigation of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, also known as Denali. In 1906, he set forth on another McKinley outing, this time returning home to report that he had summited the 20,320-foot peak, which had never been climbed before. The claim stood the test of time for only three years, when the true story came spilling out: Cook had taken his summit photo on a tiny mountain 19 miles from McKinley’s peak.
Cook’s claims have since been thoroughly dissected and discredited; the descriptions he made in his journal of the landscape near the summit were found to bear little resemblance to the real mountain, and modern-day climber Bradford Washburn took it upon himself to identify every place on and around the slopes of Denali where Cook took his expedition shots. It has been determined that Cook and his small group of men never approached closer than 12 miles to the summit of Denali. So who first climbed the highest mountain in North America? Hudson Stuck, in June 1913.
Cook and the North Pole Debate. After his Mount McKinley expedition, Frederick Cook ventured farther north, into the Arctic—though just how far he went became the subject of argument, accusation and scandal. In 1909, Cook staggered home from the ice, having almost starved to death en route. He claimed he had been to the North Pole and back, which would now give him claim to two magnificent feats of exploration. Then, doubts arose about his polar voyage—for Cook could not produce evidence that he had reached the North Pole on April 22, 1908, as he had claimed.
Moreover, his two Inuit guides, Ahwelah and Etukishook, who traveled with Cook across the Arctic sea ice, later reported that, all traveling together, they had only gone several days from land across the frozen sea—not far enough to have brought them to 90 degrees north latitude. Eventually Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the pole on April 6, 1909, was widely credited as the first explorer to reach the North Pole—though some historians today aren’t convinced Peary actually got there. It was while reviewing Cook’s account of reaching the North Pole that skeptics looked back several years, to Cook’s claimed McKinley conquest. It was eventually discredited entirely as rubbish, and Cook’s reputation as an explorer crumbled.
Eric Ryback and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Eric Ryback was just 17 when he first hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1969—and in the next three years he would walk both the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest trails, making him the first person to complete all three of America’s great long-distance hiking trails. But when rumors emerged that the young trekker had hitchhiked and thereby circumvented parts of the Pacific Crest Trail, his claim to fame began to wilt. Ryback, who by this time had written a book—The High Adventure of Eric Ryback —about his walks, fought back. When the guidebook publisher, Wilderness Press, stated in print that Ryback had used motor transport in places along the PCT, Ryback sued for $3 million—but he withdrew the suit after Wilderness Press revealed statements from the very people who had supposedly picked up the young hiker along highways parallel to the 2,600-mile trail. The claims that Ryback “cheated” are still doubted by some—although the term “yellowblazing,” used to describe hitchhiking near trails that one had intended to be walking, has been reportedly replaced at times by a new verb: rybacking.
Oh Eun-Sun and Her Questioned Climb of Kangchenjunga.
In 2010, South Korean climber Oh Eun-Sun trudged to the top of Annapurna, thereby becoming the first woman to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks—but many wonder if she really did. The question hinges on Oh’s 2009 ascent of the world’s third-highest peak, Kangchenjunga, in the Himalayas. Oh’s photographic documentation of her achievement didn’t prove she had reached the top. One image, initially portrayed as her summit shot, was unconvincing, showing the woman in mountain climbing gear surrounded by a blinding, overexposed and ambiguous landscape. Another supposed summit photo showed Oh standing on a rocky surface, whereas Kangchenjunga’s 28,169-foot summit is known to have been covered in snow at about that time. There is even evidence that some of Oh’s summit shots had been digitally doctored.
Oh’s sponsor, Black Yak mountaineering gear, assures skeptics that Oh rightly reached the summit. One of Oh’s Sherpas said the same thing—though another of the three who climbed with Oh reportedly said that the group stopped climbing more than 400 feet below the mountaintop. The Korean Alpine Federation eventually decided that not enough evidence exists to prove Oh really reached Kangchenjunga’s summit, while Elizabeth Hawley, the most respected keeper and chronicler of Himalayan records, deemed Oh’s 14-peak claim to climber’s fame as “disputed.”
Cesare Maestri and the Summit of Cerro Torre.
The peaks of the world’s mountains are so tangled with lies and controversy that one must wonder if it’s the love of climbing or the lust for glory that lures so many people into the high country. In 1959, an Italian named Cesare Maestri went to Argentina, teamed up with an Austrian named Toni Egger and attempted what had been characterized one year prior as an unclimbable mountain. They supposedly reached the top of the icy 10,262-foot pinnacle on February 3. But Egger died in an avalanche on the way down, and Maestri, upon reaching civilization and making his claim, had no evidence at all to back it up.
Almost immediately, the climb was labeled a hoax. Above a certain point on the mountain, no trace of Maestri or Egger has been found, even though Maestri claimed to have bolted parts of the route, and for decades no other climbers managed to reach the top of Cerro Torre. In 1970, Maestri returned to climb it again and, hopefully, clear the air of doubt. He used a controversial gasoline-powered bolt gun—and still he failed to reach the spire’s peak. Worst of all, perhaps, Maestri let slip a shocking trip of the tongue several years ago, when he angrily told a reporter, “What I did was the most important endeavor in the world. I did it single-handedly. But this doesn’t mean that I . . . that I reached the top, do you understand?” Did he just—? Yes, I think he did.
The Atlantic Swim That Could Not Be. The Associated Press reported in early February 2009 that American Jennifer Figge had just completed a 2,100-mile swim across the Atlantic. The story reported that Figge had begun at Cape Verde, in western Africa—on January 12. It took little time for sharp-eyed readers to flinch, do a double take and read that again: January 12 to early February. Not even 30 days. That would have been 80 miles daily—three miles per hour nonstop for a month—to complete the journey. It would turn out that Figge, who was accompanied by a boat, never even intended to swim across the width of the ocean and that poor reporting had invented the swim that couldn’t possibly be.
Rosie Ruiz, the Champion Cheater of Marathons. She finished the 1979 New York Marathon in two hours 56 minutes, a time to qualify her for an even bigger race—and in 1980, Rosie Ruiz crossed the finish line with the women’s record for the Boston Marathon. But the 23-year-old was barely sweating as she accepted the crowds’ praise. Moreover, no other competitors in the 26.2-mile run could remember seeing her in the past 150 minutes. Nor could Ruiz, when questioned, recall the details of the route. It would turn out in a shocking flood of humiliation that Ruiz had started the race, left the route, taken the subway and jumped back in for the last half-mile. Jacqueline Gareau was recognized belatedly as the real winner. Scrutiny of Ruiz’s running history led investigators to suspect that Ruiz had also used subway support in the New York Marathon.
To learn more about the deceptions of historical adventurers, read Great Exploration Hoaxes, by David Roberts, in which the author discusses the controversial explorations of ten men, including Father Louis Hennepin, who fictionalized his travels on the Mississippi, and Capt. Samuel Adams, whose scramblings in the Colorado River basin appeared later to be made up.
February 20, 2013
In the Valley of Longevity, in southern Ecuador, visitors find the quiet and legendary town that has inspired travelers for decades—Vilcabamba. Once just another of a thousand beautiful Andean villages, this community of about 4,000 people is today one of the hottest destinations for outsiders seeking their own little piece of Shangri-La. The town, of affordable goods and productive soils, promises new life—not to mention long life—for both vacationers and expats, and in the past two decades Vilcabamba has become an uncanny magnet and New Age watering hole for soul-searchers dabbling in everything from agriculture to shamanism to hallucinogens.
But as one nears the village center along a cobblestone road that diverges from the highway, the legendary Vilcabamba seems too quiet for its reputation. Dozens of people sit idly in the square—well-to-do tourists, hippies with dreadlocks and bead necklaces, a few locals, men with week-old scruff and worn sandals—all of them waiting, it seems, for things to happen. As I cycled into the plaza, a friend of mine from Cuenca, Mick Hennessey, from Utah, was seated on a plaza bench, alertly watching the slow activity. He saw me and waved. “There’s nothing much going on here,” he said, seemingly reluctant to make such a decree so early. He had arrived only three hours before me by bus. “Sure is pretty up there, though,” I said, pointing at the mountain ridges surrounding this Valley of Longevity, so named for its supposedly high concentration of centenarians.
Another tourist, Nathan Resnick—an American currently living in Cuenca—spent several days in Cuenca hiking in the hills between nights at the Rendezvous guesthouse. He was glad with what he found.
“I was expecting a lot more and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t exist,” Resnick said.
The town is surrounded by fantastic green ridges on the skyline and lush woods that make a paradise for backpackers, botanists and bird watchers. It is also the last chance for food and gear before entering Podocarpus National Park just to the east—home to bears and wild cats and countless bird species.
But according to some locals, Vilcabamba is unable to meet the needs or hopes of many who visit each year.
“People come here to solve their problems, but they never actually leave anything behind and so they bring all their baggage with them,” one man—a Canadian who has lived in Vilcabamba part time for a decade—told me about a block from the plaza, after we met and shook hands in the empty street. And so, he went on, health problems and mental maladies accumulate here with the immigrants. In particular, he said, conspiracy theories and UFO reports saturate local gossip. This interview by Uncornered Market of a resident Vilcabamban reads almost like a transcript of our conversation.
I quickly detected a very dark shadow hanging over the town. Only three days earlier, a woman had been raped on a trail in the woods just northeast of the town—the third such incident in just weeks. The alleged assailant was reportedly still at large. This January 25 blog post on Passionfruitcowgirl describes a dramatic attempted rape in what the author calls “Evilcabamba.” Another blog, Patryantravels, published a post last August titled “Paradise Lost,” which dwells on the steady rising tide of crime, both petty theft and physical assaults, that have damaged the pretty face of Vilcabamba. Among these recent events is the dramatic kidnapping for ransom that occurred in September on a nearby mountain trail, where a honeymooning couple was assaulted by three armed men wearing masks. The man was ordered to return to the town, retrieve several thousand dollars and deliver it back to the bandits, who said they would otherwise kill his wife. The couple survived the encounter—though the town’s reputation has taken a blow, and attentive eavesdroppers here can pick up on conversations in every direction about robbery, rape and the absence of the police.
Even as long ago as the 1970s, things seemed too good to be true in Vilcabamba. National Geographic, among other publications, had reported an unusually high number of centenarians in the village, but Dr. Alexander Leaf, of Harvard Medical School, was growing skeptical of villagers’ claims to be well over 100—and in one case as old as 134. He called upon two American professors to come help determine the truth. They did, and in 1978, after pressing villagers for information and facts, Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin and Sylvia Forman of U.C. Berkeley released their findings. The entire legend of long life was no better than myth—and as bad as outright lies. There was not, they reported, a single person over 100 in the Valley of Longevity. The average age of supposed centenarians was actually 86 years old, and one man who claimed to be 127 years old in 1974 was actually 91 at the time.
The blur between fact and fiction in Vilcabamba may—or may not—have something to do with a local hallucinogen called aguacolla, made from mescaline extracted from several dozen species of cacti in the genus Trichocereus, collectively referred to as the San Pedro cactus. T. pachanoi is the most commonly used for medicine and (let’s be honest) sport. Shamans and village doctors have used the cactus for ages, and the drug today, though illegal in many countries, is provided by licensed shamans and in the Andes is a popular draw for tourists seeking the journey—trip, that is—of a lifetime.
“What was it like?” I asked an American man on the plaza who had partaken in a group experience the night before at $70 a head. He was waiting for a cab, planning to head back to the camp for anther go. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said, seemingly thrilled as he hoisted his suitcase to the curb and waved to a taxi. “All I know is there was a whole lot of vomiting.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said.
As the website for Sacred Medicine Journey, a local shaman service, advises its prospective participants, “You may feel some discomfort, but the benefits are worthwhile. Remember that this is not recreational.”
The floodgates to weirdness seem to have opened wide in the 1960s with the arrival of the late Johnny Lovewisdom and his followers. Lovewisdom was an off-kilter spiritual guru and leader who was drawn to Vilcabamba by the “longevity” legend. Born as John Wierlo, Lovewisdom practiced a variety of unusual lifestyle diets throughout his life. Among his lasting legacies was his advocacy of a raw, fruit-only diet, though he eventually allowed yogurt and other fermented items into his body. Lovewisdom, who reportedly struggled with a number of uncommon health problems, also advocated water-fasting, sun diets and breathanarianism, which holds that humans can subsist on spiritual energy alone.
“A woman told me in town to be careful here because there is so much negative ‘energy’ in the air,” laughed a young German man as we ate breakfast at the campground kitchen of Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge, the cheapest place in town at $3.50 for a tent site. He was leaving that day for Peru via the Zumba border crossing just 80 miles south. The man was a skeptic of the Vilcabamba lore, and unlike thousands before him, he was not seduced by the village’s call.
Though the continuing crime wave and growing insider disenchantment with Vilcabamba have darkened the village, the innocent weirdness introduced by Lovewisdom remains. One morning in the driving rain at Rumi Wilco, a tall and lanky Dutchman—a raw foods fruitarian, it happened—undressed to his underwear on the lawn between the kitchen and the guest cabins and began a bizarre and comical calisthenics routine, punctuated by clumsy overhead jabs of the arms and poorly postured yoga stretches. He finished his workout with several minutes of running ten-foot-wide circles through the mud—one more eccentric seeking grace and happiness in the Valley of Longevity.
The sky remained gray for several days, and if there were people here who really could subsist on sunshine, as the eccentric Lovewisdom believed possible, they were probably thinking about a sandwich. And if they believed everything that the local mythology promised, they would almost certainly die younger than they hoped to, in the beautiful little village of Vilcabamba.
January 30, 2013
About 15 miles north of Quito, a palatial iron gate on the west side of the highway opens onto a long, stately driveway leading across a prim and trim government property, past statues of acclaimed national leaders and, after about 200 yards, to the base of a nearly 100-foot-tall brick-and-mortar monument, grand enough to produce tears, called the Mitad del Mundo—“Middle of the World.” A yellow painted stripe representing the line of zero degrees latitude even runs up a walkway and bisects the monolith, which was built in 1979 and stands today as a premier tourist attraction, and a grand and glowing tribute to one of Ecuador’s proudest features: the Equator.
The problem is, they built the thing in the wrong place. The Equator is actually several hundred feet to the north, as determined by modern GPS technology that wasn’t available to the earlier surveyors of the region. As long ago as 1736 scientists were exploring Ecuador, with, among other goals, the aim of defining and marking the Equator. At some point, the current Mitad del Mundo line was painted proudly on the ground. But in recent decades, the embarrassing truth emerged: The Equator actually, and without a doubt, crosses the highway just up the road, where the property owners surely rejoiced upon hearing the news (and took their own GPS measurements, as they claim they have done) and have since built their own rather campy but perhaps more accurate attraction.
As for the grandiose government monument just to the south, what’s built is built, and, as the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity. And so the yellow painted line that leads into the museum at the base of the Mitad monument is still declared to be the waistline of the Earth and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Here, they walk the line, straddle it, try and balance eggs on it and shake hands over it.
But I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t enter the museum, either—not because admission was $3 but because I didn’t see the point. Nor did I see any point in getting coffee at the Equator, buying “Mitad del Mundo” trinkets at the gift shops on the Equator, eating lunch at the Equator, sitting down for a beer at the Equator or petting an alpaca at the Equator (the little camelids roam the premises). Because I wasn’t on the Equator and it all would have meant nothing. Carved into the monument is the site’s elevation (2,483 meters) and longitude (78 degrees, 27 minutes and eight seconds west—or so they say). But these somewhat arbitrary numbers are made even more so since, well, this isn’t the Equator.
Still, I did as many visitors to the Mitad do and had my passport stamped by the lady working the museum admission booth so that I could prove to the folks back home that I had actually stood on the Equator—well, almost.
“Does the stamp say ‘Mitad del Mundo, Mas o Menos’?” Alistair Hill joked minutes later, just after I met him and several other British travelers on the steps before the monument.
Hill and his girlfriend Jess Swan, both from England and now backpacking through South America for several months, gazed up at the hulking, majestic thing. They had heard the rumors that the attraction was not all it is claimed to be but made the trip from Quito anyway, splitting a cab four ways for $40.
“How did they get it so wrong?” Hill said. “Why didn’t they just flush a toilet on each side to make sure they had it right? It makes you wonder if the Meridian really passes through Greenwich.”
Hill’s friend Chris Leigh joked, “So, what else in the world have they got wrong? The South Pole? The North Pole? The Tropic of Capricorn? That’s probably 100 miles out of line. Turns your world upside-down, doesn’t it?”
But for all the pomp and circumstance, gravity and grandeur of the Mitad del Mundo, that a huge mistake has been made is freely admitted today, and the officials who work at the site readily tell visitors who inquire where to find the actual Equator.
“Turn left at the gate, and it’s 100 meters on your left,” the guard at the entrance told me as I was leaving.
You have to watch closely, but you’ll see it—a sign reading “Museo Solar Inti-Nan.” The sign assures you that you are now at zero degrees, zero minutes and zero seconds—neither north nor south of the middle of the world. The sign adds that these figures were “calculated by ‘GPS.’” It comes off as a smirking insult directed at the government site just down the road, but the sign is only being honest. A humble dirt trail leads visitors up a ravine, across a small bridge and into the outdoor museum area. While guests are free to wander at the Mitad del Mundo site, at the private museum visitors are quickly asked for $4 and then ushered into a small tour group, whether you want the service or not. I joined Amy Jones of Texas and Stefania Egas of Quito, and our English-speaking guide led the way. Much of the tour, through wood huts and artifact collections, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Equator. We saw a pen full of guinea pigs, a shrunken human head, a soggy dead boa constrictor in formaldehyde, a collection of totem poles and an exhibit featuring native folks of the Amazon.
But we finally got to the feature attraction—the Equator. It is represented by a red line, along which have been mounted a sundial, a spinning globe, nail heads on which one may try and balance an egg and—the grand fireworks of the tour–a full wash basin used to demonstrate the way that draining water supposedly swirls in a particular direction in each hemisphere. There has been much debate about this phenomenon. The Coriolis effect, a function of motion and the curvature of the Earth, is real, a phenomenon by which free-moving objects in the Northern Hemisphere appear to veer toward the right and those in the Southern Hemisphere to the left. At zero degrees latitude, the effect does not occur. This is why, for example, hurricanes wither and dissipate when they drift too close to the Equator.
But whether toilets and sinks, at their small scale, can demonstrate the Coriolis effect isn’t clear, though most experts say that the Coriolis effect does not visibly affect moving water over such a short distance as the diameter of a sink or toilet. Yet our young mono-toned tour guide, drably repeating a show she had probably given many times before, made it happen. On the Equator, after she pulled the drain plug, the water shot straight through without a swirl in either direction. Ten feet to the south, the water drained in a clockwise gyre. And just to the north, the water went down in a counterclockwise whirlpool. I suspect there was trickery at play—possibly by a hand furtively dipped into the basin and slyly setting the appropriate flow direction when we weren’t watching. I walked away frustrated, if not wowed, and I admit: The 100-foot-tall monument of the government, though a big fat mistake, is a greater site to see.
But just when we think we’ve got the whole matter sorted out and the Earth perfectly bisected, I discover this blog post from a science-savvy traveler named Adam Rasheed, who claims we’ve all been duped twice over. In 2006, Rasheed wrote a blog entry for a science and technology firm called Global Research in which he described visiting both of the equatorial sites, being skeptical of the private museum’s claims of legitimacy and promptly taking equatorial matters into his own hands using a GPS device. Rasheed concluded that the true Equator was still farther up the road, and here he and a friend built their own equatorial monument of plastic drink bottles and rubbish. Whether Rasheed had it right seems, by now, doubtful—not that it really matters. Because if Ecuador builds the 5,000-foot-tall spire that a New York architect proposed be erected on the Equator, then that would be the destination most worth paying to see—whether they place it exactly at zero degrees latitude or not.
Perhaps there is only one thing certain in this foggy fuss over the Equator: The more monuments and museums the merrier. If you think you can improve upon the existing measurements, let us know in the comment box below.
January 15, 2013
Virtually nothing lives in much of the dusty, rocky sweeps of desert along Peru’s coast. But as evident as the mere absence of life is the prominent mark of death along the sides of the Pan-American Highway—hand-built crosses occurring almost as regularly as the kilometer markers themselves. They stand coldly in the sand bearing the names and dates of death of accident victims. The crosses are too numerous to count, but there are certainly thousands of them. That this highway is so stained by blood doesn’t surprise us. The truck traffic is heavy and aggressive, buses race wildly north and south lest they reach their destination late by a few minutes and cars honk first and brake later. These reckless vehicles share the road—well, they use the same road, anyway—as three-wheeled moto-taxis, donkey-drawn carts, motor bikers, pedestrians and a few cyclists. We move to the gravel shoulder when we hear large vehicles approaching from behind, for if the abundance of roadside death memorials tells us anything it’s that no drivers on the Pan-American should be fully trusted. In one village, I saw a cross scrawled with a death date just two months prior. Two-hundred meters away was another marking a fatal accident last April. The heavy presence of death, it seems, never quite leaves this place.
Just ten kilometers north of the town of Casma we passed a small woven-bamboo shack with an open side facing the road. Inside were more than a dozen crosses. Each person, it appeared, had died on the same day—August 13, 2005. Some later research revealed that this was the date of a horrific bus-truck collision involving some local commercial fishermen and a vehicle carrying flammable liquids. The crash resulted in an explosion, and 14 people died.
Just several kilometers later I caught a glimpse of something more ghastly on the west side of the highway. I turned around and crossed over and leaned my bike on the dune and stared. It was a human skeleton, bones splintered and smashed and roughly assembled before a crude headstone stuck in the sand. Beside the bleached bones lay the greater portion of the person’s skull, accompanied by a tangle of long brown hair. Andrew had also turned around by now and come back to join me. After a few moments we took several photos, then left to hunt up dinner and a place to sleep in Casma. We asked a local man about the two sites. He said the first was the memorial to a crash three years ago in which 24 people died in an explosion—not quite accurate, but the same general story we gleaned off the Internet. And the skeleton? He shrugged. Probably some crazy person. “Do the police not care or come and collect the body when vagrants die?” I asked. Again he shrugged and said that authorities tend not to bother here with accidents or deaths that go unreported. Still, we wondered why the bones were so broken to pieces (both of the lower legs were entirely snapped, and the back of the skull was knocked out) and, of course, who had taken the effort to assemble the remains as we found them.
Though the crosses along this roadway serve as a constant reminder of what bad driving can do, many, many people both on the Pan-American and on city streets drive recklessly, brazenly shirking basic courtesy and caution. We frequently must stop in the middle of intersections for drivers who refuse to yield in making left turns. The “right hook” is another popular move, by which motorists cut sharply in front of us, then make a quick right, forcing a complete stop on our part and often leaving us in a choke of dust. The honking is incessant—though not solely an act of aggression: laying down the horn in another’s ear also seems to be the way that gentlemen say hello in Peru. Still, the rude racket does little to calm our nerves. Within the towns, three-wheeled moto-taxis swarm like bees. They leap over speed bumps and push through the narrow walkways of outdoor markets. Their horns make strange beeping-bleeping noises, and they zip about with a curious insect-like demeanor. Moto-taxis have been the culprits in vehicle-pedestrian deaths, though on the open road (in the places where they are permitted) they hug the shoulders, like us, and are as vulnerable as we are to the giants of the highway. Sadly—or maddeningly—most accidents here could probably be avoided. One article names human error as the cause of 83 percent of Peruvian auto accidents. According to the same story, 3,243 people died in Peru in vehicle accidents in 2009, with more than 43,000 people injured. Another article reports that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 14, and second among people 15 to 44.
We took a bus from Chimbote to Chiclayo. I have never been particularly frightened during bus rides—but this was no ordinary bus ride. We were seated in the upper deck in the front row, which gave us a prime view of the highway madness that unfurled before us. Our driver was an efficient man, concerned with each half second that went by. He swerved into oncoming traffic to overtake slower vehicles and gain a few seconds of time. He ran smaller cars off the road and angrily blared his horn to show who was boss. While we momentarily tailgaited a slow and lumbering gravel truck, waiting for an opening, another bus passed us and the truck—and had a very close call with an oncoming tanker, probably carrying flammable liquids. Horns blared north and south as the tanker took to the shoulder. Andrew and I covered our eyes and watched through our fingers. A moment later, we overtook the same bus. Beside us was a buoyant, spirited man bouncing his little boy on his knee as the desert highway blew past. What a ride! Night came, and each oncoming car became just a pair of blinding headlights. Our only consolation came from knowing that if we did connect with a sedan or pickup, this bus would smash it to pieces. Flying past us regularly were the roadside crosses, illuminated in the bus’s headlights but having no obvious effect on our driver’s actions.
We reached our destination at 9 p.m.—right on schedule—and we couldn’t complain about that. Or could we?
January 3, 2013
For those who grow dreamy-eyed at thoughts of high mountains, vacant wilderness, quinoa on the camp stove and the ever-present chance of seeing a puma, Peru is gold country. The nation encompasses a substantial portion of the low-lying Amazon rainforest as well as a balmy coastline 1,400 miles long—the destinations of jungle explorers, bird watchers, river adventurers and surfers. But it’s the Andes that constitute the nation’s heart. This longest of the world’s mountain ranges runs thousands of miles north to south and largely defines the landscape and the spirit of Peru. In these high Peruvian elevations are sites like Machu Picchu and Cusco, almost endless wilderness, wild cats, guanacos (the wild relatives of alpacas and llamas) and a species of unusual bear and dozens of peaks higher than 18,000 feet. But—good news for travelers—these mountains are not inaccessible. Navigable roads crisscross the spine of the Andes, providing access to some of the planet’s most tremendous and inspiring scenery.
One of the very highest paved passes in the world is just 80 miles from Lima—Ticlio, or Anticona. Now, as I make final arrangements for a trip to Peru with my bicycle, the temptation to ride directly to Anticona is strong—but my brother Andrew, also on this trip, and I have thought better of the idea. The overall climb and the final altitude of almost 16,000 feet on day one just might kill us. Altitude sickness is a very real concern in places like Peru for people like us, who have spent our lives mostly at sea level. To treat this ailment we are packing pills. “Take 1 tablet orally 2 times a day starting 1 day before reaching high altitude, then continue for at least 3 days,” the bottle of Acetazolamide directs us. Yet the best cure may be preventative—becoming acclimated over time. For we would prefer not to subsist on a diverse diet of pills—we also have pills to treat our water, pills to fight stomach bugs, pills for typhoid, anti-inflammatory pills and malaria pills. By remaining high enough—5,000 feet up seems to be the magic number—we can avoid disease-bearing mosquitoes, but that brings us back to those altitude pills. We may just have to take our medicine.
Andrew returns to the States from Quito, Ecuador, three weeks from now, which gives us something of an objective—a 1,100-mile trip to this lofty city (altitude 9,350 feet), arriving by no later than January 19. En route, we’ll have many opportunities to climb two-mile-high passes—and we may try and grab a glance of Mount Huascarán. If we were climbers, this might be our target conquest. Huascarán is the highest mountain in Peru, the highest in the tropics and the fifth highest in all the Andes. It stands 22,205 feet (6,768 meters) above sea level and is preserved within a national park of the same name. The energy costs of cycling on loaded bikes across this sort of terrain may amount to about 4,000 calories per day (we will probably consume about 60 calories per mile of pedaling), which has us already thinking about food. Peru is tropical, and we anticipate a fantastic selection of fruits at outdoor markets. We hope to go especially heavy on cherimoyas, an Andean native that is too costly (often $6 per fruit or so) to buy more than a few times per year in the States. But food, especially fresh produce and the stuff of street vendors, must be treated with caution in Peru. It’s a tall order for travelers fighting a constant calorie deficit—but it is, in fact, our doctors’ orders. Anything with a thick peel should be safe, they have advised us, but raw vegetable salads will wait until we’re home again. We’re not to drink the water, either, and have been advised by experienced travelers to only drink purified water from sealed plastic bottles.
In Turkey about 15 months ago, I had the pleasure of a meeting a brown bear at midnight just outside my tent and then enjoyed a rousing slapstick time of ducking under the bullets of poachers who began firing at the animal. But bears are abundant in Eurasia, while in South American they are not. The spectacled bear lives in much of the northern Andes, but its population consists of just several thousand animals between Bolivia and Venezuela. The spectacled bear is the last living descendant of the enormous short-faced bear, which vanished from North America 12,500 years ago. The odds of seeing a wild bear in Peru are tiny, but the fact that it’s possible elevates this land into a realm of wildness that places like England, Holland, Kansas and Portugal lost long ago, sacrificed for agriculture and towns. Bears, like no other creatures, embody the spirit of wildness (never mind the trash-fat black bears of America’s suburbs and national parks). The world is a richer place just for having these big-muscled carnivores at large—even if we may never see them. Other Peruvian wildlife viewing possibilities include tapirs, anacondas, caimans, jaguars and an incredible wealth of river fishes—including the giant arapaima—in the Amazon basin. In the highlands live guanacos. Tiptoeing through the mountains are also pumas (same species as the cougar or mountain lion), and condors fly overhead. I once read somewhere that hikers in the Andes can be tipped off to the presence of a puma by the sudden appearance of one or more condors ascending into the sky—presumably chased off a half-eaten kill by the returning cat. I’ll be bird watching if it may help me see a cat.
We’ve kept our gear as basic as can be without unnecessarily sacrificing simple comforts. We are packing a bug-proof and waterproof two-person tent, powerful sunscreen, a camping stove, sleeping bags, books, basic bike repair gear and our decadent pill rations. We’re rolling on essentially flat-proof Armadillo tires—and I’ll be writing about our travels from cozy mountain campsites. I’m a Luddite in many ways, but 3G Internet access is a modern miracle I welcome, from the fringes of the civilized world.