Drive From Lima To Cuzco

Two Hours by Plane, A Day by Bus – Nearly a Week with our L.O.C.

After so many months in Lima, we were really looking forward to the drive to Cuzco. Time to let the cobwebs blow free and get some movement on again. For this run we had a couple of Londoners on board – a pleasure and a privilege for LOC Jigsaw to have a full crew and an opportunity to share a great travelling experience where every stop on the five-day journey will be something unique. The best thing about Peru is that it hardly matters which road you take – there are always going to be amazing things to see along the way and the drive from Lima to Cuzco via Nazca is no exception.

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Day One: Lima to Paracas

The long desert road down the coast is an easy drive and eased us all into the trip. Turning off the Pan-American Highway at Pisco which is one of the traditional centers of the Peruvian distilled grape juice called Pisco – surprisingly enough. Most of this town was destroyed in a powerful earthquake in 2007, the cathedral is still a ruin and, as we drive through to the coast and then south past foul-smelling fish meal factories  to the Paracas Nature Reserve, many of the buildings are still crumbling with gaps and piles of rubble between them.

We get to the Nature Reserve a little before sunset – enough time to pay the S/.5 per person entrance and drive over to the tiny port of Lagunillas where we camp up under an emerging starry sky.

Day Two: Paracas to Huacachina

Woke up to strong sunshine, beautiful blue sea and an endless sandy landscape stretching behind us – this barren landscape is a unique desert and the reserve is home to many kinds of birds, lizards and sea lions, foxes and dolphins. We went in search of the Mirador de los Lobos which is a cliff-top overlooking an island where thousands of sea lions hang out with the chance of seeing whales further off-shore. The track we took skirted a salty estuary and became a wash-board road and then climbed up on to the cliffs. We abandoned the truck where our heavy two-wheel drive could do no more and continued on foot for a couple of hours across this incredible scenery.

From Paracas it was a short drive to Ica, to pick up some supplies and then Huacachina, a unique oasis set among enormous sand dunes. After playing it safe in Paracas, of course, we had to get stuck here, trying to park up at the bottom of an enormous pile of sand as darkness quickly fell. Sure, we thought it was a car park – but probably a car park reserved for the dune buggies that took tourists out on excursions around.

Day Three: Huacachina to Nazca

Again, today was a short drive up onto the plateau that is famous for the mysterious Nazca Lines. First stop is at the viewing platform by the side of the highway. It’s only a couple of Sols to climb a twenty-metre high steel construction, ignore any vertigo inducement and enjoy this small section of the enormous earthworks. From here you can see three of the figures fairly clearly: a Tree, Hand and Parrot. Just a little further down the road you can climb up small hillocks and from here, although you don’t get to see any more of the figures, you do see close up some of the perfectly straight lines racing off into the distance and you do get a feel for the enormity of the whole thing.

On to Nazca itself, we stopped at some ruins on the outskirts of the town on that road that would take us up to the Altiplano. Not for the first time on the Peruvian leg of our earthcircuit, we could park up in the remains of some ancient citadel called Los Paredones. While the rest of the crew explored the adobe structure and the rocky hillside it was built against, the pilot had to make some running repairs on our ship (the handbrake mechanism had been wobbled loose driving over the corrugated tracks of Paracas). Climbing into the mountains the next day demanded a working hand brake and it was better to do it here, more or less at sea level, while there was the oxygen available to remove and replace all the back wheels and drums…

Day Four: Nazca to the Edge of Space

Maybe we’re just getting used to driving in mountains, but it didn’t’t seem like a long climb up. But it was. About four thousand five hundred meters. 4.5km. Doesn’t sound much but our ship is a Low Orbiting Craft and this, a tiny village in the Cotaruse District where we finally came to a stop at 4600m above sea level was like the edge of space. Beautiful drive up; the gray desert giving way to sparse green vegetation and herds of vicunas as we crossed the Pampas Galeras Natural Reserve; the sinuous climbing highway leveling out as we crossed into the highlands. We had a late lunch with coca tea to alleviate the developing altitude sickness but, even at our sedate pace, we were traveling too quickly for any comfortable acclimatization. By the end of the day it was very much a near-death type of painful: Thumping headaches for the pilot, nausea and vomiting for some of the passengers. I tried to say hello to the locals but all I could hear was blood pounding through my head. I tried to appreciate the incredible night sky, brilliant stars closer to us than ever before but my banging head was hung low with hood up hat I might die in peace…

Day Five: Cotaruse to Cconocc

A fitful night’s sleep followed by another exhausting drive through sparsely inhabited lands was the plan for our fifth day from Lima towards the fabled Inca city of Cuzco. After remaining above 4000m for quite a few hours we dropped into the valleys that led to Abancay and the gateway into the Cuzco Province. We were pretty much starving by the time we stopped at a restaurant on the edge of town wandering if we had the energy or daylight to cover the final couple of hundred klicks to our destination. The pilot said no – the map revealed hours of twisting climb ahead – and the restaurant owner advised us to overnight at the Cconocc hot springs just a few kilometers on.

We had been thinking about finding a river to stop at; a chance to wash ourselves, the truck and our clothes so that we might arrive in Cuzco fresher than we were – and that wishful thinking appeared to have got us some hot springs! With raised spirits we turned off the road and dropped a few hundred meters into a hidden valley with a surging river and lukewarm water gushing out to fill several deep pools.

Day Six: Cconocc to Cuzco

After a few long days on the road, thermal springs represent just about the best place to park up and soak away the pain. And we did just that: loitering until the sun had climbed high above us and we felt ready for the final push. Cconocc proved to be the perfect step before the big city, marred only by the itchy bites from some kind of tiny fly.

First there was a long climb up to attain the altitude that Cuzco sits at; a megalithic guardian watching over the Inca’s Sacred Valley. That section of road was in a bad state and slowed us right down for fear that the hand brake would come loose again. We picked up some hitch-hikers, local teachers happy not to have to squeeze on board their usual transit, and we picked up speed leveling out on the better highway heading in. Our low-orbiting craft purring happily with a full load and the destination in sight as if it could recall its previous life as a bus on the other side of the planet.

Smiles all round, then, as we curled around the hillsides, the city laid out below us. The end of an epic journey: not so much because of the distance – a mere six hundred miles – but because of the differences in the environments between the capital by the coast and this ancient place high up in the hills. The drive from Lima to Cuzco is the kind of journey Peru should be famous for.

Written by TL-01