We headed for the Peru border the next day. The road was pretty good and border procedures were relatively easy, though they were very thorough on the Peru side. The Customs officer didn’t want to let me in because he thought my name was photoshopped on the registration papers. He wanted to see everything on the Queensland Roads website, which I showed him. It only had the details of the truck and the registration status on there, but not my name. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to tell him that according to privacy laws, you can’t go around looking up everyone’s name and vehicle details in Australia.
In the end he let me through though.
We continued into Peru. The roads are very good in Peru compared to Brazil. We got to Puerto Maldonado after dark. I bought a sim card and had dinner, before parking up at a service station for the night.
We left the Amazon Forest and the hot, humid tropical air the next day as we climbed and climbed into the Andes Mountains, all the way to 4750m. One part of the road was only open three times a day due to a huge slip which they were working on. We only had to wait around 30mins luckily. We spoke to the old ladies selling snacks, and we think a snake hitch hiked from the jungle on the truck. It suddenly appeared and slithered off. It was thin and about a metre long, quite surprising.
We travelled the rest of the very windy road to Cusco. The scenery is stunning in places and people still live a very traditional way of life, taking care of their Llama or Alpaca herd. It was hailing at 4750m, amazing to think when just a few hours earlier we were in the sweltering tropical heat.
We arrived into Cusco mid afternoon and stayed at an airbnb, luckily it was a dead-end road and I could park the truck there quite easily. Cusco is a congested city.
We spent the following couple of days looking round Cusco, its beautiful city centre, markets, admiring views from the top of the surrounding mountains, and marvelling at the Incan ruins.
We were going to go to Machu Picchu, but there was a strike on and people had blocked the roads. The only way was to take a very expensive train there, or walk. It will have to wait for another time.
We continued towards Lima, winding our way through the mountains, we were going up from 3 or 4,000m, down to 2000m, then back up again. It was quite tiring after 10+ hours of doing it.
We stopped in small a town overnight, which was almost completely dark due to a power cut. We found a good chicken restaurant with a generator, so ate there. My headlights weren’t working, so it was not much fun driving in the pitch black finding a space to park for the night. The lightbar worked, but I couldn’t have it on all the time, otherwise it would blind everyone. Luckily we found a service station to park at a few kilometres down the road.
It was more the same kind of roads the next day, very windy, but good surface. The scenery is spectacular. I especially liked it as we got closer to the end of the west side of the Andres.
There’s quite a descent to sea level.
I was extremely happy to see straight road again, and the road turned into a perfect dual lane highway once we reached the Pan American Highway.
We stopped at a service area for the night, just after a toll station. The food was terrible, but I didn’t mind too much as it was a long day of driving. The place in general was pretty horrible, especially after coming from the beauty of the mountains. It was sandy, dirty and smelly, but I slept very well.
As it turns out, it is like that for most of the west side of Peru. There are an incredible number of poultry farms, thousands and thousands, in sometimes the most unlikely of places. The area is very dry and desert-like, with gated communities dotting the place. It seems like a different planet, a dirty and disorganised one. North of Lima is a bit better, where there is less population and more hills and beautiful beaches. No complaints about the road though, its perfect.
We arrived into a town just outside of Lima, where I caught up with one of the very few Peruvian balloonists, Luis. We spent the afternoon at his compound in an industrial area and re-fuelled the balloon and got the headlight bulbs replaced with LED ones. The guys changing them were quite the characters and kept us entertained with their antics.
In the evening we went for a very enjoyable evening at Luis’ friend’s place, in a mechanical workshop of all places. We had a lot of laughs and learnt the Peruvian way to drink. We also went to a Peruvian restaurant late in the night and had a very good meal there, then headed back to Luis’ place for the night.
It was a short drive into Lima the next day. Peruvian drivers take the crown for worst drivers in South America. It can be a bit of fun, especially in Lima.
We met up with a person I was put in touch with, Jorge, at his friend’s packaging machine company, which we were going to park at for a couple of days. It was a great place to park, and very secure inside the workshop. The truck fit with only about a centimetre to spare.
We went to the DGAC, (Civil Aviation Authority) to sort out the permission. We were asked to come back the next day for more instructions. We caught up with Jorge that evening at a Chinese restaurant, (which are called Chifa’s in Peru).
We went back to the DGAC in the morning, while Des walked around Lima. We dropped off some documents and were asked to come back in the afternoon. Jorge had some work to do, so his Daughter, Monica, showed me around Lima. We walked around the old town in the central city, visited the catacombs, (where tens of thousands are buried and with their bones arranged very orderly), and watched the changing of the guard.
A highlight for me was seeing a very traditional dance, celebrating the soul of St Francis of Assisi. It was really beautiful, and the costumes were ornate.
We headed back to the DGAC and asked how the permission was going. We were hoping to have it that day, but it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. Jorge was confident we’d receive it the next day though.
We stayed another night in the workshop, then headed to Huaral with Monica the next morning. Jorge stayed in Lima to make sure the permission would get issued.
Huaral is the fruit bowl of Peru. There are crops of all sorts planted there. The town is congested, which seems strange when there is so much empty land all around the town.
We visited a school, which I was hoping to take off from, but because of the one day delay in getting the permission, it had made things complicated, so we drove around and found a perfect place to take off from on the edge of the town.
We then drove around and found an excellent small hotel on large grounds. They had just put down new concrete a few days earlier and were worried about the truck driving on it, but it was no problem. The rooms were new, and it was very cheap. Jorge came late at night with the permission.
We headed off early the next morning to the launch site. Conditions were relatively overcast, but it was good to fly. I took off with Jorge and we climbed through a thin layer of broken cloud. It was spectacular on top of the clouds.
Winds were light and we headed down the main road to the next village. I was in contact with Lima Airport, as we were flying in one of the approach areas.
The wind was changing direction quite a lot, but I managed to put it where I wanted it. Des was there at the landing, but didn’t want to risk driving the truck over a rickety bridge, so we pulled the balloon over to the truck and put it down on the track between two lettuce fields. A lot of kids came from the village and helped to pack the balloon.
They were surprised and amazed by it, and their smiles and enjoyment were priceless to see.
We had a celebratory dinner down the road and I did an interview for Greenpeace Peru, which Jorge and Monica are part of. We were raising awareness for them too.
We dropped Jorge and Monica in town and said our goodbyes, before heading north towards Ecuador.
The drive was very easy, with dual lane highway for most of the way. The towns we passed were quite busy as Peru were having their elections and everyone was out voting.
We continued into the night and found a very quiet service station to park at.
It was more of the same the next day. The road was single lane. There are vast expanses to cross, especially in the north. One huge area has water in it in the wet season and parts of the road had been washed out and replaced with very rough pavement.
We reached the Ecuadorian border mid afternoon. Leaving Peru was straightforward. Customs were a couple of kilometres before the actual border. I handed over the temporary import permit, then we got stamped out of Peru.
Ecuadorian immigration were extremely slow. It was not a main border crossing and it had only been open for four years. Once I got to the front, the immigration officer said that I didn’t have enough months left in my passport, (which I knew) so I pulled out my new passport. She then said that I needed to get an exit stamp from Peru in my new passport, (which makes no sense at all as I all ready had one in my old passport). I walked the 150m or so back across the bridge and asked for an exit stamp, which unsurprisingly the immigration officer didn’t give. I had an idea as I was walked back to the Ecuadorian side, and went back to Peru and said that I wanted to re-enter the country. I told her that I was stuck between two countries and didn’t know what to do. She called the Ecuadorian side and asked what the problem of letting me in was. In the end, Peru agreed to my request, and said I would have to wait 30mins as that is the minimum period of stay in Peru, (which I found quite amusing).
I walked back to Ecuador, told Des what was going on, and then went back to Peru, got stamped out, then back to Ecuador to enter. I knew that bridge and river very well by the time I had finished.
Ecuadorian Customs took a long time too, though the officer was very helpful. After 2.5 hours, we finally left the border area into Ecuador.
We wound our way through the mountains. Amazingly they grow maize all through the mountains, which neither Des or I knew exactly how they tended to the fields, as some were very steep. It looked like a lot of back-breaking work. We stopped at a restaurant after dark and had the obligatory rice and chicken, which we commonly found in the rural areas, before continuing into the night and eventually parking outside a rural police checkpoint for the night.
It was rainy weather the next day, and the going to Guayaquil was very slow due to heavy traffic. The terrain is more or less flat and we passed by many banana plantations, which I was interested to see, as I had eaten many Ecuadorian bananas in the past, and it was one of the very few things I knew about the country.
We arrived into Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, late in the morning, and headed downtown. I had a meeting with the municipality about the flight, of which they were putting their full support behind.
After the meeting, we watched a parade celebrating the Mayor’s retirement. He’d been mayor for 20 years and had done great things for the city. Many community groups and school bands were involved in the parade. It was a great introduction to Ecuador.
We arrived at my friend, Teresa’s place in the afternoon, where we would be staying. Des and I went to the bus station to buy him a ticket to Colombia. He needed to get to Bogota for his flight back to New Zealand.
Des took the bus the following evening. It was going to be a bit different without him as we had travelled together for four months. He’d been a great help during that time, and we’d had lots of laughs. We’re two very different people, but it works, (whether we like it or not).
Over the next week, I sorted out the flight permission, which was complicated as I had to get permission from the municipality, military, DGAC, and air traffic control. I was asked by the air force base commander whether I could tether the balloon at their air show, which coincidentally happened to be on while I was there. I agreed and had the balloon on a tether for a couple of hours on Sunday morning. I got to meet all the top brass from the Ecuadorian Air Force, who were visiting the air show, and I took them for a tethered flight. It was all very interesting.
I went back to the air force base to get my truck’s lift fixed on one of the days. I’d had problems with it, so the base commander said one of the mechanics would fix it for me, which was very nice of him. One of the lieutenants also helped me to refuel the balloon, which turned out to be a nightmare as we had to go all around Guayaquil to find gas. It took 6 hours, and even after that the gas bottles we were given were faulty and I only filled a few litres into my tank.
The following day, I still had problems with transferring gas, and the owner of the depot took me all around Guayaquil trying to find a fitting. We found it in the end and after 8 hours that day, my tanks were finally full.
We had a great tether for orphaned kids in a poorer area of Guayaquil. I managed to tether them all, as well as people from the municipality, a news channel, in quite trying conditions. It’s always a great feeling after a successful event, and to bring a smile to kids’faces.
My friend, Teresa, and her Mother, (also called Teresa) looked after me well for the 10 days I was there. They showed me around the sights of Guayaquil and I experienced some of their family traditions too. Eating local crab once a month on a Sunday with the extended family was one of them. It was very tasty.
I also checked out a football game with Teresa’s Brother, Juan. It was a great atmosphere and good fun.
A couple of days after the tether with the kids, I went to free-fly the balloon across the city. A massive amount of planning was involved, and I’d had a meeting with air traffic control in the control tower the day before briefing them on exactly what I’d be doing. The airport is very busy and I was taking off right on the departure path. We discussed exactly where I’d be taking off and landing, as well as where I would be at each step of the flight. I’d been following the weather for weeks and I was confident about the wind speeds and trajectory. I also had special permission to take off within the control zone, which is usually forbidden.
I called the controller and got permission to take off at 7.50am, right after the departure of a jet. I took off after the jet flew over. I then knew I had 15mins to clear the area before the next one was due to take off. The wind was perfect and I took off with Teresa and managed to clear the area. We flew low over the built up area of Cristo Consuelo and towards the port, and then out over the large river which borders the city. I often had to talk to the airport to tell them what I was doing.
The flight path was exactly as expected, which I was relieved about. We flew up to 2000ft and got a great view of the city. We headed to the next town of Duran and found a small spot to land in amongst the houses in a very poor area. I was really impressed with the crew, who were Teresa’s Mother and a couple of their friends. They arrived a minute after we landed. Quite a crowd gathered, and the police came to check that everything was OK. We packed the balloon away with help from the friendly locals and posed for lots of pictures. It was a fantastic experience.
We celebrated with a very nice breakfast, and then said our goodbyes and headed for Quito. It was a beautiful drive from the sea, through the mountains, to Quito. There is an impressive snowcovered mountain you pass along the way. The road is windy, but it gets better the closer you get to Quito.
I arrived after dark and stayed at Teresa’s brother’s place, (Juan). I parked the truck at his friend’s logistics company and he drove me to his apartment, where he lives with his family.
We went to the Centre of the World the next day. The latitude and longitude is 0 0 0. They have made an attraction out of it with various attractions showing off Ecuador. It was interesting to look around.
After we went to the old centre of Quito. Juan and Family showed me the various important buildings. It is not as well kept as Lima’s town centre, and much smaller, but it is nice to visit none the less.
We had a tasty bbq that an enjoyable evening that night.
I continued north the next day and made it to the Colombian border late in the afternoon. I made sure to fuel up with diesel before leaving Ecuador, it is only US$1.03 per gallon! (for some reason Peru, Ecuador and Colombia use gallons of fuel rather than litres).