Given the topic of last week’s post I guess it might not be too much of a surprise to discover that I’m often unsure which part of travelling I enjoy the most: the journey itself or the exploration of a new destination that comes at the end of it. Most people, I’m sure, wouldn’t give my conundrum a second thought, but it is one I was reminded of this past week as I escaped the dry heat of Trujillo (‘The City of Eternal Spring’, remember) to head inland and up towards the cooler climes of the Andean foothills.
My destination was Huamachuco, a small city of about 50,000 people that at 3200m (10,000 feet) sits nestled in-between the eastern and western cordillera of the Andes. Although unlikely to be on the to-do lists of many visitors to Peru, the nearby pre-Incan ruins of Marcahuamachuco (known as the “Machu Picchu of the North”), and the fact that it is only a four hour drive from Trujillo, meant that for me it seemed like a relatively a decent spot for a short break.
Leaving midday at Sunday we sped effortlessly out of a traffic-less Trujillo and into the lifeless terrain that surrounds it; the beige scorched earth that dominates the northern coastal regions is congruous with the inland hills, which at first glance resemble rudimentary sandcastles.
Further inland though, the land becomes flushed with health, as barren desert becomes slopes of luscious green upon which terraced farms cling desperately in order to extract every last drop of goodness from the soil.
Continuing our ascent, my window seat offered box office views as we slowly wound through, around, up and down each pass. Inevitably, this reminded me of how it had been love at first sight when Andy met the Andes back in 2007. Passing through the Andes is a dreamy experience and I’ll never bore of staring out at them through a bus window (for the complete experience add a generous helping of moody music – Radiohead’s House of Cards was a particular favourite of mine seven years ago).
Slowly, the mountains plateaued and the only giveaway of our elevated altitude was the rolling of the clouds over passing embankments. Unfortunately, the gloom followed us thereon and upon reaching Huamachuco we discovered a town with perhaps a more deserving entitlement to the moniker of ‘City of Eternal Spring': it was 15c, and it rained so hard throughout the evening that water seeped up through the floor of our diner.
With more of the same forecast for the next few days, it suddenly seemed like the bus journey might be the highlight of the trip after all.
Out of town airports, delays, breakdowns, diversions, jet lag and discomfort: just some of the very good reasons why anyone could argue that the actual process of travel can never be as enjoyable as what lies ahead at the end of it.
But, hear me out.
Firstly, there is the anxious excitement of travelling to a new place and wondering what it will hold in store. However, for me, what travel offers is the opportunity to enjoy a generous serving of ‘me time’. By that I don’t just mean the opportunity to catch up on unread books or unwatched films (although that is also nice), but the chance to sink into a bubble of self-consciousness. ‘Journeys are’, as Alain de Botton observes in The Art of Travel, ‘the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships or trains’.
Such introspection can, of course, be partly put down to the hypnotic effect of the view beyond the window. To a certain extent, we find this on planes, but there it is more an element of awe because when you look through an airplane window you are reminded of what a ludicrous achievement it is to keep a huge tube of metal flying through the air at 30,000 feet for over ten hours. My mind still boggles.
Today though, flying has lost that air of mystique and sublimity. Now it is merely a means of getting from A to B: a task to be endured via the help of free booze, pasta in a plastic tray and a film you never bothered to go and see at the cinema.
Planes excluded, trains are my personal favourite, although I think there’s certainly an element of British romanticism about trains which probably clouds my judgement. The fact is though, trains – unlike planes – take you straight to the heart of your destination and not a town 30 miles outside of it. And in terms of views, a train’s is the most hypnotic, as De Botton once again notes quite aptly: ‘The views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or a plane, moving quickly enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects’.
Unfortunately, rail travel in South America is shit – not helped in many cases by historically piss-poor mismanagement of perfectly good lines by the state (yes Brazil, I mean you). Consequently, the most cost effective and common means of long distance travel throughout South America is by bus.
Besides cost, South American buses are on the whole very comfortable, with some even having full bed seats. However, getting the bus here is most attractive because the vast distances and varying terrains between destinations means that buses are actually the best way to discover the continent. And, throw in a little bit of Radiohead and the land becomes a distraction within which to pontificate, De Botton style, upon the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and . . . everything. These are glorious moments in which anything seems possible: business plans are hatched, relationships scrutinised, goals set and the past reflected upon and come to terms with. Travelling offers the possibility of conscious dreaming.
But, is travelling really preferable to what awaits at the other end? I guess it may well depend upon the reason for travelling in the first place, and the expectations we have in mind of our destination.
Of Huamachuco I knew relatively little and was travelling as a short break from work. However, arriving to the rain, cold and the need for extra blankets on our bed, the bus journey back down the Andes to Trujillo seemed like it would be the most appealing part of the following few days.
On the final morning though, the heavens opened and we climbed to meet them at 3600m at Marcahuamachuco.
This is what we fond.
And so my quandary goes on.