August 19 (Wednesday)
Peru Travel Diary Chapter 6: Tingo Maria / Huánuco
Since I have to leave at 8 am for the bus station, I take breakfast at 7 am at the Grand Hotel Mercedes. I arrive at the bus station an unnecessary half-hour before the bus is due to leave at 9 pm (they always leave late) and go to what I think is the check-in counter and show my ticket. The two men there say something in Spanish which, of course, I don't understand. I ask one of them to write it down, since I can often understand Spanish if it's written, and I say Escribar, por favor ("Write, please."). He takes pen and paper and writes "por favor". Such an idiot!
At 9 am I'm wondering what's going on, so I go back to the check-in counter, and a different man looks at my ticket (to Satipo via La Merced) and decides to start checking people in and collecting their luggage to go on the bus. This all goes well, and before long we're off. When I booked my ticket I asked for a seat with a buena vista ("good view") and the ticket-seller suggested the very front seat (on the top floor of the bus). I certainly have a good view, but there's no window next to this seat. The day is rather warm, and there's no real air-con on this bus. When the bus is moving there's a breeze which comes in somehow, but when it's stopped there's none. So I'm feeling quite hot.
As we travel on I begin to suspect that we are not on the road to La Merced that I thought we'd be taking, the direct one (said to be quite rough) which goes south. Instead I suspect we're on the (sealed) road going west to Tingo Maria. This turns out to be true.
At about 1 pm we approach some foothills and begin to ascend from the plain of the Amazonian Basin. At this point the road enters a long and narrow valley, through which a river is flowing. But after 15 minutes we come to a roadblock, manned by some government workers. There are signs saying Peligro — Voladuras and Cuidado — Transito de Voloquetes. Maneje a la Defensiva. I don't know what they mean, except that Peligro means "danger". The road curves up ahead, so I can't see what the problem is. The bus is about 4th in the line, so the road has recently been closed. We wait and wait, and more cars and trucks join the queue. But the government workers are doing nothing except maintaining the roadblock. They are not letting any traffic through. Two hours go by. It's hot. One man goes for a swim in the river. The drinks and icecream vendors are doing good business. Then some taxis arrive from Pucallpa. The drivers are pissed that the workers (who are not actually doing any work) are not letting anyone through. In this situation, when a landslide is being cleared, or there is construction work on the road, usually traffic is allowed through in one direction, then stopped while traffic comes from the other direction. But no. So the taxi drivers start to complain loudly. One of the workers is taking photos, presumably in case the situation turns violent. Eventually the workers agree to let us through. By this time there's fifty or more cars, trucks and buses backed up.
As we move through I see that there are dump trucks and heavy machinery working on the road, which is quite narrow, but passable in a single direction. This valley is certainly prone to landslides and no doubt is difficult to keep clear. Also, it seems, an attempt is being made to control the flow of the river, which is now small but will greatly increase in the rainy season. But the first time I came on this road, from Tingo Maria to Pucallpa, traffic was allowed to pass from time to time. Today it's different, and if it had not been for the taxi drivers complaining loudly we would probably have had to wait four hours until the construction workers in the valley finished work for the day and went home.
We continue on through the valley, and it's very warm in the bus despite the breeze. I decide I've had enough of this trip and will get off at Tingo Maria, if we stop in Tingo Maria, since I don't want to spend another 16 hours in this bus, 12 of them overnight. Moreover, I've had enough of hot weather, and Satipo has temperatures over 30 degrees. If I get off at Tingo Maria I can probably travel to someplace cooler, in the Andes. But it's not sure we'll stop in Tingo Maria; the bus might take a route to La Merced which bypasses Tingo Maria, in which case I'm stuck with the overnight trip. Fortunately the bus (pretty damned slow) continues on to Tingo Maria, and I get off, get my luggage, and take a moto to the same hotel I stayed at before, the Hotel Palacio.
I remember the lady at the check-in desk, and suspect she remembers me, and I expect to get the same room as I had before, #207, for 30 soles ($8.16) per night (for two nights or more), but there's some mutual misunderstanding. She has assigned me a fairly small room with one single bed, but I want (like I had before) a room with more space and two single beds (and a desk). Eventually they give me a room (for 30 soles) that I'm satisfied with. I'm very tired from the hot bus journey, so I take a shower, check my email and end the afternoon thankful that I'm at this hotel and not faced with putting up with a grueling overnight trip to La Merced on that bus.
I wake at 7:00 am exactly (I seem to have a psychic alarm clock which wakes me when I should be woken). It's a fine day, not raining as it usually was in the morning in early July. I go for breakfast to the same place as before in Tingo Maria, Gino's, and get the same: papaya juice, fried eggs, coffee and buttered rolls, for 6 soles ($1.86).
Back at the Hotel Palacio I try to check my email but I find that in this room the wifi signal, which was OK last night, is now too weak to allow a connection. Since wifi is necessary for me, I decide I have to change the room to a lower floor, closer to the wifi router (wherever that is). I try a few rooms, annoying the hotel management, and eventually get one where the signal is adequate, though not optimal.
In the afternoon the parrots in the courtyard are especially noisy. One of the green ones does an excellent wolf-whistle.
... Those parrots are really making a racket! I have to take my hearing aid out in order to get any work done.
A little rainy today. It's only 8 am and the parrots are already at it.
No wifi the whole morning! Windows network diagnostics reports, "The DNS server is not responding." One measure of how primitive a country is, is whether. or how often, the internet is accessible. In rural Peru it's definitely very flakey. You know you're in a third-world country when the internet is unavailable for hours at a time.
At lunchtime I go for a walk around the local mercado but it's mainly fruit, meat and veg; quite uninteresting, except for one stall selling herbal products.
It's 5 pm and the DNS server is still "not responding". Also there seems to be a problem with the hotel's router. Apparently the Peruvian network "experts" seem unable to keep the internet functioning, at least, in Tingo Maria (it was OK in Pucallpa). Fortunately I have a book to (re)read, one that I should have started on before now. And RT Spanish is available on cable TV (unfortunately a little fuzzy) — it seems there's a slight problem at the border between North and South Korea, not sure what it is.
Westerners tend to prefer eggs for breakfast, but Peruvians, if they can afford it, usually eat a breakfast with meat, and this morning I saw a man finishing up a steak, which prompts me to get a steak for dinner. I go to Gino's and peruse the pictures of their dishes at the door. The churrasco looks good, though I'm not quite sure what it is. When it arrives at my table I find, happily, that it is similar to a T-bone steak, but not as large. Very tasty, and only 8 soles ($2.43). I wish I'd tried churrasco before. I then go to a nearby pastelería and get a small bowl of delicious vanilla icecream with a bit of chocolate fudge on top (4 soles, $1.22). In Europe you'd pay three or four times as much for the same quality. Perhaps because European governments, controlled by capitalist corporations, have become experts at ripping off the common people — through taxes as well as high prices.
Back at the hotel it's 9 pm and the DNS server is still "not responding". It's now been over 24 hours without my being able to check my email. At least I was able to catch up on quite a bit of offline work which needed doing. But if the wifi is still not working tomorrow morning then I'll definitely leave for the next town, Huánuco.
After I return from breakfast the wifi is still not working. In fact, the router has been turned off. The management claims that the wifi will be working today, but I'm skeptical, partly because the "DNS not responding" was not under the control of management, but of the people who manage the internet in Peru. So I decide to leave for Huánuco. I consult my guide book and decide to try the Hostal Huánuco when I arrive there.
I pack my bags and go down to Reception, where I ask for, and am given, a refund of one night from the payment I made for two nights. I then take my bags outside to where there are three or four collectivo (shared taxi) companies claiming to go to Huánuco. But none of them at this time have taxis going there. What to do? Due to the absence of wifi in the hotel I want to find another hotel which has wifi, but not one in Tingo Maria. But there are only three towns you can go to from Tingo Maria: Pucallpa (from where I just came), Tocache (which is north of here, on the road back to Tarapoto), and Huánuco, which is apparently at this point impossible to get to.
I'm thinking of going to the office of Turismo Central, where I arrived on the bus from Pucallpa, to see if they have a bus to Huánuco. Then I notice a crowd of people standing around waiting for something, maybe for transport. I go in to where there is a woman selling tickets for something. By means of exchanging written messages, in Spanish, she tells me that, yes, there might be a taxi arriving here from Huánuco in an hour or so, and then returning. So I wait. And, yes, an hour later a couple of taxis arrive, and I manage to get the front seat of one of them.
It's a nice ride, much of it through mountainous terrain. At one point we encounter a tailback (again due to work on the road) with a hundred of so cars and trucks in line. Our taxi driver cheekily drives past most of them, looking for a spot toward the front where he can squeeze in. Fortunately we have to wait for only about 20 minutes and we're let through.
Three hours out of Tingo Maria we arrive at Huánuco. It's a large town, somewhat like Chiclayo. I take a moto to the Hostal Huánuco but it's full. Fortunately the manager allows me to leave my bags in the lobby while I try to find another hotel. I try several; most are full (maybe because it's Saturday — another reason I should have stayed an extra day in Tingo Maria). One hotel has a room available for 40 soles ($11.97), but it's very unappealing. Eventually I find the Hostal Mochica Palace, which has a good room for 60 soles ($17.96), twice what I've been paying since Chiclayo. I take it, paying for two nights, since I don't think I can do better. And it has wifi.
Soon after I check in I check my email. It turns out that in the 40 hours I was offline I got no email that required any immediate action. So I might have stayed in Tingo Maria after all with no ill-effect, and with decent room and parrots, even if no wifi.
My LP guide book (2004 version) describes Huánuco positively (as it does for most places, of course, since they want to sell their books), but I don't find it especially attractive. I have just ten days or so before I'm due to arrive in Lima preparatory to leaving Peru, so I was hoping to find a pleasant place for my time remaining here. Huánuco is not it. So I decide that, after all, I'll go to German-settled and "rarely visited [in 2004]" Oxapampa. That means going to La Merced and changing buses. There are only two bus companies going from Huánuco to La Merced: Turismo Central (whose bus I took from Pucallpa to Tingo Maria) and Leon de Huánuco. The former would run the same bus as I took from Pucallpa, the one that I was originally intending to take (overnight) all the way to Satipo. So I take a moto to the office of Leon de Huánuco. It turns out that they run a bus (leaving at 8 pm) which duplicates the bus of Turismo Central — it gets into La Merced at the same time, 4 am, and goes on to Satipo, arriving at 7 am. There's no alternative except to take a bus to Tarma (arriving at a very unsuitable 1 am) or a bus to Lima (which would put me there about a week before I wish to arrive). So I'm stuck with the overnight bus to La Merced or Satipo. I decide to go to Satipo, and buy a ticket (45 soles, $13.47, for the 10- or 11-hour journey), leaving Monday evening. So this means that I'll be going to Satipo despite having got off the Turismo Central bus in Tingo Maria in order to avoid going to Satipo.
Two different bus companies are running buses from Huánuco to Satipo on an identical route and at identical times. Why couldn't one of them shift their times by 12 hours, then we would have one bus leaving Huánuco at 8 pm and arriving in Satipo at 7 am and one bus leaving Huánuco at 8 am and arriving in Satipo at 7 pm. This makes sense. But no.
Walking back to the hostal I notice the Pizzeria Don Pancho, described in my guidebook as "the town's best pizza and pasta joint". I go in and order ravioli and a glass of red wine. Both are good. I follow it up with a tiramisu, which is a good attempt at a tiramisu but far from the real thing. All for 30 soles ($8.98), not a bad deal.
Upon awakening I take a shower and discover — amazing! — that there is hot water! I can hardly remember the last time I had a hot shower. It must have been in Chachapoyas, nearly two months ago, but even there the showers were hardly more than warm.
It's a nice sunny Sunday morning. At 8 am on the Plaza de Armas many people in uniforms and holding banners are lining up. There's some kind of ceremony in preparation. There's a flag-raising, not the Peruvian flag (which has been raised already) but probably the Huánuco flag. The band is playing patriotic tunes. Six of the town's dignitaries ascend a dias and give speeches. Peruvians clearly take their patriotism seriously, from the national level down to the municipal. Then there are marches, first some military, then contingents from Huánuco's medical and educational departments, plus what appears to be a group from the local Tai Chi or Taoist society, the leader carrying a banner with the yin-yang symbol and the rest dressed in white silk suits, with some holding fans with Chinese lettering.
After working for most of the day I go for dinner again at the Pizzeria Don Pancho. Tonight it's canneloni with a glass of red. Delicious.
I need to change $100, so I look for a casa de cambio but apparently there isn't one in Huánuco. Instead there are, as in most Peruvian cities, men on the street holding calculators and wads of soles or dollars. When changing money I avoid banks (they want to know too much about you), and tend to be wary of money changers in the street, but sometimes there's no alternative to the street. I approach one man, who offers a decent rate. Peru has a problem with counterfeit money, so I'm still wary, but he looks OK, so we do the exchange. I then go into a nearby hotel and ask the man at Reception to check the three 100 soles notes. He does so, and says they're OK.
I go to the office of the bus company Leon de Huánuco and (for a small fee) change my seat from the upper deck to the lower deck, which has three seats per row (with a middle aisle) instead of four, so I get a seat to myself.
Check-out time at the hostal is 12 noon, as usual, so I pack all my stuff up. But just as I'm about to leave I consider that, since the bus leaves at 8 pm I should pay something so as to stay in my room until 7 pm. So I do that (25 soles, $7.52).
Today is 'Black Monday', when the Dow-Jones Index dropped 1000 points soon after the New York Stock Exchange opened. I check the planetary aspects for 9 am EDT, both geocentric and heliocentric, and find that the geocentric aspects (in particular, a grand trine) indicate a moderately good day whereas the heliocentric aspects (six T-squares, all with a Mercury-Saturn conjunction at the apex) indicate a seriously bad day. So score heliocentric 1, geocentric 0.
I leave my room at 7 pm and chat with the girl at Reception, who says she wants to learn English. I tell her that the first thing she should learn to say (after "please" and "thank you") is "I would like ..." True for learning any language: "Me gustaria ...", "Ich möchte ...", "Je voudrais ..." and so on.
I get a moto to Leon de Huánuco, check my two items of luggage in, and get my seat. The bus leaves shortly after 9 am. We're given a bag of potato chips and some fruit juice. The movie is "Jurassic World", with very realistic renditions of dinosaurs (especially T. rex and smaller relatives), in which the dinosaurs escape from the theme park and wreak havoc among the visitors, while the male and female leads fall in love as a subtext. All very well done.
I made a good move, to change my seat. It reclines nicely and is quite comfortable. Good thing that I left the Turismo Central Satipo-bound bus in Tingo Maria two days ago; had I stayed on it I would have been more dead than alive on arrival in Satipo. As it turns out, I sleep fairly well, and wake just as we arrive, at 6:15 am, at the Satipo bus terminal.
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