Thursday, 29 January 2015

You Don't Camp on the Puna

For those in the know: Ilo ~Moquegua~Puno~Desaguadero~Moquegua (again). All Peru, first part of January 2015

You don't camp on the Puna. The altiplano that stretches away to the north, the high plain that's contained within the Cordellera Los Andes that holds Lake Titicaca in place. Take a world atlas view of the eastern Pacific seaboard; in essence it runs north from Cape Horn, and then starts to deviate towards the west around the Chilean~Peruvian border. It's around this point that the high ground starts to broaden out. No longer are there the classic 'Pasos', the steep, high climbs and are mirrored on the obverse, with equally steep descents. The high climbs are still there, only now the descents are of low denominations, relatively short drops onto that high plain. Keep heading east across that flat, and you will meet another rank of ranges, now you can start to climb back out again, followed by a long descent to the sweaty armpit of mosquito-infested jungle country.

Geography lesson over. You still don't camp in the Puna. Or at least that's the advice of the doom-mongers, invariably those that have passed through, never stopping in their rarefied, hermetically sealed bubblebus. Only the road that heads away from the saltwater port of Ilo to Puno, the main freshwater port on Lake Titicaca, goes way over 15,000 ft and will take the better part of five working days. We're going to have to hope to find some form of accommodations along the way. From previous experiences, we have some inkling as to what we might expect. Bare concrete floors, threadbare sheets, a naked light bulb and a solitary power point (cable TV is considered a higher priority than a working cold shower). With a crushing stash of blankets to compensate for the lack of heating. A basic haven. We look for, we need for, no more.

You don't camp on the Puna. Any spot that is large enough to take our tent's footprint will already be occupied by a crop of potatoes or is being grazed by a herd of llamas. We'd be trespassing on somebody's livelihood. You don't camp on the Puna, only tonight we'll need to hunt out yet another secret spot for the fifth consecutive night. For the forager, for the very first time, has rejected the solitary room that we've passed all day. The earth floor was probably the deciding factor; it wouldn't have been the $3 charge.

Stealth camping takes a degree of luck, we've been lucky. An old by-passed road, stuck out on a promontory, a vast view of the ranked cascades of old Inca era cropping terraces, that leaves you wondering at the ingenuity and sheer hard graft that went into breeding some of the world's basic staples. The next night we end up poking our way down a disused railbed, again to the perfect spot. This time the view is over a naked Atacama desert to the verdant green valley and the oasis town of Moquegua, and a short blazing sunset. Two of the other nights are less spectacular, both being in disused quarries, which however, do offer good shelter from the ice rain and the normal, penetrating wind. The final camp was a return to an highway structure that is becoming regularly familiar. A cundy back under the road. You've no idea how much vibration an ex-Danish plated lorry, hauling Bolivian petrol can shake into the ground, or the heart thumping confusion of the tunnel amplified gnawing, of a vizcacha chewing on a plastic bottle.

Yet, camping on the Puna will always remain a secondany option. Several reasons, not the least of which, finding indoor accommodation puts hard currency directly into the local economy, and as travelers that's an unarguable obligation. It also throws up a story or two. In Juli we find a place with a panoramic view of Lago Titicaca. Most establishments are named for saints, only this one gets the suburbanisation, the "acacia avenue" treatment. "Titicaca Breezes". An understatement, as I rush wet from the shower to shut the windows as a sudden gale threatens to spill the coffee cups off the windowsill. Which highlights the other aspect of most rooms; the paucity of a flat surface that isn't the floor. The floor that gets the ubiquitous, brown rubber-backed covering, of the type so beloved by parsimonious student landlords. Given the slurry of mud down on the street, and the fact that I've yet to see a vacuum cleaner for sale in any electrical store, leads me to the inevitable conclusion. Give me bare concrete any day. In Moquegua we find an old colonial era hotel, set in a garden of lemon trees, with high ceilings and surrounded by verandas. El DueƱo is in his eighties and presents us each morning with fresh crushed mango juice.

Still, beggars can't be choosers. You don't camp on the Puna, yet sometimes that's exactly what you end up doing, metaphorically, inside the room. Had it been later on in the day, when the rain had started to turn to hail, that refusal of the cow byre might well have been a more enthusiastic acceptance. There wouldn't have been an issue with tent peg placement. And it would have given us another new camping situation.