Forget shuttle buses and trains, why not walk to (or from) the airport instead? That is the preferred method of novelist Will Self, who even went as far to include one such stroll – from Los Angeles airport to Hollywood – in his surreal novel-cum-walkalogue Walking to Hollywood.
It is something I’ve experimented with myself here in Trujillo. Well, sort of. In my case, the airport was actually more an obstacle than the final destination itself.
Some weeks ago, you see, I decided that if I was going to have to spend my birthday alone this year – what with my wife being on the other side of the continent in Brazil – I’d do so by going on a long walk to the beach in Huanchaco, a small coastal town nine miles (15km) upcoast from Trujillo. The local airport – an entirely forgettable place if it were not for the charm of its arrivals lounge doubling as a car park – would merely serve as a milepost that, whilst requiring circumnavigation, would at least reassure me that the birthday beer I envisaged having on the beach was almost within reach.
Before setting off, a quick consultation of Google Maps confirmed my suspicion that upon reaching Trujillo’s periphery there would be only one walkable route onwards. Well, one safe route anyway. My preferred choice of walking straight up the coast lost its appeal when two colleagues of mine recalled how during one out of town jog the locals had warned them they’d be shot if they jogged up that stretch of beach: it is, apparently, the turf of the local traficantes.
Probably best to stick to the highway, then, I thought.
Along the highway, the route would be the return leg of my arrival into Trujillo by taxi back in January. First, a five mile traverse through the desert along Avenida Mansiche, then a sharp left at the airport roundabout onto Calle Huanchaco, which winds round the airport onto the coast and into Huanchaco itself.
Armed with but a mere notebook, camera, and a splash of Factor 30, I set off with eight miles (12.8km) and two and a half hours of walking time ahead of me. I opt against carrying water. Foolish? Yes. However, I can’t be arsed to take a bag and besides, the beer at the end will taste so much better. This will be my Ice Cold in Alex.
With miles of highway ahead I decide against taking the main road down to Mansiche and instead zig-zag the backroads instead, an added bonus being that this takes me through the small communal gardens that decorate every second block – in the twenty or so minutes it takes me to reach Mansiche I must pass through seven or eight of them. As its centrepiece, each garden has an ornamental statue of a saint, yet these heavenly creatures are not alone, for they are accompanied by more corporeal souls: a gardener by day and a security guard by night.
Such gardens seem to be a prominent feature of towns and cities around Spanish South America, and they are typically dotted around the urban landscape like the misplaced spawn of the city’s Plaza: a large square built by the Spanish conquistadores to be the focal points of their new towns and cities. In Trujillo, the Plaza de Armas (“Arms Square”) is so called for it being the point at which colonial troops would be mustered. Like most Plazas, the Plaza de Armas retains its colonial architecture. Here, there’s a cathedral and even the former house of Francisco Pizzarro, the dastardly conqueror of Peru and the Incan Empire. The one modern encroachment is McDonalds. Of course.
Emerging from residential Trujillo onto Mansiche, leafy tranquillity becomes disorganised chaos as taxis after taxi – every able male, it seems, is a taxi driver in Trujillo – zooms past, with absolutely scant regard for red lights or the safety of crossing pedestrians – or themselves for that matter.
Across the road is the city’s largest Mall, and out here on the stripped down outskirts of the city I wander what sticks out more: it or the gringo walking around in a strange part of town. Inside, of course, my presence would be far less inconspicuous. The depressingly familiar sight of KFC, Pizza Hut, Nike and Starbucks provide a ‘safe haven’ for rich Peruvians and outsiders like me from the dangers – real or perceived – of the street.
The road ahead to Huanchaco is now very long and very straight. The desert inches ever closer, a reality hinted at by the dusting of sand and dirt over road and pavement. Before living in Trujillo, I’d always wondered why archaeological sites always seem to be buried underground. But here, the cause and effect is more tangible: each gust of wind sprinkling every exposed surface with sand. The further I walk out of the city there is a very real sense that the desert is claiming back its territory, one grain of sand at a time.
Ironically, whereas in the UK sand adds traction to pavements during times of snow, here in Trujillo the sand from the desert only seems to make the city’s already perilously slippery walkways more lubricious. Fair is fair though. Even if the local authorities use cheap cement to do a slapdash job of pavement maintenance, at least they are making an effort. Take note Brazil: if Peru can do it, so can you.
Skating off down Mansiche, a plantation of corn in the distance is a sign that I am on the very cusp of the city. Just before it though is a wall of painted ads. Unlike São Paulo, where outdoor advertising is entirely prohibited, here in Trujillo there seems to be just two stipulations: a) they be painted, and; b) promote a politician. For the unelected, the remnants of these ageing ads will be the only legacy of their failed campaigns.
Beyond the wall and the plantation, the desert truly begins to assert itself. The pavement ends and I am now on the hard shoulder of the highway. Just in time, the clouds clear and the sun comes out to attack my pellucid English skin. The decision not to bring any water or sun-cream now swings firmly in favour of foolish. Up ahead though, a distraction.
A UNESCO heritage site, the adobe ruins of Chan Chan cover seven squares miles (20 km²), making it the largest city of its kind to have ever existed. Typically, modernity has left its footprint, with Mansiche running straight through the middle of it. This shows an impressively flagrant disregard for an ancient civilisation, although it in no way matches that of the destruction of the Aztecs’ Templo Mayro and construction on top of it of a cathedral by the Spanish in Mexico City.
To the right of Mansiche, the ruins – like most of those at Chan Chan – lie unexcavated. From the road, an unknowing eye would be forgiven for assuming the uncovered ruins to be dunes. And, with the mountains in the distance, the ruins themselves blend seamlessly into the horizon.
To the left, a mile off Mansiche, lie the restored sections of the site and these provide one of the main reasons tourists come to Trujillo. Unfortunately, my beer awaits so there is no time to stop and take a look, although a few weeks later I return and what excites me most, apart from learning that Chan Chan was the seat of the Kingdom of Chimor (rulers of northern Peru prior to the Incas), is that they built a special area to park their llamas.
Spanish Catholicism is never far away, though. First, in front of the ruins, a shrine to Roger Frontado: no saint, but presumably a victim of a traffic accident on 28 April 1996. Almost twenty years have passed and it shows: a plastic cup instead of flowers nestles inside. Reminded of my own mortality, I take a step further away from the road and plod on.
God, though, is omnipresent. A hundred metres down the road and a small church comes into sight. Standing with my back to the road, the photo I take somewhat resembles the location for Slash’s wanky guitar solo in the video to November Rain. Which is annoying, because now Axl Rose and his hotpants are stuck in my head.
Gradually, civilisation starts to re-emerge. First some small hostels, then some suspicious looking bars – the type of out of town bar which I suspect attracts a From Dusk till Dawn type clientèle. With more enticing drinking holes ahead of me in Huanchaco, I push on.
Five minutes later and I’m at the roundabout to airport. Hopping over the highway crash barriers, I leg it across two junctions of traffic and just in time because two taxis seem to take great delight in speeding towards the gringo like I’m the pigeon from Wacky Races.
Calle Huanchaco is the final straight and it’s just as bleak as Mansiche. By now, my interest in trying to make witty observations is waning, although at least the sun is now retreating. It is though, I suspect, too little too late. The damage has already been done. Tonight, I will be a radiant red.
Finally, the road starts to curve and a hint of salt in the air means the coast must be near. However, that’s not before one final tormentor: a depot for Pilsen Callao, one of Peru’s distinctively average lagers. Its promise of the ‘taste of true friendship’ taunts me as I walk by.
Not that I am disheartened, as beyond the wall is the sea. I decide against taking to the sand, mainly because I am exhausted and my knee joints feel like they are going to calcify. Today is my 32nd birthday and I feel it.
Finally, the entrance to Huanchaco: “Bienvenido a Huanchaco”. Its guard eyes me with intrigue, understandably so. I can only imagine what I look like: bright red, large sweat patches on my shirt and limping along a road designed solely with cars in mind. Unperturbed, I pick up the pace. The pier is in sight and I can almost taste my bottle of watery pilsen.
And there it is. The pier. It costs me fifty centimos (10p) and I instantly wonder where exactly the money goes as each step I take is greeted by a groan and a sagging of a floorboard. Not that I care too much. The prospect of falling through into the sea actually quite appeals.
Some mandatory photos later and I decide it’s time to fulfil the main purpose of my trek: beer on the beach. Too tired to be picky, I slump into the chair of the bar closest to the pier and order a Trujillo, which although it is the worst of Peru’s bad beers, I decide that given the day’s exploits drinking the local brew is the only right thing to do.
I half-heartedly attempt to read a book, but not having eaten in three hours the beer goes straight to my head, and so I quickly give up on that idea. Looking out at the beach I remind myself that in six months time I’ll no doubt be back home in the cold grey reality of London. Moments like these are to be cherished.