King of the Road!

Urcos, Perù

I kicked mud from Puerto Maldonaldo two days ago, ready to head to Cusco and do some righteous exploring on llama-back.

I arrived to Cusco yesterday and began my llama search in the surrounding villages after a restful night stealth-camping behind a deserted ticket counter at the Cusco bus station. After talking to the first llama rancher, I got some bad news; you can’t actually ride llamas. It’s physically impossible, apparently due to their weak knees and rather frail stature. No, not even the fat ones can hold a person up; I asked. The farmers nearly laughed me back to Bolivia after I told them I wanted to ride one through the mountains. I was hugely disappointed, since I’d been really looking forward to a llama-adventure through Perù.

What to do, then? I thought about my upcoming journey to Antarctica, the next thing on my list of Things to Do While Nomading in South America, and decided to do a tad bit more research on the subject in case I had missed something important. Turned out, it was a good thing I did.

In order for me to reach the South Pole via the Trans-Antarctic Highway on military snow bulldozers, I must arrive to the McMurdoph U.S. Research Station on the fringes of West Antarctica in December or January. The latest the dozers depart for the South Pole is sometime in January, as the journey there takes nearly forty days. If I was to follow my original plan, which was to arrive to Tierra del Fuego in mid-December and find a private sailboat in January or February, I would almost certainly miss my opportunity to travel by land to the South Pole. Sure, I could always hitch on an airplane, but that is somehow less satisfying.

Icebreakers have been known to leave for all parts of Antarctica from Tierra del Fuego as early as late October (that’s right now…!); the tourist ships and all other vessels start regular departures to the last true wilderness of our Earth in November. I immediately changed my plan and set course to Tierra del Fuego, with my ETA being hopefully before the tenth of November.

To get out of Perù from Cusco, I needed to head back to Puno, Moquegua, and Tacna; after this cross to Chile, make a beeline for Osorno, cross to Bariloche, Argentina once again, and zip straight south through Patagonia to Ushuaia.

First step: to Puno, about 500 kilometres to the south. I left Cusco in short notice, and was soon whistling along on the well-paved highway in various different vehicles (including an ambulance, officially my first hitched ride in an EMS vehicle).

Night falls quickly and early this time of year in Perù; by five-thirty, twilight had set in and by six the night had arrived. I had ridden in a semi from Sicuani to the small town of Ayaviri, to which I arrived at around seven p.m.

Now, the entire trip I had my eye on some railroad tracks which more or less paralleled the road from Cusco to Puno. I had drilled every ride I had gotten that day about the logistics of this particular railroad; departure times, stops, destinations, passenger or cargo, etc etc. I really wanted to hop this train; freighters generally travelled at night, giving the freighthopper the advantage of the cover of darkness, but I was told security was pretty tight.

The railroad split the town of Ayavari in two; the tracks crossed the road three times, a sure sign that a passing freighter would have to slow down considerably upon passing here. I decided to go for it. The locals informed me that the freighter usually passed sometime between eight and ten-thirty at night.

I went to the nearest general store and stocked up on water and crackers for the hundred and fifty kilometre journey to Puno and went next to the tracks to wait.

I waited for a long time; around ten forty-five I was getting rather impatient. The night was cold and there was a chilly wind whistling around the railbed. Finally, I heard the whistle of the train in the distance…coming from the south.

Damnit. This train was headed back the way I came, to Cusco. I had hitched all day, and the distance was around 350 clicks back. It was looking like the train adventure wasn’t going to happen that night.

I stood there next to the tracks as the train drew nearer and nearer, blowing it’s whistle like there was no tomorrow and just crawling through town.

The engine chugged past me, followed by two locked boxcars and a long procession of tanker cars.


So many easily accessible cars, going so slow!


Then the caboose, a black-as-night tanker filled to the brim with propane fuel. Right there on the back was a little flat space, one that could easily accommodate me and my pack…

Fuck it. I ran and jumped on the caboose just as the train was picking up speed as the engine passed out of the town limits. It looked like I was going back to Cusco!

As the train picked up speed, the night air whipped violently through my hair and my llama-fur poncho and six-foot woolen scarf trailed out behind me like streamers in a parade. I hung precariously off the end of the caboose and sped off into the night, the lights of Ayavari growing dim in the distance. Soon all I could see were the rolling mountains and plains bathed in the light of the full moon, and the tracks stretching out endlessly behind me. The adrenaline rushed through my body as my mind registered my very first freight-hop…it was exhilarating!

Ha ha haa! This was one of the most amazing things I had ever done! I was zooming across the Peruvian altiplano on a gnarley freight train with not a care in the world. Sure, I was going back the way I came, but you know what they say: it’s the ride, not the destination. I bellowed out a howl of excitement, of joy, of pure, unadulterated hobo happiness! I felt like singing! And I knew just the song…

Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let…fifty cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain’t got no cigarettes

Ah, but..two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means
King of the road.

Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination…Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues,

I smoke old stogies I have found
Short, but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means
King of the road.

I know every engineer on every train
All of their children, and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain’t locked
When no one’s around…!

I sing,
Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let, fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain’t got no cigarettes

Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means
King of the road!

That night, as that twelve-car midnight train chugged off through the highland plains of Perù (destination Cusco) with me hanging joyously off the caboose, I was King of the Road, perched regally atop my cast-iron propane tanker throne, ready to take on all challengers. A man of means, by no means…King of the Road!

The night air began to get colder, so I got out my sleeping bag and bundled up, ready for the long night that would end with me arriving back to Cusco. The space was rather small and cramped, but I managed.

Now, I usually, ‘ain’t got no cigarettes,’ but tonight was different; I had four, which I had encountered in a battered pack at the bus station in Cusco hiding under a bench. As I lit up the old stogie I had found (it was short but not too big around), I noticed the train slowing, presumably to pass a highway intersection or something like that. But the cars slowed, and slowed, and slowed, until we came to a screeching stop right there in the middle of an empty plain, with black mountainsides silhouetted eerily in the moonlight on the horizon.

What was going on? I thought freight trains never stopped until they reached their destination. I poked my head around the caboose and peered up to the front of the train.

There was a figure silhouetted in the lights of the train, and it looked like it was heading this way! I didn’t know if the railmen in Perù were as unfriendly as those in the USA, but I wasn’t sticking around to find out. Gads! I had to run for it!

I awkwardly emerged from my sleeping bag, nearly falling off the caboose in the process. I gathered up my pack as quickly as possible and fled into the plains. After about ten of fifteen yards I stopped and hit the ground like a Vietnam vet stark raving mad with PTSD, not moving a muscle.

The figure continued all the way to the back of the train, shining his light about. After a moment he seemed satisfied; he went back to the engine and…turned it off? Silence echoed loudly throughout the plains; what was going on?

The engine was off and stayed off for about two hours. I supposed the engineer was just getting some rest, so I hoofed it back to the train. I didn’t go for the caboose again; the space for sleeping was small and I was rather exposed, should someone care to look. I went one car up; there was, in between the caboose and the next to last car, a rather large flat space. It was littered with bags of trash, which people had presumedly tossed onto the train as it had passed through various towns on its way here. I heaved up my pack and climbed aboard, clearing out a space between the garbage bags.

This space was definently much better, though it smelled rather bad. There was even a ladder that led up to the top of the tanker, which I climbed for exploration and curiosity reasons. While I was up top I heard the rumbling sound of the big diesel engine starting up once again. Within a few minutes we were rolling once again along the lonely railroad; I rode up top for awhile, enjoying the vantage point. I was in easy view of the vast plains, the infinite tracks, and the rest of the train snaking segmentally ahead of me in the moonlight.

After about another hour the train screeched to a halt once more, this time at a small, decaying station in a nameless town. I had already retreated from the cold and was huddled in my sleeping bag at the time; why did we keep stopping? I looked at either side of the train; no people were coming.

I was curled up in a ball and wondering when we were going to get moving again when I heard footsteps coming this way; very nearby footsteps! Shit! I had no time to flee once again, or I would surely be spotted. My only hope was to…blend in.

I threw my extra blanket over my head and hunkered up against all the trash bags, curling up in as tight a ball as possible and trying not to breathe.

I must be the garbage bags, I thought. I pictured myself filled with old tissues, fishbones, and coffee filters instead of organs; the footsteps arrived.

I could see the light of a flashlight shining around in the flat area. It stayed there for a minute or two, then was gone.

Ha ha! Success! I was the trash! The engine rumbled anew and we continued off to the north. We didn’t stop again. I dozed off in my sleeping bag, after moving the smelly garbage to the other side of the flat area. I awoke around five a.m., just as day was breaking.

While I was sleeping we had arrived back into the rocky landscape of the Cusco department; the tracks paralleled a fast-moving whitewater river for some time, and we traveled through a relative wilderness for almost two hours. I climbed the ladder and returned to my perch atop the propane tanker and breathed in the cool, mountain air as the train clic-clunked along down the railroad. At one point the train slowed alarmingly, and I got rather concerned when I thought I saw a figure climbing out of the engine and onto one of the boxcars. It turned out just to be a low-flying buzzard. I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to do a James Bond-style escape, leaping from car to car as my club-footed pursuer fired inaccurate pistol shots at me from point-blank range, before I fling myself valiantly into the raging river below only to emerge, unscathed, several hundred yards downstream.

As the train approached Cusco, towns and villages began to appear. By now it was light and people stared at me, laughing at the gringo riding on a tanker train with bags of garbage. We arrived to the train yard in Cusco in short notice, and I leapt from the tanker as the engine slowed and vanished stealithly into the surrounding neighbourhood.

When I emerged on the main street, I couldn’t think of anything to do but start hitchhiking back; I had been in this exact place less than twenty-four hours before. Riding the train was definently worth the delay, though.

And that, my friends, is the story of the time I rode a Peruvian tanker train 350 kilometres back the way I had just come for absolutely no good reason.

The Modern Nomad

Reference Map

Red line: hitchhiking Black line: freighthopping