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Riding the Pan-American Highway by Bus: Peru and Ecuador

Jim Yu February 22, 2018 Hooniverse Goes To..., Road Trip 30 Comments

As some of you know, I started a trek in 2007 to ride the entire 14,741-mile Pan-American Highway by bus. Last month, I finally accomplished this goal. The final stretch was from Lima, Peru, northward, to Turbo, Colombia. The Darien Gap, a roadless stretch of jungle between Panama and Colombia, prevents the highway from running contiguously from North to South America. Turbo is the northern terminus of the South American portion of the highway.

Here are my observations and experiences from Lima to Ecuador.

I landed in Lima, at about the same time as the Pope. His jetway was all white and topped with a tiny yellow Vatican flag. I had not been to Peru in seven years. All of the cars, old and new, were approximately seven years newer. Korean marques dominated, and there were a lot more Chinese passenger cars. I even saw a few Mahindra trucks and SUVs.

And just like my previous visit, my hotel picked me up in a black, natural-gas powered Hyundai. On the way to the hotel, we had to get some fuel. The stations were all full-service and the attendants were invariably women wearing colorful track suit uniforms. I had to stand on the perimeter of the station, for my safety.

I stayed in the fairly posh Miraflores neighborhood in Lima, and spotted this Pininfarina-designed Brilliance BC3

…and this old Plymouth.

For the first leg of my bus trip, I thought I was going to ride in a luxury coach for three-and-a-half days from Lima to Cali, Colombia. I was anticipating meal service (with my choice of beef, chicken, and vegetarian), bingo games, and smartly dressed stewards and stewardesses. I was mistaken. I ended up riding an above average bus with spotty Wifi and a restroom for Number One, but not Number Two.

The funniest thing that happened before we boarded was that they had a drug sniffing dog go through all of our luggage. Who brings drugs TO Colombia?!

Within 15 minutes of leaving the Lima station, our bus broke down. Busted radiator hose.

We waited by the side of the road for three hours. Thankfully, we were right next to a gas station convenience store.

The mechanic in this Hilux took a while to get to us because the Pope was holding mass for over a million people at an air force base a few miles away.

Because the mechanic did not bring any parts, he thought he could improvise a hose by cutting a section of a soda bottle he found littered on the street. That did not work. So off he went to get the right part.

The sun had set. And it was like a firemen’s brigade there. One guy hauled a big bucket of water; another guy filled up a soda bottle with the water; and one of our three drivers poured the water into the radiator, using another soda bottle. Everything worked and we were off.

I woke up the next morning somewhere between Lima and the Ecuador border. This is what it looked like out the window. Because a bus full of people recently plunged down a cliff into the Pacific, killing 51 people, the Peruvian president banned all buses from traveling next to the Pacific. So we had to take the inland route.

This is Chiclayo, one of the few towns we drove through in northern Peru. It reminded me of Kashgar in western China, circa 2004. It was arid and full of tuk-tuks and shoddily constructed buildings.

Our bus kept plugging along and crossed the Ecuador border without fanfare.

Then, it happened. In the middle of the night, in the Central Highlands, the bus stalled. And we coasted to a stop. This was the view out the window.

After a brief bit of tinkering, the bus started again. And after a few miles, it stalled again. This was getting worrisome. The bus started again, and we pulled into a BBQ joint while the bus drivers tried to figure out the problem.

Because my number one fear on these bus trips was an upset stomach, I did not dare eat any cooked foods along the way. I brought two cases of Luna bars for the ride. So at the restaurant, I just consumed beers and eyed the fancy display of imported Chilean Noble toilet paper.

(Images Jim Yu / Hooniverse)

  • Victor

    Sounds like the bus company has never heard of preventative maintenance.

    • Tamerlane’s Thoughts

      A friend said if everything had gone smoothly. I wouldn’t have a story to tell.

  • Sjalabais

    Great pictures, but…why not eat local food? It’s always worth it, until…it’s not anymore, haha. Just today I read about Turbo, in a TIME piece on refugees. Did the city make any point out of its fabulous name?

    • Tamerlane’s Thoughts

      I enjoy local food when I’m not on the bus. But with these long-distance buses, they only stop once every eight to twelve hours, and there’s no guarantee that there is a functioning toilet at the stop. I’m just being pragmatic.

      Turbo was named Turbo in the 1800s. Let’s just say it was very difficult to do research on the town online. I ended up hitting Colombian tuner sites.

      • Batshitbox

        Just the word turbo is difficult enough to pin down. I posted something here before the Intense Debacle about the origins of the word. It starts with the Turkisk fabric
        and somehow gets to snails, forced induction and a Columbian municipality by way of the more obvious turban head dress.

    • Monkey10is

      I hope at least that every single city bus, dustcart and roadsweeper is emblazoned with the following graphic:


  • Dabidoh_Sambone

    My lovely wife & I recently went to Cuba and stayed at the Hotel Nacional. We ate at only the tourist approved restaurants and did not drink tap water.

    Nevertheless …

    Our last two days there were a horror-show of intestinal explosions and chills / fevers. The flight home was dreadful. For the next two weeks of recuperation food tasted wrong and we missed our regimen of exercise and running.

    Luna bars FTW.

    • Nick H

      Oof. Had something similar happen in the Dominican Republic – let’s just say it was the first time I was in the lavatory when landing in an aircraft.

      • Tamerlane’s Thoughts

        I also brush my teeth with bottled water in developing countries. I’m super paranoid.

        • Troggy

          Doesn’t matter what precautions I take, I end up on the bad prawn diet wherever I go. Chinese food – even the local variety – still turns me inside-out, but I like it, and at least the outcome is predictable.

      • Alff

        I attended a sales meeting at Casa De Campo in the DR several years ago. The company brought about 50 people. More than half got Montezuma’s Revenge. On the last day the meeting hall smelled like an infirmary.

        • Sjalabais

          Let’s slowly escalate this thread. If it wasn’t for shady food, I wouldn’t have been the only one to take a dump 3300 meters above sea level in Kyrgyzstan this summer. That’s a height record that has been duly and appropriately noted among friends with a certain regularity.

          • Tamerlane’s Thoughts

            My record for peeing is at 4200 meters, Mauna Kea.

            • Troggy

              My son, at 6 months, could pee half a metre, into a cup of coffee without touching the sides. Twice. I’m a slow learner.

          • ptschett

            In college I had an opportunity to drive overnight from South Dakota to a bit west of Denver, with a bunch of friends convoying out in our cars packed to the brim with passengers & luggage for a fun retreat after finals week. I stayed awake partly with the help of eating most of a pack of black licorice vines.
            The …aftereffects? of eating that much black licorice are bad enough in the 300m-500m central US plains altitudes I’m acclimated to. At close to 3000m they’re exponentially worse, and the stink of what happened in the bathroom was not willing to stay in the bathroom…

            • Smaglik

              So, I live at 2300 meters. Are things somehow worse here when I’m counting to 2 than at lower elevations?

              My personal worst outside would be at that elevation, but in rural Santa Fe, on a 10 mile run. I can still look up that poor bush in Google Street view.

              • ptschett

                I couldn’t say, but I don’t think it helped that the other part of my all night wakefulness recipe was Mountain Dew so there was maybe a depressurization factor.

                Haha. Poor bush.

          • Alff

            Around here we have a saying about what rolls downhill.

        • neight428

          I’m late to the party, but wouldn’t want to miss out. I too will emphasize the importance of road trip digestive health strategies. The Popeye’s Fried Chicken in Wichita Falls, Texas probably had to be condemned and demolished after what I did to it in March of 1997.

  • Nick H

    This is great and looking forward to future articles.

    • Tamerlane’s Thoughts

      Thanks, man!

    • outback_ute

      Same here, nothing like a bit of vicarious travel.

  • Professor LavaHUPT

    I rode a bus on that route with the recent crash in 2016! It is terrifying and yet beautiful to behold. The desert route from Lima north to Trujillo has some truly amazing desert vistas and desperate arid desert towns.

    • Tamerlane’s Thoughts

      I love the Peruvian coast. I think I am the only gringo to have gone to Peru twice and not seen Machu Picchu.

  • Troggy

    What are the cable things attached to the wheel hubs of the bus?

    • Tamerlane’s Thoughts

      Tire pressure thingie. Don’t know if it’s just a monitor or if it is attached to a pump. Lots of Latin American buses have them.

      • Troggy

        It’s amazing that they will invest in something that could be replaced with a cheap air compressor, yet not be able to maintain or carry spares for their busses. Unless it’s a regulatory thing – which wouldn’t exactly surprise me.

        • Vairship

          I assume it has to do with the wild altitude changes? Going from sea level to the top of the Andes and back, it might be very handy to make sure the tire pressure automatically adjusts for the changes in air pressure. [Note: this is total speculation on my part]

    • It’s called “rodoar” and keeps the tires at the right pressure like the CTIS from the Hummer H1. Lots of truck and buses have this here in Brazil

  • Good start so far, about one breakdown per day. The landscape will be fantastic.
    Can someone please shed some light on the tubing? Why on the outside, and why do some regions have that on busses and others don’t?