Trucking In Peru

By Norman Chapman & Fabien Calvet

On a recent trip to South America, I went to Peru to have a look at the way transport is conducted there, and found many challenges, including varying climates, harsh terrain, terrible smog, and somewhat unsafe driving conditions. But, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, the country of Peru reveals magnificent contrasts. Here, the terrain goes from the desert to the verdant plains, passing over high mountain passes between. Sometimes, you get the impression of crossing the great Sahara Desert, but just a few hours later, you find yourself at more than 13,000-foot elevation, at the edge of impressive cliffs. The trucks that haul here in Peru offer the same diversity, and within just a few miles of driving, you can see as many antique relics as newer models.

Covering about 500,000 square miles of western South America, the country of Peru is roughly twice the size of Texas. Bordered by Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and the Pacific Ocean, the Andes Mountains run parallel to the coast along the entire western side of the continent, and split Peru into three regions. The costa (coast), to the west, is a narrow plain, mostly arid except for valleys created by seasonal rivers. The sierra (highlands) is the region of the Andes, and includes the Altiplano plateau, as well as the highest peak in the Peru (Huascarán mountain), at 22,205’ tall. The third region is the selva (jungle), a wide expanse of flat terrain to the east covered by the Amazon rainforest. With about 31.2 million inhabitants, Peru is the fifth most populous country in South America, and the economy, classified as “upper middle income” by the World Bank, is the 39th largest in the world.

My tour started in Lima, the capital of Peru, and just traveling from the airport to the hotel, the first thing that struck me was the standard of urban driving. The route taken was part of the Pan-American Highway through downtown Lima, which was clearly marked with three lanes of traffic in each direction. Well, imagine four rows of vehicles running in these three lanes – with no order, whatsoever – and this is what I was attempting to drive in. If, say, a bus, after picking passengers up, wanted to go from one side of the highway to the other, the blinker was switched on, the horn was pushed, and the driver just went for it. It was crazy!

The city of Lima was founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizzaro, a Spanish Conquistador, and is home to nearly 10 million people. In 1532, a group of Spanish conquistadors, led by Pizarro, fought and defeated Atahualpa, the Inca ruler, taking over his vast Empire. The city of Lima quickly developed and became the prestigious capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru. During the next century, and because of its location on the Pacific Ocean, the city flourished as a major trade hub. Earthquakes have always been a problem in Peru, and the city of Lima has been partially or completely destroyed three times since the late 1600s. Today, in keeping with tradition, Lima still has many old buildings in the Spanish colonial style, as well as a modern skyline.

The best way of moving tourists between the major cities of Peru is by air. A flight of just over one hour would take around eleven hours by road. The roads in the countryside are barely acceptable, and usually very mountainous. Peru does have one main decent road system, which is the Pan-American Highway, that runs through the entire length of the country. The route continues south through Chile and then, near Valparaiso, takes a left and runs east through Argentina, ending in Buenos Aires.

The second part of my tour began at Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima, with the destination being Cusco, Peru. Cusco was the ancient capital of Peru before Lima, and is situated in the south-eastern part of the country. Near the Urubamba Valley, high up in the Andes Mountains, the city is at an altitude of 11,152 feet above sea level. Some visitors are affected by the thin air, so there are oxygen bottles with masks provided on tour buses. But, Cusco has a bigger problem than the thin air for its visitor – the choking fumes from the many taxis, buses, trucks, cars and vans (Peru has a vehicle testing system, but it is a very basic process, and the emphasis obviously is not aimed at lowering exhaust emission levels). I also took a train and visited some historic Inca sites, with the most impressive of them all being Machu Picchu – the ancient ruins of the Inca Emperor’s citadel, built in the 15th century, which was abandoned a century later after the time of the Spanish arrival.

There are a lot of older European trucks like Volvo F10s, Scania’s with hoods and Mercedes of all types in Peru, and many have several million miles showing on the odometer. The descendants of these rigs are present, as well, like the newer Volvo FH cabovers and the Mercedes Actros or Axor cabovers. There are also a plethora of US trucks in Peru, including Internationals, Kenworths, Western Stars and Freightliners. Asian brands are beginning to invade the landscape, too, with an incredible mix of machines from Japan such as Hino, Isuzu and Fuso, along with Chinese-made brands like Sinotruck and Dongfeng.

Mining is a major part of Peru’s economy, and these operations create much of the traffic on the roads – the dump trucks seem to run non-stop! The mines have large financial means, so the trucks that work there are often the newest available, like the WorkStar, a severe duty truck made by International. You also see a lot of heavy-haulers, loaded with dozers and other heavy equipment, around the mines, as these operations create a lot work for local carriers.

Another thing I noticed was a vast number of small mausoleums, in memory of people killed, arranged along the roads. I have seen small signs and crosses before, but here the local people erect piles of rocks or even real tombs, in memory of their relatives. Believe me, when you see the amount of these monuments on the side of the road, you begin to understand that these are not very safe roads – and many of the vehicles on them are even more dangerous!

Driving in this country requires a lot of attention, but it was a pleasure to share the miles with the local drivers. Moreover, during the stops on the side of the road, one notices quickly that these people are easy to approach, and that they are very proud to be truckers. The restaurants along the way are far from what we know. Here, a small shack often serves as a cafe. You park your truck on the side of the road and eat your meal at a table with co-workers or strangers, and share the latest news from the job.

Sophisticated heavy-duty repair shops are present at the dealerships in the larger cities, but the garages in remote regions work more on a “weld and patch” mentality. For the tires, it’s kind of the same – and tire repairs are quite common, due to the condition of the roads and the inferior quality of rubber in the tires. Small repairers roam the roads, and homemade vulcanization seems to be a national sport. On the road, it is not hard to see that there are two types of contrasting trucks and truckers – the haves and the have-nots!

Peru is a land of magnificent contrasts, but these contrasts make it interesting. Peruvian roads are not always safe or well-maintained, but trucking remains a centerpiece of the country’s growing economy. If you ever get a chance to visit, take time to enjoy the stunning scenery and the diversity of the odd trucks, but, by all means, wear your seatbelt tight and be careful, because it’s a jungle out there!

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