The following is an account of the events that occurred February 26 through March 1, 2018; when Wayne and myself got our van stuck in the remote highlands of Peru for several days. It has taken us a few days to reflect, reset and get a settled in a comfortable campsite with internet and be able to put our thoughts into writing. Thank you again to everyone involved for their concern and input, we were both overwhelmed by the response.
First a few important points for anyone near the area we were traveling in and planning to drive a similar route:
The road AN-101 from Huamachuco to Mollebamba is impassable at this time and looks to have not been used in several years. A car will not make it through, bicycles could have luck pushing- not riding. Parts of the road are only wide enough for one person. We only know this because we met a cyclist on day two that had come from the south, the town Mollebamba, and he told us he pushed his bike the whole way. He said that this was the worst road he has seen in South America. Maps.me considered this road to be a main road, it is not. We have added warnings to iOverlander. DO NOT DRIVE THIS ROAD!
To keep things clear, I'd like to use Maps.me as a reference map. If you use iOverlander or Google Maps these roads will have different names for whatever reason:
Maps.me calls the road we were stuck on AN-101, but it also calls the road adjacent to the east AN-101 as well. Maps.me labels the main road we drove from Huamachuco LI-115.
iOverlander labels the road we were stuck on LI-115/LI-117, and the road adjacent to the east is labeled LI-116/LI-115. The main road we drove from Huamachuco is called road PE-3N on iOverlander.
Claro cellular network does not work in this area of the mountains. We were told Movistar network works best.
Our plan was to drive from Huamachuco to Caraz, which was supposed to be over 300km and one very long day of driving. We had gone back and forth about which route to take for a couple days actually. Google Maps wanted us to drive to the coast of Peru, and turn around at Chimbote to head back up towards the mountains. Maps.me labels two different roads AN-101, but we saw several warnings on iOverlander about the road conditions on the road AN-101 further east. We chose to follow Maps.me and drive on the western road, also called AN-101, because it was the route that had no warnings. Also Maps.me displayed it as an “orange” road, which in most cases has meant the road was a main road with regular traffic.
We woke up at 6am to cloudy skies and departed from the gas station where we slept the night before. It's difficult to estimate how much time you need to get anywhere in Peru because the roads vary so drastically. We were making good time and the dirt road, while narrow and bumpy, was mostly dry. One thing we noticed almost immediately was how remote this area of Peru was. On our whole drive that morning we passed a total of two pickup trucks, one mining truck, a couple farmers, and about 10,000 alpaca. We thought we would prefer this remoteness to the last couple days of driving busy, narrow roads on cliffs with blind corners while tour buses or trucks are coming into your lane towards you.
I didn't take many pictures during this ordeal. It was the last thing on my mind actually. I was able to look back at our dashcam footage and find some dashcam photos from that morning's drive to give you an idea of the terrain:
Around 10am we made the turnoff from the LI-115 to the AN-101. That's where we realize we made our first mistake. The road was noticeably less traveled, with tall grass and no recent tire marks. We discussed our concerns and decided that if either one of us did not like the look of this we could bail and turn around at any time, to head back to the coast. We drove the road approximately 5km, making our way down several steep switchbacks and past several washed out ruts. We eventually got to a part of the road that we considered too risky for our vehicle (GMC Savana AWD 1500) and decided to stop, and go back. There were ruts in the road that were at least 1m deep, and further down they got even bigger.
Wayne went to put the van into reverse to back our way out because the road was too narrow to turn around. But the van wouldn't budge. The engine revved but the wheels wouldn't move. We were on dry road with rocks and grass, but it was very steep. The other thing working against us was altitude. At 4,250m (14,000 feet) our car had considerably less power.
So we got out and pushed. And pushed. For hours. Actually 6 hours. We made progress 1 meter at a time. We would alternate the driver and the pusher. We would stack rocks to make a ramp to roll up on, and then try to get momentum reversing. We got tired. I have asthma and had a very hard time breathing at this elevation. We were both feeling sick from the altitude.
In the afternoon the rain started. Then the hail. We would take breaks when it got really heavy, come into the van to catch our breath, and then go back out when it cleared up. Finally around 4:30pm we had moved the van 100m (300 feet) but admitted we were exhausted and done for the day, we had to spend the night in this spot. The slant of the road was not suitable for sleeping, so we attempted to make larger ramps to level it out. We slept at such an angle that the bed cushions kept sliding off the bed platform all night and we would wake up to crawl back to the top. It rained the whole night and neither one of us slept very well because we were so worried.
On the morning of the second day, Tuesday, we woke at 6am to sunny, clear skies and we were excited to get back to the work at hand and continue driving. We started again with the same strategy: build a ramp with rocks and push uphill. The only problem now was that the rain from the night before had made the ground much softer and slicker. So we moved more rocks into the mud under the tires. We made more progress, little by little. But the road started to become narrower and the van would slide from side to side when we tried to reverse. This was worrisome because we could not afford to have the van slide to the driver's side of the road any further, there was a drop off.
We always drive with our own rescue equipment, so we got out the Come-Along and the tow rope. Unfortunately there were no trees in the highlands of Peru to winch off. We attempted to winch the van from a very large boulder up the hill, but it eventually slipped. We were afraid of it falling into the path on the road and not being able to move it, so we left it alone and tried a “Dead Man's Winch.” We buried a large log with our tow strap tied to it, but the ground was too soft and it pulled out under the weight of the van almost immediately.
It was now 10am and we needed to try something else. We decided to hike up to the main road and look for help and a cell phone signal. The main road we would hike to was 5.6km (3.5 miles) away. With this new plan we packed ourselves a day-pack with food, water, rain gear and cold weather clothing. A few minutes before departing the van a man pushing a bike appeared from below the van! He was a bike-tourer who pushed his bike the entire way up this road to the point where the van was now stuck. Marvin was from Poland and has been cycling South America for 3 months, coming north from Ushuaia, Argentina. He described the road below as “the worst” road he has seen in South America, and explained how he had not been able to ride his bike due to the road conditions.
While Marvin pushed his bike, we walked alongside him to the main road. After 1-1.5km Marvin offered to ride up to a mine we had spotted from the road to look for someone who could help pull us out with one of the large mining trucks. He told us to keep walking and he would meet back up with hopefully good news. So we did. Less than an hour later Marvin was back, he told us he met a security guard at the mine, who was the only person there at the time and he did not have access to a truck. But the guard did say that his friend was coming “tarde” (later) with a very big, strong truck and that they would be able to help. All we had to do was stand on the road, at the intersection of our road and the mining road and wait for the truck. Marvin said the guard was very certain he could help us, just not now, later. This was great news but it was only 11am and we could not sit around all day waiting in the cold, so we decided to keep moving forward with Plan A to see if we could get anyone to help us sooner. Marvin moved on and we asked him to stop any police or trucks he may come in contact with on his way north to Huamachuco.
After a couple more hours of hiking we made it to the main road (LI-115 or PE-3N depending on which map). There was no cell phone signal here. At this time of day clouds started to reappear and threaten rain. We were both warm from the hike but knew we would get cold again as soon as we stopped moving. We stood at the intersection in our reflective-orange safety vests and waited. Eventually a Toyota Hilux truck filled with passengers appeared and we waved our hands and smiled. But they wouldn't stop! Wayne ran after the truck, yelling “Por favor, ayuda! Por favor, pare!” (Please help, please stop!). The driver stopped long enough to listen to our pleas and his response was merely, “just wait for another truck to come along that can help.” Then he left.
Another truck came by a little bit later and it was almost the same exact experience. We waved, he kept driving, we yelled and ran towards the truck, and he tells us to keep waiting, someone else will come. We were devastated. Both of these trucks were 4x4 and exactly the vehicle we needed to pull us out. But they were people that needed to be places, so they moved on.
We started to feel raindrops and made the decision to go back, it was almost 3pm and we needed to get to the van before we got too cold or too wet. On our return trip we detoured and walked up to the mine before going down to the van. We wanted to talk to this security guard ourselves and see if his friend with the truck was still coming. On our way down the mining road my phone suddenly pinged! I had just received 4 messages even though my phone was displaying “no service.” I figured this was my chance to get a message to someone, so I sent a short and to-the-point message to our friends Luke and Colleen, who were also in Peru at the time. I told them we were stuck and looking for help, and then I tried to send our GPS location. The phone was still displaying “no service,” so I had no indication if this message ever went through. I didn't know until we were out of this situation and back in cell reception that Luke did in fact receive the message.
We walked a couple more kilometers up to the mine and found the security guard. He was young, and very kind, and told us not too worry at all, he could help. Sadly, his name escapes me at this time because when he introduced himself I was exasperated from all the steep hiking. He invited us into the house he stays in and let us wait for his friend with him there. He told us how we were not the first foreigners to get stuck on this road and he had pulled them out too. The mine was not currently in operation but it was his job to protect it and patrol the area around it, so he felt that included taking care of us as well. He assured us he would get us out that night and everything would be okay. While we waited we made small talk and he offered us snacks of avocados (paltas) and tasty little popped kernels he called “nuna.”
By this time it was well-past 5pm and we had no sign of the friend with the truck. The security guard tried to make contact but never heard back. Since it was getting late and still raining sporadically, we all agreed it was best for us to go back to the van. Our security guard-turned-guide grabbed his poncho, gum boots and shotgun, and led us back down the hill to the van.
There was a slight misunderstanding between Wayne and our guard-guide on where exactly the van was stuck. The guard-guide believe we had driven much further down the road into the very deep ruts, so he took us a different way back to the van. Unfortunately his way was the hard way. Instead of taking us down the road we came in on, he decided to take a more direct route down the hill that was above the van. His route spit us back on the same road we were stuck on but much further down below the van. So together we walked up the road in the dark. Wayne and I got to see the disastrous conditions that the cyclist had described. There were some ruts that were waist-deep! It was hard to imagine he was even able to push his bike through this.
That day we hiked over 10 miles round-trip looking for help. We arrived back at the van around 8pm and our guard-guide assured us he would come with the truck first thing in the morning to pull us out, we were to expect them around 6-6:30am. Sore, tired, hungry and wet, we were happy to be back to our cozy home. We fell asleep a little easier on the slanted road that night.
The alarm was set for 5:45am but we didn't need it to wake us up. We were so ready to be out of this valley, we couldn't wait to jump up and start the day. It was another cloudy and grey morning. Damn. We got ourselves ready for getting dirty and muddy again, laid the tow rope and Come-Along out and ready for action. And we waited. And waited. We were driving ourselves so crazy waiting that we had to start a movie. And then another movie. There was nothing else to do but wait. After several hours we had thought maybe it was best to go out to the main road again and look for some other option if our mine security guard was a no-show. But right then it started raining again. We were both still dealing with headaches and stomach aches from altitude sickness and we didn't think hiking in the rain would be the best idea.
Around 11am and halfway into our second movie, which neither one of us was really paying close attention to because we were so preoccupied by our lack of un-stuckedness, there was a knock on the window. He came back! We jumped out of the van to have the guard explain to us that his friend had only just now gotten in touch with him, and that he was on his way immediately. Okay, we didn't care he was five hours late at this point, we were ready! He said he was going to walk back up to where this road meets the mining road, and they would come down together and pull us out. We really liked this guy; he was super relaxed and did not seem worried about the technical challenges we faced getting our heavy van out of this situation.
We were so relieved the guard came back to reassure us that help was on the way. We were glad we hadn't left the van again for a second day to hike and find other help. The last time we tried that we didn't have much success. This guy was our only hope we thought. So we waited. And waited...
Another five hours went by. More movies were watched. More rain to fall. We were going stir-crazy. But there was nothing we could do but wait. In the middle of a movie break, we hear a noise behind the van, and look up to see the most beautiful sight, a bright red Toyota Hilux, our security guard and his friend. I was so happy I cried. I think Wayne did too.
These boys worked so fast my head spun. Before I could get shoes on and exit the van they had already attached our tow strap and were ready to pull. On the first attempt, with Wayne in reverse and the truck towing, we moved up that hill! The van got a little squirrely in the mud and very near the edge of the road, so we realigned at made another attempt. That's all it took. The truck pulled until the steepness of the road leveled out, which was a little less than 100 meters total. Wayne was afraid of damaging their truck so he unattached the tow strap and told the guys he wanted to see if the van could drive itself the rest of the way up the road. Without any pulling Wayne was able to drive the van on its own up to a point where the road widened and he could turn the van around and drive forwards up the hill.
We drove behind the truck for another 1km to where the road meets up with the mining road. We were free and clear! We got out of the van, hugged both of the guys, shed several tears and tried to explain to them how incredibly grateful we were for their help. This isn't just a car, this is our home. We sold everything we had back home to build this van and make this trip possible. This seemingly small gesture was crucial to us being able to continue our trip. We couldn't express enough how much we appreciated their help. We gave them a 6-pack of Ecuadorian beer we had been saving and most of the cash we had in our pockets (we did need to save some for gas!).
So here we are at 5pm with no idea which direction to head but out. We begin to drive the rest of the 5.6km (3.5 miles) to the main road when we realized that these roads are much more difficult to drive now than they were to drive in on. The last three days of rain had taken its toll, made things very slippery and filled deep pot holes with lots of water. Due to these conditions and the end-of-day approaching we decided to stop driving and camp on the road. We were spent. So incredibly elated, but so incredibly spent.
We began to wonder if Luke had gotten our SOS message and we were hoping to make contact that evening to tell him everything was okay. We didn't want him to worry about us. We wondered if there was some sort of search party being organized if he had gotten our message. We figured we would sleep one more night on this road just in case of the small chance that there had been anyone looking for us based on our GPS point, they would have found us immediately after turning on to road AN-101.
Still no cellular reception. But Wayne couldn't sit still without at least trying to get a message out to Luke. So he put on his rain gear one more time and went outside in search of a signal. He hiked up the nearest peak he could find with my phone, which has a Peruvian SIM card, to see if we could find a signal but there was none. He came back to the van and we plotted our route for the next morning. Below is an image captured at the top of the hill, showing where we slept that night at the intersection of LI-115 and AN-101:
Once again, we wake up around 6am incredibly eager to start the day! We wanted to get out of these mountains. We wanted showers! At this point it had been 6-7 days since our last real shower, and that was in Ecuador! We were filthy from the mud and sweat, and so was everything else inside and outside of the van. We planned on making the drive to Caraz again, to this great campsite we had heard about, the place we had originally set out to drive to four days ago, Camping Guadalupe. One thing we can say for certain is this drive provided some incredible views!
We took off early, driving the same roads we took to get where we got stuck but the conditions were so much more difficult. We were anxious to get out but tried taking our time and making calculated moves. Still we managed to bottom out over, and over again, on giant pot holes and ruts. This was not good for the underbelly of the van.
It wasn't until 9:30am, after almost 3 hours of driving that my phone pinged for the first time. It was a message from Luke saying he had received our message and GPS pin, the local police were informed of our approximate location and there was a 4x4 group in Lima that was watching the situation develop as well. This information changed our plans slightly in the fact that we felt it was necessary to find the nearest police station and tell them that we no longer needed assistance. So we continued down the same roads we came in on and using our GPS, we began searching for the nearest town to stop in.
Less than an hour later we saw the first truck of the day coming towards us on the road. They slow down and we wave. Then we realize they are uniformed men with rescue equipment, and to our surprise they tell us that they are looking for us! They also tell us how on the previous day a police truck from Mollebamba made an attempt to drive the AN-101 north towards us but could not make it through due to road conditions. These men were volunteers for the Ministry of Health and had come from a town called Santiago de Chuco some 96km (60 miles) away. They asked us to follow them back to their town where we would meet up with the local police to file a report. They said they would contact the proper channels to inform everyone we had been located.
All of this was possible because our friend Luke had actually received the message with our GPS location we sent out on the second day and made a post to the PanAmerican Travelers Association Facebook group to see if there was any support in the area, or how best to get us out. This post started a rescue mission in to motion, with many group members offering help, advice or words of encouragement. News of not one, but two different search parties out looking for us was overwhelming at first, but also very comforting. We are so grateful for all of the support received from the PanAmerican Travelers group and Unidad 4x4 de Ayuda based in Lima, Peru, and the members that were essential to activating nearby resources and rescue networks. It is truly amazing what people can accomplish when they come together during times of disaster. We were relieved to learn that there were people looking out for us, and if we had not been able to get ourselves out, help was on the way!
While we were stuck we never felt like we were in any serious danger; we had enough food for a week, we had plenty of water, we carry a water filter and there was an endless supply of fresh water due to the rains, we had rain gear and cold weather clothing. Luckily we never felt like we needed to panic. But we knew in the back of our minds that if weren't prepared with one of those essential items listed above, we would have been in real danger.
We followed the Ministry of Health rescuers in their truck for another two hours out of the mountains. They led us through a town where we stopped to meet up with local policemen. They all shook our hands and gave us big smiles. They wanted to hear our story. They asked us to come with them, so we followed in a caravan with the volunteer rescuers. Another hour of driving bumpy dirt roads led us to a hospital in the town of Santiago de Chuco. The police and rescuers asked us to submit to a medical exam, which we did. After the hospital the men talked with us more, wanted to know where we were headed next and gave us directions that would take us down good and safe paved roads to Caraz. They sent us on our way after more smiles, hugs and some photos.
We are aware many people were contacted for search and rescue purposes and we would like to thank you if you were involved. Sometimes search and rescue efforts can be costly and we have had people offer to help financially, if it was necessary. We feel lucky to say that is not the case for our situation. However, if you feel like supporting efforts like these, please consider donating to your local search and rescue organization.
Thanks for reading!
Katie and Wayne