Anyone who has taken a course in Anthropology, or read the Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Galaxy books, or gone through Peace Corps training will know that the first thing when arriving in a strange culture is to keep an open mind.
However, after a good amount of time in the amazing country that is Peru, I think I am ready to pass a judgement: Peruvians, okay, specifically Ancashinos, are terrible drivers. Terrible!! I won´t deny that they have a lot of obstacles to deal with: rock slides, pot holes that could swallow a horse, children and live stock darting in and out of the interstate, to name a few. However, this past Sunday I spent 7 hours in cars with Peruvian professional drivers (taxistas, not race car drivers or something, though I think they might be a bit confused on the distinction) and had the chance to observe closely this national dare-devil pastime.
In the morning I set out with another volunteer and a Peruvian engineer from Huaraz to cross a mountain pass and visit San Marcos, a town on the other side where Peace Corps will install some latrines and bathrooms during a field-based training. The drive is astounding beautiful-- you pass snow capped peaks, a glacial like, a giant Jesus statue, and miles of seemingly wild highlands, with grazing cows and sheep and little thatch huts called "chozas" that look like something out of Middle Earth or another magical time-apart. To get to the other side of the mountains, the "Callejon de Conchucos," you climb high into the mountains, then pass through a tunnel. Passing through is a bit like waking up in Oz, or falling through to Wonderland. The sky and landscape change from one side to the other, after just a couple minutes of darkness (of course there are no lights in this interstate highway tunnel), and you are left dizzy and dazzled by the change (that could also be due to the fact that you are well, well over 4000 meters of altitude, and your driver has been taking the curves like he wants to try out for Nascar as soon as he can get a green card)
You are distracted from this magical, even spiritual place, by the life-risking hijinks required to get there. Sure, patches of the road are nicely paved, but just as you begin an interesting conversation in the car, you reach another patch that is unpaved, covered with small boulders and that leaves the small taxi rattling and you bouncing around (seat belts are for wimps-- and only necessary for people sitting in the front seats, apparently), into and on to your seat mates.
The brave soul driving this machine continues, undaunted, and no amount of noise or fish-tailing distracts him from his objective-- which is clearly to arrive on the other side not safe or sound, but before every other vehicle. This involves risks-- passing on blind curves, traveling on the other side of the road, trying to shift gears while dodging boulders and talking to his girlfriend on your cellphone--and he is willing to take them.
Despite this dangerous game, both of my trips (there and back) ended safely, but I am left with a healthy fear of Peruvian drivers and the need for at least a little break before attempting the ride again.