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  • When Thompson made the trip from Guayaquil to Lima, on the cusp of August in 1962, he did so by plane, though his finances were rapidly dwindling. "It cost me $38 simply to get my gear from Guayaquil to Lima...," he explains in a letter. "It goes without saying that I have taken my last plane in South America, at least until I can deposit some of this worthless junk." From Lima to Rio, the rest of Thompson's route would be carried out by bus and train, "...a mad, headlong, poverty-stricken rush across the continent."

    I, on the other hand, have been in the headlong, poverty-stricken phase since touching down in Colombia, just over a month ago. At the very least, I'll be doing no flying here. On Monday, I finished a twenty-eight-hour bus ride from Guayaquil to Lima, a long slog, but actually quite comfortable thanks to a well-selected Peruvian bus company. South America offers a wide range of intercity bus experiences. On one end of the spectrum, you have your classic chicken bus — basically a converted field-trip wagon packed with people and livestock, adhering to no discernible schedule. Far on the other end is the luxury cruiser, with reclining seats, movies, meals, and, if you're lucky, wireless. These are a bargain by American standards and make even your nicer Amtrak routes look jostling covered wagons on the Oregon Trail.

    Speed is always a factor, of course, especially in the vast middle range. You know the velocity that a plane hits on the runway just before it leaves the ground? The point at which you can actually anticipate lift-off by a few seconds, if only because the speed at which you're traveling feels instinctively unsustainable? That's the speed at which most buses in the Andes travel all the time. On one of my Colombian rides last month, the tires squealed audibly as we navigated the horseshoe curves along the 700-foot Guaitara River canyon.

    Bus travel does give you plenty of time to read. On this last trip, I went through John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. By coincidence, it was published the same week in 1962 that Thompson was flying from Guayaquil into Lima. As our bus pulled up to the first immigration station at the Ecuador-Peru border, I was reading a segment where Steinbeck is refused entry into Canada for Charley's (his dog's) lack of vaccination papers. "I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments," he writes, "and nowhere is my natural anarchism more aroused than at the national borders...I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?"

    I had no such problems at this crossing, briskly and silently receiving my exit stamp from Ecuador, followed by my entrance stamp from the run-down Peruvian checkpoint at Aguas Verdes. There is always some tension, however — that cultivated air of Serious Business, exacerbated by the presence of men with large guns. Next to the immigration counter at Aguas Verdes were posters of one of Peru's many desaparecidos, the "disappeared" victims of one or another of the Andes' many armed conflicts. Historically, most of Peru's "disappeared" are casualties of the country's twenty-year war against the Shining Path guerrillas in the 1980s and 1990s. The dates on these posters were more recent, though, and the victim seemed to hail from Colombia. Standing alongside a woman I presume to be his mother, he watched over my proceedings with the unsmiling Peruvian official, and his gaze cast a shadow over an already grim exchange.

    My next border crossing is two weeks away, into Bolivia near Lake Titicaca. It's the first country requiring a visa from me, and the process of getting one from the Bolivian embassy some months back was a bit fraught, a ping-pong of petty paperwork details. As Steinbeck wrote after being turned away from Canada, "It is always the rule, the fine print, carried out by fine-print men. There's nothing to fight, no wall to hammer with frustrated fists." It's a line I think Thompson would have liked, and I wonder whether the lack of any clear wall to hammer on might not explain some of the movements that have helped shape this part of the continent over the last fifty years.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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