We found out that Perubus and one other company ran buses on this route, but both left in the late evening and arrived very early in the morning. Since we wanted to make the trip by daylight, we checked with a couple of local collectivo/taxi companies and were able to book a ride leaving at 10:00 am. The journey had its minor discomforts and some hair-raising moments, but the jaw-dropping scenery was more than worth it.
We set off in a Kia sedan with Michael in the front seat and me squeezed into the back with two other passengers. The route wound back and forth across the mountainsides, at first through treeless, terraced grasslands
We were relieved to have a sensible middle-aged driver who navigated the difficult route with great caution, honking the horn as he approached the many blind corners.
Occasionally we passed herds of alpacas or vicunas, sometimes accompanied by a shepherd.
Once or twice we saw deserted buildings, perhaps shelter for shepherds in the drier months.
But mostly we travelled through an empty, silent, dazzlingly beautiful landscape.
It really did feel like the top of the world, especially at Lake Choclocotcha, 4700 metres above sea level. A website called dangerousroads describes the area this way: "With such a high summit altitude, the road can be closed anytime due to snowfalls. The zone is prone to heavy mist and can be dangerous in low visibility conditions. Avalanches, heavy snowfalls and landslides can occur anytime, being extremely dangerous due to frequent patches of ice." We did become enveloped in fog for several kilometres, and several times had to squeeze past enormous boulders that had fallen on the road, but other potential dangers didn't arise.
Descending from Choclacocha, we negotiated even more switchbacks. This clip from Google maps shows just a small section:
Eventually we arrived in a small town called Castrovirreyna, where our taxi driver pulled up and indicated that we should disembark. We understood that this was as far as he was coming and we'd be continuing in another vehicle. We sheltered from the fog and drizzle in the depot, a small, pale green concrete building while we waited to begin the next leg.
After about half an hour a minivan arrived and we boarded, along with one of our previous travelling companions and several newcomers making the rest of the journey to the coast. We had a younger driver, with two young women sharing the front seat with him. One of these talked incessantly, sometimes distracting his attention from the road, which didn't make us too happy. Since the van was not full, we now stopped at assorted little settlements along the way to pick up or set down passengers.
Somewhat to our dismay, we had to backtrack all the way up to Lake Choclacocha to connect with the road going west. Although this was better-paved and slightly wider, we still had to negotiate various rockfalls and once passed a group of men levering a boulder off the road with several crowbars. The heart-in-mouth moment, however, was crossing a washout that heavy rain higher up had unleashed onto our road and over the cliff edge beyond. We watched as a semi-trailer ahead of us picked its way cautiously across, up to its axles in rushing water.
Then it was our turn. Encouraged by some men on the other side, our driver followed the semi. Looking out my side window, I could see the whitewater rushing under us.
After that, nothing seemed risky. As we gradually wound our way down, the terrain became gentler and more cultivated, and the weather milder. It was getting on for dark by the time we arrived at San Clemente, just inland from Pisco, where we transferred to a minicab to cover the final 20 km to our destination in Paracas.