Winner of The Telegraph’s travel writing competition ‘Just Back’.
I am bouncing on a rickety bus driving along the serpentine Urubamba River in Peru. The dirt road is so narrow beside the cliff face, the driver has to honk at every bend to avoid collision. But way out here, we meet no other vehicles. The locals are delighted to have a strange gringa on the bus, and they share mangos and stories with me.
I have escaped the beaten track in search of adventure. Our bus is heading to a jungle hamlet called Kiteni. Fourteen hours from Cusco, we finally reach the village.
Luck is on my side – there is a grimy workers’ hostel in the village. A chunky lady shuffles me into a boxy room with naked ladies on the walls. I heave my backpack onto the shabby bed and look out the window. Down below, people are milling about the market square, selling fish and fruit. Imposing, forest-clad hills rise above the town. The river rumbles beyond small, makeshift houses with precarious tin roofs.
I go out through the nosy mobs. People stare and children run up to me. “Gringa! Gringa! De donde estás?” (Where are you from?)
At the edge of town I run into a young boy, César. Without further ado, he takes my hand and leads me into the woods. We walk over stony ground, until we reach a clearing with a pond in the middle. The boy introduces me to the owner, who asks if I want to help with the fishing. We spend the afternoon filling a barrel of fish for him and his children, and I feel immensely lucky at this strange and unexpected jungle adventure.
That night I am invited to the local disco. It’s in a rickety bamboo structure, plastered with more naked ladies. They play cheesy reggae and shy girls sway back and forth while boys hit on them. We drink and dance and I marvel at the random little town I have found.
After too much drink, the men are becoming too interested in their gringa visitor, and I think it’s time to go. I board the morning bus with a heavy heart, wishing I could stay longer in this exotic paradise. I don’t want to go back to Cusco just yet.
From the bus I watch the passing scenery – steaming rainforest, rolling hills, rushing waterfalls. We stop in another village, even smaller than Kiteni. I have no idea where I am, but I know I want to stay. I take my bags and run off the bus, and I’m overcome with a sense of freedom at the thought that I can do anything I want. I check myself in to another workers’ hostel, where I am the only guest. More jungle adventures await me. The freedom is intoxicating.