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Being Optimistic in Peru


Wednesday, May 31

This was to be a full day of bus travel, returning to the mountains of the Andes (yea!). Our group boarded our new (to us) bus outside the doors of the Costa del Sol hotel.
Our new drivers, whom we would come to know very well in the next few days, were named Freddie and Jesús.  Their bus looked liked it had been through some rough service, the interior was worn and BB gun holes decorated the front windshield.  We would be traveling over 800 kilometers of rough Peruvian mountain roads in this beast, and I began to wonder whether it was up to the challenge.

We negotiated the morning Chiclayo traffic and drove past warehouses and factories north of the city. I noticed large piles of rice drying on plastic tarps along the road. Soon we were speeding through well-watered flatlands on smooth blacktop. After an hour of this, we began to climb into the mountains. Rice paddies were a common sight on our way to Porculla Pass, which the Moon guidebook claims is the lowest pass in Peru across the Andes.  It was still 7,000 feet high.  We descended from the pass several hours until we reached an orange suspension bridge spanning the Marañon River, at this point broad and shallow.  After a brief stop at a town called Bagua Grande, we began to follow the canyon of the Utcubamba River. The sides closed in on either side and we were treated to several waterfalls draining the high ground above us. The character of this region was quite different from the area around Huaraz. The mountains, though not as high, seemed sharper and more vertical. Bromeliads and other vegetation hung off the sheer sides of the canyon, and the air was cool and misty.  

We left our paved highway at a town named Pedro Ruiz Gallo, and turned South in the early twilight of the canyon floor towards our evening’s destination, Chachapoyas.  The final 41 kilometers took almost two hours on the rough gravel road, and we reached the approach to Chachapoyas in complete darkness. The road up from the canyon to the city of 30,000 on a nearby plateau, was paved but quite twisty. We pulled into the city and found our hotel, the Casona Monsante about 8 in the evening.  This was a grand old estate house converted into an Inn. Soon after we arrived, our host to the Chachapoyas region appeared within the hotel entryway. Dr. Peter Lerche is a German ex-pat archeologist who had become fascinated with the history of this area years ago. He now lives near Chachapoyas permanently with his Peruvian wife, owns some land and farms most of the year, but always seems ready to drop it briefly for an adventure. He seemed very interested in escorting our group, I think because a group of our size and makeup is unusual in this area. After a dinner a local restaurant, Dr. Lerche presented a lecture with slides of the history and culture of the Chachapoyas area before the Spanish conquest. I would have loved to have attended, but both Sharon and I were very tired after the long bus trip and ended up staying in our room for the evening.  

Thursday June 1

We awoke early Thursday to the cool mountain morning. A breakfast of hard rolls, jelly and Nescafe awaited us downstairs in the dining room. Our first task of the morning was to deliver the school supplies the group was carrying with us to a local needy school in Chachapoyas. We loaded up and our bus crossed town and labored up a rutty dirt track. At the top of the road we found the 5 room school and its 60 or so pupils preparing for class. The kids were dressed in navy colored uniforms with dresses and sweaters. The class leaders were armed with white batons, apparently a symbol of authority. The principal arrived a little after 8:00 AM and the children started into a military style drill, coming at attention at arms length, then standing at ease while prayers were said and announcements were read. As you can imagine, a group of 18 oldish white folks showing up unannounced did not go unnoticed by the school, and we were treated to songs and dances by the children. A teacher passed around a local alcoholic drink of some kind to us as we watched.  At the end of the performance, a bold youngster stepped forward and asked Ric, our group leader for 100 Soles to help them with their end of year class party.  The principal and teachers were very annoyed at this, but Ric gave him 20 soles anyways.

On our way back to town we managed to break a spring on the bus, and we found ourselves stranded for the morning at the Plaza de Armas of Chachapoyas. This troubled me not at all.  Ever since my first visit to Peru in 1999, I had found the descriptions of Chachapoyas and its surrounding mountains in the guidebooks intriguing and attractive.  I had wished our itinerary would have allowed a day to explore the town, and now fate was offering me an unexpected morning there. Well, there wasn’t a lot there to actually see or do, no grand churches, ruins or museums, just a quiet friendly town up in the mountains. We prowled the shops around the white washed Plaza de Armas and indulged in some chocolate cake at a restaurant called Café Mas Burger.  The Moon Guide claims this is the best chocolate cake in South America, and it was pretty good, but not that good, don’t come here just for the cake.  We then wandered into the main plaza and sat beneath a tree. A gentle rain dripped from an overcast sky, but our tree kept us reasonably dry while the town revolved around us. I noticed few political posters there, Chachapoyas didn’t seem as eaten up with the upcoming elections as the rest of Peru.

At around 11:00 AM Ric rounded us up and announced the bus had been repaired.  Soon it arrived and we climbed the steps to our seats. We left the fair city of Chachapoyas and zig-zagged our way back to the floor of the Uctubamba river, turning south we bounced along for a dusty hour until we reached the village of Tingo, beneath the ancient Chachapoyan fortress of Kuelap. Our plan was for those who would rather ride to Kuelap on horses to do so here and the rest to take the bus there. We were so behind schedule however that Ric decided not to bother with the horses and bus as fast as we could manage to the ruins. 

Our party climbed out of the Uctubamba Valley into a high broad valley of the Rio Tingo. Peter pointed out to us cliff dwellings high up the canyon wall opposite us across the Uctubamba. As we continued on, the narrow road began to cling to the right side of the valley. Soon we were over 1000 feet above the valley floor, gazing straight down into the well watered valley below.  If you have been reading this report from the beginning, you are aware we that have traveled on some high steep roads throughout Peru, but after 2 weeks of thrill rides up and over some of the highest vehicular passes in the world I had finally found a road that unnerved me. Our old bus felt like it had a high center of gravity, and it would roll back and forth on its soggy springs at every bump on the road. The passenger compartment was pretty high, and it was hard to catch a glimpse of the edge of the road from the window. It felt like we were tilting over edge of the road constantly. I became more and more nervous, and soon resorted to aiming my camera blindly out the window and taking pictures to avoid looking down. Across the aisle from me, Peter was happily chatting away with Wayne about politics and the details of living in northern Peru, oblivious to the peril around us. I took solace in the thought that surely fate would not allow the great adventurer Peter Lerche to meet his end with as mundane a group as ours. Sometimes, one has to grasp for his optimism wherever he can.

Peter shifted his attention to the area in front of the bus and said in a cheeky tone “Ahhh, thees es the paart ov the road where peeple get nearvous, eets best not to look ous the weendow, four some.” I took a look down the aisle out the front window. Yup, he was right, I should have been saving my terror for now. About 400 meters ahead of us the road bent around a shear rocky outcrop like a paper clip. Beyond the bend the road disappeared into thin gray Peruvian air.  We were very high above the valley floor, I figured I could finish an entire Hail Mary before we hit the bottom if we rolled off.  Freddie maneuvered the bus around the bend with no great effort or fanfare. The road just looked bad. We reached the end of the valley at a village named Choctamal, then climbed the other wall of the valley on similarly high roads.  The views were spectacular when I dared to look out.

The bumpy ride eventually ended and I emerged from my fetal position to see the parking lot for the Kuelap ruins.  Due to the bus repair delay and the muddy road to the ruins, we had arrived about 3:30 in the afternoon, and had several hours ahead of us to get to Leymebamba our destination for the evening. The ruins were another 15 minutes up a muddy trail so some of the group decided not to go, due to the short time they would have there.  I donned a lightweight poncho to shed the drizzle and started up the trail.  Soon I found Kuelap’s massive wall of yellowish stones emerging from the mist.  I circled around the east side of the wall and climbed up through one of the three narrow entrances to the interior.  I looked around and took some quick pictures. Inside were huge trees hung with vines and bromeliads, and low circular walls, foundations of ancient dwellings. The area felt to me like an old untended overgrown garden.  I found the ruins quiet, peaceful and mysterious in their veil of mist. After a quick look it was necessary for me to scamper back to the bus, a poor bargain for the hours of nasty road I had to endure that day. 

We returned to Tingo on the same road we arrived on.  Mercifully, we traveled the worst parts after dark, so I didn’t have to gut through the sight of vertical drops outside the bus window again. At the end of the road we drove through the original site of Tingo, victim of a tragic flood that destroyed most of the town in 1993.  We turned south in the dark and jostled down a road in terrible condition. After dropping Peter off at a friend’s house, we bumped and bounced another 2 hours till we found Leymebamba.  We arrived about 11:00 P.M., and found the kind people had left the restaurant open for us. Sharon and I were too tired to take advantage of their generosity and went straight to bed.  

Friday, June 2

We awoke early, we had a long ride ahead of us.  Our hosts served us scrambled eggs and tomato, a nice break from our usual hard breakfast roll.  Sharon and I were able to sneak away for a half-hour or so to explore early morning Leymebama. Good thing, this was the most remote place the bus stopped.  Rather than incessant taxis buzzing around we heard the clopping of horses hooves through the cobblestone streets. Some Leymebambians were even riding bareback. It’s great to make it to a place were horseriding is still a practical skill to get around, I believe it is still the only way to get to the smaller villages of the area other than walking. The streets were well picked up and we saw many nicely carved and painted doors. There was a sense of pride in property here that was lacking in many of the larger cities in Peru we had visited.  The local people smiled and laughed at our constant photo taking. Another interesting place worth more time than we could spare.

The bus coughed to life and we made our way south from Leymebamba towards one more high pass, called Abra Barro Negro, or Black Mud Pass.  We had had several conflicting reports on the roads condition, and were learning to be less than optimistic about estimated arrival times given by our sources.  The road up to the pass, though narrow, was in good shape, and the sun rays played tag with us as we rode through the scattered low hanging clouds and lush green pastures. The 3680 meter 12,100 ft. pass was not all that muddy, but it was overcast at the top. Once we emerged below the cloud cover we beheld the grand canyon of the Maranon beneath us. Most guides I have read have compared it with the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, and scale wise it looked similar to me.  The walls were more eroded and vegetated than the buttes and tablelands of the Colorado. The clouds dramatically changed the lighting of our vista as we watched. It was a very beautiful and wild scene, worth every bump.

We continued to descend into the canyon… and descend…. and descend… along the east canyon wall, stopping frequently to take photos.  Several times we had to get off the bus to allow it to negotiate landslides and road washouts. We eventually found the muddy flow of the Marañon, and followed it 2 miles or so to the small town of Balsas.  After a short wait we found someone in town with a key to the bridge gate and paid our toll.  We crossed the orange suspension bridge and began to make our way up the western side of the canyon. This side was noticeably dryer than the east side, and we observed cactus and scrub outside the window. The bus took a long time to climb the west side, one way to appreciate how really deep this canyon was.  The last few switchbacks were very high and long. I took a turn at the shotgun position next to the driver and enjoyed the best view in the bus for a while.

We reached the lip of the canyon about an hour before sunset. From there it was about 10 short miles to our evenings destination, Celendiñ. We reached the Plaza de Armas and checked in at the Hostel Celendiñ.  We had a pleasant room facing the plaza, and were served a tasty dinner of Lomo Saltado (what else) in the hostel restaurant before retiring for the evening.

Saturday, June 3

After a pleasant night of sleep Sharon and I arose early and headed downstairs for juice, eggs and coffee. Once more we boarded our battered bus with Freddie and Jesus and turned southwest. It had been 300 long, bumpy, green, precipitous, dusty, muddy, steep, high, beautiful kilometers since we had left the pavement at Pedro Ruiz in the Uctubamba valley and made our way south into the mountains, and we had 109 more to go before we arrived at our final stop in northern Peru, Cajamarca.  Fortunately, the road, though not paved, was in reasonably good condition.  Soon after departing Celendiñ, Freddy made a wrong turn and we found it necessary to back-track 45 minutes to return to the right road. Our trip today was through high grassy pastures, about 12,600 feet high by my altimeter. We soon observed many horses and donkeys along the side of the road laden with classic milk cans. We were told the area northeast of Cajamarca is the primary dairyland of Peru. The animals were waiting for tank trucks to transport the fresh milk all the way to Lima to be processed. We made a short stop at a small town named Encañada, and continued on to Cajamarca.

We finally arrived at 2:45 P.M. to the comfortable and friendly Hotel Portal de Marquez, early enough for once to do some exploring. Ric quickly organized us after we checked in and dropped off our bags, and we hiked 5 blocks through midtown Cajamarca to the city’s last surviving prehispanic building, the Cuarto de Rescate, or Ransom Chamber. We found a roofless building of ancient stones, 2 doors and a floor destroyed with trenches. A recently constructed blue fabric roof supported by metal poles and braces protected the site from the elements. There are many versions about the pivotal events that happened at this place, involving Atahualpa the Inca king, Pizarro and the legendary room full of gold. Some claim this is the very room filled with treasure. Others, including my favorite Inca historian John Hemming, say it was Atahualpa’s prison and execution room.  Our Spanish speaking guide related to us a tale stating that Atahualpa’s feet made depressions in the buildings stone floor as he was being executed, a final sign recognizing his status as king of this land. The events of 500 years ago may be too far removed from us by time and legend to be confident of what specifically happened here, but to me the place had a solemn feeling heavy of history.

Unlike Atahualpa, Sharon and I managed to escape from the Cuarto de Rescate and took off towards a lively street market. We experienced the crowded aisles, waves of smells, noise and chaotic colors common in any 3rd world street market. A stack of large shade hats caught Sharon’s eye. We had noticed many locals wearing these, and found out they rolled up into a tube suitable for overhead bin storage. Sharon bargained, but decided the prices were too high, so we moved on. About the most unusual thing I noticed was a woman with a stack of a dozen or so skinned, gutted and flattened guinea pigs, ready for someone’s gourmet Cuy dinner. We had our evening meal with our traveling companions at a recommended pizza parlor, La Vaca Loca, or the Crazy Cow. The restaurant was fun, and the pizza tasty. We were able to order sangria there, even though we were warned earlier we would not be able to buy liquor anywhere in town due to the election the next day.  After an evening walk around town, we contentedly turned in around 10:00 in the evening.

Sunday June 4, Election Day

One of the questions that had been hanging over the second half of the trip was how much the national presidential election was going to affect our itinerary.  Up until today, we hardly noticed other than all the campaign posters in the towns and cities. We were up at 7:00 for breakfast, and soon met friendly our tour guide for the day, Nino. He proudly displayed his inked finger, proof he voted first thing in the morning. Up once more into the mountains we rode in the bus, this time to the west of Cajamarca. After about an hour of steady climbing, we reached a region of dark volcanic rock jutting from the high rolling pasture. Nino told us the largest formation was known as the castle, and it did seem to have walls and turrets similar to a medieval castle. Other formations reminded me of elephants and old men. After wandering through these for a while, we climbed down to the remarkable trenches called Cumbe Mayo, thought to be carved from the solid rock over 2000 years ago with obsidian edged cutting tools. The walls of the canals, about a meter deep, are cut smoothly and vertically through solid rock. One section is carved straight through a small boulder, even though it would have been far easier to detour several feet around it. Another section suddenly zigzags through the rock, for no apparent reason.

We arrived back to Cajamarca around 12:30 for lunch, and though we enjoyed our time with Nino, we decided to spend the afternoon alone exploring Cajamarca. Sharon had read about a recommended bakery, and we set off to find it, but failed. We then wandered through some areas with artisans shops, but almost all were closed, either because it was Sunday or because of the elections.  It began to rain and we looked for some cover, finding it at a shrine beneath a hill dominating central Cajamarca, Cerro Santa Apolonia.  The rain eased and we started to explore the hill, now a pleasant city park.  Upon reaching the top I beheld a thick, low slung rainbow to the south across the valley, a farewell gesture from a beautiful land I was to leave soon. I felt happy, tired, ready to head home, and ready to plan a return trip to do all the things I missed the first time. Can’t wait.

As Sharon and I arrived back at the Portal de Marquez, we heard explosions down by the Plaza de Armas. It just seemed to be firecrackers booming through the narrow streets, announcing the closing of the polls. At the tienda where we stopped for water, all eyes were on the TV and election coverage. After we entered our room, I decided to watch the returns also. The network coverage looked something like U.S election coverage with lots of talking heads and slick graphics. One channel had Inca Cola placed prominently in front of their anchors. Live coverage of near violent demonstrations in Ariquipa added drama and tenseness, but Cajamarca was calm and peaceful that evening.

Our group had its end of the trip meal at a restaurant on the Plaza de Armas called the Salas.  I had a disappointing meal of ham while Sharon had delicious local trout. We toasted our survival of Peruvian backroads and our good fortune of visiting a place as remote and unique as this. Afterwards we returned in light drizzle to our room and our last night in the mountains.

Monday June 5

We were up-en-atum at 06:30 this morning, to catch an early flight to Lima.  We arrived at the small airport at 8:20 A.M.  Aerocondor told us it was necessary to weigh the passengers as well as the luggage for the flight, something I have never encountered before, and we all took a turn standing on the baggage scales.  Our aircraft, a Fokker F-27, swooped in about 9:15 and we quickly boarded. Our flight traveled fairly low over the mountains towards Lima and we were treated to aireal views of the Andes in the early morning. The F-27 was a 2 engine prop, but was the smoothest, most comfortable prop aircraft I have experienced.  Clouds covered most of the Cordilerra Blanca, but we were still able to spot and identify some of the peaks we had seen from the ground 2 weeks before.

The 2 hour flight arrived without incident at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, and we bused cross town to the Hotel Antigua in Miraflores.  We dropped off the bags in our room and hustled off the Mercado Indio, about a 20 minute walk away.   This area seemed much more commercialized than it did 6 years ago, and after an hour we walked away with nothing. Next we attempted to find a coffee shop recommended to Sharon near Parque Kennedy, and eventually found it.  After a quick sandwich there we returned to the hotel and rested. In the evening several of us snacked on leftover emergency rations and things we picked up from a local grocery store, along with some wine.  Around 9:00 our taxi arrived and about 8 of us left for the airport.  We negotiated the ticket counters, bid good bye to Ric and several other group members, plodded through the security stations and settled in to the departure lounge for a 3 hour wait. Around 11:15 that night, Sharon and I boarded the Miami bound Airbus A310, and 30 minutes later watched out the window as the warm orange glow of Peru slid under our wings and receded behind us into the mist.