Of all the countries I was planning on visiting during my South American adventure Peru held the greatest mystique. Not that I knew much about the third largest country of the continent, except that Lima was its capital and that it was home to Machu Picchu, one of the top 10 bucket list destinations of the world, and certainly very much on my list of must-do things while in Peru. I probably would have scored a few Trivial Pursuit or 30 Seconds points if asked about the Incas or the Spanish Conquistadors, Lake Titicaca or the Nazca Lines but it certainly was a revelation to me to find out that everyone’s favourite bear originated in this fascinating country.
Whilst traveling through India last year I had befriended Indira, a young Peruvian lass who had been volunteering in New Delhi. She had arrived in Udaipur after a gruelling night journey and was very grateful when I suggested she shower and freshen up in my room as her accommodation was only going to become available later in the day. In response she extended an invitation to me that if ever I made it to Lima she would welcome me with open arms. At that stage I was not to know that the Peruvians are probably the most hospitable people you will ever meet on this earth; and Indira admitted that although her invitation was heartfelt she never actually believed I would make good on my promise that I would indeed visit.
But Lima is situated 1000km from its northern border, so with the help of the brotherhood of fellow travelers, Lonely Planet, TripAdviser and diverse blog sites I made my way from Cuenca across the Ecuador/Peru border with the quest to discover the Darkest Peru of Paddington Bear.
My first stopover was the beach town of Mancora, popular with the younger Backpacker and Peruvian youth. I had booked two nights at the fun looking Loki Hostal recommended by Lonely Planet, but after the first sleepless night I realized I had made a big mistake when I found myself in a mixed dorm of twenty year olds who were probably going to sleep the day away after a full night of partying, so I hotfooted it out of that establishment and found myself more age appropriate accommodation across the road for the second night. Most of that day was spent working out the logistics of how I was going to make it to my next destination high up in the Cordillera de Los Andes, namely Chachopoyas where I wanted to explore the Pre-Incan settlement of Kuelap.
Getting to Chachapoyas meant a very early departure from Mancora, heading first to the town of Chiclayo from where I planned on taking an overnight bus to said destination, and in a case of “Lost in Translation” I understood the lad from the hotel to have said that the moto-taxi driver should drop me off at the airport, so in my best Spanglish I gave instructions, only to be dropped off at the EPPO bus terminal. That is where I also learnt that in Peru every bus company has its individual terminal, so you need to know in advance which company you wanted to travel with. Also, the direct bus to Chiclayo was only leaving at 10 am, and (I hope I understood this correctly) I could catch the Piura bus leaving at 8:45 and from Piura there were hourly buses leaving for Chiclayo. As per usual I was the only gringa on the bus but my first lesson in Peruvian hospitality was when a family of padre, madre e hijo also traveling in the same direction found it quite fascinating to meet a female of indeterminate age (from South Africa!!) traveling on her own. Only the son spoke some English, but I ended up sharing a taxi with them from one company bus terminal to the next one, them helping me obtain a local Peru Data SIM card for my iPad and then catching the same bus to Chiclayo, from where they were flying home to Lima. We only arrived in Chiclayo well after dark, and they must have realized that I was quite anxious that I had not booked a bus seat, and the father and son ran around to various bus companies and eventually only bade me farewell once they were sure I was safely ensconced on one of the sleeper coaches heading for Chachopoyas. Although it all worked out perfectly, I cannot tell a lie, it did stress me out quite a bit. Once again the Universe came through for me.
The awesome high altitude ruins of Kuélap left behind by the fierce pre-Incan Chachapoyas civilization (roughly translated as cloud-people) dating back to 800AD were first proof to me that Peru has archeological treasures that must unquestionably be on par with the Egyptian pyramids or Angkor Wat, and where Machu Picchu allows 2 500 visitors a day, here you are one of a few select visitors that get to see some of the most magnificent pre- Columbian ruins in South America.
In contrast to Incan architecture which was mainly rectangular, the Chachapoyan structures were circular.
There were many more archeological treasures scattered around Chachapoyas but I was definitely on a road less travelled when I discovered the Cañon del Sonche, a mere 8 km away from the town, which does not even get a mention in the Lonely Planet and only a “by-the-way” in Footprint’s Peru. How serendipitous that after waiting nearly an hour for the collectivo to fill up with passengers to Huancas (the closest village to the cañon) I was joined by the only other visitor, Karina, a young Limeña (sounds more exotic than ” a girl from Lima”) who was visiting her gran in Chachapoyas, and by the time we had scampered along the cañon paths for a few hours, had a late lunch of cicena (a Peruvian dish made with air dried beef) and then walked the distance back to the main town we had bonded and I added her to my many “children” I have “adopted” along my travels.
The Cañon del Sonche
I was now on an archeological roll, so it did not phase me when I booked the bus tickets from Chachopoyas to my next destination, Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca, it meant two night buses and a full day’s stopover in between in the Pacific town of Trujillo. Trujillo was another veritable treasure chest of ancient Peruvian excavations.
On arrival at the brand new Trujillo bus terminal I cajoled the bus company that was going to take me to Huaraz into storing my luggage for the day and without that encumbrance felt adventurous enough to test the local transport system and resorting to Spanglish asked every passing bus whether it was going to the Centro, and eventually got the nod and made it safely to the Plaza de Armaz. There I just had to look a little helpless and long before short I had various touts offering me full day tours to see the sights, and with a bit of bartering I found myself on a mini bus with 15 other tourists heading out to the first mighty excavation site of Las Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (the Temples of the Sun and the Moon) dating back 1500 years to the Moché Dynasty. I snapped away furiously to try and capture the painstaking work these obviously passionate archaeologists had done over the years. Everything is under roof to try and protect the reliefs and the colours from the relentless sun and the wind. One thing I also did not know about Peru is that the coastal strip leading up to the Andean Cordilleras is mainly desert landscape reminiscent of the moon. I have taken the liberty of “stealing” a couple of photos posted on TripAdvisor because guess what? Somewhere between our morning and afternoon sightseeing session I managed to lose yet another camera!
The Huaca del Sol has been ravaged by the elements and is not open to the public. 140million adobe bricks were used to build this pyramid like structure.
Restoration work done to the Huaca de la Luna
In the afternoon, sans camera, our little troupe headed on to the largest adobe city in the world, ChanChan. From a distance it looked like part of the desert moonscape, but this city at its zenith around 1300AD housed more than 60 000 people with palaces lined with precious metals, which eventually were looted by the gold hungry Spanish Conquistadors.
ChanChan excavation captured on my iPhone camera
A mangy specimen of a Peruvian Hairless dog. From ceramic depictions going back to the Chimú and Moché dynasties we know that these dogs were already bred that far back.
What a contrast in scenery, leaving behind the barren coastal desert and peering out of the bus window after yet another night journey on to the breathtaking early morning views of the snow covered peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range in the world outside the Himalayas.
The colourful town of Huaraz is the starting point for what must rate some of the best hiking routes in the world. My path crossed with my travel compatriots Florence and Richard, who had just returned all agog from a 4 day trek through the Parque Nacional Huascarán, and although I was tempted to follow in their footsteps I eventually settled for a one day hike to the much lauded Laguna 69, a high altitude lake within the Parque. We were to set off from Huaraz at 5 am in the morning, but I am embarrassed to admit that my first attempt at this hike was thwarted when my alarm clock did not go off and even though I threw myself into my clothes and tore down to catch the bus all I saw was its tail lights disappearing around the corner. And, sorry for me, a refund was not forthcoming. The next day I made sure I was ready and waiting at the alloted time.
Suffice to say that this hike exceeded any of the superlatives I could ever conjur up. It was a challenge mainly due to the altitude of 4 600m above sea level, but even though I huffed and puffed like an old steam train, the final destination was worth every torturous step.
The magnificent Laguna 69 surrounded by some 6000+ meter peaks.
Photo opportunities abound. Thank goodness I managed to purchase a replacement camera in Huaraz.
Some surreptitious pictures taken just outside my hotel
And finally I was heading to Lima. Although overnight buses are practical because they save you one nights accommodation and so far have been surprisingly comfortable, you do miss out on the landscape of the surrounding countryside, so for this leg I decided to take a day bus. Also, Indira was adamant that she would meet me on arrival and accompany me to her home and I think it would have been a bit presumptuous to ask her to get up at sparrows and then fight her way through big city peak time traffic.
Once our bus had descended back to sea level onto the Great Pan-Americana I was fascinated to see that the coastal desert literally ended in the Pacific, and an interesting piece of trivia I picked up from my trusted Lonely Planet was that Lima is the second driest capital in the world next to Cairo.
On first sight the sprawling metropolis of Lima with its 9 million inhabitants is not a hugely appealing city. If I were asked how to describe it in one word I would say “grey”. The sky was grey, the buildings and dwellings crawling up the surrounding grey hillsides are adobe grey, even the trees looked grey. Yet in spite of its apparent drabness it is chaotic and vibrant and rich in culture. The Limeños are kind and generous and respectful to a fault and the food, ah the food, is the best I have tasted on all my travels in South America.
The highlight of my stay in Lima has to have been Mistura, an annual culinary festival that showcases the best of Peruvian cuisine where dedicated stalls sell from cerviche to causa, anticuchos to lomo soltado, not forgetting the heavenly picarones and quesohelado for dessert, and to drink emoliente, chicha and Inca Kola, a massive cerveza tent and my favourite: The Pisco tent. Pisco is a colourless to amber coloured brandy made from locally grown grapes best enjoyed in form of a delectable Pisco Sour. The recipe: a tot (or two) of Pisco, some lime juice, one egg white, simple syrup and a dash of bitters blended together into a frothy drink fit for the gods.
Having the privilege of staying with a local family certainly added a completely different dimension to my Limeñan experience and I have to admit that had I been on my own Lima might have gotten the better of me. Where I had been quite proud that I had mastered the local transport system of most South American cities, I think in Lima I might have capitulated and reverted to a safe taxi option to get from A to B. Indira and her mama Carmen were so protective of me, and right up to me boarding the overnight bus to Nazca they accompanied me to make sure that I came to no harm in this daunting city. I will forever be grateful.
Ever since I had followed the blog of Homeless Hailey on her travels through South America and for the first time heard mention of the Nazca Lines I was determined to experience this extraordinary phenomena myself. These unusual and puzzling scratches and lines in the desert surface were unearthed on a routine research flight across this barren stretch of land in 1939, and although there are many theories about the origins of more than 800 lines, 300 geometric figures (geoglyphs) and some 70 animal and plant drawings (biomorphs) no definitive answer is forthcoming. The most likely theory is that they were made by the Paracas and Nazca cultures from 900BC to 600AD as an astronomical calendar.
I also experienced the sophistication of these Pre- Columbian cultures on the ground when I took part in a hair-raising dune buggy excursion into the surrounding Nazca Desert where we visited ancient water wells, temple ruins and cemeteries before hurtling down some seriously awe-inspiring dunes.
The Usaka Dunes
The following day I was collected bright and early and taken to the nearby airport for my bucket-list flight over the Nazca Lines. The terminal was abuzz with excited passengers, but for some reason the company I had booked my flight with maintained that the cloud cover was too low/the visibility was too bad and that they would have to delay our take-off till 2 pm in the afternoon. They weighed us, made copies of our passports and took our airport tax but then returned us to our hotel. I should have smelt a rat there and then! We were a group of about 15 people that arrived back at the airport for our afternoon take-off, but were effectively ignored. The Spanish speakers amongst us tried to find out what the hold-up was and they established that we had been bumped off the passenger list. It goes without saying that there were some very unhappy people milling around the ParacasAir desk. No attempt was made on their part to allocate us to other aviation companies, and I was getting quite frantic that I might miss my golden opportunity. I was leaving for Arequipa that night and it was a now-or-never situation. Eventually I managed to get on to the last flight of the day with Nazca Air, who clearly milked the situation by charging us an exorbitant 110US$. I had already paid 85$ to the hotel for the original booking, but I was sure they would sort out the problem. Long story short, as the sun was setting in the west we eventually took off, and I had some of the most thrilling minutes in the air as we banked left and then right over a miriad of lines and squiggles and drawings. The co-pilot gave a running commentary of what we were seeing and my little camera was working overtime, but the pictures will never reflect the enormity of this bizarre experience.
The Pan-Americana crosses the Nazca Desert. Note the look-out point from where you can view some of the Lines
The sun setting over the Nazca mountains
I was a very happy bunny when I boarded the overnight bus to Arequipa. It was mission accomplished; not only had I ticked off a bucket-list item, but the hotel proprietors were so mortified at the behavior of the airline that they reimbursed me the additional 25$ that I had to pay in. Now that was going beyond the call of duty, and once again proved what honourable people the Peruvians are.
And then disaster struck!!