Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rumbling Through Peru

Though our adventure through the Amazon is through, our adventure from a broader perspective is far from over regardless of the days trickling down, less than three months as I write. We set sail once again on a passenger/cargo ship from Iquitos heading up the Amazon river to its headwaters. Even the headwaters of the Amazon are rivers not to be taken lightly. Our second cargo ship was far better than the floating conglomerate of rust we took from the border of Ecuador to Iquitos. The Gilmer V. was bigger, stronger, and much cleaner. No animals, but still stocked full with cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuk mototaxis we've come to love, and roughly 350 people. You had the option of paying for a general ticket which allowed you 3 meals a day and a first come first choose where to set up your hammock though this boat had two levels for hammock sleeping and a lot more space. The more expensive option was a private room which in truth was a converted locker stuffed with two bunk beds and a steel door with no window. Sounding too hot and sweaty with no ventilation we opted for the cheaper option (would you expect less of us?) and set up our hammocks on the third level of the ship. The trip to Yurimaguas, lasting two and a half days, passed with much less excitement as cows committing suicide or water buffalo trying to ka-bob anyone in front of him. Our excitement on our second cargo ship voyage passed with incredibly clear nights watching the stars of the southern hemisphere roll through the sky, and the Milky Way, the Amazon of the night sky, flowing through space and time. South America, Peru in particular, is famous for alien conspiracies and UFO sightings and I thought to myself, what better spot to see a UFO zipping through the Amazonian sky but alas none showed for the occasion. We did have a nice run in with some shallow water. Kara and I were sitting on a bench in the front of the boat cruising along upstream when the boat lurched forward, people in their hammocks floating effortlessly forward by the momentum as we hit a shallow beach in the middle of the river. These boats are designed for this though, flat on the bottom so that they can take almost anything the river has to offer. With a little reverse and detour we were moving again with zero casualties, the memory behind us. On a separate occasion, our small but powerful wake knocked over a canoe with a man and a few young children in it, sinking their canoe and motor in the shallow flooded water of the edge of the river. Some passengers witnessed it, and screamed for the captain to stop the boat and help. A john boat with a motor was put in the water and some of the deck hands zipped back to rescue the children and get the canoe afloat again and bailed out. Again, no casualties, just a hint of excitement. We spent most of our time reading and catching up writing in our journals before we made it to Yurimaguas on the morning of our third day.

Yurimaguas is connected to the rest of Peru by roads, something we'd been without for over a month. Although cars were found on the streets of Iquitos (the streets didn't go anywhere other than throughout the city) we hadn't seen many since we left Coca, Ecuador. We wandered the streets of Yurimaguas with our five year old Lonely Planet Peru Edition searching out an ATM machine. The ATM didn't work (they rarely do but as long as I get my card back I'll consider it a successful trip in Peru) so we caught a mototaxi to the bus terminal heading towards Tarapoto, the gateway to the jungle if you're coming from the rest of connected Peru. We didn't need to see the jungle around Tarapoto so we immediately caught a bus from Tarapoto to Chachapoyas, a city situated at 7600 ft above sea level in the Andes mountains. Named after the fierce people who once dominated the region, The Chachapoyas, meaning "People of the Clouds" battled fiercely against the Incas before being conquered. They left behind the lost city of Kuélap, a stone fortress on top of a mountain 9000 ft surrounded by an impressive stone wall sixty feet high. The entrances into the fortress were ingeniously engineered as narrow passageways to make any invading force enter in single file, thus much easier to defeat from the inside. The stone structure of the citadel is so impressive, some archaeologists have theorized that engineers from Kuélap helped design Macchu Picchu.

To get to Kuélap, we had to wake up at catch a van at 4 AM to take us the 2.5 hrs to Kuélap, but they don´t stick around. We were the only people at the ruins making the experience that much more amazing. Thinking about all the times I´ve been somewhere full of beauty, wanting that ONE picture untainted, uninterrupted by that person in the corner with their camera in the air too. That wasn´t a problem here. It was ours. We brought bread, avocados, tomatoes, and some funky cheese to make sandwiches for lunch before making the long journey back to Chachapoyas. From Kuélap, we had to hike downhill about 3,000 ft in elevation on a steep switchback path full of deep, wet, heavy clay mud requiring us to wear our rubber boots, then the trail switches to hard packed rock which the boots are horrible for. It didn´t help that my size 13 feet barely (and I mean barely) fit into my rubber boots, so after 3,000 ft down steep trail for 3 hrs, my toes were killing me, as well as my knee. We finally reached the town at the river in the valley below and waited on the side of the road, snacking on fruit, toasted corn, and any other junk the ladies were hawking to passing cars and trucks, for another 3 hrs for a bus heading back to the city. The aches and pains of the hike were well worth the experience. Kuélap will remain one of the highlights of the trip.

After a day of recovering from our battle wounds from our Kuélap hike, we caught a 5 AM bus from Chachapoyas through the high Andean passes over a potholed, riveted dirt road for 13 hrs to Cajamarca. The road there reminded us of the road we took from Macas, Colombia through the Andes towards the Ecuadorian border. Bolivia may hold the rights to ¨the world´s most dangerous road¨ but this road wasn´t too far behind. No guardrail, no room to pass oncoming traffic, and the slightest mistake would throw the bus down a 6,000 ft mountain slope never to be found again. But God was it beautiful.

Cajamarca, 8,900 ft above sea level, but drier and sunnier than Chachapoyas, is a busy, bustling city, famous for it´s rich history between the Spanish conquistadors and the beginning of the end of the Inca empire. In 1532, the Inca king, Atahualpa stopped at Cajamarca to bath in the famous ¨baños del Inca,¨a set of thermal hot baths engineered by the Incas just outside of the Inca city. Francisco Pizarro and his band of 168 soldiers decked out on horses and armor massacred the thousands of Inca civilians and soldiers wielding simpler weapons and captured the Inca king. Atahualpa offered the Spanish a ransom for his freedom, a room filled with gold and two rooms of silver. Gold from as far as Cuzco was sent for the ransom but alas our ancestors from glorious Europe under the banner of heaven (read sarcasm here) executed the king instead of releasing him once the ransom was paid. El Cuarto del Rescate, or ¨the ransom room¨is the only Inca building still standing in Cajamarca although the room itself is supposedly the cell in which Atahualpa was held and discussed the ransom, not the actual room of gold itself.

While visiting this amazing piece of Inca history as well as other beautiful buildings and museums throughout the city, our highlight in Cajamarca had to be the cheese. Seriously. The region surrounding the city is well know for its dairy products, something we´ve been lacking for 5 months. Sure, Colombia and Ecuador have cheese, technically, but it´s all queso campesino, a locally made cheese that can taste ¨good¨at times, while at others it can taste like dirty socks that fell in the toilet. But in Cajamarca, they have cheddar. They have edam. Gouda. Swiss. AND THEY LET YOU TRY IT...FREE. What more could three welfare travelers want out of life?! So we made our way from cheese store to cheese store, acting interested (we were) and as if we might buy some (we would not) trying the cheeses. I lied, we did buy some. One of our nights we bought a cheap bottle of wine (the wine is really sweet in Peru) and bought some smoked mozzarella and some other type as well as some bread and that was our dinner. It was marvelous. The cheddar was by far my favorite, making my knees weak, but was too expensive for us to enjoy a whole block of it. Ah! How I miss cheese (read here: Mom when we get back I hope there´s a lot of cheese in the house).

From Cajamarca, we headed on an overnight bus to Trujillo, our first time in Peru´s coastal desert. We didn´t stay in the city though, instead catching a local transport bus to Huanchaco, 12 km outside the city on the beach. Although an attractive beach town, the influence of tourism is evident on every street. Hostels, hotels, and guesthouses (they are actually ALL THE SAME), Surf shacks selling lessons and restaurants selling ceviche six times what you can find it for in the market lined most streets. No beach town will compare to our experience in Canoa, Ecuador. Tiny, quiet and cheap where you feel like a local after two weeks. I´m sure though if we return to Ecuador some day a few years down the road, it will have succumbed to the same fate as Huanchaco. We stayed for a few days, using the beach town as our base to check out surrounding ruins and historical sites of Chan Chan and Huaca de la Luna y Sol.

Chan Chan, the largest Pre-Columbian city in South America was constructed by the Chimu kingdom around A.D. 850 and lasted until they were conquered by the Incas around 1470. The city of Chan Chan covers around 12 square miles and once housed over 30,000 people. Situated on the coast of Peru but in the desert climate, the city is entirely constructed from adobe. As with most museums and ruins throughout Peru, there is a price to enter, and an opportunity to hire a multi-lingual guide. On our budget however we cannot afford guides as well as the required tip at the end. But as luck would have it at Chan Chan, there was a group of European tourists in front of us (I would guess German) but the tours are either in Spanish or English and their second language was English. So as we made our way throughout the ruins of Chan Chan, one of the three of us would semi-hover around the tour group acting as if we were looking at some interesting piece of the adobe city while focusing our energy on hearing what the tour guide was explaining to the tourists. Then as they would move on to the next part of the ruins, we would gather together and the spy would explain to the other two what was important about this or that certain area of the ruins. In the center of the ruins was a plaza where the royal Chimu would gather for ceremonies and there was a man, dressed in a Chimu costume acting like the Chimu king posing for pictures. When we passed (he must have heard us speaking English) and we asked Como esta? he responded with (I´m not lying about this), ¨Same fucking shit everyday mang!¨(in perfect English he said this...if you consider mang perfect English). We laughed because it was hilarious and asked him where he learned English. He said he was from Trujillo but lives in Kansas, U.S.A. (weird) He has his own plumbing company but came back to Peru for his father´s funeral. We didn´t want to pry into his personal life but found it humorous that he has his family and work back in the states and (as sad as it is his reason for coming back) he´s passing the time working part time dressing like the Chimu king of Chan Chan for pictures from tourists. He told us maybe he´d see us out at the bar in Huanchaco and we headed off to find the next ruin and museum.

The next day, we visited Huaca de la Luna (¨Temple/Shrine of the Moon¨). It is a large adobe brick pyramid build by the Moché culture before the rise of the Chimu empire. We were required to have a guide at this ruin (it was worth it, he was informative and pretty funny). Covered by the sands of the desert over centuries, the excavation and studying of the Temple of the Moon only began 21 years ago in 1991 and is ongoing today. The Huaca would have been an amazing site to behold after its construction. It was decorated with murals of black, bright red, sky blue, white and yellow. Many of these murals have been faded and or completely erased by the sun, wind, and friction from the blowing sands over hundreds of years. Fortunately, some murals can still be seen and are being conserved, not restored which means they´re being recreated. Many of the murals depict the Moché deity known as Ayapec, a pre-Inca word translating as all knowing. Many of the bricks used to build the pyramid show one of over 100 different markings, like signatures of the family name responsible for producing the bricks, as an accounting measure for the quota of each household. Many of the ceramics found amid the pyramid depict two warriors fighting until one is captured. The captured warrior would then be given a tea of the san pedro cactus which has psychedelic properties before the warrior would be sacrificed to the Gods. The Huaca, next to Kuélap, was one of the more amazing ruins to visit.

After our nerd-out of archaeology and ancient ruins of northern Peru, we caught a bus south on the cheapest bus to Lima we could find, only to find out post-purchase that our bus line is known for accidents (cross your fingers). But we´re still here and we made it to Lima without incident and found our good friend Michael at his student housing near the Catholica Universidad. Michael is good friend from Germany who we met back in Ecuador in Canoa. We chilled around the beach with him and found out he was studying in Lima towards his Masters degree in Anthropology. Jessica has her B.S. in Anthropology and they quickly fell into deep intellectual discussions. Michael´s laid back attitude and similar interests made him feel like an old friend within a couple of beers down the hatch. Our second week in Canoa, when we were selling macramé bracelets for Eden´s Rose Foundation (http://www.edensrose.org) Michael helped sell a few pieces to some German tourists whose English was shaky. Good dude. He said that when we get to Lima, we were welcome to stay at his house for free. Awesome. So we took him up on his offer and he put us up for our week in Lima which worked out great because one, Lima is expensive to stay and two, our week there was the week before Easter or Semana de Santa, the biggest holiday in Peru making bus tickets, hostel prices, and food triple in price. His house was beautiful, the nicest student housing I´ve ever experienced. A huge kitchen, dining room, open courtyard with a pool table, and a great rooftop deck for relaxing or lounging in the sun. Lima for us, staying at Michael´s was like being back home for a week. A major supermarket down the road where you can buy just about anything you desire (we couldn´t afford those things) and REAL COFFEE. Tangent off the subject: South America is renowned for it´s coffee and yet each country´s culture prefers instant Nescafé coffee to the rich, organic, fresh coffee that is grown there making the search for a good cup of coffee exasperating. End of tangent. So for a week, we made cup after cup of dark, rich, organic coffee, and cooked like a family with Michael and a couple of his roommates from France. One night, the french cooked a typical french dish of potatoes and cheese (from France! sent by his mother) another night we cooked eggplant parmasean (my stomach is growling as I type). We didn´t visit much in Lima, we didn´t visit anything actually. We will be flying out of Lima in June and will be staying with Michael again and just figure it will give us something to do before we leave. By the end of the week, Michael´s landlord kicked us out (for no reason other than he wanted us to pay to stay so we peaced) and we headed south down the coast to Chincha and El Carmen, the Afro-Peruvian capital of Peru.

In El Carmen, outside Chincha, we spent an afternoon walking around listening to kids play the typical cajon, a wooden box with a hole in it used as a percussion since the times when the plantation owners outlawed the use of drums for the slaves. Young kids or teenagers would walk around and play the cajon and dance for S1 each (about 40 cents) for a minute or two. In town we stumbled upon a family run restaurant (meaning two tables set up in front of a family´s door selling lunch) and ordered the pescado encetomatado off the set menú for S5 ($2). It was the most delicious meal we´ve experience our entire journey from Colombia to Peru. It was amazing. This plate in the U.S. would be worth $25 easy at a decent seafood restaurant. It was a nice cut of fish cooked with onions, tomatoes, and peppers, with corn, baby clams, baby shrimp, squid, seaweed, and yucca. The flavor was mind-numbing. I couldn´t get over it. The chef and father of the house came out to ask how it was (unusual for Peru) and we expressed our deepest appreciation. He spoke English (many Peruvians we´ve met have spoken English well) and we discovered that he lived in Dallas for a number of years at a warehouse (he should have been running his own Peruvian restaurant). Pescado encetomatado is on my growing list of Peruvian dished to learn how to cook when we return to the states.

From Chincha to Nazca, famous for the mysterious lines running kilometers through the desert of southern Peru. The Nazca Lines have been on my bucket list of things to see in life. Unfortunately, the best way to see them is from a small aircraft from above, but due to the high demand of tourism and the unsavory safety record of some of the air crafts, the price has skyrocketed over the last few years and a 40 minute tour by air costs around $150. Welfare travelers will have nothing of it. Fortunately (always top a bad with a good), there is a mirador, or ¨lookout¨ where the more budgeted (read: poor) traveler (read: not a tourist) can view two of the lines. Oohh a lookout you say?! I´m thinking a viewpoint from on top of one of the surrounding mountains but come to find out it´s nothing more than a watch tower, 30 or 40 feet high on the side of the pan-american highway. From the top you can see at a wide angle el Arbol (the tree) and los Manos (the hands) for S3 (barely more than $1). There used to be another line, the lizard, but the pan-american highway was built smack through its tail and the years of traffic, dust, and trauma has made it vanish. In Nazca, we met up with our French amigos, Tristan, Amandine, and Alex who we met way back in Pantoja waiting for the cargo boat to Iquitos. We´ve been traveling the same route, mas o menus, a day or two ahead of the others since hitting Iquitos and keep bumping into each other every place we visit. Chachapoyas, Cajamarca, Huanchaco, Nazca, and Arequipa (haven´t gotten there yet in the blog). In Nazca we found a hostel that let us sleep on the floor in the courtyard for S6! (Travels and Bojanglin on a Welfare Budget to hit bookstores in 2013) Heading out of Nazca we caught a bus to Chala, a small fishing village on the coast that has sprawled into a large fishing and tourist town during the warm sunny months. We caught it at the beginning of the endless fog season where we had the entire beach and the ice cold Pacific ocean to ourselves, except for the people dumping their trash behind us.Boo.

From Chala, we caught an overnight bus to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. Surrounded by towering snow capped active volcanoes, we spent a week wandering around, searching for cheap knit gloves since our next two months will be spent upwards and above 10,000 ft and COLD. We´re going to wait until Bolivia for hats and scarves, and alpaca sweaters and other trinkets. As you get higher in the Andes, the soups keep getting better and better. We visited a few museums, ate the best soft serve ice cream we´ve had on the trip (just about everyday), drank lots of coffee, had a couple Arequipeña cervezas one night, and spent our time meandering the cobbled streets of a beautiful city.

It´s interesting, as you continue to travel, you expect things to stop being so amazing, for a near norm to set in. As we´ve made our way from Colombia to Peru, we´ve seen and experienced things that I´ve thought, ¨This is it. The best place we will see or experience.¨ I´ve since learned to stop putting tags on the intangible. I am a student of the Earth, always with eyes, ears, and mind open. I will never cease to be amazed to the point of tears. From Arequipa, we´re heading into el Cañon de Cotahuasi, the deepest canyon in the world, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Surely it will hold experiences that will shake the bones, rattle the DNA, slap the stillness from our minds saying ¨Wake Up! You´re alive and part of the Earth.¨

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