Wednesday, May 08, 2019


Having others come and join us is an awesome experience but one of the differences and difficulties associated with that is a lack of flexibility in the schedule. They have flights to catch and routes and timing generally need to be adhered to. Both of us had been feeling unwell off and on for the past month or so and rolling into Chachapoyas at sunrise after a terrifying overnight bus through the mountains from Cajamarca, we had to admit we were probably pushing ourselves too hard and risking a burnout. The long windy mountain roads and high altitude was probably taking its toll on us too. 
Fortunately for us, Chachapoyas is a pretty little mountain town and not too high at 2300m. It is also cheap and we managed to find a quiet hostel that was the most comfortable that we'd seen in weeks. I wouldn't usually be happy about rain, but with a pretty dismal forecast we decided to pause and rest. We ended up staying for a week and only did activities about half of the time. On the worst of the rainy days we had a good excuse to sit and rest or research. On the marginal days we made a few day trips out. Chachapoyas is a great little hub for visiting a bunch of sites nearby and will become a popular tourist hub eventually. It is already starting to feel the increase in visitors and developments are underway in some areas. For now it remains pretty relaxed and friendly and easy to do things on your own. 
The most popular and world-class of the attractions nearby is Kuelap. It is a ruined sacred city of the Chachapoyas civilization sitting on a mountaintop with amazing views (of course) and hardly visited or known yet outside Peru. It used to be accessible only by long rough road or a 5 hour hike up the mountain but 2 years ago they opened up Peru's only cable car system to take you up there instead. It is high and steep and made us a little nervous but we wouldn't have made it to the ruins otherwise. They are still working on preserving/restoring the ruins so once you are inside the city walls (it looks like a fortress and is often called such) most of it is still overgrown with vegetation and has that authentic Indiana Jones look :) There is a set path though so we couldn't just go running around poking our heads in everywhere. At its peak it had 3000 or so residents in little stone circle huts and a few small temples. Really though this is just a very atmospheric place and gave us the impression that we were discovering the next big thing in Peru. 

The outer walls of Kuelap

The narrow entry through the wall

I love overgrown ruins

Each circle was a residence

Also nearby and somehow the symbol of Chachapoyas are the sarcophagi of Karajia. We made our way to a nearby village to make the short hike into a little canyon to see them. They are a group of now 7 Chachapoyan mummies sitting in the side of a cliff and dating from the 15th century. They look cool but are of mysterious purpose and you can't get very close to them so it was a relatively short visit. Mummies are not an uncommon thing in the area and there is a museum in the nearby village of Leymebamba that has hundreds. We didn't go there though. 

On the trail to the Karajia sarcophagi
Found the cliff
Yes, those are real skulls on there too

Each time we went anywhere it was an adventure on the roads. To get anywhere it seems you have to drive down windy mountain roads and then back up another. Many of the roads are in pretty rough shape and landslides are very common here. We were constantly being delayed by work crews clearing away rocks and dirt and it was a little disturbing to go out on a road and come back a few hours later and see a new mess on the road. It is beautiful green scenery though. The area is the east side of the Andes and covered with wet cloud forest which eventually drops down into the Amazon, similar to Machu Picchu. 
Just outside of Chachapoyas, beside a village called Huancas is the Canyon del Sonche. You can stand at a viewpoint just on the edge looking down on the river nearly 1000m below. There were some nice waterfalls across the way as well but the best was Gocta Falls, a 771m waterfall that we saved for our last day of activities (our only day of real sun). Making our way to the village of Cocachimba we ended up doing a 10km (~4hr) round trip hike to the base of the falls. You can see it from the beginning of the hike but it is so tall you really have to get up close to appreciate it. There isn't a lot of water but the falls and especially the landscape around it are beautiful and we had a really great day. 

Canyon del Sonche

Canyon del Sonche
Cocachimba village
Our destination, Gocta Falls, upper falls 231m, lower falls 540m

Our view

Our trail
The lower falls

Now that we are rested and feeling better it is time to move on. Ecuador here we come!

Trujillo and Cajamarca

For Ricardo's last remaining days we took yet another long and windy bus ride back down to the coastal city of Trujillo, Peru's third largest. It has an attractive and well restored historic core in its own right, one again revolving around a Plaza de Armas, but this was not our primary motivation for visiting. We were in search of more ruins from different ancient civilizations we hadn't seen yet, namely the Chimu and Moche cultures.

Plaza de Armas, Trujillo

Trujillo cathedral

Trujillo's historic centre.

The Chimu were the newer of the two, building their capital city, Chan Chan, just a few km outside of Trujillo. The Chimu began around the year 900 and were conquered by the Incas just 50 years before the Spanish arrived. Not to be outdone by other ruins in Peru, Chan Chan can claim to have been the largest pre-Columbian city in South America and the largest adobe city in the world. It is in very rough shape now with most of the former city just mounds of mud brick rubble.
One of the unique features of Chan Chan was that each ruler built his own walled palace complex within the central core of the city. These walled off areas were mini cities in themselves complete with large courtyards, temples, water reservoirs, storage rooms, residences, etc. There are 9 of these complexes, but only 1 has been restored enough for tourists to visit. There is one main entrance through a very high and thick wall (11m and 5m respectively) and from there you follow a set but limited path. There isn't a whole lot to see and we moved through quickly. The Chimu seem to have loved sea-themed decor with fish, pelican and fishnet symbols predominating.

Wandering through Chan Chan

One of the courtyards

Fish and pelicans

After a quick lunch in town we went to visit the Huacas del Sol y Luna just outside of the city on the opposite side of Trujillo. The huacas are temples built by the Moche, a relatively small culture that lasted from about 100-700 AD along the northern coast of Peru. What it lacked in widespread influence it made up for in ambition, having built the largest single adobe structure in the pre-Colombian Americas in the Huaca del Sol. It was most likely administrative in nature and is significantly destroyed and currently off-limits to visitors as archaeologists continue to study the site. 500m away and on the other side of where faint traces show the Moche capital city to have been, is the Huaca de la Luna. This is what we visited and how it isn't a Unesco site as one of the most interesting ruins in Peru is beyond me. It is smaller but still massive and much better restored. This was the religious and ceremonial temple and where you learn that the Moche must've been a little nuts. Human sacrifice was a very important part of functions at the temple and the walls were decorated with murals of creepy-looking Gods, prisoners and symbols. It must have been quite terrifying back in the day. It was a really cool temple actually and although you have to enter with a guided tour, we quickly ditched and ran around on our own. It is interesting to note that while there aren't a lot of info signs at these ruins, since we left the Incan ruins and the southern Peruvian tourist circuit there have at least been some which only strengthens my belief that there is a tourist guide mafia or some kind of conspiracy going on in Cusco.

All that is left of the huge Huaca del Sol

Huaca de la Luna
Checking out the murals

Huge mural section on an external wall

Back in town that evening we had to say goodbye to Ricardo. He saved us the trouble of a teary farewell by giving us a panicked one instead. Somehow during the day he lost his ID and we were running around all over town trying to find it before he had to catch his overnight bus to Lima. We never found it but he managed to get home by getting special papers at the Brazil embassy in the morning before catching his flight in the afternoon. It's every traveler's nightmare and I hope to never go through that level of stress. I have serious doubts about the Canadian embassy being so helpful or efficient...
Back on our own for the first time in a month, the following morning Sasha and I were back on another bus winding our way up into the mountains again to the small colonial town of Cajamarca. I wish I could say I had a good experience in Cajamarca but I must've eaten something bad in Trujillo because I was feeling terrible and weak by the time we got there and went straight to bed. Due to limitations in onward transport we also ended up with only 24 hours in Cajamarca and had to leave the next evening on a night bus.
We did spend one quick afternoon in the colonial centre though and found it to be very clean, quiet and relaxing. Cajamarca is worth a visit but far enough off the main tourist trail that it is still hassle-free and we didn't see many non-Peruvian visitors. The Plaza de Armas has 2 pretty cathedrals with nice facades and there are nice views over the city and valley from a hilltop nearby. The most significant event to happen in Cajamarca was the defeat of the Incan empire. It was here that the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa, was captured, offered his huge ransom of gold and silver and later executed by the Spanish conquistadors. There is only one Incan structure remaining in town and that is the room claimed to be where Atahualpa was held for ransom. There are also a number of ruins and things to do (hot springs) in the valley around town but we had neither the time or energy to venture out that far.

Plaza de Armas, Cajamarca
The Incan "ransom room"

Finely carved facade of the Iglesia Belen. 

The beautiful core

View over Cajamarca from Santa Apolonia hill.


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Caral-Supe, Chavin and Huascaran

Our journey out of Lima only took us 4 hours north to a little-known city called Barranca where we stayed the night. The following morning we bumped our way up a nearby valley in an old minivan to the little village of Caral. As you head inland from the coast of Peru you quickly end up in the foothills of the Andes Between these hills are little fertile valleys with sometimes permanent rivers flowing to the ocean so even though the coast is desert, early civilizations were still able to survive and thrive. Peru has a ridiculous number of ruins and I can't believe how many cultures were part of that. Follow the coast and at pretty much every valley or stream there will be some evidence of an ancient settlement. Some are obviously more important or in better shape than others but on this day as we drove up this little valley we were in search of the most significant of them all, Caral-Supe.
"Caral-Supe?" You ask. I hadn't heard of it either until recently and while Peru is trying to bring attention to the site and its potential it won't ever attract the same attention or become a household name the way Machu Picchu has. That's a shame too since it is Peru's most important historical site. Machu Picchu is 500 years old.  Caral-Supe is nearly 5000 years old. Yes, you read that right. Caral is the oldest known city in the Americas and is believed to have been the centre of a civilization that existed in and around the valley at the same time the Egyptian pyramids were being built. They have found evidence of up to 26 more sites nearby but this was the hub. Evidence also suggests that all the other Andean civilizations are branches from this mother civilization. Surprisingly, no evidence of warfare or violence has been found here so maybe peace once had a chance. What they have found is a handful of pyramids sitting in the sand. With our early start we got there ahead of any tour groups from Lima and had the place to ourselves. A short guided tour is mandatory but relatively cheap and although our guide only spoke Spanish (very enthusiastically) we were able to enjoy our stroll and try to wrap our heads around something so ancient.

The Caral valley

Caral-Supe pyramids

Two days later we were back in the cold, wet mountains at 3100m contemplating one of the branch cultures to come out of Caral-Supe.  We were standing in the middle of the ruins of Chavin de Huantar, a major ceremonial centre of the Chavin civilization, which is still one of the older ones in Peruvian history having existed from about 3200-2200 years ago. The Chavin ruins are mostly of a temple and courtyard complex which were involved in various religious rituals which are still being debated. Unlike many other ruins, these ones show significant skill in diverting water into underground channels passing below the temple and courtyard and there is quite a bit of labyrinth action in the middle of the temple, some of which you can see. We visited as part of a day tour and although I couldn't understand much of what the guide was saying (in Spanish again), I couldn't help but notice that the ancient people here once again nailed the location factor in choosing a site to build on. Unlike other ruins we'd seen to this point, the Chavin actually had carved decorations on their walls and pillars too.
The site made a little more sense when we finally visited the museum, found some English explanations and could see all the carved heads that once would have decorated the site. With so many cultures overlapping in both time and geography in the area there is a lot of cross influences and similarities which ultimately peaked in the Incas but I'm no expert and won't pretend I know what came from who. Nevertheless, if you like ruins, Peru is probably the best place in the world to get your fix. We weren't done yet either.

The main temple at Chavin

The central courtyard

These would have been on the walls of the temple

Chavin was an easy day trip because we were already in the mountains at Huaraz, the tourist hub for visits to Huascaran National Park.
Huascaran is the tallest mountain in Peru at 6768m. The peak of the mountain has the lowest gravitational force on Earth because it is located so close to the equator. The national park encompasses the mountain and most of the surrounding mountain range, known as the Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range in the tropics and the largest area of (rapidly shrinking) tropical glaciers. If you want to do some pure trekking or hiking in Peru this is probably the best place to do it as it is easy to organize, there are tons of options and it is cheaper and much less crowded than any Inca treks in the south. We'd been delaying most of our Andean hiking up to this point and now was our chance, though we'd decided to stick to day trip stuff only and no serious expeditions.
Unfortunately Sasha was fighting off some kind of a cold and with Huaraz sitting at 3100m and hikes in the park starting above 4000m and often reaching 5000m, we scaled down our ambitions even further. This was also the part Ricardo was looking forward to the most and his enthusiasm for the mountains helped keep us motivated. In the end we did the day trip to Chavin and 3 other visits into the park. The first was to the Pastoruri glacier which amounted to a long drive, a short hike (but at 5000m a short hike feels 10x longer and harder anyway) and a view of a glacier that is melting so fast you can practically see it dying before your eyes. Water was pouring off of it and the markers showing how far it has receded in the last couple of years alone are depressing, yet it didn't stop the local tourists from blissfully posing for selfies like all was right in the world. There is a whole range of flora and fauna found in the park though we saw very little wildlife in our time there. We did see a totally bizarre plant called the Puya Raimondi, which grows up to 15m tall, lives 100 years and is considered the world's largest flower. The best description I've heard of it is that it looks like an upside-down palm tree. It is quite rare, even here where it is found and we only saw it on this tour to the glacier.

Full size Puya Raimondi

Puya Raimondi before it starts to flower (could be 40-50 years old here)

5000m and still going strong

Pastoruri glacier. 

We also made a ridiculously long 4.5 hour one-way trip to Laguna Paron to see a pretty turquoise glacial lake below a mountain that is said to be the one Paramount uses for its logo. We were at the wrong angle to check for the logo view but it was still a beautiful day. It reminded us a lot of home. Each of these trips was by cheap day tour in large vans. There were probably 6 vans at each site. Not overly crowded but we knew we could do better. Actually, Ricardo knew we could do better. On our final day we ended up hiring private transport through our hostel to take us to the Laguna Tambillo trail head. From there we would hike for a few hours up a narrow valley to reach the lake. This trail and hike is not offered by the local tours and yet is close, easy and beautiful. I don't understand it. Even the round trip private transport cost about the same as another tour for the 3 of us. Anyway, we had the whole trail and valley to ourselves but had to start the trail further from the lake than planned. The dirt track leading above the nearest village (Macashca) had been washed out and in the end we didn't have enough time to make it all the way to the lake. It was still our most enjoyable day in the park though because the trail followed a small river fed by the lake created by the glacier at the end of the valley. We only shared the area with cows and songbirds and not even a light rain could ruin our mood. We walked about 14km round trip and if not for the short daylight hours I'm sure we could've gone for much more.

Huascaran peak

Laguna Paron
Hiking to the lookout over Laguna Paron
Seems so similar to home
Beginning of our hike toward Laguna Tambillo

Just us and nature :)

Great glacier views