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



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