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Northern Peru (Oct. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 8:15 PM by Gerick Bergsma

Since I do not exactly recall what I covered in my last update, I will start with what I know is a bit of a backtrack.  My last stop in Ecuador was the small town of Vilcabamba, a lovely village in the Andean foothills near the Parque Nacional Podocarpus.  My original plans to trek for several days into the national park and the nearby Reserva de Las Palmas (home of the spectacled bear and lots of birds) was thwarted by a bad hotdog, and instead I spent several days nursing several gastro-intestinal maladies.  As I mentioned in the previous message, I spent the down time enjoying the warm sun on a hammock on the veranda of my cabana, relaxed by the gurgling of the river Yambala and the distant braying of donkeys.  I was fortunate to befriend several people during my stay.  Charlie, the expatriate American who owned and ran the Cabanas Rio Yambala, where I was staying, provided countless stories of Incan gold hidden in the mountains near town, while his young son seemed to have limitless imagination as he told me of the time he had stolen a charging bull's horns.  The lady who ran the restaurant took pity on me, and provided me with copious amounts of mint tea (she said it was good for the stomach) as I watched her serve delicous looking meals to the other guests.  One night, when I was feeling a bit better, she even made me a miniature pizza so I would not feel left out as everyone else ate their larger versions.  Sergio, the neighbor, part-time guide, and fill-in-receptionist when nobody else was about, told me all the things I would have seen in the park had I gone on the trek as he stretched the hides over the drums he made to sell to tourists, and even played "El Condor Pasa" (one of my favorite tunes) on a flute that he had made (Auntikiki, I know you are picking up the harp, but don't give up the pan flute).


It was at the Cabanas Rio Yambala where I also met Joshua, the San Diegan biologist who had been travelling South America for seven months, and was preparing to return home.  As I began to recuperate, Josh and I took several small hikes in the hills around the cabanas and down into town.  The hikes were quite enjoyable, and we were subject to wonderful views of the valleys and mountains surrounding Vilcabamba, and enjoyed breathtaking sunsets and rainbows from the nearby ridges.  Josh and I had a lot in common, and spent hours talking about things ranging from graduate programs in biology and surf breaks in La Jolla to places to go in South America and various hallucinogenic plants to avoid (or in his case experience) while there.  When I discovered that he was heading south to Peru to catch his flight home from Lima, I decided to travel with him.


I was feeling much better (although a bit of Imodium added to my self confidence), so we started the long bus journey from Vilcabamba to Loja to Macara where we crossed the border to Peru and continued to Piura, where we spent the night.  The border crossing was remarkably easy, and the road filled with pilgrims as we cruised the Peruvian night.  We arrived in Piura, and after the taxi took us to a dark alley where we changed some dollars into soles, we stayed at the Hostel California.  Josh and I claimed the last room, where we were warmly greeted by several of the resident roaches.


Piura is a nice town, and although we only spent a couple of hours exploring it the following morning, I got a good walking tour of the center of town.  One of the several bridges across the river through town had been washed out, so a steady line of people waded through its brown waters to cross into the main business district.  After coming out of a series of somewhat remote Ecuadorian villages, it also seemed remarkably modern.  The attractions of Piura were not enough to warrant a long stay, though, so we boarded a bus bound for Trujillo, a coastal city several hours south.  We arrived late that evening, and after a taxi ride, we found ourselves in Huachaca, a seaside suburb of Trujillo.


We stayed at the Hostal Nylamp, a pleasant little hotel/campground across the street from the beach, right at the edge of town.  Sandro, the Italian who along with his French wife operated the hotel, greeted us, and prepared us a wonderful italian dinner (Arianna, Che Cazzo!  I had to come to Peru to get good homemade Gnocchi!).  At the hostal Nylamp Josh and I met an English couple, Mathew and Lucy, who we quickly befriended, and made plans to explore some nearby ruins with.


The next day, Josh and I explored Huachaca.  The small town hugs the coast, and its heart and soul is the beach along the main street.  A small pier marks the center of town, and Josh and I started by trying our luck along with the local fisherman on the end of the pier.  Josh bought a small hand line with hooks, and bait was donated to me by some seasoned fishermen who thought it rather amusing that the two gringos wanted to fish.  Neither Josh nor I had any luck, but it was kind of fun to toss the handline, and it was rather interesting to watch the number of vendors who came by selling cake and snacks to the fishermen on the pier.  After a few casts I was distracted by a pair of fishermen nearby.  Their heavily weighted line had a large treble hook on the end which they apparently would drag through the sandy bottom and catch ghost shrimp.  Their skill was amply shown by the large basket full of shrimp.  I'd never seen shrimp caught with hooks and line before, but it obviously worked for them.


After our morning fish, we walked along the shore where the net fishermen were returning on their tortora reed "caballito" rafts.  It looked so peaceful rowing around on their caballitos, bobbing up and down on the surf.  One of the fishermen was repairing his net nearby, so I began to talk to him.  He told me how everyday he would row several hours out to sea and leave his nets.  Left overnight, he would then return the next morning to retrieve his catch.  When I asked him if I could borrow his caballito and try rowing around a little bit, he smirked, not even looking up from his net, and said, "It's dangerous."  Undaunted, and quite certain of my boating abilities, I told him that I was certain that I could handle a caballito, and that I did not intend to venture far from shore.  Still, he did not want to let me use his raft, saying that they were very unstable and that the currents were pretty treacherous.  When I asked him if I could rent his caballito from him, he suddenly looked up and smiled, and said that for ten soles (a little under $3) I could row around for half an hour.  I guess somehow the danger had suddenly disappeared, because afterwards, although I think he thought it a little odd that a gringo wanted to ride a caballito, he was now quite eager to send me off to the surf and current.  I was not dressed for a row, so we made arrangements to find him later at his home, and I went and changed. 


When Josh and I returned to find the fisherman, we met his son, who josh had met earlier that day.  His father had told him that we would come by, and he took us down to the beach where the family's three handmade caballitos were stored along the embankment.  The son explained to me that the newer caballitos were very unstable, and as such, for a beginner he recommended the older caballitos.  What he meant was that the older caballito was waterlogged, weighed a ton, and that he didn't mind having the gringo mess it up a bit.  It took all three of us to drag the caballito to the water, and as I straddled the reeds in the shallow water, I was handed the paddle, a five or six foot piece of bamboo split lengthwise.  They shoved me off into the sea, and I paddled valiantly into the oncoming surf.  I must admit, the waterlogged reeds were rather stable, I only nearly tipped over a dozen times or so, but the added weight meant that rowing was VERY slow.  I paddled and paddled and paddled, looking back to see how far I'd gone (not very far).  As I reached the surf break, the waves started crashing over the boat, nearly knocking me off each time, but the buoyant reeds just bobbed right up.  As I got farther from shore, I noticed the current carrying me down shore.  So as not to strand myself too far from my point of embarkation, I chose to head into the current, paddle as far as I wished and then have a nice relaxing drift back.  I turned into the wind with my little caballito lightly bounding over the waves; I dug my bamboo into the water for the push forward.  Ten minutes later I noticed an anchored float next to me that had been well behind me before.  I picked the pace up a little bit, pulling my little caballito with forcefull strokes of bamboo.  It was me against the elements, Gerick vs. the Pacific, and much like the ancient mariners before me, I continued to lose.  The anchored buoy continued to inch its way ahead of me, and the waves seemed to bat me about in mockery of my attempt.  I strained to match the current.  My hands began to ache as they clutched the strip of bamboo, and my feet, dangling in the cold water, began to grow numb.  I kept paddling and kept paddling, finally reaching a point where the anchored buoy no longer seemed to increase its lead.  I continued paddling, pretty much remaining in the same position, for the rest of my half hour row when I finally turned towards shore and a bit of rest.  The sea decided to reward my efforts, and as I crossed the surf break, my little caballito caught a wave, and I surfed the rest of the way into shore, where I had to laboriously haul the heavy caballito the several meters I had lost to the sea, back to where I had put into the water.


Josh, apparently quite impressed with my attempt, greeted me onshore.  The fisherman's son also greeted me, and soon had hauled out another caballito.  In a matter of minutes we watched him nimbly maneuver over the waves, and far out to sea (farther than I had gone in half an hour).  He then turned around, and came back in, playing in the surf, and even surfing one wave while doing a handstand on his caballito.  I still claim that it is because he used the newer raft, but I'll keep practicing.


After a lazy evening and a restful night, we arose the next morning and along with Matthew and Lucy, ventured to the Temples of the moon and sun, the massive adobe constructs of civilizations considerably older than the Incas.  The two temples, the two largest adobe constructions in the world, were massive, and we toured the excavations of the heavily deteriorated ruins.  Murals were still visible on some of the walls, and we saws the well preserved sacrificial platforms where countless victims had lost their lives in attempts to stop the rains (rain and a culture dependent on adobe don't mix) that eventually led to the end of the Chimu empire.  From there, we continued to the ruins of Chan Chan, the adobe city of the Moche, who followed the Chimu.  The city sprawls over an immense area, and for miles in each direction you see the eroding walls of the ancient city.  We toured the partially reconstructed complex that housed one of the important families, and could only imagine the throngs of people that must have once wandered the intricately carved alleyways of the adobe city. 


That evening, in an amazing bit of coincidence, we ran into two of Josh's friends from San Diego.  They had started their travels at the same time, and had tickets on the same flight back, but all three had gone their separate ways.  Now all three of them, fresh from their travels, met in one random evening as they returned to Lima for their flight home.  We spent the evening swapping travel stories, and the next morning we said our goodbyes as they proceeded to Lima, and I detoured to Huaraz.


Huaraz is a lovely town high in the Peruvian Andes.  After the all night bus ride, I was greeted with the morning sun glinting off of the snowcapped peaks surrounding the city.  After a brief rest in the room I rented from a local family, I decided to take a tour of the area north of Huaraz.  Our first stop was an ice-cream shop, an indication of the commercial nature that our tour would follow, after which we continued to Yungay, a town at the foot of Huascaran, the tallest mountain in Peru.  In 1970, the area was ravaged by a large earthquake.  Most of the city of Huaraz was destroyed, as were many nearby villages.  The earthquake triggered a lahar on Huascaran, and the rapidly flowing mud and rock buried the entire town, killing most of its approximately 18,000 inhabitants. Apart from the cemetary, located on a hill overlooking the former city, where the only survivors sought refuge, and the crumbled remains of the church tower, nothing is visible of the once quaint town.  A large statue now overlooks the site, and palm trees mark the location of the town's plaza.  Combined with the devastation wrought in surrounding areas, the earthquake claimed a total of about 30,000 lives.  In testament to the resiliency of human spirit, the town of New Yungay is now perched on the hill opposite the cemetery.  In testament to the human lack of forward thinking, the town's secondary school and several outlying communities are built on the flats left by the flow that turned an entire town into a mass grave.


The tour continued up to a canyon that separates Huascaran from another nearby peak.  Nestled in the canyon is a spectacular alpine lake, whose crystal blue waters reflected the glacier topped pinnacles towering on each side.  I spent several hours hiking alongside the lake and admiring the spectacular panorama.  We returned down, and stopped first at a candy shop and then at a souvenir shop, both part of our tour.  We got back to Huaraz late, and I dined with a gentleman (another San Diegan) that I met on the tour.  The next day I took another tour to Pasto Ruri, a large glacier south of Huaraz, and a popular destination for Peruvians visiting from Lima.  I was the only non Peruvian on the tour, and felt ill prepared with my rubber boots and fleece sweater compared to the snow suits and mountaineering boots that most of the other tourists had rented.  The bus climbed the steep dirt road to the 5000 meter glacier, stopping along the way to sample water from some natural springs and see the lovely countryside.  When we arrived most of the group charged up the paved trail to the main access area where many of the Peruvians had their first experience with snow.  I had heard that there were ice caves nearby, and asked our guide about them.  After telling me that they were off limits and that she could lose her license if she took me there, she told me how to get there, and I trekked of on my own in the crisp mountain air.  Having been at sea level two days before, the 5000 meter altitude took its toll.  I was huffing and puffing my whole way up, but when I reached the first of a set of alpine lakes, it was all worth while.  I followed a small stream through the desolate landscape, reaching the top of a ridge leading to the glacier, and turned around to see the entire mountain range spread before me.  As I turned around, the precipitous glacier loomed ahead, with an ice lake at its base.  Near the lake, the blue glow of the ice cave, and snowfields beyond.  I didn't venture too closely to the ice cave, but could certainly appreciate its size and the beautiful icicles that decorated its interior.  I hiked along the ice lake to some smaller caves, and continued along the snowfield for about an hour towards the area where the others had gone to frolic in the wintery playground.  I arrived at the paved trail just in time to wander back down to the parking area, enjoying the downhill climb the whole way.  Although I had felt well all day, upon reaching the van I began to get a terrible headache that I think was the result of high altitude.  We returned to Huaraz, and on the trip back, I swapped stories with Ivan and Franco, two Limeños who had just seen snow for the very first time. I boarded another overnight bus, and by morning arrived in Lima.


Everything I had heard about Lima before arriving was negative.  I had read and been told that the city was old, dirty, and crime ridden.  Every body I had spoken to had said how much they disliked the city, and the guidebooks warned of abhorrent crime and poverty.  Having heard so much about the city's dark side, I had purposefully planned to spend little time there.  I was actually shocked to find that I rather liked Lima.  The days that I was there, I spent mostly walking around the enormous city.  When I first arrived, my first order of business was to buy a belt, as after a month and a half on the road, my trousers were beginning to fit a bit loosely, but then I began just wandering around town.  I spent much of the first day wandering down the busy pedestrian street Jiron de la Union.  Lots of shops and restaurants lined the street giving it a distinctly European feel.  For lunch I had tamales sold out of a large garbage bag by nuns raising money for their monastery (you know me, anything to help them support their habit), and ate while listening to the enchanting music of two street musicians, one playing a flute made from PVC pipe.  I can't believe I spent an entire summer up to my armpits in PVC, and I never realized the possibilities!  I wandered down to a square where large banners and throngs of people protested president Fujimori, and continued to the central plaza where lines of police in full riot gear filled the alleys alongside the presidential palace.  Peru is currently in a bit of political unrest, with the recently reelected president Fujimori (who changed the constitution to be reelected) coming under severe attack for supposedly rigging the election.  He has consented to hold reelections in a month, in which he will not run, but many want him to leave office immediately.


I paused in front of the presidential palace for a short time, and admired the presidential guard, dressed in their colorful blue and red uniforms.  As I stood there, I witnessed a not so ceremonial changing of the guard; a far cry from pomp and crowds of Buckingham.  Two spear carrying guards followed a sword carrying officer, high stepping their way towards the main doors of the palace.  The two soldiers did not exactly march in unison, nor were they particularly intent on continuing the high step as several times they broke cadence and walked to catch up to the quickly walking officer.  The two spear carrying guards then walked up the stairs to where the two guards being relieved stood.  The guards being relieved were obviously quite glad to be relieved, because as soon as their replacements arrived, they both began a high stepping race down the stairs towards the officer at the base.  They walked ahead of the officer, who then said something to the soldiers, causing them to swing around and look at him.  The guard in the rear, shouldering his spear, swung around, and would have hit the officer in the head with his spear, had the officer not quickly ducked out of the way and grabbed the spear head with his hand.  After exchanging a few words, the two guards and officers then quickly walked away, forgetting the ceremonial high stepping, with the two relieved guards beginning to remove their uniforms before they even arrived at the guard's quarters.


That evening, Ivan and Franco, who had just arrived back from Huaraz, decided to show me around town.  We started by walking around the plazas near the congressional building, and then they decided to take me to Miraflores, a trendy neighborhood of Lima.  We caught a taxi, and soon arrived in an obviously posh section of town, replete with elite country clubs and overpriced bars and restaurants.  After a short walk, our first stop was a mall, housing restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and a Tony Roma's rib house.  Ivan and Franco wanted to take me to see the bowling alley, a game they had never played, where each game cost about $20.  We went to the end of the mall that overlooked the nearby beaches, and decided to walk down the bluffs to the rocky beaches below.  After a short nighttime walk on the beach, we returned to the central Lima, and I prepared to depart the next day.