Friday, 25 October 2013

Worth a PERUsal

Well we have now been in Peru for about 2 weeks and so far it has been a time of completely contrasting geographies and landscapes and we still have more to come.

So crossing the border between Ecuador and Peru was yet another experience of simplicity; I have no idea why people moan about the border crossings in Central and South America as so far it has been nothing but a basic exercise in filling out a form and getting stamped out and in. Seriously, we got into Peru without them even checking our bags which were stored in the bus; we could’ve brought anything with us, including Madeline McCann.
Still, too soon?

It is no exaggeration that once into Peru there was a stark contrast between the country we had left behind and the one we had now entered, both in terms of look and feel. Ecuador was lush, green and clean whereas Peru was dry, dusty, underdeveloped and dirty. Looking out of the bus window at all of the pot holed roads and litter we both could’ve been mistaken for thinking that we were back in India.

Another thing about Peru that became apparent was that we would need to get used to long bus journeys again. Whereas Ecuador is about the same size as the UK, Peru is about 5 times the size and our ride from the border to our first stop took us about 12 hours in total from the south of Ecuador. It was a very long day especially when the only entertainment is watching 3 Nicolas Cage films in a row in badly dubbed Spanish.

Our first Peruvian stop was the city of Piura which typically acts as a one night stopover for those traveling north or south but having had such a long trip we decided to stay for a couple of days and we were really happy that we did because we actually had a good time.
With our time in Piura we got to taste the best Ceviche yet, even after the locals promised us that it was and so far Peru had served up the tastiest seafood.
I also managed to finally replace my camera and even managed in Spanish to negotiate a discount for cash. I am now onto my 3rd camera in 9 months on this trip so as much as I would love for this camera to last the distance until next June, frankly I am not hopeful.
However, the absolute highlight of Piura was going to the circus!!
We had no idea about what to expect from a circus in the sandy north of Peru but it didn’t let us down in terms of entertainment. The stereotype of the circus was prevalent from the very beginning when I bought the tickets and the carni at the counter tried to short change me and showed no embarrassment at all when I asked for the rest of the change.
Just to make one fact clear, this was an animal free circus as all circuses now should be.

I can’t remember the last time that I went to the circus but it must’ve been over 20 years ago so as we walked through the entrance into the big top I was quite excited. I could tell that we were in a country where health and safety is a foreign concept from the audience seating arrangement – wooden planks. The front was already busy so we had to literally step from one plank to the next which were set a good 2 feet apart as we looked down to the grass below which at first was fine, but once we got to about 10 feet off the ground we got a little nervy.
10 minutes sitting on a plank did nothing for the feeling in my arse but it was all forgotten as the lights went out and show began.
How can something not be great when it begins with an amateur dance troop performing to a Spanish version of Fame?
From that point on the circus steadily built to an acrobatic crescendo. In truth it was all a bit amateur but that added to the charm of it – there were the dancers, there were the trampolining kids including a toddler who should’ve been in bed, who performed various stunts with equal success and failure. It was all a bit odd when they got some kids out of the crowd to have a go on the trampoline and do forward rolls!
There was also the contortionist who definitely could have pleased himself like no other (if you get my meaning) and as for the clowns they were hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Their act depended on a number of computer generated sound affects but all of it was mistimed and out of sync so we laughed at points when the locals did not, and vice versa, we were at a loss at some of the gags.
By the time the guys on the high wire had performed some very nervy manoeuvres we along with our dead arses were ready to call it a night.
That was Piura and our first Peruvian town – a success.

We had designs to visit a number of places in northern Peru but reading about the travel times involved, the difficulty in getting there and the fact that we have the Inca Trail deadline to meet meant that we decided to travel south and to instead explore some other unexpected places.

As we left the dust behind and entered a less arid landscape we stopped over in the really pleasant town of Chiclayo and spent quite an interesting afternoon exploring it.
As is always the case, everything revolves around the central plaza and it was here in this relatively large plaza that we got to taste some more Peruvian specialities. This time we sampled the soft drinks, namely Chicha Morada and Inca Kola.
Chica Morada is a raspberry flavoured drink that tastes like something from childhood that we cannot quite put our fingers on and Inca Kola is a luminous yellow fizzy drink similar in taste to Tizer, but not as good.
You will not be surprised to hear that Inca Kola, advertised absolutely everywhere in Peru is part of the Coca Cola family so even though you would hope that another company had captured some part of the market it is not so – Coca Cola, like McD rules! Boooo!

In Chiclayo we also visited the huge open-aired market and in particular the Witches Market – a string of stalls selling all sorts of herbal remedies and black magic solutions that clearly are never going to work but I am sure that I saw one mature westerner buying a love potion / Viagra.
I am not sure why but there were also an unnerving amount of skunk skins decorating the stalls although I have no idea what magical properties they may have?

Next up was Huanchaco and another change in scenery at this very relaxed little surf town famed for its good waves, cigar shaped fishing boats called Caballitos (small horses) and its proximity to a number of pre-Inca ruins.

Who's boat? My boat!

We really enjoyed our time here and the pace of life suited us quite nicely before we moved onto more energetic pursuits.
Of course we couldn’t pass by the opportunity to visit yet another ancient site (that’s 10 and counting now) and the city of Chan-Chan was well worth the visit. The city was built over 700 years ago and was once the largest pre-Chris Columbian city (we are mates I can call him Chris) in the Americas containing about 10,000 mud brick structures.
We caught the local bus out to the edge of the city and then walked for over 20 minutes through the ruins of this once grand city to one of the royal palaces. I can only describe the look of the majority of the city to that of the scenes of Egypt when Indiana Jones and the Nazi’s are both searching and digging for the Lost Ark – so obviously I was into it.
We visited one of the 9 palaces dotted around Chan-Chan, the tradition being that once the king died he was mummified and buried within the palace and the next king would be required to build and brand new and generally better palace. Seems a little crazy really; why not just bury the body and save the effort?

At the entrance to the city we were approached by 2 fellow backpackers to see if we wanted to split the cost of a guided tour of the city and I am happy that we took up the offer because listening to the guide speak in broken English was fun as well as informative.
At one point the guide showed us a model of the palace, protected under a Perspex dome and talked about the roof structures that used to exist, “but not like this”, pointing at the Perspex as if we would actually think that they were so advanced as to be able to form a palace sized dome or they existed in the make believe world of The Simpson’s movie.
The palace was pretty big but the most impressive features were the natural oases dotted about that looked even more luscious and green set amongst the golden sandy and mud remains.

As if Peru were trying to show off its diversity we were now heading inland and into the heart of the Andes Mountains to the city of Huaraz, our base camp before embarking upon the Santa Cruz trek.
The only option of travel from Huanchaco to Huaraz was to take a night bus from nearby city of Trujillo, so with an entire day to kill we decided to head to Trujillo in the early afternoon to dump our bags at the bus terminal and have a look around.
Trujillo was ok, nothing special but its vast central Plaza De Armas was probably one of the best yet and being a Sunday it was packed with families enjoying the sunny day.
We also saw the famous hairless dogs of this area that are used as body warmers by arthritis sufferers.

We also ran into an Irish couple who we had met in Ecuador who we may well run into once we get to Cusco as well as meeting a Bulgarian couple who we will almost definitely see again in Cusco as they start the Inca Trail the same day as we do.
If we had any doubts about taking a night bus in Peru they were most definitely eradicated as soon as we stepped aboard. Due to a lack of space we booked 1st class seats and I know for sure that nothing less than 1st class will ever be accepted by Arancha again.
Our 1st class seats were in fact deep set comfy leather camas (Spanish for bed) which reclined to enable us to lie at 160 degrees. The bus even came with a hostess who served us biscuits and a drink before bed time!!
Our bed for the night was so comfortable that the hostess had to wake us in the morning to inform us that we had arrived and that everyone was already off the bus.
I can’t wait to travel around Peru now; given that we are saving on accommodation costs we will be traveling by 1st class night bus from now on so who cares about the crazy distances?

We were now back at 3,000+ metres altitude and excited to be planning our 4 day trek into what is allegedly the most beautiful and jaw dropping area of the Andes mountain range and given that we are now back and I am writing about it, I can concur with this sentence and claim that it was f*cking awesome. F*ck yeah!!

Huaraz itself sits just below the range and from our favourite eatery, The Andino Café, we could sit in the bright sunshine (although it rained for 2 days before we left but is fine now) on the terrace sipping good coffee looking out towards those mystical snowy peaks. The look and feel of the town is very Nepalese and given that it is the base town for trekkers and climbers hoping to take their own piece of the Andes away with them we were very comfortable and happy here and be reminded of our favourite country.
We spent 2 days in Huaraz before we left for the trek and this was spent getting organised because this was raw and real trekking ie. there would be no lodgings along the way to spend the night; we would need to carry camping gear and all of our food.
Fortunately there was no shortage of camping / trekking shops in Huaraz so we were able to hire our tent, gas stove and cooking gear for the measly sum of $5 per day. As for our food we decided to go gourmet – bread, cheese, eggs, pasta and chocolate. Once again; f*ck yeah!
Whilst here we also sampled the local teas – Coca leaf tea (good for altitude) and Shara Shara (good for altitude and a bad stomach) and decided that we should take the former with us just in case with got a little crook.
The last things on the 'to do' list was to buy bus tickets to the starting point of the walk at Vaqueria and permits for the National Park.
We ran into a little difficulty at the permit office because they refused to sell us a ticket saying that it was impossible to do the trek without a certified guide. Everything that we had read told us otherwise and whilst on the trek the very few people that we did encounter were all walking unaided.
We had no intention of being babysat because apart from the excessive and unnecessary cost we wanted to experience this on our own, just the two of us. It is very rare to be able to spend time in just your own company and away from absolutely everything and I did not want a guide ruining that opportunity of serenity.
So in the end I just lied.
I returned the next day with a hat on to hide the hair (incognito) and used the camping equipment rental receipt as fake proof that we had a guide. Sorted!

Early the next day we took a hair raising 4 hour bus ride through the mountains along one of Peru’s many ‘death roads’ which saw Arancha turning away from the window in fear as we sped along at high speed around hairpin turns with 1,000 metre drops below us.
If the views during the drive to Vaqueria were anything to go by then we were in for a good time. Obviously the string of 6,000+ metre mountains were giving me an erection but passing the glacial lakes that positively glowed a luminescent blue were simply beautiful.

So here we go; The Santa Cruz Trek:

Day 1: You are not as fit as you think!
Eager to make the most of what was left of the day we set off on our walk as soon as we exited the bus. It was approx 11am, the sun was shining and 4 days in the wilderness of the Andes lay ahead of us; you could say I was a little excited by this prospect of this trek.
The first hour of the walk was very pleasant, a flat to sloping gradient downhill through farmland and over gushing rivers with the odd hungry dog trailing us in hope of a feed for company. It was all very nice but not quite trekking rock 'n' roll if you get my meaning?
Soon we reached the first and last piece of civilisation for 4 days as we walked through a small village which capitalised on its position in the tourist trekking route by advertising its various home grown industries such as bee-keeping and a guinea pig factory – remember in Peru a guinea pig is ‘for dinner and not just for Christmas’; but more on that later.
It was during this time that the route started on an upward trend and already being at an altitude of around 3,900 metres above sea level we began to tire quickly under the heat of the midday sun. Frankly, we made a p*ss poor effort of our first day.
Having trekked all over the world and in some pretty cool places we should have been used to this but I think the fact that we had to carry tents, camping equipment, adequate water and food for the first time added that extra weight that we were not used to carrying and let’s face it, 8 days of pampering in the Galapagos Islands is no way to harden yourselves to the reality of DIY trekking.

Saying that, it wasn’t all bad. Yes we were tired but the scenery was beginning to change in a much more favourable way ie. the land began to rise quite dramatically around us and in the distance we could see those bad boy razor like peaks standing like frozen sentients daring us to challenge them.

Once again we really hadn’t done much research - we really must to better. We had read that this walk was the most stunning in the Andes so we decided to do it – that was it. We didn’t even have a map because we were told that the route was easy to follow, so we had a little leaflet given to us by the rental shop which had a rough route printed onto it with campsite indicators. There were no distances and no altitude points given – ha ha, what were we thinking?
This fact, combined with our fast wilting energy and apparent complete lack of fitness meant that we didn’t make it to the official campsite that day. Instead we decided to live it up for the night by the side of the river on a little green surrounded by trees just off the trekking path. It actually suited us just fine, granted that there were only 6 other walkers that we saw over the entire time on our route but who wants to share an area with them when you have the opportunity to be completely secluded from the entire world?
Under the darkening skies of an encroaching storm we set up camp and got dinner on the go, even though it was only 4:30pm!!
Yes we were knackered but recovery is fast and we were soon revelling in our solitary existence. Arancha cooked us up some pasta and for hot drinks we had Coca leaf tea which always left her with a very dry mouth and constantly smacking her lips (remember, Coca leaves are used to make cocaine, but in our case Mum, for combatting altitude). Whilst I went down to the river to wash the pots she then got dessert ready, by taking 2 chocolate bars from the top of my bag.
This is living it up, right?
Washing the pots
Tea time


Yep, it was as basic as it gets but I can’t explain how satisfying it all was to be on our own and self-sufficient. I know we weren’t exactly farming and growing our own food but walking over to the river to wash up and fill up our bottles for drinking water I did look back at the tent and feel a little like Pa Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie. I think this is why he was always smiling, or maybe that's because Michael Langdon was Touched By An Angel.
By the way, in South America the programme is called The Ingalls Family.
Film titles are funny here, the Spanish titles of Hollywood films are literal translations of the plot; where is the fun in that?
For example, Sleepy Hollow is The Horseman without a head and Warm Bodies is My boyfriend is a Zombie.
I digress.
By now it was all getting a little late and time for bed – it was 6pm! Our latest night on the entire trek was 7:30pm – woooooh!
We settled down to sleep when all of a sudden a loud crack of thunder could be heard overhead and the first drops of rain tap tappedy tapped on the canvass.
I turned to Arancha for peace of mind and stated that “the tent is waterproof isn’t it; because it is a rental?”
She told me to stop being stupid.
20 minutes later I wasn’t feeling very stupid because I was getting wet!! Actually, we both were.
We were in the middle of f*cking nowhere, nobody was about and the tent was leaking. As much as I like to live my life in the great outdoors I am from the city and I was conditioned for city life, so as the tent was leaking and the rains kept pouring I got a little anxious; what if the rain is so bad that the river rises and takes us? What if the rain keeps coming and the water pours off the cliffs that tower around us and washes us into the river? Why did we camp near the god damn river??

I was a little more manly than that. Firstly I whined that “this is bullsh*t” followed by “for f*cks sake” and then “Aaaaggghhhh” by which time I got it together and headed out into the rain to see what could be done, if anything. It turns out that anything could be done because we hadn’t quite put the tent up correctly! Long story short, we corrected the issue, the tent did still let in some water (so it wasn’t completely us being spazos) but it was all good in the end. Phew!

Day 2: Tears of pain and then joy
We must’ve been tired because we slept for 11 hours that night. We awoke to more rain but by the time we roused ourselves for breakfast and began to pack up it had ceased and once more all was good with world and even better, we didn't get washed away by a swollen river.
By the time we got back on the road it was 8am and although ready we were completely unprepared for what was to come.
We knew today that we would be climbing to the pass at 4,970 metres but we didn’t know where we were or at what altitude we currently stood at – it’s all good fun isn’t it?
20 minutes later we actually got to the campsite we should have stayed in and it was deserted. This raised 2 points:
1.       The pass would be a challenge. People leave early to get this sort of bitch done and dusted before lunchtime
2.       At least we would have it all to ourselves
The bonus was that we were feeling strong after a good night’s sleep. In truth we were never really bothered about the backpack situation because it always takes a day or 2 to get used to it again and by day 3 we were buzzing. (Not quite)

For those of you who are not familiar with what a pass is, it is a point between 2 mountains that you can pass through the range onto the other side and it typically involves a lot of pain getting there but the views from the top are very much worth it.

Our rough map showed that we needed to navigate around the side of a mountain before we could begin our final ascent to the pass so we obviously thought that this would be a couple of hours and that would be that. I forgot how big mountains are. It took us 3 hours just to walk around the mountain before we then saw what lay ahead of us – a literal 500 metre climb straight up. (At altitude it typically takes us 1 hour of climbing for every 300 metres - and that is without a big pack)
It took us about 2 hours to make this climb and it was f*cking hard. There were times when we just looked at each other and words were not needed to portray our feelings – and then there was a hail storm.
I cannot trek in anything other than shorts and a t-shirt unless it is really really cold, so for me a hail storm was not pleasant and it is amazing how many hail stones my big hair could capture.
On the plus side, whilst visibility was not fantastic the views back across where we had walked from were impressive. We looked over a deep gorge filled with lakes with one side rising up above us to form a string of glacier covered mountains that we could not see the top of through the low lying cloud. It was all a bit spooky.

After losing the trail and taking AJ too close to the edge of the abyss, quite literally, one slip and I wouldn’t be writing this now, we made it to a set of rock formed steps like something out of The Lord of the Rings that led up to the promised land and the much needed downward path.
The tears of pain that threatened to escape did as I set foot through the pass and saw what lay out in front of me.
From 4,970 metres we were able to look right across to a huge glacier making its way down via multiple waterfalls from the peaks of the 6,000+ metre mountains to form a cobalt blue glacial lake. From here the mountains stretched out into the distance for as far as we could see to form a razor edged canyon, whilst the overflow of the lake formed a river that ran for a few kilometres along the canyon floor before forming another icy sapphire lake that twinkled in the newly reborn sun.
It was a panorama that took the breath away and moistened the eyes but I will let the pictures do the talking.
Conquering the pass
The effort is worth it

Far below us we could see the campsite with some tents already set up meaning that we really had made a late start. Judging the distance we knew we were about 2 hours from camp so we set about getting down as quickly as we could but not so quickly so as to not take in every inch of this view that we had very much earned.

We set up camp and although it was all part of the same canyon from our viewpoint it seemed as though we were sat in the centre of a triangle of 3 separate mountains ranges.
We followed what would become our nightly ritual of AJ cooking and me washing and as the sun set and the clouds ascended up the valley to encompass us in their icy embrace we lied back and fell asleep almost instantaneously and very happy and satisfied with where our efforts had now taken us.
It would have been immediate if not for the wild horses frolicking in the pitch black of night where the sounds and vibrations of their hooves striking the earth could be felt by us as they seemingly ran by just outside of our tent. 2 nights in the outdoors and 2 nights of nerves! Sort it out Lamby!
Actually, it was all very exciting.

There's always room for thermals on trek

Day 3: Mountain perfection?
Day 3 – what a day. I stuck my head out of the tent to see a world that I hadn’t really seen the day before. I knew it was pretty damn sexy out there but in the clear pale blue and cloudless sky of early morning we could see for miles and see the details of each and every one of those peaks in high definition. Awesome is a word that is used a lot but in the true sense of the word these mountains were.
Not wanting to waste such a beautiful day we got ourselves sorted and set off.
Today we would be making a detour to a look out in the mountains before returning to canyon to head south towards the end of the route the following day.

To get to the look-out we had to first walk along the edge of the foothills before heading into the heart of the range itself which opened up into the most beautiful environment which was completely alive. We are talking about thick green fields, flowers awash with insects, wild horses, donkeys and cows grazing, waterfalls and streams fed from above by the melt water of the glaciers and then there are of course the mountains soaring way up beyond us. Everybody needs to see this once in their lifetime.
That is one thing that can be said about this part of the Andes – water and life. I have never seen so much water as I have done here. Everywhere we looked there was a waterfall toppling hundreds of metres down the side of the cliffs, rivers and streams making their aged old ways through the land and the lakes forming natural resevoirs for the abundant animals and birds to drink and bathe. If you found yourself lost in the Andes it would be thirst that would kill you, that’s for sure.

The route to the look-out took us to the base camp that is used by climbers in season and what a place to hang out. We were surrounded by a 300 degree ring of ice-mountains and the environment just made us want to jump with joy – as you can see below.

To get to the look-out itself we would need to climb a short but steep 100 metre trail so we decided to hide the bags and to make life easier and make our way up. It we ever doubted whether we should’ve made the effort to come out of our way to see this we soon rescinded all notions of this when we looked out in front of us.
Searing blue glacial lake, huge glacier feeding it leading down from a curve of mountains – wow!
Just to top it all off the glacier shifted and cracked and an avalanche poured down into the lake.
All in all just another day in the office for us.

With that annoyance out of the way (yawn) we headed back to the canyon where we were then faced with a 2 hour hike through the sands of a long dried out riverbed. I won’t lie, this was hard work. Trudging through the sand under an open sky without shade was tough but we made sure that we still had lots of fun and once we reached the banks of the second lake for that day we were truly taken aback by it colour and clarity.
The Everest Range and Himalayas come first because of the power they emenate whilst still being surrounded with the calming energy and spiritual flow of Bhuddism, but I don’t think it can compete in terms of the sheer beauty of the Santa Cruz region of the Andes.
If we take our camp that night for example, we sat on our own by the river safely protected on each side by the canyon walls with a view off to infinity in front of us and behind us, and as for sunset, well, you can see that below as well.

Day 4: Reduced to nothing
We were now on the our final morning of the trek and with a little apprehension we packed up the tent and set off towards the village of Cashapampa.
We only needed to cover 12.9km to reach the village which is about 2 hours walking but it was ridiculous how the canyon and land changed so dramatically over such a short distance. We began close to the lake with the snowy mountain tops not too far behind us but from here the land began to drop away quite steeply and soon we had descended 500 metres into different world of vine covered trees and sandy riverside banks. It was all so different and quite unbelievable how a slight reduction in altitude can bring about such changes in the environment.

It was quite obvious where the end of the route was because as we neared the end, so did the canyon. The thousand metre tall walls we were walking amongst and looking up to the tops of mountains that blew through the 6,000 metre height literally descended into nothing as though we stepped through a gate and into civilisation. It was bizarre.

The trek was over and it was a shame.
It wasn’t a 2 to 3 week epic like we have enjoyed in the past but what we got to see and witness over 4 days will always be with us and will be one of those ‘remember that’ places and Arancha has assured me that this was the last ever time she will carry her bag!

Once back to the real world I celebrated the fact that I no longer needed to eat pasta or dinner by indulging in a Peruvian delicacy, the guinea pig. It was actually very tasty but there just wasn't enough meat on it to warrant ordering it again. The best thing about it was that it looked like I was eating a guinea pig - head, claws and eyes!!!

However, I am still dreaming on living in the big, wide wilderness!!
I think it suits me; don't you??


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