I feel like my favorite country of this trip is always the one I am in. Seriously, I get so wowed by the moment that the previous countries start to meld together into a pretty cool memory, but not as great as the place where we are. Well almost, Belize and Panama felt pretty miss-able to me. Right now, Peru is my favorite country. Time will tell how long it can retain that status.
Peru started out with some pretty great border experiences. We crossed at a border called La Balza. It was hot and sticky. And quiet. We were the only people crossing for the first half-hour. After Ecuador stamped us out of their county (via text messages and digital photos because they didn’t have any internet) we parked on a bridge between the two countries and waited for Peru’s lunch break to get over. Eventually, someone saw us waiting in our truck and waved us over. Our first stop was immigration where a jovial guy took our information and entered it into his computer. Peru had internet. Part of the process was providing our fingerprints. It was sort of like at the bank or DMV where you just put your fingers on a glass plate on a reader machine. This guy insisted that we first rub our fingers over our greasy sweaty foreheads before laying them on the reader. He had a felt towel he would use to wipe the screen between scans. I was very amused and very compelled to wash my hands and face. Once we were all stamped into Peru and had rid ourselves of the excess weight of unauthorized citrus and potatoes we were free to drive. Cautiously. It is obligatory to purchase insurance to drive in Peru but the border we crossed was so tiny that there were not any shops selling insurance. We had to cover almost 100 miles with our fingers crossed that we didn’t get stopped at a checkpoint before we arrived in a town that sold insurance.
By the time we rolled into that town, Jaén, we had more on our minds than insurance. The Joan was screaming at us. It sounded like squealing brakes, but louder and more obnoxious than any sound brakes had ever made before. Passersby on the streets were covering their ears it was so loud. This was not a tranquil town, either. We added getting our brakes checked to our list of things to do the following day and squealed our way into the garage of our hotel for the night. Jaén does not see much in the way of tourists. We were a bit of a novelty and most people openly stared at us as we wandered around town looking for vegan delights to put in our bellies. Thankfully, chifa (Chinese-ish food) is ubiquitous. Chicken fried rice, hold the chicken, hold the egg, is quite satisfying. We were pleased to find that Peruvian chifa joints used proper soy sauce. In Ecuador, it was thick like molasses and oddly, not very salty. Pretty much only good for adding color. Anyhow, the next day, before finding a mechanic to locate the source of the screaming banshee within our wheels we decided to take a peek ourselves. We screamed along until we found a somewhat level vacant lot to use as a de-facto mechanic yard. We propped up the Joan with random rocks and bricks we found lying around (our jack is, unfortunately, pocket-sized) and removed the tire on the side that we had deemed the most likely culprit. Nothing looked out of sorts with the brakes but when Scott spun the wheel the sound was unbearable. He banged on the wheel with a pair of sturdy channel-locks and sheets of rusted metal fell out. It was still making noise so he banged on it some more and more chunks of rusted metal fell. Eventually, the rain of rust ceased and the wheel spun in silence. Problem solved. Scott is a mechanical magician. We opted not to dig too deeply into the source of the rusted metal. With the tire back on we headed out to get some insurance and get out of town.
Our first fun Peruvian destination was the town of Cocachimba. We camped on a waterlogged patch of grass behind a hostel surrounded by jungle-covered high cliffs with waterfalls pouring over the edges all around. One of those waterfalls was the reason for our visit. Gocta Falls is (as far as we know) the fourth tallest waterfall in the whole wide world. It is a two-tiered fall that is 750 meters from top to bottom. That is 2460 feet for us ‘Mericans.
We hiked down a really nice trail which led to the bottom of the falls. The trail ended at a viewpoint that was a sensible distance from the falls. There were gobs of other tourists there eating sandwiches and drinking Coca-Cola. Of course, we headed on beyond the trail to get closer. Our efforts were rewarded with a proper dousing from the spray of the falls. Once we were thoroughly soaked (the water took one look at our raincoats and laughed as it seeped through every microscopic pore and poured under our collars) we turned around and hiked up to the top of the falls. This involved crossing a bridge over the river and climbing unrelenting switchbacks for over an hour. We passed only a handful of other intrepid explorers on our way up. A couple of Canadian retirees told us we should turn back as there was no way we would make it to the top of the falls and back before nightfall. Challenge accepted. We met up with the falls again about twenty minutes sooner than the Canadians had predicted. The trail led to a less sensible viewpoint between the upper and lower tiers of the waterfall. We got thoroughly soaked again and headed back down with a quickness as we were racing twilight. The hike back down was brutal. We felt like our kneecaps were going to pop off. It was a relief when we reached the bridge over the river and began our ascent back to camp. The sense of relief soon wore off as our bodies burned through our insufficient snacks. I may have been a bit whiny for the final mile. We had made a bet with each other about when we would return to camp. Scott said before 5:30 pm and I said after. I was really hoping he would win because then we could eat dinner sooner. Scott did win but only because we ran the last 10 minutes.
Back on the road, heading south our next stop was the tiny hilltop town of Nuevo Tingo. Here we based ourselves for one night so that we could explore the ruins of Kuélap. The guidebooks told of a great complex rivaling Machu Picchu in its splendor. It also warned that we needed to visit soon as a cable car was in the works and soon the ruin would be “discovered” by the masses and overrun with tourists. My guidebook is not the most up-to-date. We drove up to the parking area for the bus that takes tourists to the loading platform for the cable car. It was a slow morning. Scott and I got to have a car all to ourselves and enjoyed the twenty minutes of slowly soaring over the canyons on the way to the ruins. I visually scoured the landscape below for signs of wildlife and Scott got in a final two sets of chair dips before we were deposited high up on a mountain.
The cable car is nice but it mentally tricked us. We were lulled into this lazy tourist frame of mind and then had to remind our legs how to walk as the ruin was still a 2km hike away. Visiting the ruins was very organized. There was a specific path that we were required to follow that threaded through the site. We did not procure the services of a guide (per usual) and lagged along at a respectful distance from an English-speaking tour group to glean tidbits of information. Eventually, we grew impatient with “our guide” and zipped around the group as they learned about the likely uses of a rectangular foundation. Most of the buildings at Kuélap were round structures that had conical roofs made of grass thatch in their hay-day (get it? Grass thatch- hay-day?). We wandered through the ruin weaving through tour groups, following the arrows that dictated the order of our experience. We learned that the cubby holes in the walls were for keeping their Guinea pigs (called cuy) until it was time to grill them up (modern Peruvians seem to keep their Guinea pigs in hutches in the yard these days). We passed some charismatic llamas and found ourselves spit out of the ruin on the path back to the cable car. The place had gotten pretty busy in the time it took us to tour the ruins. Now we were lined up to be stuffed into a car for the return to the bus station. Scott and I dilly-dallied a bit to avoid sharing a car with a particularly stinky Italian fellow.
Once back to our truck we found a hotel for the night. It was a strange town. The prices were high to reflect the proximity to the ruins but the services in town were scarce. We canvased the whole town before choosing one of the only two restaurants. Both boasted a menu of fried chicken and fried cuy. We opted for the one that had the best sides. A dinner of rice, fried yucca, and ensalada filled the void.
The next morning, we were excited to hit the road. It was a bright, clear day with puffy clouds in the sky. We headed to the town of Cajamarca to visit the Ventanillas de Otuzco. These are small niches carved out of cliffs that were used to store dead people. Pottery was found at the site that indicated that it was used from 1130 B.C.E. to 1240 C.E. The thought of being curled up in the fetal position and tucked into such a tiny space crowded by my best ceramic jugs makes me feel claustrophobic. I had to take many deep breaths to make it through our exploration of the site. It was interesting that the city of Cajamarca surrounded the site. Usually, when we visit historic/prehistoric sites they are deep in the back of beyond. I guess people have found that area a great place to live through the ages. It didn’t take us long to tour the Ventanillas and from there we headed out on an epic drive aiming for the Cordillera Blanca.
We drove for days up and down steep mountains on narrow shelf roads. We dodged landslides and darn near wore out the horn on The Joan honking our way around the blind corners. A very common road sign reads “Toque Claxon” with or without a picture of a bugle. It was obvious that road work is constant and unending in this region of Peru. Ghosts of roads past were apparent beyond the current switchbacks. We imagined that they said, “Well, that didn’t work, let’s shift the road over by 30 meters and see if it holds up any better.” As we zig-zagged down one side of a canyon we could see the switchbacks heading up the other side. Sometimes it was a challenge to figure out if the giant dump truck on the road was heading towards us or away from us depending on whether he was zigging or zagging.
The posted camp spots on iOverlander for this route were ubiquitously crappy turn-outs on the side of the road or just “quiet night on the central plaza of the town.” So, we chose to drive long days and stay in questionable hotels. A real lowlight for us was a room where we shared a twin bed. The “carpet” was a weird green felt that was peeling up and horribly stained. We had to keep the bathroom door closed to shut out the sewage stench emanating from the drains. The toilet seat was cracked and threatened to cut your bum if you were brave/foolish enough to sit on it and the shower didn’t function. Jarring blue light from the fluorescent bulb was in direct competition with the dingy mustard yellow walls. They had a pet deer that they kept tied up in their overgrown topiary garden. On the bright side, the price was right and the lady serving/cooking breakfast was really sweet.
As we drove through tiny mountain towns we watched the fashions change. The most apparent difference, to me, was the style of hats the women wore. In northern Peru, the hats were made of straw. They were incredibly tall and had very wide brims. As we moved south the hats remained tall but they were made of felted wool and the brims were narrower. Soon, the felted wool hats were decorated with ribbons in a fan design. It was a common sight up in the mountains to see women along the side of the road wearing their tall hats and spinning wool or knitting as they walked. It seems as though there are people everywhere in Peru. We would be hours away from any town feeling like we were really far out in the back of beyond and would turn a corner to see a woman walking along spinning wool. We would wave to her and it was about 50/50 that she would smile and lift her yarn in a semblance of a returned wave or just look confused.
Just before we arrived at the Cordillera Blanca we dipped down out of the mountains. The air was warm and dry. We took a wrong turn which turned out to be serendipitous. It followed a river through a beautiful canyon out to meet up with the highway. We spotted more ventanillas far up on the cliff opposite the road.
We played leapfrog with a gas truck and later ran into the driver at a fruit stand at the intersection with the highway. He recommended that we buy some sweet lemons and a big bag of coca leaves to contend with the elevation up in the mountains. We took his advice. With our larder stocked with fresh fruits and veggies, we set out to camp for the night. I had read about a wild camp spot down by the river that was invisible from the road. We were pretty burned out on questionable hotels and excited to sleep in our tent. It was a great spot. The sound of the river all but drowned out the noise from passing traffic on the road. We made a delicious dinner and enjoyed a warm night in nature. The next day while we were doing our morning calisthenics routine we saw a man up on the roadside above our camp making us realize that we weren’t all that hidden. He seemed to ignore us and talked on his phone. Later that morning, when we drove out of our little camp spot all of the paths back to the highway were blocked with large boulders. Apparently, a passive-aggressive person didn’t want people camping down by the river. These days we prefer passive-aggression to overt-aggression so while I watched from the passenger’s seat, Scott flexed his muscles, moved the boulders, drove through, and replaced the boulders behind us. Message received and preserved for future campers.
There is a familiar old adage. It is not about the destination but the journey. Or something like that. That day made it ring true. Kind of. Both the destination and the journey were rad. That day we drove through Cañón del Pato. Duck Canyon. We were again following a river through a deep canyon. This time the canyon was too narrow to fit a road beside the river so the road had been etched in the wall of the canyon. We clung to the side of the canyon on a single lane shelf road passing through 35 narrow tunnels as they pierced the canyon walls. With our headlights blazing and our claxon toque-ing, we did our best to exude gratitude (the opposite of fear according to Brené Brown) as we traversed this stretch of road. We had one close call with a bus and one more with a dump truck. Both times it was on us to get out of the way. As it had been explained to us further up on the Pan Americana (was it in Mexico? Colombia?) right of way on the highway is governed by the rule of weight. Whoever weighs more has the right of way. The Joan graciously sucked in her stomach and leaned perilously close to the edge of the canyon to allow these heavy-weights to pass. Scott made a video of that drive and posted it on our YouTube channel for those interested.
Having made it through the Cañón del Pato by the skin of our teeth we found ourselves in the town of Caraz at the base of the Cordillera Blanca. Towns tend to suck money from us so we kept our time there short. We got a car wash and hit the market for more fruits and veggies. At that market, we discovered a new-to-us fruit called a pepino. Same name as a cucumber but totally different. It is like a large heirloom tomato but all flesh and no seeds. It is pale yellow with purple stripes and tastes like a honeydew melon. We love it. Anyhow, we bought a few of those and headed up into the mountains to camp for the night.
We drove up, up, up to a refugio on the shores of Laguna Paron to camp for the night with the plan to hike around the lake the next day. As we drove up the mountain, the weather began to worsen. When we arrived at the lake it was beginning to drizzle. We were at 13,600 ft and it was very cold. People were huddled under the eaves of the refugio escaping the rain. As we pulled into the parking lot we were greeted by our old friend Ivan. We had met Ivan in Antigua, Guatemala. He was riding his bicycle from Alaska to Argentina and we all stayed at the same hostel back in Guatemala. It was great to see a familiar face. He had hitched a ride up to the lake on the back of a motorcycle driven by a Colombian fellow. There were three Colombian motorcyclists, Ivan from Canada, and the two of us all camping there that night. Once Scott and I made our dinner, we brought it into the refugio and ate while everyone else hung out (they were done with dinner and on to revelry). One of the caretakers of the refugio brought out his saxophone and tried to play along with the latest reggaetón hit playing on someone’s portable speaker. Scott mentioned that he used to play saxophone and was suddenly part of the entertainment. We were all having fun but it was stupid-cold so we made our excuses and escaped to burrow under our pile of blankets in our tent.
The next morning, we awoke to a wall of mist. Small tour buses full of hikers arrived at the refugio. Energetic people in swanky hiking gear drank coca tea, ate snacks and stared at the mist. Luckily, we are never in a hurry to get moving super early. We made coffee a few times, cooked up some stale oatmeal for breakfast, tried to erase the stale oatmeal experience with fresh pepino, brewed a thermos of coca tea, and finally looked up to see the sky clearing. Laguna Paron is beautiful. It is an ethereal blue color and surrounded by majestic snow-covered peaks. Aside from being so beautiful the trail around it is almost completely flat! Owing to the flatness the first hour of our hike was super-chill. Then we left that trail and headed up to visit two other lakes above Paron. None of the folks from the tour buses took the route we were taking. We had the trail to ourselves and couldn’t have been happier. It was pretty cold and windy out and the sun was being shy so we found a depression between some rocks to huddle in to eat our lunch of avocados and crackers with hot sauce and mustard. Then we continued on up. The trail followed a knife-edge glacial feature that looked down on a waterfall and another lake, it was a pale opaque green color. We kept on going up. We passed a few memorials to mountain climbers who had perished climbing the surrounding peaks. We crossed a creek and continued upward. The trail became faint and steeper. It started to hail. We put on our raincoats and continued up. We were both hoping to be able to make it up to the mirador for the third lake before the other one decided to throw in the towel and head back down. We made it to the basecamp where mountain climbers begin their ascent of a peak called Artesonraju. It is rumored to be the peak featured in the Paramount Pictures logo. Mother Nature made sure we did not get to see that peak so we can’t confirm or deny said rumor. From that basecamp, we could see the third lake and the glacier that terminates in the lake filling it with tiny icebergs. Very cool. Freezing cold in fact. We did not linger and made our way back down as fast as we safely could. Scott made a pretty cool video of the hike that I highly recommend watching.
Back at camp, we were chilled to our cores. Dinner was a team effort. Scott immediately climbed up the ladder to our rooftop tent and crawled into bed to begin dissolving the ice crystals forming in his blood. I was feeling a blast of resilience and put together a soup. I filled a stainless-steel bottle with boiling water and handed it up to Scott to help with the thawing process. Once the soup was assembled and simmering we traded places. Scott took care of garnishes and the ladling into bowls. He handed up the bowls to me and joined me under the covers. We braved the challenge of eating soup in the tent without spilling while we huddled around the rapidly cooling hot water bottle. Rain poured down outside. We pulled the covers up to our noses did our best to ride that fine line between staying hydrated and not having to brave the weather to pee in the night. The struggle was real.
The next morning the sun did it’s best to burn through the clouds and warm us up. It was taking too long so we took matters into our own hands and drove to a hot spring that offered hot baths for 6 soles (about 2 dollars). We got the family size bathroom that had a huge tiled tub with two spigots. The hot water spigot was about three inches in diameter and gushed scalding hot water with great pressure. The cold was smaller but definitely necessary to dampen the heat. We were kind of grubby so we filled the bath once to soap and shampoo and again just to bob around in clean hot water. Clean and refreshed we were ready to continue or explorations of Peru.