We left our comfy hotel in Barranco and attempted to take the metro to the airport. However, rush hour proved too much of an obstacle for our backpacks on the crowded trams so we hailed a cab. We had barely enough Peruvian soles to make it. Kurt was anxious about the restrictions of flying because we had traveled solely overland during the previous nine months. We were taking Viva Colombia, a discount airline, which has the usual reputation of forcing one to jump through hoops to avoid excessive charges. I told Kurt all will be well, let’s just be open to whatever happens. After Paying Viva Colombia’s bogus “foreigner arrival fee”, we boarded a quick three hours flight to Bogotá. Our carry-on and checked bags passed an easy inspection. Upon arrival in Bogotá, we chatted for about five minutes with the immigration agent about places we had been in Colombia and tips on Fin del Mundo, a place regrettably we had not been. My fond memories of happy moments in Colombia gave me a wild idea. I suggested scrapping the San Blas plan for now and heading south in Colombia to return to some of our favorite spots and to see some places we missed the first time around. We spent the night in Bogotá to give the idea some thought. In the morning, we decided that it was best to continue with our original plan and head for Central America.
It is funny to me that we assumed that we wouldn’t like Lima and skipped it entirely the first time through. We had to return because it is the transportation hub for not only the country but for this region of South America. Surprisingly, we ended up liking it so much that we stayed there altogether for 10 nights. I felt right at home in the little bohemian neighborhood of Barranco. We developed a routine there, taking frequent strolls to our favorite spots. Lima is a gastronomic paradise. It was hard to leave the wonderful food and tranquil atmosphere we discovered.
The best part of Cusco was getting to spend time with friends and family. We stayed in a sweet little hotel with five rooms in the San Blas neighborhood run by a Peruvian family and ate daily at some fantastic vegetarian restaurants. We ran into people we met in Chachapoyas, Yarinacocha and Potosí months before. The Cusco region is a major hub for travelers.
After our time in Tacna, we wanted to spend a few days in a tranquil coastal town with a good swimming beach before heading to Cusco. We were told Boca del Rio was nice so we headed there. The bus ride was pretty short, only an hour away. When we arrived, we found a ghost town of closed shops and empty beaches. It was beautiful but without any people, it felt soulless. We walked back to the highway to hitch a ride farther up the coast.
After forty-seven hours in Chile, we landed in Tacna, a Peruvian city near the southern border. The Lonely Planet refers to it as merely a “staging post” to Chile. Since Kurt and I like to explore less popular cities and towns off the beaten path, not just tourist destinations, we decided to give it a try.
It was a treat to become immersed once again in a culture of friendly and helpful Peruanos. Upon arriving we were looking for a certain hotel and when we appeared lost a nice man on the street offered to help us.
Tacneños are a pround people. They were some of the first South Americans to fight the Spanish for independence over 200 years ago. Many lost their lives in the War of the Pacific in the 1880s. After fifty years of occupation by Chile, they voted to rejoin Perú in 1929.
We found a nice hotel and settled in, eating daily at the market, seafood soup and fresh banana batidos. In the evenings, we dined on pizza at a restaurant near our hotel and at a place with homemade pasta across from the cathedral. Copious amounts of fresh local olive oil were on offer as a free condiment.
It was hard to leave considering the nice people and laid back vibe of the city. The weather was actually perfect. It felt like Southern California near the beach. The only other foreigners we encountered were a couple from Fontana, California on their way to Mendoza, Argentina to look at retirement properties.
We ventured into the cathedral numerous times over our days in town to witness Easter services we’d never seen before. On Easter morning, we spent three and a half hours at a spa enjoying dry sauna, steam baths, massages and maracuya juice. That evening, we could hear “How Great Though Art” being sung in Spanish somewhere near our hotel.
We spent one morning on a trip out to the local hot springs. Our hotelier told us it was only 20 minutes away by bus but to our surprise (or lack of surprise as I’ve learned the Latin American interpretation of time is far from actuality) it took an hour, but it was a beautiful ride through grape orchards and rising desert hills. We arrived at the somewhat abandoned hot springs complex (we were not there during high season) and found the main pool to be nearly empty. The man at the ticket booth told us that private baths were still functioning and we could go there. We took a half hour bath in a 40C tub. Our skin felt silky smooth when we left and we were so relaxed that we fell asleep on the bus back to town.
After Chachapoyas, we made our way to the high jungle town of Tarapoto, farther off the traveler’s trail. In Tarapoto, we spent time working online and plotting our next move and further plans. Shall we go to Portugal in May? Shall we book now or wait? I found a flight for only $415 from Lima to Copenhagen. From there, Lisbon was only a cheap flight away. We dined daily at a delicious vegetarian restaurant and spent our nights eating coconuts in the living room of a family down the street from our hotel. In the posh coffee shop on the main plaza, I struck up a conversation with a man wearing a Texas Rangers hat. He is from Marfa and lives in Tarapoto. I got a sense about him and asked about the Masonic lodges present in Peruvian cities. The man said that he hasn’t been and wouldn’t go without a handbook from the G.L.T. I was right. This man was indeed a fellow Master Mason. We talked for a time about taking a boat to Iquitos and other things including bad directions to the local market. After five or so days in Tarapoto and hearing Eastern chants played nightly by our Peruvian hoteliers, we made our miserable trip to Pucallpa by car.
I had talked to a friend who had lived in the region about traveling from Tarapoto to Pucallpa by car during the rainy season. My friend advised against it. When I asked if he had done it, the response was an overwhelming “Nope!” We opted for the more expensive car with four passengers rather than a minivan with more. We neglected to ask the age of each vehicle, something we would later regret. Just before 3am, a decrepit Toyota station wagon loaded atop with furniture pulled in front of our hotel. A female journalist was in the back seat. Her brother in law was in the front passenger seat. Kate sat in the middle of the back seat. I sat on the reWiar passenger side. My portion of the bench seat was slanted down toward the door. I would sit in this seat for the next ten or so hours to Tingo Maria. Several hours later, a brand new minivan with the same company’s logo passed us on a gravel road through the higher jungle. We arrived at a breakfast place where passengers from the same van were finishing their meals. I looked inside their new van and noticed plenty of room and supportive seats with headrests. The passengers loaded inside and took off. We never saw the van again. In Tingo, we transferred to a less decrepit station wagon with the journalist who told us of the lovely shopping malls in Pucallpa. A portion of the road between Tingo and Pucallpa was closed for an hour or more so that it could be cleared of mudslides. By the time we reached Pucallpa, we had been traveling 16 hours in the most uncomfortable fashion. We took a mototaxi to the main plaza, looked at a number of gross hotels then negotiated a room in the nicest hotel in town from 240 to 80 soles a night. I’m sure they were different rooms but still. It was nice. No A/C though but we had two fans. We ended the exhausting travel by dining at a nearby Adventist vegetarian restaurant.
We spent a couple of days orienting ourselves before venturing into the jungle and exploring the lake, Yarinacocha. I saw monkeys during a solo hike where I got lost in the jungle for a few hours. We took a boat tour where we saw several types of iguanas, birds and a sloth. We took a public boat to the Shipibo village of San Francisco. On the way back, we saw river dolphins then thousands of black and white birds. We decided that we would go to Portugal but then discovered that the flight costs had doubled since we last checked and that Kate parents would not be able to meet us there. We rethought our plan and concluded that we are in South America now so lets make the most of it then go home overland via Central America.
Palpa and Nazca
Palpa was never on our itinerary. We ended up there completely by accident. We took an overnight bus from Pucallpa to Lima and when we arrived in the big city, we decided to just keep on pressing. What’s another 5 hours when you have been in the bus for 19 hours already? We continued to Ica, where we knew a friend’s cousin lived. We tried connecting with him but he wasn’t in Ica that weekend. We searched for a hotel but a teachers conference had the whole city booked. We then took an auto rickshaw to Huacachina, a small touristy oasis in the desert known for its giant sand dunes, to try to stay there for the night. But alas, no suitable room to be found. We did stumble upon a very good vegetarian restaurant and splurged on hummus for the first time since we have been down here. It was nice.
After our second strikeout, Kate did a little more research and discovered a town about half way to Nazca called Palpa. Off the beaten track, it has only a few hotels. We arrived late and checked into the nicest hotel in town and hit the hay. The next day we were happy to find the Sunday market, eating fruit, batidos, bread and tamales for breakfast. We checked out the church and sat in the plaza when unexpectedly a marching band began playing music behind us. There didn’t appear to be any special occasion and the plaza was almost empty. In the afternoon we took an auto rickshaw to Manantial a la Maquina, a beautiful spring fed pool on the outskirts of town, an activity we would repeat the next day. For just 3 soles we took a dip in the water with some local Peruvians. The lagoon was full of tiny fish that nibbled on our feet and legs when we stood still for too long. The cool refreshing water was the perfect way to spend the afternoon. Afterward, we walked up a rocky, desert hill to look upon a solar clock created by the Paracas culture and view the lush Palpa valley contrasted by the surrounding desert. On our walk back, we bought the juiciest oranges we’d ever eaten. Palpa is known for its oranges. They were so juicy that we’d have to drink them as we peeled them. Yes folks, that juicy. Another day, we took a colectivo to the nearby town of Llipata and walked to a mirador in the middle of the desert to view other Paracas designs. The Paracas culture based around Palpa is significantly older than the Nazca culture and is where the Nazca got their ideas. We learned this during our free personal tour of the Palpa museum.
We spent one night in Nazca so that we could fly over the Nazca Lines. Definitely worth it. We made the trip with a Colombian lady and her mom. It felt good to tell them how much we love their country.
We caught a night bus on Cruz del Sur to Arequipa. We learned that it isn’t worth paying for this high end bus line unless you get the most expensive seats. They were sold out. We would have been more comfortable in the most expensive seats on a lesser line. Arriving in Arequipa, we shared a taxi to the center with a couple from France. They had a hotel reservation but we took our chances and looked around. We found a quiet place on the opposite end of the main plaza from them and didn’t see them for the rest of the time we were in Arequipa. We saw the beautiful cathedral that night and felt a presence there that we hadn’t felt since Colombia. I suggested that we stay only one night in Arequipa but Kate wanted to stay two and we agreed on that after realizing that we had plenty of time to meet Indira in La Paz and do what we want to do. On the second day, we saw the amazing San Ignacio Chapel then walked an hour circle seeking restaurants Kate had read about. All three were out of business. We met some Frenchmen on the street that we met the morning before at a charity bakery and they invited us to lunch with them. The restaurant was out of fish so Kate couldn’t eat there. It was Friday and during Lent. We found a local place and ate for almost nothing then walked to the river where we found a skatepark. A bunch of kids were hanging out. One was skating. I borrowed his board and cruised around the park to sounds of cheers from the kids. Pedestrians stopped and looked. After thanking the kid, we crossed the river and made our way to the La Recoleta Monastery Museum which had incredible pieces from all of Peru. Some were quite sad though, especially the taxidermy of the many Amazonian species and the photos of indigenous people in square missionary clothing. The library there is a treasure of very, very old books.
Earthquakes in Colca Canyon
The next morning, we left early to catch an 8am bus to Cabanaconde but were told that it wasn’t available and one would leave at 11am so we had to wait. Three other Americans purchased tickets for the same bus, one was from Houston and went to school in Austin. He was finishing medical school in Dallas. We arrived in Cabanaconde early evening and checked into our comfortable hotel with a wood fired oven in its restaurant. A Jamaican man working there, told us that there was an earthquake early that morning and another 30 minutes before we arrived. He would leave tomorrow he said. This didn’t sound good. We hung out in our room a bit. Kate felt aftershocks when I was seeking water and fruit in the town. That night, we dined on delicious wood fired pizza, not as good as in Baños, Ecuador mind you but still very good and relaxed in the ambiance of the probably only heated room in town. We felt an earthquake when we went to bed. It was alarming. Then, another thirty minutes later. At 7am the next morning, we felt the strongest. Going down into the canyon seemed like a bad idea at this point. We’d have to skip it. We walked to a mirador over the canyon and discussed what we should do. Should we risk it? When we returned to the hotel, we found the French couple that we shared the cab with when arriving in Arequipa coincidentally sitting traumatized near the door to our room. They had arrived the day before, hiked down into the canyon and spent the night there. All through the night, they felt earthquakes and heard boulders falling down the canyon walls. They were concerned that boulders might roll into their cabana. After the 7am earthquake that morning, they knew they had to get out and hired mules to take them up the trail which now had crumbled. Boulders were continuing to fall. The animals were in a state of panic. They came across a woman covered in blood but still alive. She was being taken out on a stretcher. Their story confirmed our decision. We decided to leave as well. They pointed us to another mirador where we could see where they came from but we went to another mirador by accident and saw two condors circling about. It was magical. We saw the three Americans that we rode in with on a tourist van headed out. I was happy to see that they didn’t go into the canyon. Our bus out was full of foreigners, many with a similar traumatic story as our French friends. We had to stand because we weren’t going all the way to Arequipa. The Jamaican guy told us of a hotel with a hot spring inside of it an hour and a half away but still inside the canyon. It was supposed to be cheap and a paradise. We walked all over that village and no one knew what we were talking about. Weird. We took a van to the canyon’s largest town of Chivay nearby and joined our traumatized French friends at the same hotel. This end of the canyon did not feel the earthquakes. The next morning, we left the hotel before sunrise and walked to the hot springs outside of town. The walk was gorgeous and the springs were very hot.
Most foreigners leave Colca Canyon for Puno direct by tourist bus for $40 U.S. dollars per person. Kate and I found this price ridiculous and decided to do it the way locals do it. We took a bus from Chivay to a stop in the road called Pampas Cañaus and waited in the sun for forty minutes for a bus with two empty seats. We had local competition. The other couple took a bus with an empty co-pilot seat and space in the stairwell. Five minutes later, we boarded a bus with huge seats that turn into beds and made our way to the city of Juliaca where we caught a van to Puno. It took us an extra hour or so but only cost us $8.50 U.S. each to get there. We spent two nights in Puno relaxing. We didn’t see the reed islands because we heard that no one lives on the ones open to tourists and really the experience is just a tourist trap. Puno is on Lake Titicaca at incredible elevation. Kate had a horrible headache and we weren’t sure what to do. The first night, I went for take out at a vegetarian restaurant owned by a doctor. He suggested a magnesium powder for Kate which just wiped her headache out completely and immediately. The following day, we walked the boardwalk along the lake then happened upon a busy skatepark where I quickly borrowed a board. The 14 year old kid I borrowed the board from challenged me to a game of S-K-A-T-E. I was a bit unsure of my flip trick skills considering my age and how little time I’ve been on a board lately. The kid went up 0 – 3 pretty quickly then 1 – 3. Then I was inspired to bring out very simple early 80s freestyle tricks that Ric Frazier taught me when I was 12 years old. Bingo. I evened the score at 4 – 4 with “walk the dog” then put the nail in the coffin with the cheesy late 80s boneless adaptation “thread the needle”. The kid kept asking in Spanish, what was that?! He wanted another chance and I said sure. He did a kick flip but I landed one perfectly just after with my renewed confidence. Not bad considering I was triple that kid’s age!
One of the best foods we found in South America is olluco, a root vegetable related to the potato but with a softer more moist texture. We were served them by a friend in Santiago, Colombia and then we bought some at the market in Chachapoyas, Peru. The friendly hostel owner assisted us in making our dinner that evening. Below is the recipe: Continue reading “Olluco Recipe”
How often does one wake up not knowing that they would visit pre-Incan ruins built atop a 9,000 foot mountain? We opted for a guided tour offered by our hostel, Chachapoyas Backpackers. This was the first time we ventured on this type of guided outing and it did not disapppoint. We made our way to the van, piled in with about 14 other travelers and began the drive to Kuelap. It had been rainy and dreary since we entered Peru just at the beginning of January and this day was no exception. The road curved smoothly along a rushing river for a while and after about an hour we started to climb a dirt road that was extremely muddy. Outside the left-hand window was a vertical drop, sometimes several thousand feet down. Our guide, Ernando, pointed to the top of a high mountain near some distant trees saying “See, there you can see it.” We had a way to go. Our trip to the top of the mountain was only met with one minor road slide where men hopped out of tour vans in front of us throwing boulders off the side of the road. We made it to Kuelap around 11:30 AM.