Feliz Navidad

Desert Nights

Aside from a couple of major tourist hotspots, our trip through Peru so far had entailed a lot of wandering off the gringo trail. However, once we left the Andes and moved towards the coast, looping back to make our way north towards Lima and beyond, we began following a well-trodden traveller route.

When we arrived in Huacachina, we were somewhat culture shocked. Our first impression of the beautiful oasis in the desert, fringed with palm trees and a handful of streets, was the evident influence of so many travellers: dreadlocked gringos wandered between blankets laid out by others travellers displaying handmade jewellery, restaurants were overpriced, and locals spoke English. It was all a touch tacky and so unrelated to Peru that it could have been supplanted from any touristy spot if it wasn’t for the unusual setting.

Seeing as inflation was evident in the price of accommodation as well as food, we checked into our first dorm since Sam joined me. This turned out to be an excellent move. The couple of nights we stayed there were characterised by a series of raucous drinking games as we got to know our dorm mates. The main new friends comprised of two Aussie guys travelling together, Paddy and Chris, an Aussie girl called Hannah and two Swedish friends both called Daniel, who we to referred to as R2 and D2 to avoid confusion.

Wandering around the next day, the charm of the place began to shine through the initial impressions. We ate at a restaurant overlooking the oasis, appreciating the vast sand dunes surrounding us and amused by the spectacle of R2 and D2 drifting around the water of the oasis on a pedalo, enjoying what appeared to be a romantic man-date as both sung along to the tunes R2 was strumming on his guitar, until their pedalo became entangled in a buoy and they had to be rescued.

The main draw of the place also did a lot to convince us of its worth. In the afternoon we climbed aboard a large dune buggy along with R2, D2, four other travellers and a driver. We drove up out of the oasis and after cresting a large sand dune, we were greeted by the sight of a vast rolling desertscape, utterly beautiful and only interrupted by the sight of a handful of other dune buggies whizzing about.

For the next couple of hours, we careered up and down the often extreme gradients of the sand dunes at high speed, an experience I found more exhilarating than most rollercoasters. We stopped intermittently at the top of choice dunes, unloaded sandboards and zoomed down on our bellies. The advantage of being shorter than most of our male-dominant group, meant that I could fit almost all of my body onto the board and, apparently, comically looked like a penguin whizzing down ice. We watched the sun set, then rolled back down to the oasis just as the light faded.

 

Poor Man’s Galapagos

We left the oasis with pockets full of sand grains which continued to pervade our clothes for the next week, and headed for the coastal village of Paracas. Here, too, the influence of tourists was also evident; the place essentially consisted of a beachside strip of shabby hostels, souvenir stands and restaurants selling unexciting, expensive food, and the only saving graces were the glorious weather and the pelicans bobbing about in the shallow water or waddling on the beach.

However, our reason for the stopover was worthwhile. A boat tour enabled us to visit a small archipelago of three stony islands and twenty-one islets collectively called the Islas. On the way we paused to admire a geoglyph scooped out of the sand in the shape of a candelabra, 177 metres in height. Its origins and purpose are unknown, though there are many theories ranging from a pre-Incan culture of the area creating it as a representation of a holy cactus they used in religious rituals, to a marker made by international pirates to guide passing boats.

When we reached the islands we did not disembark, due both to the high concentration of wildlife and the extreme amount of guano; an agro-rural scheme manages the collection of guano from the islands every eight years, and the last collection yielded 4600 tonnes. We cruised around, admiring the natural arches and caves which provide shelter for a number of species. We passed two beaches of South American Common Sea Lions, often even more cumbersome on land and rock than usual due to pregnancy, and spotted several penguins waddling over a slope of rock towards the sea to go for a group fishing expedition. We also saw Peruvian Boobys clung to the cliffs, Turkey Vultures (whose excretion, FYI, is antiseptic, just on the off chance that that fact ever comes in handy) and multiple species of cormorants, including a colony of Guano Cormorants 40,000 strong and covering the slope of one of the islands as thickly as bees swarming around a hive.

 

Ghost Town to Manic Metropolis

By the time we reached our next destination, we were, once again, off the gringo trail. We took a bus north with only Peruvians as fellow passengers, then a small minibus into the city of the region and finally, a tiny, beaten-up minibus which wheezed its way through a mountainous valley of vineyards and apple orchards to drop us off in the town of Lunahuaná. Immediately upon disembarking, we had a sensation which I’ve experience time and time again on this trip: that we were somehow missing a vital piece of information. The town was a dusty conglomeration of half-finished buildings and many tour agencies, but absolutely no tourists, Peruvian or gringo, despite the fact that the high season had begun. The coral-coloured church in the main square, the beauty of the location, the three-storey colonial hostel we had absolutely to ourselves, and the fact that it seemed like our town to explore made the place delightful to us.

We had been attracted there by a guidebook tip-off about a series of zip lines rumoured to be among Latin America’s longest. However, walking between the tour agencies, we were quickly informed that the lines would be closed for the next six months for maintenance. Not disheartened, we booked a white-water rafting session instead. The river wasn’t quite at its highest yet, but nonetheless we enjoyed rushing downstream, bouncing off the occasionally rock and frantically rowing when our guide commanded.

After our quick stopover, we moved on to Lima just for a couple of nights, in order to peruse the electronic section of the large market that we discovered on our previous visit, to restock on a couple of items. Upon reading a tiny notation on a map provided by our hostel, I found a small alley of bookshops selling second-hand, old and rare books. Though most were, unsurprisingly, written in Spanish, one of the owners climbed a ladder up several shelves to gather a few dusty English volumes from which I picked my next read.

 

A Brief Ascent

Of all the stops during the three weeks of our faster travelling pace, our final choice proved to be the place where we most wished we had more time. The city of Huaraz, locked in a valley created by the Cordillera Blanca mountain range to the east and Cordillera Negro to the west, is the point of access to a set of apparently stunning temple ruins and the base camp for many treks as well as climbing and ice-climbing expeditions. After an overnight bus journey, the first day we just about managed a short outing to the small ruins of Wilcahuaín, a three tier temple. We entered each tier via an incredibly low door which required Sam to nearly bend in half and wandered between several rooms where mummies would have originally been housed. The rest of the day Sam was confined to the bed, the slightly flu-like symptoms, pins and needles, and headache all suggestive of altitude sickness; it didn’t matter that we’d spent over seven weeks at high altitude, we had descended for a week and altitude sickness is not consistent in its choice of people to affect and severity with which to attack.

We did have enough time for one day trip. Along with a minibus load of mostly Peruvian tourists, we toured a small area of the valley accompanied by the dark mountains of the Cordillera Negro on one side and the glacial peaks of the many mountains of the Cordillera Blanca on the other. We drove between small towns selling artisan ice cream (including a beer flavour), pots of a sweet gooey candy (which they like to eat on bread??), and pottery (after a demonstration using a pottery wheel, the owner also showed us a magic teapot he created, where the liquid is poured into the bottom and yet when the teapot is righted, none spills out but is elegantly poured from the spout as usual).

The most sombre part of the day was our visit to Yungay. In 1970, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, caused great devastation in this part of Peru, killing half of Huaraz’s inhabitants and causing an avalanche of rock, ice and snow from the highest mountain the country, which barrelled its way downhill at speeds of 200 miles/hour, wiping out the town of Yungay along with its 25,000 inhabitants in three minutes flat. Only 92 people who sprinted up the steps of the elevated cemetery and 300 who were at a circus in the stadium were saved; the entire town was buried. Now, the site has been declared a national cemetery and excavations are prohibited. The area has been created into a garden, and the only remains of the original town visible are a few remains of the main plaza such as the trunks of four shabby looking palm trees and the ruins of what would have been the top of the church. The rest of the town was seven metres under the ground and it was an eerie and sad feeling to consider the tragedy that had occurred beneath our feet.

Our final stop of the day was Lagunas Llanganuco, a vast turquoise lake surrounded by mountains. A local rowed us out into the centre in a tiny boat so that we could admire the incredible surroundings.

 

So Here It Is

After our sprint up the coast for the last few weeks, we reached our arbitrarily chosen spot for Christmas. As a special treat we had booked an apartment (cheaper and available because, as the owner not so subtly informed us, people really are with their families at Christmas), which had an excessive three bedrooms, two bathrooms, balcony with an ocean view and most importantly, a kitchen WITH AN OVEN, an absolute novelty in Peru, so that Sam could cook a Christmas meal.

We were extremely lucky with our random choice. The small village turned out to be one of my favourite spots so far. It was originally a fishing village, and many tiny reed totora boats were still rowed out by fishermen, but it had also become known as a great surf spot and attracted its fair share of both travellers and Peruvian tourists and locals. Although it was more touristy than some places, it hadn’t quite seemed to realise it; it had a variety of restaurants with tasty, unusual menus and yet the prices were very reasonable; it was a beautiful spot but not yet overdeveloped; it had its fair share of gringos but hadn’t fallen prey to blaring nightclubs and excessive drinking.

One day, we did a little sightseeing in the neighbouring city of Trujillo. The main square was surrounded by colonial buildings painted in pastel shades of blue, red and yellow, with swirling wrought-iron grills over the windows and carved wooden balconies. The square also won the prize for the most over-the-top exhibition of Christmas trees I have ever seen: there were no fewer than 14 huge trees dotted around, each of an individual design, from a shiny one decorated with CDs flashing in the sun to an Eiffel Tower inspired creation. We popped into the yellow cathedral and found its ceiling decorated with imitations of famous works of art which had been adapted, such as Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam with an entirely new background landscape.

Apart from admiring the beauty of its colonial buildings, we also utilised our trip to the city to go shopping. We found a large supermarket, and with some Christmas money from family members, we did our Christmas food shop. After more than nine months of travelling, choosing and cooking your own food becomes unbelievably exciting, so this was a real treat and even I had to admit, when we arrived back in the apartment and unloaded everything onto the table, that we may have gone overboard. Just a tad.

Only a few hours after we had first arrived in the seaside village, we ran into a traveller friend from earlier in my trip called Marty. On Christmas Eve, the three of us had our first surf lesson. Our teacher, Eduardo, demonstrated to us on the beach and we practised standing up, then we paddled out into the water and took it in turns for him to instruct us when to paddle and when to (try to) stand up. Although the waves were pretty small, I was excited that I managed to stand up on my first go and the whole session was great fun. We had the surfboards at our disposal all day, but when we went out by ourselves in the afternoon, when the waves were larger, we found it much harder to catch them.

Christmas Day felt strange. It was sunny. We could see the sea. We tried to get in the festive mood by putting a picture of a Christmas tree on the TV screen, then each opened up a present which we had wrapped in the vacuum bags we use for travelling. I skyped my family in the morning and showed them the beach through the glass doors of our apartment, which steadily became more and more crowded with cars, until by mid-afternoon it was absolutely packed, the cars several rows deep.

Sam spent the morning cooking his first ever Christmas meal. The kitchen was ill-equipped and there were a couple of disasters, such as a glass oven dish shattering and spilling Yorkshire pudding batter and shards over the floor and oven door, but when we sat down to eat our vegetarian spread of food with Marty, it was great: pizza with our own choice of toppings, broccoli, carrots, roast potatoes, and most excitingly of all for me, vegetarian gravy. For dessert Sam had prepared a fruit salad of random Peruvian fruits.

After lunch, the other two went for another surf lesson, which I had to unfortunately sit out of due to a dodgy stomach, so I took to the crowded beach and sat among the Peruvian families to be official photographer of the surf lesson.

The evening wound down with several glasses of wine back in our apartment and more helpings of fruit salad. It may not have been a conventionally Christmassy day, but it was a great one.

 

In celebration of our eighteen month anniversary yesterday, we had an eighteen hour bus journey overnight, travelling through the Andes and into the town of Tarapoto in the Amazonian basin. There, we parted with Marty after a great Christmas together and travelled onwards to another town in the rainforest. This morning is our last contact with the outside world for a while, as we are leaving in half an hour to take a boat for several hours to reach the starting point of our tour. We will be going into the rainforest for quite a while, so our next update won’t be for a bit longer than usual and we will be out of contact until mid January. So, we hope you all had a lovely Christmas, and Happy New Year!

 

Sam’s Section

The Streets of Lima

Our short stopover in Lima provided a stark contrast to our preceding environments. Arriving in the early evening, we had inadvertently coincided our taxi ride with the feverish build-up to a football match. Our expert driver (a very friendly half Mario-half Freddy Mercury look-alike) weaved through side streets and, when we had to cross the standstill traffic on the main avenues, he would lean out of the window and charm his way between cars. Busloads of fans stuck in line were interrupting the chorus of car horns with their chanting. Finally, we reached the metal door that led away from the clamour of central Lima and into the converted mansion of our hostel.

The following night had an equally tense feel. From our balcony we had a prime view to watch as, aggravated by the recent legal changes to their holiday allowance, thousands of young limeños had taken to the streets in a long, disorganised trail. Police jeeps blocked off roads, keeping the protesters and traffic from competing for the same space. After a couple of hours, the march returned past our hostel having completed its loop of the city, although more fiery with the edition of riot police, their batons and the tussles this created.

The days didn’t bring the same volatility, but were replaced with the throngs that any capital city centre attracts. Attending to the crowds were all manner of street sellers, and their wares: 3D wire puzzles, quail eggs, fresh juice and our favourite, hiding from the municipal police, a woman selling toffee apples alongside pink and purple candyfloss. At traffic lights, stalls and beggars took advantage of their targets’ inability to escape, while, in front of the first vehicles, hippies juggled, cartwheeled and threw fire as a means of funding their nomadic life. Opposite our hostel, a park, complete with escaped pet parrots adorning its trees, provided respite, though right across the road a high-end mall played host to a hive of shoppers seeking out Christmas presents for their loved ones.

Although we were able to run a few errands, it was with no regret that we left this humdrum behind to head towards an ever decreasing level of civilisation.

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