Peru for You
Oh dear. We just did that all too common blog thing where we didn’t write anything for a while and now we have too much to say quickly. A lot has (and hasn’t) happened in the past few weeks, so I’ll try to keep things concise.
When we last wrote we had just set off by bus, and oh how the buses did carry us. Leaving from Baños, we headed southward along the Panamerican. Watching the scenery go by the bus windows, our conviction to not continue onward by bicycle was reinforced by mile after mile of busy and often shoulder-less highway. Certainly the countryside in Ecuador is stunning, especially from Riobamba to Cuenca where the road hugs cliff walls dropping thousands of feet into cloud covered valleys, but the roads themselves would offer a uniquely harrowing ride. We ended up in Cuenca for a few days filled by wandering through the colonial streets and enjoying the street art. The miles of terra-cotta tiled roofs and multitude of monstrous churches were a treat to walk around. Our hostel was a nexus of travelers of all sorts, including a lovely couple from Washington state who are retiring to Cuenca and were in the process of apartment hunting. From there we headed south through Lojah to the quiet but increasingly popular town of Vilcabamba.
A few thousand feet lower in elevation than we were used to, Vilcabamba was pleasantly lush and warm. Tucked into a valley of densely vegetated hills, the town claims to host the oldest people in the world due to its mineral rich spring waters. While we didn’t do any carbon dating on anyone ourselves, we can visually confirm that there were some darn old people there. Because of its pleasant climate, beautiful setting and famed waters, Vilcabamba has also more recently seen a boom in gringo retirees, who have transformed this once quiet mountain town into a wonderful hippy mecca. For the first time since we left ultra-liberal Jamaica Plain, we were able to eat local yogurt, granola, smoked gouda, and drink fair traded, shade grown coffee. It was delectable. We got a small apartment at the Rumi Wilco Lodge and spent a week hiking around and pinning down the logistics for our next leg into Peru. Rumi Wilco is owned by a nice Argentinian couple, both of whom are naturalists and have spent the last decade building an amazing ecolodge and nature reserve. They have their own (small) trail network complete with meticulously labeled plants and geographic features along the way. The apartments were built into an abandoned structure that preexisted on the property and offer water from their well, coffee grown on their floodplain and plenty off good company too boot. At Rumi Wilco we had the pleasure of meeting Ian Moor, a British expat who has been traveling by motorcycle from Miami, by way of Alaska, for the past three years. He had plenty of wonderful stories as well as some handy tips for dealing with customs agents.
While there are a number of trails around the town, it proved to be oddly and unexpectedly difficult to actually hike them. It turns out that the trail network was largely developed by a German couple who own a hostel up the road. We were told that when they first opened their hostel and talked to other hostel owners in town about developing a trail network for tourists, the reaction was enthusiastic. But, when it came time to actually build the trails, negotiate rights of way and map the routes, no one was willing to chip in time of money. So, as a misguided retribution on the wrong demographic, the only people who are allowed to even see the maps are those who stay at their hostel. Bummer. There are some trails that you don’t need a map for, however, like the stunning Cerro Mandango loop, up and over a very aesthetic knife’s edge just above the town. If you want to do it, though, you have to be willing to roll the dice, because officially the trail is closed due to the frequency of muggings (about once a year). That said, if you go and would like to hike it, you may very well be fine; people did it every day that we were there and most had no issues at all. But, on one of our last days, news broke that someone had been kidnapped from the summit and was being held for ransom. We never heard how it was resolved, but needless to say, we felt thankful that we had decided to just appreciate the peak from the valley floor.
All in all, we spent a little over a week of very relaxing days in Vilcabamba but were ready to move on when the time came. We boarded a bus to Lojah, bought our tickets for Puira, Peru for the following day and spent the night wondering if it was going to work. As I’m sure many of you already know, it did. If you ever feel like there are too many rules in life, just enter Peru by land and it will reaffirm your beliefs that there are still countries you could enter on your library card*. The first major hurtle of the day was just boarding the bus. We had heard from a number of travelers that none of the border crossing bus companies would take a dog, even if you were able to get it across the border. But, with Vanessa’s award winning smile and some of her patented negotiating, we were let on and Fern happily settled onto my jacket under the seat. Over four near-walking-speed hours we wound our way out of the mountains for the first time since we arrived in Quito. The air grew thicker and hotter and other passengers stopped complaining as we inched our windows open. When we finally arrived at the border of Peru, it was midday, hot and relatively flat. At the border, you disembark from the bus and cross over by foot, so we climbed down, armed with fistfuls of papers, ready to plead our case for Fern’s entry. We checked out of Ecuador and walked over the bridge. Then, as we were walking, we saw something that alleviated all of the pent up fears we had been slowly accumulating: a beat up pick up truck with no muffler cruised by with three collarless barking dogs in the bed. They passed with no questions. Awesome. If they can do it, Fern can do it. Fern, the most documented, collared, immunized and tested dog in the entirety of Ecuador. The border official appeared to be a teenage boy and Vanessa easily talked him into 120 days on our visas as opposed to the standard 90. We walked out, checked through the police station, boarded the bus and took off. Fern was never so much as mentioned by a single official on either side. With flat desert roads stretching ahead of us and a successful border crossing behind, we cruised on toward Piura, arriving in the early evening.
Seemingly the second you cross the border into Peru the land flattens and instantly transforms into a Mad Max style desert. Endless sand dunes, rocky mountains in the distance and dry, cracked river beds as far as the eye can see. Trees all but cease to exist and, what little vegetation does live here is comprised of a few scattered succulents and hearty looking shrubs. It is beautiful, completely different from anything we had seen in Ecuador, and Piura is in the middle of it. Maybe it was the border crossing high, or maybe just because we had read such crummy things about hot, dusty Piura, that the city surprised us. Although it sprawls into near endless messy urban-ness, the colonial center really is quite beautiful. We had dinner and ice-cream around a stately plaza and listened to a marching band (one of Fern’s most favorite pastimes) play brass heavy latin renditions of jazz standards. While it definitely was hot, it was a very dry heat and there was a nice breeze all afternoon and night. Still, come the next day, we were ready to see the ocean, so we hopped into a minibus and gunned it toward Chiclayo, stopping only long enough to catch a rickshaw toward the beach town of Pimentel. We weren’t really sure what to expect, but we knew, at very least, we could jump into the ocean by the evening. It turns out, Pimentel, while not terrible, is an odd mix of sad beach town trying to regain its identity and industrial fishing depot. The town seems to have been hit had by something, but we could ever figure out what. An earthquake? The tough economy? We still aren’t sure. It appears like it was once grand, but is now in a state of uncommon disrepair, trying to rebuild its status as a tourist destination. Don’t get us wrong, we were glad to be there and the ocean was beautiful, but we knew there were better beach towns out there.
There were some things to be seen though. A beautiful pedestrian promenade along the water front made for nice walking and fishing boats of all shapes and sizes were “dry docked” on the beach waiting for new paint. Traditional fishing rafts made of bound reeds called “Caballitos de Torta” were propped up against just about everything, drying out after the day’s haul. There was no shortage of colorful characters to watch and beachside cafes to sit in, and we got to see some of our first Peruvian Hairless Dogs. They look exactly how you imagine them to, making you simultaneous feel an intense urge to pet them and shiver in aversion. Although we thought she might be fascinated by them, Fern doesn’t even seem to register them on her radar.
But, after just a single night in Pimentel, we hit the road again and headed southward along the coast to Huanchaco. Once again we were met with a bleakly beautiful drive through the desert, ending up in Peru’s third largest city, Trujillo, three hours later. From there we grabbed a cab and headed directly toward the coast, just a few kilometers outside of town, to the once-fishing-town-now-surf-capital of Huanchanco. This time, the coast didn’t disappoint. While not the tropical beaches that much of South and Central America are famous for, the desert beach of Huanchaco is still quite beautiful. There are vegetarian restaurants on every street corner with surf schools in between. The town is a sneaky 18,000 residents, feeling more like there are about 2,000. On the weekends the beach draws large crowds and the streets overflow with street vendors hawking their goods and dangerously tasty snacks. We got a room at the McCullum Hostal, where it’s a true challenge to discern who is part of the family and who is a traveler. We’re two blocks from the beach and up on the airy third floor where the ocean breeze is like an amazing natural air conditioning. This hostel also holds the superlative of having the best shower this side of the equator.
Huanchaco’s bord is lined with guys selling makeshift fishing reels and bait
And what have we been doing with all this time? Plenty of relaxing and swimming. There are no rules about dogs on the beach here, so Fern has, for the first time, discovered the joys of lying under a big umbrella in the sand as waves lap the shoreline. It’s been wonderful. Also, Vanessa found a neat little Spanish school and has been taking lessons there every day. I signed up with Indigan Surf School and have been slowly and awkwardly learning to not drink the ocean as I get pummeled by waves. Fern has been soaking up a little down time and is enjoying the new title of “Princess of The Hostel” given to her by the family who owns our digs here. We started running on the beach in the mornings before it gets too hot, and exchanging a half hour of English conversation for a half hour of Spanish conversation with a fried dough vendor on the boardwalk at night. The sunsets every night are worth the trip down here alone.
Lovely white washed McCullum has been a great home for us here in Huanchaco
Fortune of fortunes, we bumped back into Ian, the British motorcyclist, the other day shortly after he arrived in town. He’s been well and had no trouble at the border crossing. We made a date for the next morning and took a day trip to see some of the pre-Incan ruins around town, including the extremely impressive Chan Chan – a long since abandoned city along the coast between Trujillo and Huanchaco that, at its height, had a population of over 30,000. ”Ruins”, it turns out, is a very accurate word for it. The buildings were made entirely of mud bricks and thatch, so after hundreds of years of ocean mist and beating sun, what’s left is an eerie collection of rubble and mounds of sand. The government has gone to great lengths to rebuild one of the seven “palaces” that comprised the majority of the city and has really done a stunning job of it. The outside walls must be 40 feet high and 10 thick at the base, and house a labyrinth of passage ways, courtyards, ceremonial pools and rooms. We visited early in the day to beat the heat, and as an unintended result, we were the only ones there, getting to wander the open air corridors all by ourselves.
We read that these are meant to be sea otters. We don’t believe it. That, or this was a city of 30,000 terrible artists
So that’s about it. We’ll be hanging out here for another week or so, continuing to work on our sun burns and destroy the Spanish language. In the off chance that anyone is reading this for actual travel information, I promised the Urica family over at Indigan that I’d put a little plug for them in here. They really are great. Run by Santos and his three surf-champion sons, they’re seemingly the most laid back school you can get. The price is hard to beat too. I worked out a deal with them for five lessons and 15 days of rental for the board and wetsuit, for which Santos cut the normal rate in half. At any rate, if you’re coming here and are interested in surfing, I don’t think you could do much better than the Uricas over at Indigan. Just be ready for Santos to tell you that you’re bad at Spanish. Which is likely true.
Those wonderful Uricas over at Indigan will take good care of you
*please note, you can not actually enter Peru on your library card.