Land of The Bean
Lima. City of champions. Well, I’m not sure if that’s what anyone actually calls it, but that’s where we are. And you know what? We like it. After having people tell us that Lima is horrible for four months, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Where have we been for the past month? Huaraz of course.
Huaraz proved to be a wonderful place to spend a mountainous month. We settled in easily, and quickly found a volunteer opportunity with Seeds of Hope, an after school program for underprivileged youth in Huaraz. The city, as we learned, has acted as a magnet for destitute farmers from the surrounding mountains, looking for economic opportunity. A great majority of the kids that Seeds of Hope helps come from homes with illiterate parents and without basic utilities. To complicate matters, the Peruvian education system is frustratingly focused on pushing kids though as fast as possible, not having the funding or manpower to actually come to the aid of most of these first generation students with no home support system. In that educational vacuum, a number of NGOs have popped up, trying to bridge that gap and keep kids learning. As Yuri, one of the founders of Seeds says, education is the only way to break the circle of poverty. And without programs like Seeds of Hope, the schools alone are ill-equipped to lift their students up. Helping about 50 of the most wonderful kids in the world, we worked with Seeds, helping with homework, preparing snacks and throwing kids into the air in between. The students of Seeds of Hope are so appreciative to just be there, have a place to work that has lights and running water, and get fed a snack, that while still occasionally off the wall, they are a pleasure to be around. Polite, hard working and endlessly fun. We’ll most certainly be missing them.
It was a tough job, but someone had to play with those kids
In between days at Seeds, having kiddos reaffirm everything good in the world, we spent breaks and weekends exploring some of the most stunning mountains we’ve ever seen. Huaraz is indeed tucked into a few of the most awe-inspiring mountains on the face of the planet. The only down side is that, like all the truly high peaks around the globe, these mountains are almost better when you just look and don’t touch. They’re like a dangerous animal at a zoo; lovely to see, but gosh they’re tough as nails when you challenge them to a wrestling match. Short of mountaineering, the hiking is confined to ascending steep sided glacial moraines called quebradas, derived from the Spanish word for “gap”, as in, the gap or break in the mountains. While the hiking itself would be less than challenging if it were at sea level, or roughly thereabouts, even the modest inclines of the quebradas quickly reminds you that you are a good bit higher. With Huaraz itself at 10,000 feet, by the time you near the base of a quebrada, your feet are clunking along at over 13,000 feet. Then you ascend. The air is frustratingly thin and the sun equally relentless, fueled not only by the elevation, but also by the proximity to the equator. We read somewhere that the mountains in this area are the closest to places on earth to the sun, thanks to their extreme elevation and our planet’s bulging waistline. Twin peaked Huascaran at 22,205 feet is not only the tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, but also holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain in the all of the tropics globally. It looks it too. Beautiful to be certain, but these mountain indeed pack a punch. Hikes that should otherwise be simple, leave you creamed, head pounding, and sunburnt regardless of how much cream you slather on. Walking around town it’s usually easy to spot the trekkers who have just returned from a few days in the backcountry, roasted to a crisp. Don’t get us wrong though, they’re worth it. Every painful step, every sunburnt nose, the Cordillera Blanca will wreck your body but you’ll barely notice, staring up at the glaciated 20,000 foot peaks looming above and turquoise lakes below.
In the end we only put in a few weekend and day hikes, opting to work longer with the kids at Seeds as opposed to tackling one of the longer circuits. Even so, just the mountains surrounding the city itself are more than enough to fill your belly. Not more than a few kilometers outside of the city center, civilization quickly gives way to pastureland, and not long there after, pastureland gives way to untamable, glacially sculpted peaks. All you need to do is pick which quebrada you’ll be heading up and hike off. The quebradas themselves, while playing second fiddle to the summits above, are by all means in their own rights things of equally majestic beauty. Generally not more than a quarter mile wide, their steep walls soar thousands of dizzyingly sheer cliff walled feet overhead, punctuated every few hundred yards by cascading waterfalls. I read that the glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca are some of the fastest melting in the world, creating innumerable torrential cascades down the quebrada walls by mid afternoon daily. Then, like a faucet, the cascades slow to a trickle as the ice above solidifies over night, only to start up again by the following noon. It’s a world unlike almost any we’ve seen. Barren and inhospitable, austerely beautiful, and uniquely enticing.
The mountains around Huaraz host a million unique shades of turquoise in their lakes
While we were in Huaraz, they held an annual festival in which traditional dancers wound through the streets in throngs, coxswained by drum and flute ensembles. These groups were dancing to absolve themselves of sin, a tradition that is an amalgamation of both Spanish catholicism and shamanistic holdovers from long ago. The dancers dance their way through the city for seven days once a year for seven years on a colorful and rhythmic path to a good life. The shacshas , as they are called, were beautiful to watch and had a knack for rounding a corner in some distant end of town just when you least expected it, turning the entire city into a spontaneous parade route 24 hours a day.
Shacshas are like flash mobs. Traditional Andean flash mobs
Also around Huaraz are some amazing hot springs, most notably the steam caves at Chancos. Built into a hillside below the Huascaran massif, the ultra-touristified Epcot Village “town” of Chancos is a mecca for ailing Peruvians and tourists alike. The facilities appear to have seen a facelift recently and what’s left is something of a bionic village, half real and half hospitality center. None the less the steam caves themselves are utterly amazing. From the main gate, you enter a courtyard with what look to be a series of changing rooms built along the rock face abutting the complex. These rooms are actually entry ways into private natural steam caves, each marked with a temperature rating ranging from 40 to over 50 degrees celsius. Without any guidance and only poorly remember the upper bounds of celsius, I nabbed the 45. Once inside, there was a small changing area that gave way to an inner chamber of raw stone and stalactites, in which steam would billow from cracks in the rock ceiling, walls and floor. Five Sol bought me 15 minutes of sulfur-odored, skin-melting steaming, although I think I would have been hard pressed to stay in it any longer.
These are some of the least interesting photographs we’ve ever taken, sadly they’re all that survived steamy Chancos
On another weekend trip outside of Huaraz, we visited the Campo Santo on what was once the town of Yungay. In a massive earthquake in 1970 that leveled nearly all cities in the northern mountains of Peru, Huaraz included, a significant portion of the glacier topping Huascaran let go and went plummeting down the west face of the mountain in a gigantic avalanche. Just 15 minutes after the avalanche was triggered, the town of Yungay was completely buried instantly killing all but a handful of its over 30,000 residents. The only few that survived were the few that were visiting graves of relatives in the hilltop citadel-like cemetery, stranded on what quickly became a small rocky island in a sea of mud, ice, and debris. Today the original Yungay is a commemorative field that you can visit to pay your respects and have a picnic. Although idyllic and beautiful, it has the feel of an enormous mass grave, landscaped beautifully with gardens and monuments. Tucked along one side of the field you can even see a bus that was obliterated in the disaster, contorted to the extent that without the explanative sign you would be unsure of what it is. It’s eerie and amazing all at once. Today Nuevo Yungay acts as a launching point or expeditions up Huascaran, rebuilt about a kilometer north of the original Yungay.
Yungay’s Campo Santo gives you the willies. It’s strange to think that you’re walking above an entire town
Then, all too soon, we bid the Benkawasi Hostel, Seeds of Hope, and Huaraz a fond goodbye and embarked on our leg to Lima. After being turned away from a few buses, we finally found one that agreed to take us on the eight hour ride. Since we entered Peru, we’ve been battling against a new law, enacted just this past year, prohibiting dogs and other animals from riding on buses. Apparently, past are the days of clucking chickens and bleating goats providing bus ride entertainment. Although some bus companies will still let you half sneak your pooch on board, technically, if they have a cargo hold, they’re not allowed to and face the prospect of hefty fines at police checkpoints along the highway. With that knowledge setting the stage, we couldn’t have seen the one bus that agreed to take her depart quickly enough. We had arrived early and Fern was, to the drivers knowledge, safely hidden under the seat. A few minutes before leaving, though, a manager of the company saw her and started a stink. The bus driver boarded to speak with us and pretended that he had never seen Fern, scolding us for sneaking her on without their knowledge. When only moments before we thought we were finally in the clear, we found ourselves being escorted off the bus and our money being refunded. Bummer. After looking at some other options, we ended up just paying a collectivo driver named Percy to take us all the way to Lima. A collectivo is kind of a long distance (or sometimes short) shared taxi, each rider paying a fixed price to travel to the common destination. Percy was used to the drive we were about to take. Well, the first half of it anyway, as that’s where his collectivo route normally turned around.
Loaded into the Percy-mobile, we took off. Not more than about a half hour down the road we ran into what Percy promised to be the first and only police checkpoint. Technically, collectivos traveling to distant cities are illegal, Percy just doesn’t have the kind of taxi license. But what’s not illegal would be Percy going to Lima to visit his grandma. Percy stopped about a quarter mile shy of the checkpoint, a group of police officers standing guard on a bridge. He told us that he wouldn’t be able to cross with us in the car, that if the police saw a driver with two foreigners, they would be preeeeetty sure that he wasn’t just going to visit his grandma. So we had to walk. ”Walk? Over the bridge?” we asked. Correct. Then he’d pick us up on the other side. We figured that we had nothing to lose as we hadn’t yet paid him anything, so we shouldered our backpacks, grabbed Fern and walked on. The police on the bridge were duly dubious, as there were no towns within a 20 mile radius, but we just kept smiling and insisting that we didn’t speak any Spanish. Percy had already been pulled over and was waving his hand to us at waist level, trying to indicate unsuccessfully that we either were or were not supposed to do something. We ignored him and passed. On the other side, we continued walking along the highway’s shoulder, onward to our yet to be determined pickup location. Rounding a bend, we finally found ourselves out of the sightline of the police, and no sooner had we arrived did we see Percy whipping around the same corner, coming to a screeching stop next to us. Urging us on, we jumped in quickly and he took off. Miraculously, he was not lying and that was indeed the only road bump for the entire eight hours. We made it to Lima just as night fell, barely making it across the city alive in what must have been Lima rush hour. We checked into the Red Psycho Llama (yes, really) Hostel, a recommendation of Benkelo’s in Huaraz, and have been exploring the city ever since.
What doesn’t suck about Lima? Well, a lot it turns out. Granted we are staying in Miraflores, one of the nicest areas of the city, but still, we stand by it; Lima is neat. The flower covered, park lined sea cliffs that boarder the city to the west, the colonial churches with labyrinths of catacombs below and the beautiful and seemingly endless perfectly manicured city parks and bike paths. There are craft markets of a rarely high quality around every corner, paragliders that hover over the cliffs like raptors, and even a few vegetarian restaurants. We’ve mostly been exploring the neighborhoods of Miraflores and Barranco, admittedly the two most tourist friendly upscale areas of the city, but we still like both of them a lot. We’ve even decided to move here and open a bar in Barranco named “Barranco Bama”. Get it? Hopefully the Limeños will too. To be certain, Lima is a city that’s making great efforts to change its crappy image, and it’s working. Sure it’s still a busy, dirty South American megalopolis, but there are more than enough redeeming factors to keep it safely out of the “don’t go” column. If you’re coming this way, our recommendation would be to not skip Lima. Also, this is where lima beans are from. That’s a fact. Well, they’re from around Peru in general, but we read that when the Peruvians first started exporting them to the rest of the world, the burlap sacks in which they were shipped listed “Lima” as their port of origin. Thus was born the lima bean. Kids everywhere have Peru to thank for crappy dinners. The good news is that they’re delicious down here. As it turns out, we just stink at cooking them.
Colonial libraries, public photo contests in the park, lovely pedestrian ways along the cliffs. What’s not to love?
The catacombs of San Francisco; one of Lima’s finest places to see thousands of dead people
The paragliders soaring up and down the coast are like giant colorful buzzards without the carrion