Monday, June 29, 2009

The amazing race off the gringo trail

Rice field in the Rio Marañón Basin

We left Chiclayo early in the morning anticipating a long drive into the northern Peruvian highlands. Our plan was to stop for the night in the village of Chachapoyas before venturing out the following day on unpaved roads of unknown quality to the remote ruins of Kuelap. We made good time crossing Peru's lowest pass in the Andes at 7,000 feet before descending into the Rio Marañón basin. Our hearts sank when our rapid progress was halted in the humid river valley as traffic came to an abrupt stop. We had heard of but never encountered protesters blocking roads and figured that our luck had run out. However, we were approached by a police officer who informed us that the road from the valley to Chachapoyas was closed every day from 6 am until 6 pm for repairs. We could join the growing crowd of cars, buses, and trucks and wait for the road to reopen at 6 pm. While we strive to never drive at night, this time we had no choice. Little did we anticipate that the most harrowing aspect of this drive would not be driving in the dark, but navigating the throngs of impatient Peruvians in a fight to the death to see who could be the first on the road when it reopened. People returned to their cars around 5:30 pm, started honking their horns and revving their engines at 5:45, and at 6 pm the floodgates were opened. We have noted with some irritation that Peruvians are by far the worst drivers we have encountered on this trip, and they truly lived up to their bad reputation in this situation. There was no waiting quietly in line for their turn here. A narrow two lane dirt road was turned into a three lane, one-way demolition derby, as twelve hours of pent up frustration were released over the course of several short minutes. It all seemed to work out though, since we didn't see any fender-benders, cars rolled into a ditch, or fiery explosions. Just after dark around 7 pm, we rolled into the small town of Pedro Ruiz, found a cheap hostel, and called it quits for the night. While we were still 30 minutes away from Chachapoyas, we were beat from our race across the Andes.

Bus passing a van passing a truck carrying highly flammable materials
seconds after the road reopened

Wandering the streets of Pedro Ruiz in the morning on our way out of town we got some curious looks from the locals. This town is not commonly visited by tourists. When children stared at us we smiled and waved. Some would smile back, while others seemed so baffled by our appearance they just continued to stare. Anyone who knew any English words (usually 'hello', 'goodbye', or 'thank you') would shout them towards us by way of welcome, while others would yell 'Hola gringos,' but in a very friendly way. The term gringo doesn't seem to have the negative connotations here that it does in Mexico or Central America. A thirty minute drive took us to Chachapoyas where the paved road ended. We then continued on dirt and gravel roads through stunning valleys as we began the climb to 9,000 feet to visit Kuelap. The one-lane road wound through small adobe villages and we handed out stickers to the many children walking along the road. Luckily we only met about four cars during the five hour drive, since the passing areas were scarce and often on the edge of precipitous cliffs that plunged hundreds of feet down to the valley floor.

Reconstructed home within the ruins of Kuelap

We could see the giant walls of the fortress-like Kuelap as we reached the end of the road. Construction of Kuelap by the Chachapoyas people began around 500 AD, and the huge complex is surrounded by 60 foot tall stone walls broken by only three narrow entrances. The high altitude Andean cloud forests of Northern Peru were inhabited by the Chachapoyas as early as 200 BCE, who were conquered by the Incas shortly before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. We were the only people visiting the ruins that afternoon, and we wandered among the 400 circular stone dwellings that are protected by the daunting fortress walls. Intricate stonework representing the eyes of jaguars, snakes, and pumas adorned the dwellings' walls. We could also peer into the deep wells dug within the homes to bury deceased relatives and see the flat stones used for grinding grains. After completing our visit we ate a huge lunch in a local family's home (for an incredible deal of 2.50 soles ($0.82) per person) and then spent the silent night camping in our loyal caballo in the grassy parking lot just below the walls of Kuelap.

Endless Andes rolling from Kuelap to the Pacific Coast

We headed further into the wilds of the Andes and off the gringo trail the next day on an epic drive on one-lane gravel roads to the mountain town of Celendín. We wound through a lush river valley past tiny adobe villages and people on horseback herding sheep before climbing back up into the Andes. Two persistent dogs intent on snapping our tires to shreds chased our car for several minutes so we almost missed the fact that we were finally at Abra de Barra Negro, or Black Mud Pass. At 12,000 feet, an awesome range of huge peaks opened in front of us spreading out into the distance like Big Sur on steroids. We then spent too many hours on narrow switchbacks descending to 3,200 feet, puncturing a tire, climbing back up to 10,000 feet, and finally descending into Celendín. While we traveled only 136 miles from Kuelap to Celendín, it took us over 10 hours. I guess 30,000 feet in elevation change in one day will slow you down a bit. Next we head back out to the coast of Peru as we need to visit a big city for Chris's last rabies shot.

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