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.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rubble and ruins in northern Peru

The Pan-American Highway shimmers in the distance

After spending several relaxing days with the Burbanos (friends of the family) in their lovely homes in Guayaquil and Salinas, Ecuador, we headed south for Peru. Huge signs on the newly paved Pan-American highway marked the way to the frontera (border) bypassing the frontier town of Huaquillas. We happily followed these signs until we suddenly realized we were in Peru. No passport check, no car import permit, no scary looking army people with automatic weapons. The normal border procedure has always involved two steps: leaving the departure country before proceeding to enter the arrival country, accompanied by lots of stamps, lines, and photocopies of documents. Something obviously wasn't right. Men shoveling gravel directed us onto dirt roads that led back into Huaquillas. We wound our way through a boisterous street market barely squeezing past push-carts and piles of pineapples to arrive at Peruvian immigration. While my Spanish isn't terrible at this point, I still haven't entirely mastered the past tense, so explaining our awkward situation was challenging. We felt a bit stupid saying that we had accidentally and illegally driven into Peru without officially leaving Ecuador or processing any of the necessary paperwork. The Peruvian officials couldn't seem to understand us when we said that no, we weren't trying to leave Peru to enter Ecuador, but in fact were trying to leave Ecuador to enter Peru. They eventually let us back into Ecuador and we proceeded to cross the borders in the right order with proper documentation. International incident avoided, we then sped into the wild coastal desert that spills across the northern Peruvian Pan-American Highway.

A lone tree bravely ekes out a living in the Peruvian desert

Skimming along the empty Pan-American, we swept through desolate small towns and bone-dry canyons. Shelters build from reeds and simple adobe buildings in varying states of decay occasionally interrupted the solitary landscape. We had the road to ourselves except for the rare bus or semi-truck blamming down the freeway. We enjoyed the stark beauty and rock-garden simplicity of the scenery until we reached our first destination, the small city of Chiclayo. Surrounded by archeological sites and home to several wonderful museums, we set out to visit the ruins and learn about the pre-Incan Moche people who lived here from 100 to 800 AD.

Ghostly remains of a church in Zaña, Peru

On the way to the ancient Moche pyramids of Sipán, we first passed through some more recent ruins in Zaña. Founded in 1563, this old colonial town was slated to become the capital of Peru until biblical floods destroyed the town in 1720. Cows wandered among the remains of churches poking out of wheat fields, and we meandered around the narrow dirt roads that cut through the desert. We also drove by tumble-down adobe walls and houses abandoned by all but the vultures, but weren't sure if these were recent or older remains. The flat desert landscape was then punctuated by the strange lump that is Sipán. It doesn't look like much from the outside, as rain and wind have worn down the truncated adobe pyramids, but it is home to one of the richest tombs northern Peru. First discovered by grave-robbers in the 1980s, it was in danger of being completely plundered until the police and a local archeological team intervened to save the priceless treasures. The 1700 year old Royal Tombs of Sipán contained fabulous ceramics, intricate gold and coral jewelry, and the remains of a Moche warrior priest and his loyal subjects. This lord was buried with women, soldiers, dogs, llamas, and took plenty of jewelry, food, and weapons to live well in the afterlife. We will continue our exploration of pre-Colombian culture as we head to the northern highlands of Peru to visit the Chachapoyan site of Kuelap.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Highlands heaven

Peering over the edge of Laguna Quilotoa

Long story short: Chris was bit by a dog, so our travels this month in Ecuador have been structured around being in a large city every given couple of days so Chris can get a rabies shot. From Baños we jogged back north for two nights in Quito so Chris could get his third shot, then we were off again to explore the amazing Ecuadorian highlands. 800 years ago, one of Ecuador’s many volcanoes blew its top in a devastating explosion that spewed lava all the way to the Pacific ocean over 100 miles away. It left behind a spectacular crater lake that is now surrounded by small indigenous villages, some very high altitude farms, and possibly the prettiest countryside we have seen on our trip. From Quito we first headed to the tiny town of Chugchilan, less than 30 miles off the broad Pan-American highway but a slow three hour drive on rutted dirt and gravel roads. On this trip we have relied on a combination of sparse road signs, asking people for directions, and using our compass (no kidding) as our primary navigation tools. Given the absence of any road signs once we left the Pan-American, the sparse population, and the fact that the road continually split into two equally desolate looking dirt roads, we were amazed that we actually got to Chugchilan without having to backtrack. High rolling hills covered with patchwork yellow and green crops gave way to vertical cliffs, craggy peaks, and impossibly steep farm plots. Llamas, alpacas, and pigs grazed by the roadside and we admired the indigenous people’s brilliantly colored cloaks accenting the hills as they tended their farms. After being treated to some very cute children dancing at our hostel before dinner, we bundled up for the below-freezing night and huddled to sleep in our un-heated hostel.

Llamas around the Quilotoa Loop

The next morning we drove another hour to reach Laguna Quilotoa, the emerald jewel of these highlands. We had hoped to hike around the lake, but we found (unsurprisingly) that there weren’t any signs marking the trail so we ended up just hiking down to the laguna’s beach. While the rim of the crater was a wind-whipped foggy moonscape when we started the hike, it was calm and sunny by the time we reached the lake at the bottom of the crater. Enjoying the warmth, we sat on the beach and watched two boys herd their sheep around the laguna. Once the sheep had surrounded us, the brothers tentatively started a conversation after asking about our camera (Chris’s telephoto lens tends to attract some attention). Reuben and Efrem warmed up as we fumbled with our simple Spanish, and they told us about their farm, their faithful dog Rocky, and their family. We ended up walking back to the top of the crater rim with them, gaining some valuable sheep-herding experience along the way. After parting at the crater rim, we spent a warm afternoon at our hostel, reading and listening to our hosts speak Quechua. It has an unusual shushing sing-song quality that is unlike anything I have ever heard. After another freezing night huddled beneath a mountain of rough wool blankets, we were treated to a crystalline day for our drive from the highlands to the coast. We could see several snow capped volcanoes in the distance as we wound our way down through rolling farms, packed village markets, and roadside llamas. We head next for the biggest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil, to visit friends of the family and get rabies shot number number four.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bathing, biking, and hiking in Baños, Ecuador

Volcan Tungurahua towers over Baños

Driving the aptly named Route of the Volcanoes between Quito and the small town of Baños, we passed 5 immense volcanoes, each taller than 15,500 feet. Despite the fact that many were obscured by clouds or fog, it was still a pretty drive that slowly descended into the valley that shelters Baños. Looming over the town is the threatening and active Volcan Tungurahua, which means 'little hell' in the local indigenous language. This volcano fuels the natural hot springs around town as well as a healthy industry of massages, steam baths, and mud facials. The town was hopping on Saturday night, the streets thronged with tourists both foreign and Ecuadorian, all watched by the eerily lit cathedral that adorns the main town square. To keep warm during the cool nights we visited the La Piscina de La Virgen, and alternated between the scorching hot pool filled with sweating adults and the warm pool filled with splashing children.

Taking a recommendation from a friend of a friend who lives in Quito, we biked the Route of the Waterfalls. After checking our bikes' gears and brakes by riding around the block in downtown Baños, we took off for the mostly downhill ride to Rio Verde. This route winds next to the deep gorge cut by the gushing Rio Pastaza, and took us through a pitch black tunnel, along beautiful roads clinging to the side of sheer cliffs, and across several bridges. Along the way we opted not to 'bridge swing,' a different take on bungee jumping and something we'd feel nervous about trying even in the US. We did take a hair-raising teleferico (gondola) ride across the river to see one of the many waterfalls up close. Powered only by a turbo Porsche engine, we were glad that we had the gondola to ourselves, as we weren't sure what the maximum weight load for the cable could be. Our bike trip ended in the tiny town of Rio Verde, home of the Pailón del Diablo. This roaring waterfall careens over a sharp cliff and crashes onto huge boulders into the boiling waters below. Crawling through a series of caves and narrow passageways, we ended underneath the top of the waterfall. Roaring so loudly we could barely hear ourselves speak, the gushing water was lit a spooky green. Soaked to the bone from this experience we trudged back up to Rio Verde where we tried to dry off while waiting for a pickup truck to give us a lift back up to Baños.

Enjoying the view from Olga's house along the Sendero Bellavista

Our last full day in Baños we hiked a loop trail in the surrounding mountains. Heading up to the first lookout, we met Olga who lived along the trail. She invited us into her home for some cold soda and we chatted for a while, happy that our Spanish is now sufficient that we can really talk to people. Raising 7 children as well as tending her farm perched on the hill keeps Olga quite busy, but we hope she can take some time to enjoy the great view she has of the valley below. Continuing up the mountain, after a couple of wrong turns along the unmarked trail that forked 3 times, we found the trail that led to the tiny town of Runtun. While we never actually found the town center (we're not sure there actually is one) we met three young sisters walking home from school. After saying 'hola' and realizing we were walking the same direction as them, they grabbed our hands and tried to lead us to their house. We walked with them for about 10 minutes before heading back on our trail. They claimed they were leading us to the town of Runtun, but we think they really just wanted to take us home with them like a couple of friendly stray dogs. We then meandered back down the mountain, stopping for lunch at the spectacular resort of Luna Runtun. We're definitely adding this place to our list of hotels to visit when we have more money at some undetermined point in the future. We were back in Baños in the late afternoon, as the sun broke through the clouds and lit the valley with a golden glow.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Catching our breath in Quito

At 13,500 feet, looking down on Quito

Flying in to Quito, Ecuador from Boston left us breathless, literally. Going from Boston (sea level) to Quito (10,000 feet) had us wheezing as we lugged our backpacks up one measly flight of stairs so we could collapse into our beds at our hostel. Deciding that we hadn't challenged our lungs quite enough, the very next day we took the TeleferiQo (gondola lift) up another 4000 feet into the mountains surrounding Quito to enjoy spectacular views of the city. After only an hour at that elevation headaches and a chilly breeze chased us back down into what felt like deliciously rich oxygen in Quito.

Supposedly on either sides of the equator

Quito's blustery foggy nights and ring of towering mountains almost made us forget that we're only 25 miles from the equator. Luckily, it's a quick 30 minute drive out of the city to celebrate and learn plenty of fun facts and fiction about the equator. There are two rival tourist traps to visit here, each entertaining for wildly different reasons. 30 years ago La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) park was built on the site where the equator was thought to be. This park commemorates 0,0,0 latitude with a giant obelisk, trinket shops, restaurants, a miniature recreation of Quito, and a surprisingly informative ethnographic museum detailing the many indigenous Ecuadorian peoples. Once GPS technology could exactly identify the location of the equator (about 200 m away from La Mitad del Mundo park), Museo Solar Inti Ñan, a smaller quirky park, sprung up to compete. According to Google Earth however, Inti Ñan is not on the actual equator either, but who knows. This cactusy park offers a bizarre smorgasbord of information on native peoples, a real shrunken head, giant pythons preserved in glass barrels, and plenty of cleverly faked demonstrations. We really don't know how they did this, but they 'demonstrated' how the Coriolis effect causes water to drain in different directions on either side of the equator, balanced an egg on its end (supposedly only possible directly on the equator), and showed how our muscles were weaker on the equator than off the equator. Impressive, but we're pretty sure the demonstrations were all fake.

Acrophobia inducing view from one of the Basilica's towers

We also spent an afternoon exploring Quito's beautiful Old Town. It is packed with several churches per block, indigenous folks selling Chiclets and handicrafts, and a couple of lawsuit-worthy opportunities if this were the US. The gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional towers high above Old Town, complete with grimacing gargoyls, giant stained glass windows, and delicate towers. For just $3/person, you can climb up to the highest points of two of the Basilica's towers. After crossing rickety wooden plank platforms, climbing rusty rebar ladders, and scaling almost vertical stairways, we were rewarded with great views across Quito, unimpeeded by pesky safety barriers or railings. Once we were safely back on firm ground, we wandered through several other old churches, admiring the gold filigree and bloody crucifixes. After the sun set, Old Town was beautifully lit by streetlights. By chance we stumbled across a dance and music performance of traditional Ecuadorian arts. Sponsored by the Foundation of Art and Culture, the performance ranged from ancient fertility dances to more recent Spanish influenced waltzes. The dances were all accompanied by the bright live music of guitars and flutes and complimented by gorgeous costumes. We next head to the chill mountain town of Baños to soak in the hot springs and enjoy the views of volcanoes and waterfalls.