After almost a month of being exposed to the California heat waves, and with remains of a motocross bike injury, I took my rescheduled flight to Peru. Twelve hours later I landed in Cusco. It was a chill morning in the beginning of June, I left the airport with a pounding heart, mainly because of the height difference I had been warned so much about. Up until Cusco high ground was less than 2000 m and suddenly I had to adjust to 3300 m.
At the airport I met an old good friend of mine. He put my backpack on his back, and led the way to the street while bargaining (in Spanish!) with a Taxi driver. Till then the only Spanish I knew came from a self-learning book, so I preferred to let the "veterans" do the bargaining.
The city we drove through, was the city I saw from the plane, a pile of tin and concrete, piling together in huge cubes which were about to fall, or perhaps didn't fall due to their density.
Sewage, smog, people so gray I can't remember anything of them. Where's the beautiful city I was told about? Where is the Inca capital?
Talking and breathing at the same time was difficult, but necessary. It's been three months since I saw my old friend, and here we meet again in one of the least likely places.
We arrived to the Paititi hostel, a known place to every Israeli but me. At first glance we saw an old building, as if it were about to collapse, with a sheltered backyard and welcoming staff.
The wooden door of the room made some squeaks when we got inside, pushing our way between large backpacks and sleeping people. We also wanted to take a nap, around noon we all began to lazily wake up with surprising coordination of timing. In that cheerful group there was an old childhood friend of my friend's, and several other people whom they met while traveling.
Everyone was already traveling for more than my planned three months, which were dictated by work/school constraints.
On my first days in Cusco, my friend told me everything a backpacker needs to know - where's the best ATM, what the traveling agencies can do for me, and the way around Paititi:
So In order to be like them, on my first day in Cusco I took a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Inca. The valley has became the place where a huge empire was born thanks to the large crops of corn raised there, and the good weather (South America standards). The tour guide explained in Spanish and right away translated to English. I was surprised that there were Peruvians in the group, but in fact it's like being surprised that Americans take tours of the white house.
We were in Pisac and Ollantaitambo, and saw very impressive Inca ruins which were built from stones in high altitude - inside were golden colored vegetation, Terraces, gates and altars resisting the great forces of nature.
We also reached the town of Chinchero, where we saw a church built on Inca ruins. Inside there were life sized statues dressed in glory fit to kings - statues of christian saints, the local people have embraced and gave different names to integrate them in the culture they knew.
Jesus for example, became here the mountain patron, and Santiago, the Indian Slayer became, Santiago, the slayer of another rival tribe.
It's amazing to see how quickly the Inca has embraced the religion of the people who quashed them and enslaved them, but I learned that in poor places, religion is sometimes everything. You don't have anything to wear or eat, but for the saints statues, you'll bring velvet and jewelry, fruits and flowers. You give, and hope that you'll accept something similar in the after life.
Two days after my comfortable arrival to Cusco my friend and the others went for three days rafting. They waited till I arrived in Peru so I could join them, but after the motocross bike squashed my knee in California, I didn't want to take another risk at the beginning of the Trip. Instead, I went to Machu Picchu. Nice replacement, isn't it?
Machu Picchu is reachable with one of the trek options, a direct bus or a combination of local buses and a train. I chose the latter which turned out at least as adventurous as the trek it self.
I bought a train ticket at Cusco, at the station near the market. You should wake up really early in the morning and get there before the ticket office is open if you want a ticket and to save the evening.
But to get to the train it self, I had to reach Ollantaytambo, so I got to the main street, and with a few repetitions of "como se va a Urubamba?" I managed to reach a dusty yard, where an old bus rested. I bought a ticket and asked when we would go, and since I assumed that five minutes here can be stretched a bit, I didn't check my watch.
When we finally left, there was me and another blonde "gringa" the only two tourists on the bus. It drove slowly, but through green fields, amazingly blue sky, and a far view of a snowy mountain.
I still had time until the train so I wasn't too nervous when I heard an explosion sound right beneath by seat. All the passengers went down to allow the replacement of the tire. Me, the "gringa", fat cholos, kids in soccer outfits, laborers and high school girls - we all sat down on the grass in the noon sun, and the chilly air and waited quietly. There were passengers who continued by foot, whom we passed driving once the tire was replaced in a surprisingly quick time.
The bus finally passed the snowy mountain on the horizon, and started driving toward a valley with a flowing river, to Urubamba.
I needed to burn some time till the train, so I spent it in the huge and nurtured town square. There were several restaurants, mini markets, and souvenirs shops. Outside the square, right on the river across from the railway station, there's a cute coffee shop worth a stop. There's nothing like hot chocolate to start the long night ahead of you.
From the bridge over the river, you take mototaxi (or Tuktuk if you prefer) till the railway station. It's worth spending a single Sol and not walking this distance by foot - its extremely dark.
The railway station was very crowded - everybody is going to Machu Picchu. Tourists and locals. A locked gate separated us from the platform, and it didn't seem to be opening soon. Despite the crowding, I was shivering under my fleece. (Bring with you very warm clothes, no matter what season you're traveling, otherwise you'll get sick as I did, in one of the most beautiful places on earth).
When the gate opened a ticket collector arrived and started arranging people in columns. He reviewed the ticket and directed each person accordingly. I sat down near two young Brazilian men, and spoke with them in Spanish until I realized that their Spanish isn't any better than mine, so we switched to English.
Since we were all clueless, we decided to search for a hostel together in the town of Aguas Calientes, the town below Mahu Piccu. It's worth finding a hostel inside the town and not getting tempted by all the people jumping on you at the platform, offering places near the railway station or near the bus station from which you can grab a bus to Machu, cause usually they're expensive and not worth the money spent.
Our hostel was in one of the inner streets, almost vacant to our surprise, with big spacious rooms and hot showers, and cost only 15 Sols. Sadly I don't remember it's name.
After some hot showers, we went bed. It was 2 AM. However, out of excitement I can't explain, I had trouble falling a sleep.
We woke up at 4:30 AM in order to catch the first bus up, so we could see the sunrise, and get a ticket to Huaiana Picchu, the tallest peak in Machu Picchu, to which only the first 400 visitors each day can climb.
"Go right, go now" the cashier told us when we asked her how we should get there. We ran through half of the park in pre-sunrise fog, and I was already amazed by the beauty and serenity of the place - only us, the stones and the plants, and you can't tell who among us is the strongest.
When we stood in line for Huaiana, the fog started to vanish. Every minute someone went to check if the first sun rays had reached the ruins. Truthfully, the sun is more flattering to the mountains than these men building ruins. When it suddenly shows up, it's not the dim light of sunrise, but a full on day light - the peaks around are so high that they block sunrise it self, so the sun reveals only later.
We got the longer ticket, it was written the hour in which we should start climbing. In order to ensure that not all 400 people will huddle on the peak at the same time, we were divided into groups. The road up starts with a narrow path that goes up, down, up and down and then turns to steep uphill stairs. I felt much older than many of the elder tourist which past me, with light clothes and explained to me I had to inhale from my nose and exhale from my mouth. What the heck was I thinking? It's only the fourth day in South America! Couldn't I wait just a bit longer? How much prettier can it be up above?
The road ends with a crawl under a big rock and climbing a small ladder. At the peak you see huge rocks dropped on each other, as if a moment ago a volcano erupted. Machu Picchu looks very small down below, small and faded.
It took me several minutes to shake off the fatigue, and find the enormous beauty around - the ridge of green mountains surrounding us, and behind it a taller snowy ridge. Far below the river flows, and its sound overcomes the sound of the train.
The Huaiana Picchu is a small fortress which was probably meant to watch and defend Machu Picchu. Several centuries ago, people were going up and down on this taxing road each day.
Everything is high and steep in the Inca land. Only the narrowness of the stairs indicate the real size it was when the people built it all.
Going down is done using the same path, and you can't help but to feel pity as people cross, panting on the way up, but also jealous of them, as they will soon stand also above there, tickling the angles in heaven. "A bit more, it's worth it..." we encourage them.
Returning "down", in Machu Picchu there is plenty of time to roam in the ruins, catch an explanation from a random group's tour guide, take shots of the rocks and llamas gazing peacefully, as if brought up here so we'll could have the perfect picture. But they seem to belong there, and eternally, even more than the rocks of the place.
The park if full of beautiful observation points, mountains smiling at eye level and jungle tongues which lick the crumbling ruins and less visiting at the edges of the site. The serenity grows as the closing time reaches, and so it is the sun which paints it all in a different shade, enchanted.
But with all my amazement with this wonder, it turns out there was a reason why I couldn't fall asleep the night before, and not only the fatigue itself turned my body heavy and sore. I went to the clinic at the site entrance and asked to lie down for few minutes. The doctor there told me I had a low fever and the beginning of pneumonia. I ate to prepare my stomach for the various medicines I was prescribed, although what I wanted most of all was to throw up.
The journey back to Cusco wasn't easy. but the face of the Seniora in Paititi, filled me with relief. I slept most of the day, trying to overcome this sickness.
My friend and the others returned at noon from the rafting trip, they were worried when they couldn't find me immediately. We went out to eat at Jacks (http://jackscafecusco.com/), very recommended restaurant, and when I heard about the rafting experience I was envious. With all the respect to Machu Picchu, at that moment I was willing to give it up in favor of rafting in the Apurimac with a couple of good friends...
Cusco has many attractions to offer, but I decided that while I'm still sick, I'd rather stay with some people who know me and can take care of me. This is why when my friend and his group decided to continue to Huaraz, I joined them without hesitation.
Very comfortable night bus including bus attendant who served us food, brought us to the heart of the desert in the morning. We slid slowly to an endless plain, filled with sad shacks, and dusted shops.
We slept at Casa De Arena (http://www.hostels.com/hostels/huacachina/casa-de-arena/57102), very nice hostel with a small pool and an outside kitchen that allows fixing something whenever you want. In the reception you can order a sand board tour, preferably after lunch - it's less warm and the sunset is added to the surreal view anyway.
After a short rest we got to the Buggy which drove us between the sand dunes. It seemed that the only requirement for the Buggy driver is to be diagnosed as insane. At the top of a random dune it stops, and every participant gets a wooden board and a piece of a candle to rub on it before the the skiing to increase friction. I looked down and felt as if I was on top of a Tsunami wave about to crash. How the heck do you ski with that?
When the instructor demonstrated skiing on the belly, I decided the Mediterranean waves were good preparation. I told my self I wasn't afraid, stood on the board and tightened the velcro straps on my shoes. I progressed in small jumps till I reached the edge of the dune. The impossibly steep looking slope seemed less steep, and the distance between me and its end got shorter with increasing speed, without doing a thing. You only need to bend your knees and keep steady. After working so hard, I was lucky enough to have my friend with me, helping me carry the board to the top of the last dune.
We got back to hostel with sand in our ears, mouths and underwear - not something that a single shower couldn't solve.
The next day we went visit Paracas National Reserve. On this little island called Ballestas you can see plenty of seals and birds. A little boat will take you sailing between them, and if you look at the shore you'll be able to see the famous Nasca Lines - the famous huge ancient drawings made by the natives in the ground, and probably there paths in which they walked in ancient religious ceremonies.
The tours can be arranged from every hotel in Inca you'll stay in. There were also flights above the Nasca Lines if you want to experience it differently and you have the money...
An additional three hours in the desert landscape, and suddenly the houses were hanging like loosened teeth on the side of the roads, getting denser and higher.
We reached Lima only to catch a bus to Huaraz, which turned out to be a very challenging mission. Lima has no central bus station, but different ticket offices of different companies, each located in a different place. It's troubling when you're clueless, and easy when you know where you need to go and how.
We wandered between the different offices with our backpacks on our backs, until we finally got ticket to a local night bus - "la cama" and not "semi cama" (bed seats).
After a short tour in town we took a taxi to the bus station.
We got to Huraraz in the dark before sunrise, and got a taxi to El Tambo hostel (https://www.facebook.com/HostelElTamboHuaraz), 10 Sol for a bed (May 2013) which was very nice, with a shared shower (and Boiler), shared kitchen room and a TV room observing the mountains. When I was there a couple of Europeans managed it, among them a French lady named Juliet, it's possible they change management every once in a while.
As usual, we fell asleep and woke up at around noon, and started exploring around. Huaraz is located at the bottom of the Cordillera Blanca (Spanish for "White Range") - as the name implies, the mountain range is colored with snowy white all year long. The city is an exit point for most of the treks in northern Peru - Huayhuash, Santa Cruz, Alpamayo and the small and lovely Laguna 69.
The mountains rise above this graceless city like the margins of a huge pot, and it's one of the things that makes staying in this city the most pleasant.
After two days of adapting to the place and market surveys, we chose the Santa Cruz trek, which by some of the visitors was considered the most beautiful trek in Peru, and takes four days to complete (not too difficult).
Andexplora tourist agency, run by Alex, was willing to provide us with the perfect package, including sleeping bags and walking sticks for $80 per person - fair price by everyone. You can find it near Plaza De Armas, Lusuriaga av. 811 across Novaplaza super market.
For my challenge (I was still stick and wounded), I packed the best U.S made pain killers, and stiff "armory" which held my knee.
At 6 am, our two guides arrived and drove with us to the messy central station (I swear it was really quiet at night!). From there, we drove in "colectivo", local transit to which many locals were joining and leaving on the way. A young curious cholo sat behind me investigating my Spanish and answering my questions with her hand hiding her mouth. She had two dental crowns in her mouth front, but still she was one of the beautiful girls in the world. She told me she's 21, like me, and she lives there, at Yungay, where we stopped for breakfast, one stop before heaven.
Santa Cruz is the name of the peak which the trek encircles. It's located, like many treks in the regions, in the Huascarán national park. Right after you enter the park, even before the cashiers, you'll stop in a large lagoon named Llanganuco Lagoon. This is how it looks:
Afterwards, a steep climb starts, still in car, until the park entrance. The view is becoming more and more impressive as you climb higher, hinting forward, what's coming next in the trek. Another picture? You got it!
After paying the entrance fee, you continue with another short drive, and stop on a dirt road, from which an unpaved road is dropping us off at the beginning of the trail. It's possible that some of the tenants of the houses by which you pass will ask for passing fees of a few Sols. The guide usually pay them for all, or argue with them in order to avoid paying.
The first day of the trek isn't hard and includes a not too long walk in mostly flat and low terrain, that's very different from the rest of the views you'll encounter in the trek. The only ascent is in the beginning of the walk, where there are little houses and a small flowing creek, and it's going to be a bit hard if you haven't done any preparation tours prior to coming here.
Exactly at that stage a bunch of young kids no more than four years old approached us, and asked with eyes wide open for food. More or less demanded. The tour guide and one of us gave them some cookies. One minute after, my luck betrayed me, and my trousers were torn by a barb wire, which happen to be there. At the beginning it was only a hole in the ankle area, but by the end of the trip I didn't have a choice but to tear it up and make it into three quarter length pants. It got some shocked looks from Peruvians who didn't understand why the Gringo doesn't have normal clothes. A bit of a view:
Even on the first night you'll notice that your body adjusts itself to the nature, and an hour after you're done eating you'll fall asleep. The hour will be around 9 pm, and you'll sleep for 10 hours probably, up until there's enough light to keep on walking. On the first night we played truth or dare with the guides (one of them jumped into the river with just their underwear, beats me how they were able to keep functioning the day after). After we had a little bit of trouble falling asleep because of the cold, but in the following nights you get used to it.
The second day of the trek was probably the most challenging. The first part is a very steep ascent till the mountain passes, this is the peak height of the trek (4800 meters). On this day you ascend 1000m in height before you start the descent.
The view along the way is amazing - grey shades of rocks, greens of sparse vegetation, bits of purple flowers and in the distance white snow. If you get lucky - also blue sky.
At that point I needed a horse's assistance. My injured knee, as a result of the motocross bike accident was hurting really badly. The good thing, is that I had the advantage of giving our amazing horse a name, and they may have still call him by this name. Do please welcome Tupac, the last Inca:
Toward the mountain pass the view becomes arid but no less impressive. If you every heard the phrase "jagged mountain range" - this is it.
The final ascent looks impossible - you have to climb with your feet and hands from one rock to the other, and the end just refuses to come. Tupac couldn't help me here, cause it had hard time walking it alone. It seems my knee has never been soared like this before.
"TE PUEDES, you can, encouraged me Falco, one of the guides who knew exactly two words in English. I knew I didn't have a choice so I climbed.
The reaching to the peak moment is hard to describe. The climb makes the peak more beautiful, and the beauty, relief and pride makes all the pain go away.
It was probably one of the impressive views I seen in the entire continent, and I know that even 1000 pictures cannot demostrate all I've seen.
After a short break in the passage way, you start to descend to the green on the other side. The steep descent made my knees even more sore. At that stage I had lent Tupac to a friend who was afraid of heights. I got him back only when we reached the bottom of the valley shown in the last picture, and then I really learned how crazy it is to ride a horse.
The cold temperature below was horrible, as if the valley had drained all of the cold winds in the world. I barely managed to hold Tupac's reins, not to mention staying awake. Luckily, we stopped for camping just a little bit afterward. Until the real food was ready, our cook Orlando spoiled us with a lot of popcorn, and Tupac treated himself with a lot of grass.
After dinner the boys argued among themselves who would go to the river to fill the bottle we used for brushing our teeth. Brushing our teeth with freezing cold water was also unpleasant.
The third day was also very rewarding - it started by walking in the pleasant sun, but right away we started climbing, and the thin snow started falling on us. The climb gradually became steeper, although not as insanely steep as the previous day, and it brings you to the following wonderful thing:
This lagoon wasn't a mandatory part of the trek, because it required a detour. I forbid you from missing it. Have you gone mad? In the remainder of the day you'll notice you're moving from an alpine view which is something like this:
To a different view:
Night camping will soon come and afterward, you'll have three or four hours walk until you reach the end point in a populated place with a dirt road, where the view seems Mediterranean - green mountains, a bit of fields and houses and plenty of sun.
A few words in summary:
- If you walk a bit faster you can skip the third night. It's worth talking to the guides about, if you can stand it physically.
- Don't come to this trek without day tour preparation. Many people do the Laguna 69, which we kept for the end:
The preparation we had included a walk to the the hot springs in a town near Huaraz. The trip was nice, the springs were actually a spa compound with small baths and sinks pouring brown water which claimed to have some healing properties.
All the rest you'll find out yourselves. Huaraz is a very friendly town for travelers, although not the prettiest. When you order a trek, cliff, or ice climbing do it via a recommended company, and check which equipment is included and its quality. It's a heaven for treks, and here you can find all the good things for which you cam to South America. Well, at least most of it.
I reached Cajamarca by accident, as it's not the the tourist's usual path; despite its beauty and historical heritage. I was happy about this accident, as it was one of the most positive and special experiences in my trip.
In order to reach Cajamarca from Huaraz you need to take a ten hour bus to Trilillo (which I did in a night drive). Trilillo was a humid gray beach city with a famous shrine on which I skipped out on, but if you have time, why not.
From Trilillo, the same central bus station, you can by a ticket to Cajamarca, and the ride also takes ten hours on a local bus with one planned stop for food and toilet. In my case there were plenty of unplanned stops because of roadwork. Sounds weird for a country where most of its roads are dirt and limestone. I didn't know what I was going to do when I got there, but I knew I was tired, and hungry and wanted to be there already.
I passed the time by talking with the guy sitting next to me, a young Peruvian named Richard (not Ricardo), who despite his name didn't know a word in English. He worked in the mines near Cajamarca, and for every 21 days on the mines, he got five days to visit his family in a village near Trilillo. I tried to ask him what he wanted to do when he was older, and what he wanted to do when he saves enough money with this horrible job, but in vain. He offered me one of the two pears he had and I politely refused. I wasn't hungry. I offered him a piece of chewing gum, and without hesitation he took the entire package.
I had only a single name of a hostel in Cajamarca. The owner Guy was a very nice guy who helped me carry my big backpack to the room.
The day after I woke up at 5 am to go to the hot spring called Banos del inca. They said it was worth getting up there early so you can bathe in the cleanest water, but the locals already knew this trick, and even before sunrise the place was crowded like your local country club on weekends. People were coming and going, and the large pool was full of young people.
At the entrance you pay only for bathing in a cabin, and there're different levels of quality. I chose a rather expensive cabin which looked good, located between the trails and the pool, Up to the the building there were many cabins alike. The deepest bath was already full when I got in - perhaps someone already had been there in the morning. I sank neck deep into the hot clean water, and fantasized how my body was being cured from the mochila inflammation which kept attacking every time I needed to move cities.
After I got enough of the heat I got outside and sat on the edge of the springs - steaming bubbling pools of sulfur in 70 degrees centigrade heat. The skies got clearer, but similar to Machu Picchu the sun was delayed behind the mountains. I got back to the hostel and slept till noon. I woke up as if it was a new day.
The only reason I arrived in Cajamarca was because it was the closest town to my next destination - Chachapoyas, but it also turned out to be the most complex way - driving in local cars and dirt roads can take up to 24 hours... Suddenly I felt I came for nothing and wasted valuable time. But after lunch of Hamburguesa and hot chocolate (in which I mixed local chocolate Cajamarca is famous for, but it's very bitter, beware) I decided to relax and take advantage of the good here and now.
I reviewed the list of attractions Cajamarca had to offer and signed up for a tour (Spanish only, but at that point I wasn't intimidated), and the rest of the day I spent wandering around in the many churches surrounding the huge plaza. There were buildings with Gothic grandeur - obviously the work of the Spanish conquerors, but it's still pretty and impressive.
I climbed a steep stairway to a small church observing the entire city, and above it there was an Inca road that once led to Cusco. Today this old road was integrated inside a beautiful flowery garden, and all the roads and stairways merged together to lead together somewhere.
In the garden there were groups and couples, and each found their own quiet corner to view the old and dense city - lagoon of stones between green mountains. Little children offered me guided tours. They probably got their knowledge from elementary school history books, or from other tour guides. I asked if they could explain it to me in my language, and of course they were very interested where I came from and teased me about it because they didn't know where it was.
I sat down and looked down at a group of kids playing football on the tiles, and another group practicing break dancing on the lawn. Suddenly I realized, I'm happy here. I woke up and joined a group of girls playing volleyball. My first blow sent the ball into another yard, and we had quite an adventure getting it back from the angry Seniora, who used to demand a Sol each time the ball landed in her territory. After it got dark some of the kids escorted me back to the hotel, and inquired about my whereabouts and other countries I'd traveled. They also asked me about the beaches of Pero and Lake Titicaca as if these were places in a far away country. They were fifteen. I wonder where they'll be when they turn twenty one.
Minutes after I reached the hotel the sound of horns and drums attracted me. The locals explained to me in sour faces it was the pride parade. The dressed gays were circling the square over and over, but the road wasn't blocked - the cars just trailed behind them patiently.
I wandered more in the streets at night, full of weekend bustle. I hardly any saw tourists. I felt relieved seeing the few I'd seen, but I didn't approach them. I wasn't surprised by the little tourists. It's hard to get here. Mostly Peruvians visit here, and thus most of the attractions are in Spanish, and cost the amount of money the average local is able pay.
The boys whistles and flatter as if they've only seen girls like me in fantasy books. The alfajores here are made of puff pastry, and the Dulce de Leche they call Manjar Blanco. Chocolate is made from 100% cocoa, and it's bitter as hell and breaks in your mouth to a stubborn powder. In the stores they sell art decorated with the star of david. A kid entered a restaurant I was sitting at, and asked with puppy eyes to let him sing for charity. Different place. No doubt about it.
The next day I went for daily tour to Porcon (http://www.go2peru.com/peru_guide/cajamarca/photo_granja_porcon.htm) , an area that in the past had been a victim of deforestation, and in the last 20 years had been going though reforestation and now it's reclaiming its natural form - mountain forests with lots of different pine types. The company incorporated for this matter was called "ATAHUALPA JERUSALEM" so to give honor to history and religion. Across the road you'll find huge signs with quotes from the new testament. In the heart of the forest, there's a community created fabric from sheep wool and a lot of tasty dairy products.
There's also a zoo with many animals from all Peru regions - local bears, condors and pumas from the Andes, jaguars, monkeys and parrots from the Amazon, and of course the magical Vicuña - a delicate and shy relative of the llama. Those who can't visit one of the Peru jungles, it's worth it to visit here and see in a glance what the Amazon has to offer. You can register in every tourist agency in Cajamarca. Some of them are located in Plaza De Armas.
Early in the morning, before sunlight I left Cajamarca, after four days which felt like a lot more. From the hotel I took a Taxi to the bus station (again, there isn't really a central station, ask the driver to take you to the office of Rojas, they have god buses with high frequency) and from there the bus left to Celendin. It's a small village, four hours driving from Cajamarca, which serves as an exchange point for buses heading to Chachapoyas. These are not going in high frequency, so you should reach Celendin as fast and as early as you can. The bus I drove was a small one, modern and and almost as comfortable as Virjen del Carmen company. The way to Chacha takes 9 hours, depending on the bus size and random disruptions on the narrow and steep roads.
The way to Chacha is breath taking, sometimes in the frightening sense. The bus is winding on a narrow road, glued to the mountain side, and its other side has a several hundred meter drop. Sometimes you find green drops from both ends, but you'll always be accompanies by enormous green mountains, with little clouds hanging between them.
On my way from Cajamarca I met two french tourists - a french lady who taught kids art in dusty Celendin, and a french Canadian who just finished volunteering, working with monkeys and Jaguars at Manu National Park.
Field log: Frenchmen aren't afraid to talk in English (nor Spanish), aren't afraid to leave of the well plowed tourist route. and monkeys are more dangerous than Jaguars.
Cacha is the gate to the Amazon region, and the capital of an ancient Inca culture, never been conquered (with these horrible roads, it's no wonder).
I found my way to the hostel with the help of a nice elder Peruvian, with a completely western name, like Richard. I started wondering if the people living here have special hostility for the Spanish. In Chacha it's recommended to sleep at Plaza De Armes - prices are similar to what you'll find in the inner streets, but the hostels are much prettier and include a bath and a shower inside the room.
So I wouldn't waste a day, I woke up early (8 am is early for me) and got into the first agency I found asking about the Kuelap fortress, considered one of the top attractions in Peru, but not many follow this recommendation in Chacha. But this is part of it's magic. Come! It's huge!
The tour guide said they leave now. "Now, now?" I asked. The group and the car were already set. I was given five minutes to run to the hotel and organize my gear. When I got back after five-south-american-minutes I found out that the group was gone. One of the agency guys, stopped a taxi and we drove to the outskirts of the town, where everyone was waiting for me. It was the most luxurious I'd seen in all of Peru.
The tour guide spoke only in Spanish and all the Gringos around him investigated him in fluent Spanish. Soon I discovered that most of them were staying in South America for several years, mainly work related. I relaxed - I'm not that bad at languages.
I got connected with Colin, a young man from Chicago who wandered alone for a month. At first I considered him as another dull American, and this is why I didn't understand what he was doing outside of the Cusco-Lima-Máncora line, but he asked many questions and talked about the jungle in Peru, India, and even showed impressive knowledge about my country's history and politics.
Kuelap fortress is found on one of many peaks surrounding Chacha. 3000 meters high, not a drop of snow. Only tropical green through to the horizon. He was built by this culture to protect against the invasion of huari-tiahuanaco coming from the Bolivia area. There are remnants of houses, where you can see there perfect round small form, and also reconstruction of the high straw roofs, higher than the houses themselves.
There's also a watch tower and a huge gate, and many beautiful ornaments of sacred animals (like Jaguars and Condors) and mythical creatures. No one knows what function some of the houses served, which in fact had huge holes with a narrow entry, and were found full of gifts and ritual objects.
But the most beautiful thing in this Amazon fortress, is the way the jungle invades into it - imaginary looking plants rising from the remaining of the houses, eating the walls. And the llamas of course, eating the plants.
The next day I traveled with Colin and anther Peruvian tourist coming from Lima to Gocta Waterfalls - another local pride since it's the third tallest free-leaping waterfall in the world (although this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gocta_Cataracts claims it's only the fifth...).
The road passes through the wild forest, but with a well maintained road. The tourist agency provides the car and the the guide, and if he knows all the various interesting plants and fruits in the forest you'll only gain.
The waterfall is so high you can see it from every point on the road. When you reach tens of meters distance from it, the hot humid air of the forest turns to a cold breeze filled with water spray. We did the necessary step and jumped into the water (with prepared swimming suits). We knew that waters falling 710 meters should be cold. But we didn't have a clue how cold test centigrade can be until we stood there, screaming to the tour guide to take a picture - "rapido! rapido!" before our legs would freeze and we couldn't move or breathe.
After this adventure, the dry clothes we left behind we found soaked in water. We sat wet and trembled while the tour guide wouldn't stop talking in Spanish about the "history" of the waterfall - which was actually a collection of Spanish legends of sirens and farmers.
The way back was hard and exhausting, because of the wet clothes, the rising heat as the sun climbed up the sky, and the relief at the end of it is huge.
As part of the tour we ate lunch in the village, in the house of a very pleasant family, and despite the hunger and my killed appetite I enjoyed it a lot.
One of the most popular dishes in Peru is lomo saltado - lomo is a low fat part of a cattle, and saltado is stir-fry - usually with peppers, onion and potatoes. Recommended - with or without the rice on side, with or without the required siesta afterwards.
One of the owner's little children sat with us on the table and solved his math homework from the notebook. I was very proud I could help him a bit. I'm not the number type, at least not in my native language.
The next morning I met Colin for a lazy morning before our roads would be separated - me to the jungles and him to Máncora, to celebrate the 4th of July, by getting dead drunk. We really connected since we had met in this delusional town, which offers jungle lite tours in the morning, and cocktail bars at night and a lot of quiet in between.
After breakfast we lied on the lawn in the well maintained sunny plaza. Around us locals passed in midst of weekly errands, sending us curious looks.
"Why do we have to leave?" I asked him. "We're not" he answered, but I knew it wasn't true. For me the impulse to continue and discover was stronger than my need for tranquility. And for him, 4th of July was stronger than anything, even here in Peru. At least this is what I thought.
At some point we decided to get up from the grass to start packing for the journey. And then came a kiss that couldn't have been a good bye kiss. He wanted me to join him on to Máncora.
This is a place I never thought I would visit - a beach town full of drugs and parties. But suddenly it sounded a bit cool - to take a pause from being alone, and divert the route I had in my head.
It took a night and a long morning to get to Máncora. A night bus took us to Chiclayo located on the beach, and another bus took us north along the beach to Piura. From there the road goes through desert, similar to the Sinai desert, and when an oasis with palm trees appeared after several hours we thought we were hallucinating,
We walked on the beach with our backpacks, and I remembered how years ago I sat on a beach in Thailand and I felt sorry for all the travelers emerging from the forest with huge backpacks and a confused look. But the tourist area in Máncora is small, and so the walk from the main road, where the bus stops, till the beach is very short. You'll notice when the TukTuk driver will offer you a lift to the hotel, and a second after you won't respond he'll reduce the price to a single Sol.
I spend most of the days surfing - or at least reminding my self how to do it. Along the beach there are places to rent boards and suits for a daily charge (around 50 Sols for the entire package) and you can even get private lessons.
The waves weren't too high at that time, but you must watch out for the underwater currents which are invisible above the water.
All the Peruvians I met where curious and friendly, and spending time with them was fun even outside the water. If you sit on the beach, it may happen that people will approach you and start conversation, go with the flow - there's nothing more fun than being part of the picture.
Máncora was much more peaceful than I expected, and reminded me how much I missed the sea, and how people relax and open up when they're on the beach. It was also nice to act as a half of a couple, and talk English after long days of Spanish only. But after one day, after some Peruvian young ladies asked me for how long I was staying, I decided to leave. The same day I caught the bus back to Piura and back to the jungle.
In Máncora I didn't take a single picture.