September 26 to October 4, 2010
I’m not sure if there are as many traffic cops in Peru as there are ruins, but for a one-week period of exploring the coast north of Lima, I’d say it was close. Luckily, only some of them were corrupt. After saying good-bye to the poor caged animals behind our hotel in Guadalupe, (ROZ: and resisting the urge to release them), Roz and I began checking out this desert region with a visit to the semi-ghost town of Zaña. Once a major colonial city of similar wealth and elegance as Lima or Trujillo, Zaña went into decline when its great wealth attracted attacks by English pirates. Then in 1720, El Niño rains caused flash flooding, destroying most of the city and its churches. Zaña never fully recovered and is still in a state of disrepair. We toured the large, skeletal remains of the San Agustin convent and agreed that it was our favourite church yet, but not just because it was half destroyed.
(ROZ: The whole place definitely had a Peruvian ghost town feel to it. Windswept, sandy streets, piles of bricks and rubble everywhere, lots of closed roads under some kind of “repair”, ramshackle buildings still being rebuilt and more dogs than humans in the streets.)
Next up was Sipan, a partially excavated pyramid complex built and used as an administrative and religious centre by the pre-Incan Moche people, who ruled the northern coast of Peru from around 100 to 800 AD. The site consists of three adobe pyramids, ramps and platforms and is famous for the 1987 discovery of the intact tomb of the Lord of Sipán (El Señor de Sipán), which contained a vast wealth of treasures meant to accompany the Lord on his journey to the afterlife. A mock-up of the tomb, complete with replica headdress, breastplates, servant’s skeletal remains and other grave goods, was open for viewing, as were a few tombs of other elite residents. Although we visited the museum there, most of the original artifacts are housed in the newer museum in Lambayeque. I was amazed at the skills these people had. They built huge adobe structures, irrigated crops using sophisticated water systems, worked gold, silver and copper into exquisite pieces of jewellery and traded up and down the coast.
We left Sipan, drove through Chiclayo and spent the night in a hotel in Lambayeque. The next couple of days we explored the museums and ruins of the area, including the older Bruning museum and the modern, stunning Tumbas Reales de Sipan (Royal Tombs of Sipan). Built in the shape of a Moche pyramid, the museum housed a jaw-dropping amount of gold (apparently the greatest intact discovery of gold artifacts in all of the Americas), recovered from no fewer than 13 royal tombs, including the Lord of Sipán. It was the most time I had ever spent in a museum and I have to admit I enjoyed every minute of it. Unfortunately, only the Bruning museum allowed photographs, so I’ll have to use my Jedi-mind-trick powers to share the awesomeness of the treasures of Sipan.
While in town, we had a huge spike removed from one of Yuki’s tires and got it patched. Our last “ruinous” destination was Tucume, known as the “Valley of Pyramids” because it apparently encompasses 26 major pyramids and platforms and covers an area of over 540 acres. But to our untrained eyes the partially excavated site just looked like huge dirt hills with deep vertical grooves. (ROZ: We began to realize that you could look just about anywhere in this region and imagine ancient adobe structures hidden beneath every seemingly innocent sand hill). But all was not lost. At least we got to see another one of those creepy hairless Peruvian dogs we first met while at Waltako. There seemed to be a lot of them in the north. Eww!
We left Tucume and backtracked south along the coast. While going through a little town just past Guadalupe, the highway curved and presented a confusing roundabout next to it. Unsure of which way to go, I followed the highway. Within seconds, a cop waiting at the side of the highway signaled me to pull over. I had a feeling I was going to get fleeced for this one. The young cop told me that I had done wrong and then took my paperwork to his “jefe” (chief), who was sitting in the police car. Meanwhile, Roz helped me empty all my money out of my wallet except for 10 soles ($3).
The young cop returned and told me to come see the jefe with him. Jefe, in obligatory dark shades, showed me the infraction book. I explained that the roundabout was very confusing and asked him if 10 soles would take care of it. He said no, so I did a song and dance about how little money I had and then asked if he took Visa or debit cards. He replied with a smile that there was an ATM in town. I quickly backtracked saying that my ATM was empty because I needed to contact my bank first. The jefe smiled, knowing that I was full of shit, but finally accepted my 10 soles. He motioned for me to pass it to him over the window sill (I guess even a poor, corrupt cop has to be discreet). Once he took my money, he suddenly became my best buddy. He started asking me a bunch of questions about where we were going and what I thought of the Peruvian woman. After some manly backslapping and guffawing, we left each other laughing. All was well in corruption land.
Ten minutes later, we were pulled over again. This time a simpleton of a cop told me I was breaking the rules with Yuki’s tinted rear windows. Having vowed to only pay bribes for things I was actually guilty of, I dug my heels in and asked to see the infraction book. Even with my bad Spanish it was obvious that the rule applied to tinted windows that obscured the driver’s vision. So I told him that this didn’t apply to me because I don’t use my rear side windows to drive. His shoulders slumped slightly. He then tried to get me on not having car insurance, but I told him that foreigners can’t get it in Peru. He said he saw some Swiss people with SOAT (the Peruvian insurance agency) papers, but I insisted this wasn’t possible because we had just tried unsuccessfully to buy some a few weeks earlier (which was true). He then began to whine that his “jefe” insisted that he get gas money for his police car. At this point, I was almost feeling sorry for the guy, but not enough to fork over some soles. So I just shrugged my shoulders, told him I was sorry, but that it just wasn’t possible. With a sigh, he handed me back my documents, we shook hands and I drove off. Fack, what a place!
We finally rolled into the coastal surf town of Huanchaco in the dark thanks to the multiple police hold-ups (we were pulled over a couple more times by police, but they just checked our documents and wished us well in our journey). We eventually found the nice and friendly Huanchaco Gardens Hostal, ate a delicious chicken dinner and enjoyed the large screen TV in our spacious room.
The following morning we visited the adobe ruins of Chan Chan. During its heyday, about 600 years ago, it was the largest city in the Americas and the largest adobe city on earth. We were duly blown away by the scope of the place. Once the capital of the Chimu empire, which lasted from around 850 to 1470 AD, it was a huge walled city (some 30 feet high) with a labyrinth of passageways, temples decorated with elaborate friezes and a large reed-filled pond that used to be the ancient city’s well water.
We thought we had the whole place to ourselves until we bumped into Matt, a 25-year old from Connecticut who was riding a 1972 CB175 Honda all the way to Ushuaia. Who sez you need a 1200cc BMW?! Matt had incredibly basic, minimal gear and his riding clothes were cobbled together from second hand stores. He was proof of how little you need to make this journey – if you don’t mind living very simply. We had a great a gab with him and then we each went our separate ways. Nice guy.
We then drove south of Trujillo to visit Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), a large Moche complex of three main platforms, including a huge adobe pyramid temple that 19 years ago was just a pile of dirt waiting to be excavated. Or so said our guide, who also told us that the pyramid had been built up five different times using nothing but adobe bricks. The exterior walls of the platforms were covered with the very visible remnants of murals and sculptured reliefs, primarily of lines of warriors carrying shields and war clubs. It was pretty amazing how vibrant and intact the designs were after all these years, decorated with yellow, black, white, bright red and sky blue paint.
I don’t know why, but the place had a bit of an eerie feel to it. Confirming my suspicions, our guide told us that people have heard ghosts walking there at night. And just one week earlier, unseen forces had pushed around a woman’s empty baby stroller. Cool! After a quick photo op in front of the nearby sister pyramid of Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun), we returned to our hotel in Huanchaco. The coastal town is famous for surfing and for the local fishermen who use unique small reed boats called “caballitos,” (little horses). The fishermen sit atop the boats like a saddle and ride the waves like a horse, just like their ancestors did over a thousand years ago. Unfortunately, it was a cold, grey day when we were there, so there weren’t any fishermen out on the water, but we saw heaps of their boats scattered along the beach.
The next day we hit the road determined to move inland and south through the Cordillera Blanca. We got pulled over by cops a couple of times, but no issues. The second cop told us that the road we were planning to take to the Cordillera Blanca was dangerous and that we should travel with other cars. Gulp! When we got to the “dangerous road” we decided to go for it anyway. I’m glad we did because it was stunning. Open desert, huge rocky mountains and blue skies – nice. We had to pay 9 soles (about 3 bucks) to take the private mine road, but it was worth it. Once off that road and on the main dirt road, we enjoyed an awesomely scenic drive through the Canon del Pato that took us through many ex-train tunnels as we paralleled the Rio Santa. In one of the tunnels, we met a bus, but we all managed to squeeze past each other – very slowly – without contact.
Before it got too dark we found a nice place to wild camp out of sight of the road. (See, we’re learning!). We set up our tent and ate a dinner of brie cheese on bread as a light rain began to fall. By the time we got into our tent for some movie watching on the laptop, the rain had stopped.
The next morning, we drank coffee while watching a herd of goats chomp through a nearby garbage pile. We then drove on to Huaraz (another stunning drive through yet more tunnels) where we bumped into Dan, the Aussie we had briefly met a week ago at Karajia. Sometimes it’s a very small world of fellow travelers. We had a good gabfest and exchanged contact info, hoping we’d meet up again in Cuzco. (ROZ: Dan was going on a 10-day trek through the Cordillera Blanca, but us fat bastards decided to press on. We still had so much more of this vast country to see and so little time before Yuki’s import permit expired and we had to leave Peru.)
We spent the night in a hostel in Huaraz and the next day, we hit the road for Chavin de Huantar. The so-called paved road was so full of potholes that I eventually had to lower the tire pressure to preserve our kidneys. We’d had smoother, easier rides on dirt tracks through mountain passes! The road gradually climbed and we saw gorgeous snow-peaked mountains in the distance, but around us, it remained undulating brown grasslands. We got stopped by one cop, who checked our papers, but no problem. After awhile, we stopped at a beautiful lake to eat lunch and two kids on horseback approached us with a baby lamb. They wanted money for a photo, but I offered candies instead and we struck a deal. Back on the road, we climbed to 14,600 feet and drove through the Kahuish Tunnel, then descended again through countless switchbacks before rolling into Chavin de Huantar – yet another little village in the Andean highlands with famous ruins.
Chavín de Huántar, a large ceremonial center constructed over many stages from around 1200 to 750 BC, was the religious and political center of the Chavín people, whose culture flourished in the Andean highlands of Peru from around 900 to 200 BC. Often thought of as the first major culture in Peru, which laid the cultural foundation for all later Peruvian civilizations, some archaeological findings belonging to the Chavin have been traced as far back as 2000 BC. Apparently, these ancient people ingested hallucinogens such as the San Pedro cactus for “religious” purposes. That’s my kind of religion, man! The best part of the ruins was the underground chambers that snaked through the massive stone buildings. At the end of one long, narrow, low tunnel was the impressive artifact called the “Lanzon Stela”, a 4.5 meter-long, carved granite shaft that extends through an entire floor of the structure and the ceiling. Carved with an image of a fanged deity, the chief “cat-god” cult image of the Chavin people, it was a really powerful experience encountering it in its subterranean chamber.
We decided to look for some wild camping rather than pay for a cold room in Chavin, so with a couple hours of daylight left, we hit the road. Along the way, we bumped into a big patrol of policemen and I asked them about camping in the area. The jefe said there was a safe place up the road full of fields. We thanked him and went looking for it, but before finding it, we saw a spot where there used to be a bridge, but now had a detour around it. There were big boulders blocking access to the ex-bridge, but skinny Yuki squeezed through and we found a great place to camp where we were hidden by trees from the surrounding roads. (See, we really are learning!)
After breakfast the next day, we hit the road to return to the coast. It was Sunday and an election day, so some of the towns we drove through were packed with people. We eventually got back to the coast and spent the night in Barranca. We woke up intending to go to the ruins of Caral, the oldest officially recorded pyramid in the world, but something about Yuki’s clutch was bugging me. Afraid that the master cylinder was about to blow, I was uneasy about heading into the mountains again so we agreed to forgo Caral and instead, stuck to the flat, smooth Pan-American highway along Peru’s coast south to Lima. Peru’s capital city is huge (definitely the largest city we’ve been to yet) and the driving a little nutty, but the GPS helped guide us to Miraflores, an upscale neighborhood where a friend of a friend lived. Within an hour we were eating a delicious sushi dinner. But that’s for our next blog.
END OF PART 32