September 18 to 25, 2010
My hands were sweating on the steering wheel. One mistake – one second of inattention – would be the end of us. We were driving on a single lane track cut into a mountainside. No shoulders, no guardrails – only a plunging 2,000 foot drop to my left. Despite the fear that was gnawing in my stomach, I was loving it. Few roads on our journey demanded as much respect as this one and yet, in its danger lay its beauty. On the edge. Titillating. And deadly. This was life on the road in the Andes.
Roz and I had left the pleasant north coast of Peru a few days earlier after a brief stop in Punta Parinas, the westernmost point of South America. From there we turned inland and watched the terrain change from dusty, brown desert to deep green as rice paddies and palm trees began to appear. And then we began to climb.
One of our goals for this part of the journey – besides visiting ruins – was to wild camp as much as possible – something we hadn’t done yet on this trip. Wild camping, for those who don’t know, is exactly that – camping in the wild. No fee, but no toilet. No security, but no neighbours. Dirty, loud hotel rooms had taken their toll on us, so we were eager to camp – even if it meant digging our own turd hole.
After passing the town of Tambo Grande in the late afternoon, we began looking for a suitable camp spot beside the river that followed the highway. But as it got dark, we learned our first lesson of wild camping: give yourself enough time to find a place while it’s still light. In the gloom of dusk, we finally found a spot just off and below the highway. But as we were setting up our tent, we heard shouts from above. It was a couple of guys from a passing car who had seen our flashlights in the dark and thought we had driven off the road. We assured them that we were fine and thanked them for checking. Then a couple of hours later, while watching a movie on our netbook, we were lit up by high-intensity flashlights – again from above. This time it was a couple of cops who had seen the glow of the computer screen. They made their way down to check on us and confirmed that it was legal for us to camp there (as it is in all of Peru), but warned us of the dangers of possible “delinquents” in the area. I thanked them for the advice and as they walked away, I realized the second (obvious) lesson of wild camping: Don’t camp within sight of a road if you want privacy or any sense of security.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I kept waking up to the sounds of passing trucks and worried that “delinquents” would visit us as we slept. The axe beside my pillow no longer seemed big enough. Roz had the same restless night. After breakfast, we took the river-hugging valley highway to a little dirt road that climbed to a village called Karajia. We parked Yuki and as we walked along a dirt track towards a pre-Incan funerary site, we saw a Jeep with Alberta license plates driving slowly toward us. It belonged to a dread-locked Australian named Dan who was working in Canada. He had started his journey in Alaska and like us, was heading for Ushuaia. After a brief conversation, we wished him well and said goodbye, thinking we’d never meet again. But we did. Over and over again. Check out his great blog at www.theroadchoseme.com.
We continued walking down the trail until we got to the impressive sight of six 3-metre tall sarcophagi (stone or wooden coffins) vertically perched on the ledge of a steep, rocky cliff overlooking the Utcubamba River far below. Dating from around 800 AD, they were built by the Chachapoya (“people of the clouds” who dominated the northern Andean region of Peru from around the 8th to 15th century AD) to house the mummified bodies of important individuals. The sarcophagi had two parts, a body and a head, which looked a lot like those on Easter Island. Two human skulls sat atop two of the sarcophagi which all had faded, but distinct, designs painted on them. How these people got the bodies up there without climbing gear is beyond me. Just as curious were the human bones that were piled up on the path below the cliff. Had they fallen from above? Or were they from some “less important” Chachapoyans? This was a tourist site and yet, there were ancient bones just laying there next to the trail. Very strange.
(Roz: This was one of our many “Peruvian Wow” moments, sometimes combined with copious headscratching. For brevity’s sake, I won’t give a lot of details on all the ruins we saw, but if you’re as fascinated by these ancient cultures as we were, there’s lots of information about them on the internet. The fact that these sarcophagi were discovered only 18 years ago had me wondering how many other ancient tombs and treasures lie buried in Peru waiting to be “discovered”.)
We left Karajia and drove the winding dirt road back to the valley bottom. Then we joined up with the highway again which we took to the town of Chachapoyas. Just past the town, with plenty of daylight remaining, we found a camp spot in a quarry. This time we made sure that no one could see us from the road. Lessons learned. We slept a little sounder that night and in the morning, we drove the short distance to Huancas, a mountaintop town with stunning views of wide canyons and valleys 3,000 feet below. It was breathtaking – literally. There was also an old Incan trail cut into a nearby mountain. Neat stuff.
We returned to the “highway”, now turned to dirt, and after a few kilometers, took a smaller road up a mountain towards our next destination. This became a regular pattern for us. A relaxed, warm valley drive followed by a hair-raising climb into chilly mountains for ruins and then back down into the warm valley. Repeat as necessary. This time our mountain climb took us to Kuelap, a Chachapoyan mountaintop fortress built around 500 AD, roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width. Often referred to as “Machu Picchu of north Peru”, Kuelap’s construction is presumed to have taken at least 200 years to complete, using millions of cubic feet of stone. It was impressive to say the least. And almost empty. In fact, there were more archaeologists excavating the site than there were tourists. What an amazing place to have to ourselves.
(Roz: Adding to the spectacular nature of Kuelap was that it was surrounded by profuse vegetation and huge trees covered with bromeliads and orchids. Even though we were 10,000 feet above sea level in the Andes, the place had a distinct jungle feel to it.)
We planned to camp in the Kuelap parking lot, but the lack of bathroom facilities (or bushes for privacy) forced us to find a room in the nearby village of Maria. There was no power in the town that night, but we still enjoyed a delicious grilled trout dinner by candlelight. Muy romantico! But the lack of power meant no hot water so we missed out on a much needed shower. The next day we drove back to the valley floor and stopped in Leymebamba, a sleepy town with a museum full of mummies that were discovered in 1996 at the nearby Laguna de los Condores. The mummies were some of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. (Roz: And this coming from the man who birthed a botly larva from his leg!)
Suitably creeped out, we left Leymebamba and continued south. It was this road that left my hands sweating on the steering wheel. The road was so narrow and the consequences of screwing up so huge that I honestly had butterflies in my stomach. Despite the danger, the road was mind-blowingly beautiful. It was easily the best driving of our journey – I’ll never forget it. Our wild camping site that night was on a path off the highway, near an abandoned house. After such a stressful day of driving, I finally slept soundly.
Our journey continued along crazy, winding, dirt roads that climbed, crossed and dropped down mountains. We had a couple of close calls when we met trucks around blind corners, but Yuki, our Suzuki Samurai, was always narrow enough to tuck into the smallest of shoulders. After 300 km of dirt roads, we finally found pavement again when we reached the big town of Cajamarca. Four days without a shower had given new meaning to the word “stench”, so we treated ourselves to a nice hotel room with lots of hot water. Boy did that feel good.
The next day we walked around town. Cajamarca is most famous for being the place where the Inca Empire came to an end when the last Incan Emperor, Atahualpa, was ambushed and killed by the Spanish. You bastards! (Roz: It’s even nastier than that. First Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors massacred thousands of unarmed Inca civilians and soldiers in order to capture Atahualpa. When the (vastly outnumbered) Spanish threatened to kill Atahualpa if his generals attacked, Atahualpa offered Pizarro a ransom for his freedom. After Pizarro received the ransom, Atahualpa was then executed by garrotte, a lovely Spanish method of execution by breaking the neck through strangulation with an iron collar. I’m ashamed to admit that I played one of the Spanish soldiers in our Grade 12 production of “Royal Hunt of the Sun”, which dramatized the clash of these two cultures upon first contact. On the plus side, the play was my first introduction to the Inca empire and sparked my desire to travel to Peru.)
We also went for a local drive to see some nearby ruins. First up: Ventanillas de Otuzco – a hillside necropolis of niches carved into rocks that oddly did look like windows (ventanillas). Dried skulls and bones of important leaders of the Cajamarca people were buried in the niches and then bricked closed. Apparently some windows were used more than once. Then we drove to Cumbe Mayo – site of a pre-Incan aqueduct 11,000 feet above sea level and approximately five miles in length. Built around 1500 BC, it was once thought to be the oldest existing man-made structure in South America. Equally impressive were the caverns and petroglyphs, as well as the broad sweeping vistas across the high grasslands and the haunting volcanic rock formations known as “stone forests” that had been shaped by erosion. All in all, another “Peruvian Wow” day!
We left Cajamarca (elevation 8,900 feet) and descended forever towards the coast down a steep paved road full of switchbacks. As we dropped, we passed long convoys of fuel trucks heading both up and down the mountain road. But since only one truck could negotiate the tight hairpin turns at a time, it made for some waiting and then creative passing techniques that utilized both lanes, both shoulders of the road and had Roz screaming “Trond! What are you doing?!” On the way down, near the town of San Pablo, we stopped at yet another pre-Incan ruin called Kuntur Wasi, which was occupied between 1200-50 BC. The cool thing about this place was that they were cat worshipers. Meow! Once again, we had the ruins and museum almost to ourselves.
(Roz: After visiting six different ruins in six days, representing 3 different cultures, it began to dawn on me that Peru was an incredibly diverse country with a rich history of culture beyond the Incas. Far away from Machu Picchu, in one small area in the north, various peoples had been inspired to create incredible works of art and construct complex stone structures and societies. After driving through some of the most beautiful country we’d yet seen, I think I knew why.)
The closer we got to the coast, the more built up it became. That meant wild camping was no longer an option because we wanted sites away from people. So in Guadalupe, elevation 500 feet, we found a hotel room that had both cable and wi-fi. I got to watch the final episodes of Season 2 of Project Runway (I had started watching the season in Costa Rica) and I’ll admit that my hands were sweaty wondering who would win. Fun as it was, TV just can’t match the nervous sweat caused by driving through the Andes. I wouldn’t want to experience that fear of death every day, but once in a while is good. It makes me feel truly alive.
END OF PART 31