A Disclaimer – When we entered Peru I thought it would be a continuation of the beauty we had seen in Ecuador. We were in Peru for well over a week and we both agreed that the only redeeming aspect of Peru was the Pisco Sour, with the egg whites that can give you salmonella. “Totally worth it if it gets me a helicopter ride out of here.” I stared at a map to calculate how fast I could drive out of this hell hole. That all changed (“11:00 on the 4th of June - it just got beautiful with a vengeance” / according to my journal) and we ended up using every day of our 3 month visa, but that came later . . . In fact, Peru was so good that I had to break the dispatches into Parts. Welcome to Part 1
Peruvian Ugly (Just The Northern Coast)
I think successful travel in north coastal Peru means significantly dropping your standards. You are going to need “Expectation Retraining”: Someone holds up a dirty old shoe and states: ”This is beautiful”. You mumble; “This is beautiful”. The only thing that is attractive in Peru is the work of Mother Nature, the ruins of lost civilizations and the architecture of the Spanish. Anything touched by modern Peruvian hands is world class, war crime ugly. They are riding on the old coat tails of the First People and The Spanish and polluting mother nature as fast as they can.
The culture that built the ancient pyramid of Tucume burned it all down and started over. They practiced a sort of scorched earth policy as they believed in the cleansing power of fire. It’s time to do it again. Northern Peru is so committed to ugly that a firestorm is the only way out.
One would think that
Ecuador and southern Peru would come here, throw their arms around northern
coastal Peru and say, “Come on man, you’re really giving us a bad name. A
facelift isn’t going to help you. You need to burn it down and start over.”
While the humans are moving out their meager possessions (There are as many
abandoned buildings as occupied ones), they could just hang a big “Going out of
business” sign at the northern border, wait for the exodus and then burn it to
the ground, collect the insurance money and start over.
|What 900 years of rain does to adobe.|
Look closely - those are all bricks.10 stories tall!
Should you make the mistake of finding yourself here, you’ll see hundreds of miles of trash heaped 3 feet high running the length of the roads. Knocked down bridges and rickshaws are more common than growing plants. You’ll see blankets being used for front doors . . . yes, it’s that kind of poor. When their current dwellings look like ruins I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t a culture that has come very far. In fact, I would contend that the finest days of this country were pre Colombian. My further proof is that 10% of the populace work in the tourist industry.
It’s as if they hired a consulting firm to make the most unattractive and unlivable cities on the planet.
“Picture the ugliest part of Mexico you’ve ever seen, and then let’s remove all living things other than humans.”
“We pave nothing, which means that everything will be covered in an inch of dust. This removes all color except the death drab brown of adobe.”
“Oh that’s smart. I can see it now. What else?”
“All architecture must be rectangular. Only boxes allowed. Then we throw trash everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Stack it as high as you can. Never bury it. We want it visible.”
“God that’s good. Keep going.”
“Now, this is the cake topper: Over fill every street with noisy honking tuktuks, and just when you think it can’t get any uglier… “
Cue the devil dog. That’s right… this is the national dog of Peru.
You don’t have to watch movies like Mad Max to see the future. The future is the Apocalypse and the Apocalypse is Peru, right now.
I’ve never seen so many consistent miles of ugly, and I’ve been to Oklahoma.
What makes a shithole? With the recent Trump quotes and the paragraphs I wrote above, I found myself wanting to attempt a list of what constitutes a CrapTown. Here’s what I came up with. Feel free to write me your additions:
1. Moto taxis galore with no muffler & screeching brake pads. Loud and polluting and the best reducer of life quality
a. Extra credit for running all night long
2. No pavement. Dusty or muddy. One makes you pray for the other.
3. Is there refrigeration in the markets or just slabs of meat rotting on wood counters? “Are these the biggest healthiest flies you’ve ever seen or what”?
4. When the bathrooms don’t even have soap, zero paper towels is a given.
5. Quit all construction when your buildings get to 75% of completion.
6. No smiles. Why would there be?
From Driver to Passenger
|Poor visibility, worn brake pads, terrible roads|
blind corners, a heavy foot. Terror.
Trocha means unpaved. Pista means paved. Trocha is bad. Pista is slightly better than bad. The road to Cutervo defeated me. I couldn’t drive faster than 4mph and most of the time my speed was so slow that it didn’t even register on the speedometer. This went on all day until I finally parked Elsie behind the iron gates of a soccer field, paid a man to watch her and voluntarily demoted myself to filthy backpacker. (Not being forced to use a public bathroom is the only way I tell myself I am above the lowly “mochilero”. We humans love to differentiate). I wanted to avoid the bus driving lunatics of Peru at all costs and now I am paying to be in their vehicle. Every seat is full and there are no seatbelts. He drives as fast as he can and passes every vehicle he can overtake to the peril of both vehicles. And you should see these roads. I think the only question they are asked before being hired is, “Do you have vertigo?”
Northern Mountainous Peru
The canopy vines in the northern mountains of Peru really give the place an otherworldly look. I’d seen that look on the war torn islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. It was an introduced species to help with aerial coverage during the battles but when the war ended the vine did not, and it continues to strangle everything to this day. I wonder if this is where they found it. The Ecuadorians would have cleared the land and farmed anything but these lands look untouched. I wonder if the difference is that vine.
It’s not all Incan (Tawantinsuyo)
I know when you think of Peru you think, “Ah, the land of the Incans.” Over the 13,000 years it has been inhabited there were thousands of other different indigenous tribes. Were the Incan notable? Absolutely, but in actuality, they were the last on the scene, and built on the shoulders of giants. They were the best documented, largest empire in the Pre-Colombian Americas (since history witnessed their defeat and enslavement - but not extinction, their ancestors are everywhere) and get all the majority of the credit for the ruins. But…Then you witness Kuelap
Kuelap – The Macchu Pichu Of The North
|Built in the 6th century AD, and inhabited for 1000 years|
|The outer ramparts|
Kuelap is only going to get better. Now there is a tram that will take you there and as they get more money they can unearth more of the site. Or….. It will turn into another Chitzén Itsa where every wall has been rebuilt and nothing genuine is left of the terrain they lived in. That predicament is for future generations to decide. I saw what I saw and was left gasping for superlatives.
|At it's height up to 3000 people lived here (archeologists interpretation)|
|Constructed in 450 AD with 130 million adobe bricks it was the largest pre-Colombian adobe structure in the Americas|
|The early tomb raiders cut directly into it. The Spanish diverted a river to wash away 1/3 of it, so as to get to the treasures|
|The Moche people added layer over layer like the skins of an onion so the insides are perfectly preserved|
|Chan-Chan. The largest Pre-Colombian city in South America. All made with adobe. Built 900 AD. Defeated by the Inca and incorporated into their empire 1470|
From Trujillo to Caraz we passed numerous blue signs that say, “Sitio Arqueologico”. Peru does a wonderful job of denoting their ruins of ancient civilizations. When the long shadows told us it was time to stop driving, we came upon Chuquicara; an almost nonexistent place with one gas station, some empty low ceilinged buildings that looked like they were probably built to corral llamas and a couple places with dirt floors under a tarp that would sell food. It was at one of these restos that we asked: “Any blue signs around?”
The lady sent us to an old man. The man said he remembered one from when he was a kid up in the canyon. A few calls later and we had arranged a guide for 7am the next morning to drive us.
|Suicidal Diego - the destroyer of tires, eardrums and lives|
Diego pulled up in a car that should have been scrapped 5 years ago. It was loaded with humans and sacks of produce. He drove at breakneck speeds on one of the most dangerous dirt roads with sheer “drop offs to death” around every corner. 3 times he stopped the car to check the right front tire because he knew it wasn’t safe. But it didn’t slow him down any. He’s cranking the music as loud as it will go and honking his horn just before every scary corner to alert oncoming drivers on this single lane death road, whom, I would imagine, are concentrating intently for the sound of a horn. That’s a fantasy. I’m sure they are doing exactly the same as he because, you know: Latins! We’re screaming at each other to communicate but turning down the music is not an option. There are 2 things in the world that are destructive to stereo speakers: 1.) Water. 2.) Latins. The music doesn’t sound right until the speaker is blown. Twice I heard myself curse in terror as we slid around a corner with our tires touching the last inch of dirt before oblivion. At certain points I could look back and see that the earth had eroded out from under the road. It looked like the letter “C”. Certain death for a future car. AB was wedged like a potato in the boot, with a 65 year old lady and a bag of tubers.
Diego stops at a blue sign. We see nothing but a hill. Then our eyes come to focus on the minutia and we behold La Galagada for the first time.
It’s 4000 years old. I think buildings in Europe are ancient when they were built in the 1500’s. 4000 years old!
(Tunnels so deep that when I turned off the light, the anxiety rushed in and I had to do a panic check)
Once we had our fill getting back became the priority. We walked a long distance to the nearest shadow of a town and asked if there were any taxis we could hire. The old lady said, “Ill call Diego” – “No No! No Thank you”
|AC means Before Christ. The sign says: "2400 - 2000 BC"|
|4000 year old appreciation to detail still stands|
Canon Del Pato
|Very little room for error and Peruvian rocks aren't very soft|
There are places where Overlanders dig in and stay for a week. And then the campsite achieves critical mass and you stay another week. It didn’t hurt that we were in the shadow of the spectacular Andes, but at this point the attraction was the camaraderie we felt with our fellow drivers. We went up to Laguna Paron and enjoyed small town Peru.
Simply wow. Sometimes the stars align and the cosmos smiles upon you and gifts that "brass ring" experience. Those moments are few and far between but we scored with this place.
We parked late in the afternoon. The archeological site had closed for the day. We were enjoying a glass of wine on a public bench next to the entrance of the ruin. I sometimes bring extra cups, as it’s a great way to meet people. A man exits with a full leather satchel slung over his shoulder with charts and blueprints protruding. “Can I interest you in a nice glass of wine? Say, are you an archeologist?” Yes, I am a whore for archeologists.
Turns out - John Rick has been the lead archeologist at Chavin for 24 years and we met him on the evening of his 40th wedding anniversary. He had a glass with us and then invited us to the party with all his grad students. The next day when we saw him on the site he invited us to step over the “scientists only rope” for a personal tour.
This place had it all: San Pedro cactus, water works, sensory deprivation cells – it was an unearthly temple with a hit religion. It had been continuously inhabited for maybe 10,000 years by the ancient Chavin forebearers prior to the temple being erected in 1500 BC. It was abandoned around 550 BC when an earthquake hit, the priests were shamed and the cult collapsed. But prior to that it had been visited by the major civilizations of the area as far away as Ecuador for 1000 years.
3,500 years old – I can’t get enough of this stuff. Stick around for the next installment of Peru because the ancient civilizations get older still!
Your man on point,