Lost and Found in Peru
Lost and Found in Peru
Peru shares many characteristics with the countries we’ve been traveling through over the last 11 months. The drivers are crazy. The food is in suspect. The majority of the population is poor. The roads are bad. And even in Lima, the water is undrinkable. But there are many things that make Peru an amazing country to get lost and found in. One, is the number of fascinating indigenous communities throughout the country. Another is the amount of impressive archeological sites. And last, but not least, the number of world class outdoor adventure opportunities from mountain biking, to high altitude trekking, to river rafting and surfing.
Instead of taking the more common overland route from Ecuador to the northern coast of Peru, we chose to take the road less traveled through the Northern Highlands of Peru from Vilcabamba, Ecuador to San Ignacio, Jaen, Leimebamba, Celendin and Cajamarca, Peru. Lonely Planet guidebooks often glamorize remote regions in the world. But in the case of the Northern Highlands, they nailed it: “Vast tracts of unexplored jungle and mist-shrouded mountain ranges guard the secrets of the Northern Highlands like a suspicious custodian. Here, Andean peaks and a blanket of luxuriant forests stretch from the coast all the way to the deepest Amazonian jungles. Interspersed with the relics of Inca kings and the jungle-encrusted ruins of cloud-forest-dwelling warriors, connections to these outposts are just emerging from their infancy.”
The border crossing from southern Ecuador into the Northern Highlands of Peru was remote but straightforward. But pretty quickly, we learned that the roads in the Northern Highlands were anything but. For the first few days of driving, the dirt and paved roads were extremely narrow with huge drops into the canyons below. One wrong move would have resulted in certain death. As I drove, Leah looked out the window and told me how many inches we had between the edge of our tires and the edge of the cliff. “4 inches, 2 inches, 3 inches, 1 inch”. When big trucks approached us, we were forced to engage in a game of chicken, the loser of which had to back up on the single lane road until there was space to pull even closer to the edge of the cliff to let the other vehicle pass. Unfortunately, this was a game we often lost. Since few tourists, never mind overlanders, travel to this region, there were no campgrounds and we often found ourselves camping on soccer fields in the middle of indigenous communities.
But despite this stress, overlanding through the Northern Highlands was more than worth it. The region includes numerous amazing waterfalls, including 2 of the 5 highest in the world. It’s also full of relatively unexplored ruins of the Chachapoyas or “Warriors of the Clouds” a mysterious and sophisticated pre Inca civilization.
(If you get lucky, these Sarcophagi may be full of the mummified remains of Chachapoyan royalty like these recently discovered in a remote ruin (now in a creepy museum full of them.))
(Peublo de los Muertos, a Chachopoyan burial site on the side of a cliff in the Northern Highlands. Traversing the ruin along the side of a cliff with a big drop was exciting to say the least.)
(Chachopoyan royalty were mummified, placed in Sarcophagi and hidden in remote cliffs throughout the Northern Highlands. If you take a close look at this picture, you will see a row of Sarcophagi in the cliffs below near Peublo de los Muertos.)
(At a minimum, if you explore the more remote Chachapoyan ruins in the Northern Highlands you will likely stumble across piles of human bones.)
Finally, the Northern Highlands consists of hundreds of authentic indigenous communities full of traditions from colonial, pre colonial and even pre Incan times. Even the larger towns of Cajamarca and Celendin provided a fascinating glimpse into traditional Peruvian highland life. In a world where indigenous culture is disappearing, this was perhaps the greatest gift that the Northern Highlands offered.
After a few weeks in the Northern Highlands we descended from the mountains to the coast of Peru. This Peruvian coast is actually a long desert that stretches 1,500 miles from the border of Ecuador to Chile. This wasn’t our favorite part of Peru, but the driving, and some of the beachfront towns, were nevertheless fascinating. During our trip through the desert, we explored Paracas National Reserve, a huge reserve that consists of beaches, deserts and islands and os home to dolphins, otters, penguins, sea lions and even Humpback Whales.
After a failure in our camper’s lift mechanism, we headed to Lima which with ~10 million inhabitants, is the second largest desert city in the world behind Cairo. To many Peruvians, Lima is Peru. Many people in Lima know so little about the rest of Peru, that they say things like “It doesn’t rain in Peru.”
The food, including the ceviche in Lima is amazing. But Life there is chaotic and relatively expensive. For Peruvians, leaving Lima means pursuing a completely different and less financially rewarding lifestyle. And like these Peruvians, including some of the friends we made in Cusco, we were more than happy to escape.
The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, stretching through 7 countries from Venezuela to Argentina. And the Peruvian Andes are one of the best places in the world to pursue outdoor adventure opportunities including world class high altitude trekking, mountain biking and river rafting. As we’ve learned over the last 30 years, it’s easy to plan a day of hiking or mountain biking or river rafting. It’s a bit harder to plan multi day backcountry adventures, especially in third world countries. Fortunately in Peru we met numerous mountain bikers and rafters who embraced us and invited us to go on adventures with them and their friends.
We will never forget a few of our outdoor adventures in Peru. The first adventure was cross country and enduro mountain biking in the Andahuaylillas and Sacred Valleys outside of Cusco. Enduro mountain biking consists of getting a ride to the top of a mountain (or riding up it) and then riding down singletrack trails. The trails in the Andahuaylillas and Sacred Valleys were steep and technical and the riders we rode with were the best in Peru. At the end of each day, Karl was left wishing he had spent more time on the double black diamond trails in the bike park in Crested Butte.
Some of the trails that Karl rode went straight through Inca Ruins, like the famous Huchuyqosqo trail (pictured).
Thanks to a new friend in Cusco, we also joined a group of some of the best kayakers and rafters in the world (including this year’s Kayaking world champion) on a 3-day non-commercial rafting trip through the White Canyon of the Apurimac River in Peru. But we didn’t know these details until the night before our departure and after the first day of rafting. We soon realized that non-commercial meant we would run numerous rapids that clients have to walk (due to the risk) on commercial trips. After endless hours of rafting through Class 3, 4, 5 and even 5+ rapids on the first day of our expedition, we finally realized that we were combining two days of rafting into one, so that we could spend the second day on a beach campground to celebrate the birthday of “Rambo,” the river rafting guide who had organized the trip.
(The “Apu” is one of the best rivers in the world for kayaking and rafting and is also the longest source of the Amazon.)
The other adventure that we will never forget involved teaming up with a local couple from Cusco to deliver clothes and toys to impoverished herding communities living around the Ausangate Massif. We combined this mission with first descents of long, single track mountain biking trails in the area.
No trip to Peru would be complete without visiting Machu Pichu and the fabulous Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley. Most people stay in Cusco and take tours to the ruins in the Sacred Valley. But we chose instead to stay in a campground in the Sacred Valley which enabled us to get to many of the ruins early in the morning before the tour buses arrived. Exploring Machu Picchu was also a highlight. Getting there was expensive and surprisingly painful trip involving trains and hotels and buses are things that we just aren’t used to. But after catching the second bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu at 6am, we were rewarded with an amazing view and hike through the amazing ruins.
During our journeys we are always on the lookout for opportunities to stay with families in indigenous communities. And we were fortunate to wrap up our trip to Peru by spending a few nights with an indigenous Taquileño family on Taquile Island, a small island on Lake Titicaca. The Taquileños are considered to be the finest weavers in Peru and the family we stayed with were mo exception. Although a handful of tourists visit Taquile Island each day by boat from Puno, in the afternoons and at night, we were likely the only tourists on the island. As we rode the small boat back from Taquile Island across the crystal clear blue waters of Lake Titicaca and looked toward our next destination on the Bolivian coast of Lake Titicaca, we knew we would miss the traditions and warmth of the people that had embraced us on our journey to Taquile Island and throughout Peru.