Monday, May 24, 2010

Cordillera Blanca

From Trujillo we decided to make a detour into the Cordillera Blanca, reputedly the highest mountains of the continent. The road from the coast into the mountains was the roughest we have ever been on. Big sharp rocks, huge holes and frequent rockslides make 10 km/h the highest comfortable speed. Our first ride was on top of a truck transporting random things, amongst them a sheep and a bull. We were seated on a narrow wooden plank directly on top of the bull´s horns. The truck sped at what we guessed must have been at least 25 clicks, and we were shaken hard on our perch. At first the trucker told us that he will take us for 6 hours. ¨Awesome¨, we thought: a long scenic ride. But after an hour the truck stopped at a desolate crossroads in the middle of the mountain desert and informed us that we ought to take the left road, as he was taking the other one. Damn. There it is on the photo, crawling away.So we started walking in hopes of finding a shady tree. There were none in sight. It was hard walking on the rough surface. In about half-hour a truck heading the opposite direction stopped and gave us bananas and oranges. We ate them immediatly.
We passed a few ghost-villages, with only mud walls remaining. In one of them was a restaurant that was guarded by about 20 dogs. They barked fiercly at us and we made a big loop around the friendly establishment. Finally! A shady bush with a good view of the road. We were hidden under the leafy branches so well that the traffic did not see us at all, so when we saw a car heading our way, we had to leap out like wild bushmen, possibly scarrying a few drivers.
After a few hours of contemplating the red and yellow mountain sides around, we flagged down a Jeep. A true racer was behind the wheel. He floored the gas pedal a few times, and was advancing with an average speed of 40 km/h. He hit the bumps so hard that we were jolted from our seats, he sped around the blind turns and made no attemps of avoiding the big sharp rocks that sometimes fell from the cliffs above. In a few hours we were in Huallanca, where we stopped to eat. As a good omen, as we were leaving town, something burst under the hood and the oil leaked out of the engine (no freaking wonder). We were glad to part ways with our kind but dangerous friend as he took the bus to Huaraz.
We walked a bit out of town in search of a level spot for our tent and came up to a school yard,where we spotted a tent. A french couple was inside it. We decided to camp with them for the night and soon we organised an expedition for firewood, on the other side of the fast flowing river Santa. There was no bridge over the canyon... but there was a busket.You get in and pull the rope until you are on the other side. Scary! When we were on the other side (one by one), we met a grandma who told us that the whole contraption somehow collapsed last year, when four people were crossing at once! Then she wished us a good night and pulled herself to the other side with a huge bundle of grass to feed her guinea pigs. We gathered the wood and crossed back over as it was getting dark. This time two at once (much easier to pull the rope).The next morning we were excited to go through the next section of the road to Caraz. There is a beautiful Pato Canyon and also 35 tunnels in 50 kms of the road! The road was empty at the early hour and we did not think it through when we flagged down the first truck that appeared. We climbed into its closed box and realized that we will miss all the beauty as there was no opening! No, wait, there is a door on the side! And it opens... on the right side, so we watched the rock face fly by all the way. There werea lot of beer bottles, however they were empty. At least we were not in complete darkeness...In Caraz we made up our minds to visit the beautiful lake Paron, surrounded by white peaks and beautiful glaciers on all sides. It was only 35 kms up a very steep and winding road. And no cars. We walked may be 5 kilometers and were completely exhausted. Chewing coca leaves infused us with enough energy to climb the small hill to find a place to camp. In the morning there were no cars again (except for honking taxis speeding up and down) so we walked down to town, exhausting ourselves again. May be it was the altitude (around 2300m), our recent illness or our general weakness, it was hard to say, but no more mountain excursions for us! This photo was our only reward for this fruitless and very hard attempt to visit the lake. The lake is directly under this peak,still a long ways off.Yesterday we walked into Huaraz, a town famous amongst primarily Israely tourists for trekking and mountain climbing. There are tons of agencies here offering all of that and more, but we politely decline their insisting offers. As we were walking towards the main square we met a couple walking in ridgid mountain boots and carrying ice axes and ropes. We shivered.
As we were looking for a spot to pitch our tent for the night, we asked a knitting grandmother sitting on her porch for directions to the beach. In return, she invited us to camp in her garden. We slept tight throught the cold night.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The highlands

From Chiclayo we went to Chachapoyas. Our first ride was with a director of a nearby archeological site, so we were invited to visit it, free of charge. The erroding pyramids of Tucume were impressive in the setting sun. As it was getting dark, the best camping spot we could find was on top of a small unexcavated pyramid, amidst bee hives and very prickly trees.In the morning, a few short rides and then a truck, all the way to Pedro Ruiz. The truck was carrying bags of cement, and us on top of the bags. The scenery was beautiful, but the cement dust got into every crack! We were happy it did not rain!
In Chachapoyas we reunited with Tolik and Lusine, and also met Miryam and Markos on the street, for the second time since Panama!
The main thing to do in Chachapyas is to visit the Kuilap fortress, an archeological site. It´s quite hard to get to, as the three-hour ride bus ride there leves only once a day - at 3 am. Yes, 3 in the morning. We got together with Miryam and Markos and went. We were the first visitors of the day (at 6 in the morning) and the site was closed until 8. So we were invited to have a cup of coca tea at a nearby hut. The archeologists working at the site, happened to take their breakfast in the same hut, so we chatted with them and they invited us to visit their excavations later. There, we saw skeletons of an ancient sacrifice! Bones sticking out of the earth and workers brushing dust away with tooth brushes and syringes... Impressive. The whole site is little excavated, and there´s a lot more work for the few people who work there. When it is all finished (and getting there becomes easier), we were told that some day it may rival Machu Picchu itself!Our next stop was Cajamarka, and the road there is the scarriest (and most beautiful) we have ever seen. It is a narrow dirt road that winds its way through the mountain ranges, then plunges down to the river and then climbs up again. Oftentimes when you look out of the window, you see nothing but the valley a few kilometers down. There are lots of blind turns and the drivers honk to warn the oncoming traffic. There is not a lot of cars on this road, but if there is an oncoming one, you usually meet it just around the bend.
In Cajamarka we hanged out with Miryam and Markos again, and headed out in the morning. A trucker with his young family picked us up and we stayed with them for two days until Trujillo. Another dusty low-rise desert town, we will check out the pyramids and go to the mountains, to Huaraz.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sechura desert

Ladden with a load of fruits and water we take a minibus from Piura to the edge of the desert and walk off into the sunset... The landscape was dry and beautiful, with sand dunes and prickly bushes. As we walk further and further into the desert, we pass a shepherd leading his goats back to the village. After we walked over a few ridges we agree that we want to go no further, put up our tents and settle around a fire. And then the mosquitoes attacked us! In the desert! Crazy.In the morning the rides do not come quick, so we decide to strategically split our forces. Jonathan goes ahead, and as soon as he leaves, we are picked up by a tractor-trailer. The driver is funny and talkative. Half way to Chiclayo he stops for a group of men hitch-hiking, and loads them all in his empty container.In Chiclayo, we finaly meet Tolik and Lusine, go to their hotel and get a room. And in the room, we find a treasure! A plastic bag full of expensive austrian clothes and other travel gear. The jewels of the hoard are: a multi-tool from Navimag ferries, a gasoline lighter, never used, and a sleek flashlight. Who and why would have left all of it behind?We apropriated the find, but if the owner comes back in time, we will give it back.
In the evening we figured our route with the guys: It looks like a lot of bus rides! Oh well, we`ll see what this way of travelling looks like!
Later at night, we reunited with Jonathan (who made it to Chiclayo half an hour after us) and talked well into the night.
The next day we went to the nearby ruins of Sipan with the guys. What looks like two muddy hills at first sight, are actually the remains of huge ancient adobe piramids. In the nearby museum there are a lot of excavated gold objects and descriptions of the tombs.

Friday, May 7, 2010


As we were hitching out of Cuenca, a pick-up pulled over, with one hitch-hiker in the back already. His name was Jonathan. He had done exactly the same route as us, even starting from Montreal! As we have forgotten most of our french, we conversed in spanish(!). We decided to travel together for a bit, as none of us was in a hurry to get anywhere... After an hour or so of travelling, we came up to a road blockade, high up in the mountains. The local indigeneous community was protesting against the goverment interfering into the community´s water managment. Private companies were planned to be brought in, increasing the costs (or even privatising) the water. The traditional way of protesting in Ecuador was historically to block roads, preventing all but pedestrian traffic from passing, sometimes for days.(photo by Jonathan)
We alighted and walked to the other side of the barickades. There was very little flow of traffic on the other side, only some people going for lunch to the nearest town and taxis. We walked on a totally empty road for may be half an hour when a van stopped and took us to the next town. Then the rides came so quickly that we did not have time to even make a couple of steps of our own. By the end of the day we covered more than 200 km, way more than we usually do, and that including the road block! Jonathan definitely brought us some good luck!
We got into Loja just before the sunset and got to looking for a campsite straight away. Jonathan asked some señor if he would know of a campsite nearby, in return to which he pointed to an abandoned construction site. The four storey appartment building was perched on a hill overlooking most of Loja and facing directly west. We occupied the central living room and discovered that we are facing a small-scale version of St. Basil´s Cathedral.The sun set behind a furious storm-cloud and we went to sleep.
In the morning Jonathan´s luck only increased. As soon as we walked to the spot, he flagged the very first car down, and his fenominal thumb worked wonders the rest of the day, getting us to the border 8 hours later.There we camped behind a gas station and crossed into Peru in the morning. As we were taking breakfast, Jonathan noticed a truck pulling out. He quickly ran over and got us a ride straight to Piura!The truck was delivering a sort of humanitarian aid to the local population, and in the middle of the ride we unloaded sacks of rice and boxes of soya oil into another truck, heading the opposite dirrection. We hope the aid reached the people!
We find ourselves now in the hot and dusty city of Piura, on the northern edge of the Sechura desert. We only have to cover 6 kms to get to the desert´s edge from here, so we think we´ll stock up on fruits and water and go camp in the desert for the night.Photo by Jonathan.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Ecuador II

We left Quito late in the morning, it was overcast and we couldn´t see any volcanoes around us. We took a bus to the nearest town of Tambillo on the Panamericana. We started hitching, but somehow we got disoriented and when the car stopped the driver informed us that we were heading back to Quito! We felt stupid, turned around and walked to the other end of town. Again. There was no good take off spot, so we kept walking. It started drizzling, turning to rain later on. It started raining heavily as we were passing a truck scale station, complete with a two-storey building for the the police to watch over traffic. There was a porch on the backside of it and we sat down there waiting for the rain to stop. It didn´t. George was practising his flute and Anastasia was making bracelets. A security guard came up to the sound of music and chatted with us. The building was sort of abandoned but the guard used it to store his things in it. The key to the door was a piece of wire laying on a nearby sill. Anastasia picked the lock in under 30 seconds and we looked around the place. It was empty, had a locked toilet, an empty kitchen and a second floor with a 360 degree view of the landcape and the highway. However, we decided not to trespass and to sleep outside under the cover of the roof. Don´t mess around with the police, man!
It was getting dark and as we were boiling soup for dinner, the same guard came back, showed us how to pick the lock and invited us to spend the night on the second floor. We had a comfortable night as it rained outside.In the morning we walked a bit more and got a lift to Latacunga. There is a very high and beautiful volcano Cotopaxi near it, but the clouds were still hanging low. Another lift to Ambato, with an extremely polite and interesting Colombian, Ivan. How nice it was to get the feel and hear the expressions of that beautiful country once again.
From Ambato we headed to Baños, which we believed to be a beautiful resort town. Anastasia planned to sell some of her bracelets there. Well, Baños wasn´t beautiful. Ten years ago an eruption of the near-by volcano leveled the old town, and the new one was ugly with half-finished disproportional buildings, most of them hotels. 150 of them in a town of may be 10 000 people. Everything for the rich tourist. Lots of offices offering horse-back riding, rafting, waterfall excursions and so forth. We found the cheapest room in town, without even a window. In the morning we felt sick and didn´t feel like partaking in any of the wonderful opportunities which were offered on every corner. There was no traffic heading out of this hole, plus a walk to the hitching spot was up a very steep and long hill. We chickened out and instead boarded a bus to Riobamba and then to Calabamba for a buck. How lucky that we did!
As soon as we plunked our bags on the shoulder and did not even have time to raise a hand, a pick-up pulled over, driven by a Russian-speaking ecuadorian Luis! The ride was long and spectacular, with steep drop-offs on one side and tall walls on the other. In the meanwhile, Luis told us about his university years in Odessa back in the 80´s, his ukranian ex-wife Svetlana and we discussed traditional Russian dishes at length. What a good feeling it was to speak Russian half-way across the globe! Luis was very excited to treat us to a local specialty - cuy, which is a coal roasted hampster. To his dissapointment, we told him that we were vegetarians and therefore could not accept his offer. Instead, he treated us to a spinach soup followed by a big portion of rice with potatoes and an egg at the roadside eatery. Very tasty indeed!
After 4 hours of going throught the mountains, we rolled into Tambo, where we got off to see the Inca ruins, the most important ones in Ecuador. As we were exchanging e-mails, phone numbers and saying farewells, in his excitement George forgot our camera in the truck. Damn.
Anyway, it was raining when we got out so we decided to postpone our visit to the ruins until tomorrow. There was a train station in town with a big roof over the platform. It was the only dry spot we could see so we decided to settle there for the night. Luckily, it was quite boring to just sit and watch the rain fall, so we went to a near-by internet cafe to kill some time. When we asked the owner of the cafe if it was allright for us to sleep at the station, he invited us to spend the night in an empty room in his house instead! So we spend another dry and comfy night indoors.
When we got to the ruins early in the morning, they were just opening up. At the entrance, the lady initially asked us for $6 per person to enter. We made long faces and said that we could not afford such a huge entry fee. She then agreed to let us in for a dollar each. What a difference! It was our first taste of the perfect Inca stonework, but other then that the site left us unimpressed.
Later in the day we got to Cuenca, another beautiful colonial town, and tried to call Luis, who was in town, but his phone was off. So we had nothing else to do but to go to a hostel and wait until tomorrow to meet our friend again and to retrieve our camera.The next evening we met with Luis and he treated us to a superb drive around excursion of the town, complete with an authentic dinner in an authentic ecuadorian eatery, the type that fries its goods on a coal stove out front to lure in customers. A great finale to our stay in town, we head out tomorrow!