Saturday, 17 September 2011

Starting out in the north


Crossing the border into Peru was as easy as walking over a bridge. Once in Peru I got a taxi to take me to the immigration office 2kms down the road and then onto the town of Tumbes. Getting a visa was free and easy and the 25km drive to Tumbes was across flat scrub landscape.

The last time I got out of a taxi in Tumbes back in 94 I got ripped off. Guess what, some things don't change. The taxi driver tripled the price and when I spoke Anglo Saxon at him some of his “friends” turned up. I don't like being ripped off but as my bag was in the boot....mind you I saw him the next day and for a fat bloke with no friends around he sure could move fast :)

I got a hotel on the edge of the square which had totally changed since my last visit. The hotel room had cable which meant I was able to watch the rugby in the wee small hours.

The town of Tumbes hasn't really got much for the tourist but sometimes that's what I like.

On Sunday morning I got a minivan to somewhere that was really only for the tourist...Mancora!

Mancora is a small village of 8000 people that straddles the Pan American highway right on the coast. During the high season the town's population swells to 20000. Thankfully I arrived in the depths of the low season and was able to get a room for only 20 soles. The place was ever so slightly seedy which meant I fitted in well. There was also an Irish bar in town, owned by a Dutchman!

The next day I umed and arghed but in the end I decided that learning to kite surf for only $270 was just to cheap an opportunity to ignore. After a few days of getting over the late nights in the Irish bar it was time to fly a kite.

I was under the impression that because I can paraglide, flying a small 9m wing would be easy. Was I right? You bet, the only thing I had to “unlearn” was this...when handling a paragliding wing to slow it down you bring you hands down. When handling a kite-surfing kite if you bring your hands down what you are doing is increasing the power of the wing. After a few times of being dragged along the sand on my arse I had learnt that lesson...or had I?

After about 45 minutes on the sand controlling the wing it was time to get wet. I got the feeling that I had advanced quite quickly out of phase 1. Phase 2 was body dragging in the water. This was fun! In the water I was able to go full power on the wing without having to worry about “smack downs”. Mind you at 1st half my time was spent spitting water out of my mouth or blowing it out of my nose. An hour later I was able to control the wing well and when it did crash into the water I could self launch fairly easily. On the final two runs of the day the top half of my body was consistently out of the water, riding its own bow wave.

The next day I said goodbye to the 10m lines and hello to the 25m ones. The longer line I found made kite control easier. After an hour of body dragging it was time to get onto the board.

With the board on the sand Nacho my instructor showed me the stance I needed to have. It was at this point that I realised somewhat belatedly that I should of tried this two days ago back in the shop. “You bastard” was about to let me down again (you may know it by another left ankle). Still....what's the worst that could happen.

So there I was “out of my depth” childhood style beyond the surf. All I had to do was keep the wing under control and slip my feet into the fixings on the board. Multitasking....lets just say that it didn't go the way I thought it would. I ended up in the surf, waves crashing over me and somehow the board tether had wrapped itself around my left thigh. The board itself was against my left hip and every wave tightened the rope twisted around my leg. I ended up in the shallows, struggling to stand. The kite was on the sand and luckily wasn't going anywhere. Just then Nacho appeared to give me a hand. For some reason he was under the impression that I needed help getting the wing back in the air...

As the wing took flight he shouted at me to “grab the bar”, so I did. As I was finding it hard to get to my feet I instinctively pulled the bar towards me...oh dear!

The wing went full power and lifted me into the air. I crashed into the water, which was only 4 inches deep at the point of impact. At that moment I really wished that I was wearing a full length wetsuit as my knees were dragged across the sharp sand. When it was all over I was feeling like a half drowned cat...and then I stood up!

It was then that I decided I had had enough of kite surfing for one day. I hobbled the several hundred meters back to where the bags were, pulled out a big fat marlboro and slowly sat down.

The next few days were spent lounging in the day and drinking beer into the wee small hours.

On Sunday evening I was sitting at the bar with a question that needed answering

Heads: I stay in Mancora and try and finish my kite-flying lessons (and ignore my ankle)

Tails: leave in the morning

Well I tossed that coin 3 times and each time it came up tails. The next morning I did the same 3 coin toss and once again it came up tails all 3 times. Man! The universe really doesn't want me to kite surf.

At 9am I was getting on the bus to the town of Puira 3to 4 hours down the road. The landscape was flat, arid and mostly brown in colour. The town itself is busy but it did have a few charms. I was only staying for the night so I got a hotel near all the bus companies. On my second visit to the hotel pavement the angry lady behind reception gave me an ashtray and told me to smoke in my room. Totally against the law but I wasn't complaining.

Tuesday morning came around and after smoking a fag in bed I got up, packed and got on a bus to the town of Chiclayo 4 hours down the road.

Chiclayo is busy and almost every car is a taxi. Their horns blare out every 9 to 10 seconds and not one of them shelled out for the optional extras i.e. indicators! I got a nice hotel 2 blocks from the main square and had a siesta whilst watching CNN.

In the evening I wandered around the centre of town, got some food and decided to have an early night...well I had cable.

The next morning I was up early and walked the several blocks across town to where the minibuses for Tucume departed from.

30kms from Chiclayo is the small and non descript village of Tucume, which is in no way a tourist attraction. However a couple of miles away is Tucume “old town”.

About 1000 years ago the local population built a town around a sacred mountain. 26 mud brick pyramids remain, although ravaged by neglect and centuries of rain. The site is a circle of light browns in a sea of green. Most of the pyramids are off limits as excavations are currently on going but the best place to view the site is halfway up the sacred mountain slap bang in the middle.

The day was hot, my sunblock was in my hotel room and shade was hard to find. Comparing how the pyramids were with how the looked when 1st built took some imagination but I did it in the end.

I spent a few hours on site before getting into another minibus and headed back towards Chiclayo and the small town of Lambayeque. In this place is the world famous “Museo Tumbes Reales de Sipan”. The museum houses all the finds from Sipan. The treasure trove from the lord of Sipan's tomb is epic. Sadly cameras aren't allowed, so you will just have to get off your fat arse and come here!

Nearby is another museum (which I think lost out in the funding race) where you can take pictures, so I did.

The following day was decision time, so I made one. On Friday I woke up late and didn't check out of the hotel till 19:30, why? I was on a 20:30 night bus! So I would be breaking two of my “golden rules of travel” in one go. My last night bus was a 15 hour ride from hell in Sumatra, however this time I had the option of expensive seats. The twin deck bus had 9 seats on the bottom deck and they were all large, comfy and they reclined flat! Still didn't get any sleep mind you!

At 07:30 on Saturday morning I got off the bus in the small mountain town of Chachapoyas. I felt like shit! Standing on the pavement I lit the 1st of 3 fags, downed a can of red bull and let rip one of the longest farts of my life!

It was a short walk to the main square and the 1st hotel I walked into was good enough for me. Hotel Revash is an old colonial building and I went posh, my room had a balcony overlooking the main square and it only cost me 55 soles per night, which is about 12.92GBP.

The hot water of the shower tried its best to keep me awake but the bed was just to nice to ignore. By 10am I was bimbling around the centre of the town. The colonial buildings were all white walls and brown stained wood...and the coffee was black!

I fitted in 3 little sleeps during the day and in the evening after booking a tour for the next day went out on the town. By 10pm I was in bed, with my alarm clock set for 07:30 as the tour left at 08:30 the next morning. The next thing I was aware of was someone banging on the door. It was 08:38 in the morning...WTF...7 minutes later I was in the tour bus!

The purpose of the day trip was to visit Kuelap, a mountain top fortress built in 500AD (1000 years before the Incas showed up). As the crow flies it wasn't that far but we were travelling along unpaved roads following steep river valleys in a landscape that was trying to squeeze in as many mountains as possible. After 3 hours of epic landscape we arrived at Kuelap, or more exactly at the car park. There was still a 2.5km walk to get to the fortress walls, high up on a mountain ridge.

Kuelap is sometimes known as the “Machu Picchu” of the north and although it has yet to get on UNESCO world heritage list it really should be! The level of restoration here has so far been minimal which actually makes the site a joy to walk around. The 500 or so round houses have trees growing in and around them.

The site is about 700m long and 100m wide, built on an artificial platform with stones from a quarry several days walk away. The two entrances (royal and peasant) face the rising sun and are by modern standards narrow. There are two levels, with the higher one reserved for Royals, Warriors and Shamans. The latter were experts at brain surgery.

After 3 hours on the site it was time to leave (and waste an hour having food...why!!!) and return to Chachapoyas.

Two days later I woke up to the realisation that it was now the rainy season, it was pissing down. Not the best weather for a day trip. There were only 4 of us on the trip (including the guide) so we went in a car, I called shotgun!

The 1st place we were going to was a few hours away, up and over mountains on dirt roads. The car passed through several small villages and at each one at east one dog chased the car, barking as loud as it could!

By the time we got to Pueblo de los Muertos the rain had stopped. It was a 25 minute walk to the site, downhill along a steep rocky path clinging to the mountain side. The views of the valley were wonderful, low clouds slowly rolling up the sides of the narrow river valley whose waters were on a journey of 1000's of miles to the Atlantic ocean.

Finally we reached the site, there on a craggy cliff face were the ruins of a small Chachapoyas Indian settlement. The remnants of their round houses blended into the natural colour of the rock. To the left of the houses were burial ledges. Several large domed sarcophagus stood like sentinels watching the passage of time.

We walked along the narrow path, at a few places there was only 12 inches of solid ground between the houses and a life changing drop! The cliff face had a gentle curve to it and what views they had from their front doors.

After a while it was time to go. On the way back the sky had cleared up a little and across a couple of valleys you could see the 3rd highest waterfall in South America (the 1st and 2nd I’ve already seen). It took a lot longer than 25 minutes to walk back up the mountain path. By the time I had reached the top the date of my knee reconstruction surgery had jumped forward a few months.

We drove down into the nearby village for lunch before driving along more dirt roads to Karajia about an hour away. Pulling up in the main square of a little hamlet the guide said it was an easy 2km walk, it was but only because it was downhill!

Arriving at the site I saw another large curving rock face looking out over a small river valley. I completely failed to see the six 2m high sarcophagus on a ledge halfway up!

The walk back to the car was yet another “nail in the coffin” for my knees. Notice how I haven't mentioned my ankle once....I think by now it would be “a given”.

The road back to Chachapoyas passed through great scenery and the final descent into the valley and tarmac roads was glorious...because it wasn't raining!

Back in the hotel room the blistering hot water of the shower was the salve my muscles needed and later on the cold beer in the bar was just as appreciated.

On Thursday the 6th of October I left the town of Chachapoyas behind. I was heading to the village of Leymebamba 3 hours down the road. The road itself followed the course of a river nestling deep in between mountains.

Arriving in the village in the early evening I got a room overlooking the small main square and relaxed on the balcony. At 6pm the “church bells” rang out like an early 80's doorbell! After dinner I wandered around the mean streets of Leymebamba, I didn't take long as the small village doesn't have that many.

The next morning I was up early watching the clouds drift over the mountains whist waiting for a restaurant to open. After breakfast I followed the dirt road out of the village. The road slowly made its way uphill and after a few miles I arrived at Leymebamba museum.

10 hours walk away across the mountains is lake Condor. On the shores of the lake is an ancient Indian settlement and nestling on the nearby cliffs were around 200 mummies. The museum was built to protect and display these mummies.

The walk back to the village was a slow and leisurely affair. Even from over 2 miles away I could still hear the “doorbells” of the church.

The next morning I was on the 9am bus to Celendin. It was only about 70 miles away but it took over 6 hours. The dirt road was narrow and twisty with drops of 100's of meters on every blind corner. The landscape was epic and travelling along a road above the clouds is something everyone should do!

The only reason I was staying in Celendin was because 6 hours on a bus is enough for one day. The town itself is like Slough, okay if you live there but not really worth visiting!

The next day was Sunday and I was on the 12:30 bus. As the bus pulled away it started to rain and when it arrived in the city of Cajamarca 4 hours later it was still raining...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

On the way to the border


Once in Cuenca I got a taxi to the hostel I had pre-booked the day before. Turns out despite the appearance of the place from the street the interior was really nice. Two courtyards, hammocks and Wi-Fi. My room was large but oddly shaped and for some reason I will never work out it had 6 plug sockets in a line halfway up one wall. The only downside were the shared bathrooms, the lights were motion sensor activated and when it was dark they really didn’t stay on long enough.

The city of Cuneca has a large historic centre and a sizable community of retired “septic tanks”. Well everywhere has a downside!

As I was walking along in the afternoon I had a sense of “deja vu”, just like I had in Riobamba. I have been here before! Come the evening I was bimbling along the main bar street feeling somewhat annoyed that every bar had the word lounge in its name! Just then I stumbled across an old skool bar selling artesian beers in very large glasses with ashtrays on the bar, my search was over....

On the 3rd day I went on a day trip to the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. The day was cold, sometimes wet but always windy. The ruins were impressive but my stubby little legs were cold! The following day it happened! For the 1st time in over a year I was wearing long pants, it took a while to get used to wearing full length jeans again.

After 5 nights it was time to move on, I took the easy option! From a nearby hostel I took a minivan to Vilcabamba and the valley of longevity. I was staying which was 2kms south of the village. For $25pn I had a en-suite room with private patio and hammock. The views were amazing!

I spent 7 nights there and I had such a good time. The food was great and the bar stayed opened very late. The other guests were up for a laugh and good times were had....However nothing lasts forever and on a Monday I left “Eden” behind and got on a bus to the nearby town of Loja.

Arriving at Loja around midday I couldn't be arsed to go any further (my hangover wasn't helping) so I got a room in a hotel across the road from the bus station.

The next day I caught the 9am bus to the city of Machala near the pacific coast. With over 2500m of elevation to lose it was downhill all the way. The mountain views were beautiful and as we descended through the clouds the mountains receded and banana plantations were the only views to be had.

Machala is a nice enough town and for $20 I got a room in the Hostal Madrid just off the main square. Yep, it had cable tv, Wi-Fi and best of all Air-con!!! I haven't had that since Panama city...I wasn't in the mountains any more! The air was thick and muggy and the smells seemed to linger around for longer.

I hanged out there for 2 nights and then got on a bus to the border town of Huaquillas. I spent my last night in Ecuador here. I didn't get much sleep as the noise from the fan and the street kept me awake past 1am.

At 06:30 I woke up, grabbed a coffee and then walked across the bridge and into Peru.