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Published: September 16th 2007
Which used to line the main temple building at Chavin.
Huaraz is located about 400km north of Lima, in a large valley in between the Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Blanca mountain ranges. The largest mountain in Peru, Mt. Huascaran (6768m!), is nearby in the Cordillera Blanca, and there's dozens of other peaks of almost as impressive size. Thus, this area is the hiking capital of Peru. On that information alone I headed up into the mountains from Lima: I had no specific plans when I got there, except to visit the ruins called, like the culture whose capital they were, Chavín.
Chavín is the mama of Peruvian cultures - this site, considered the capital, dates to 1200bc (I think). Items of Chavín design were found throughout the north of Perú, up until around 100bc. But they started out right here, in the geographical center of the country, at least vaguely - in between the middle two of the four mountain ranges in Perú.
This site marks the first appearance in Perú of the triple gods of bird, cat, and snake, (air, earth, underworld/water) which were revered in many subsequent cultures. Because of the imagery, archaeologists theorize that the people of Chavín were influenced by jungle cultures. There are two theories along
these lines: 1) That there was cultural contact with Central American cultures and 2) That the people of Chavín came up from the jungle.
The site itself consists of two joined temples - the newer, larger one apparently built as the religion spread. In the old temple, four narrow corridors lead from each of the cardinal directions to a central space (forming an Andean Cross) in which there is a tall stone sculpture (known as the "lance", so you can get an idea of its shape) of the triple gods. This is 4 meters tall and apparently sunk only 90 centimeters into the ground. Umbilicus mundi.
As far as treks go, I wound up just doing the most popular one in the area, called Santa Cruz-Llanganuco. I basically decided on this for two reasons: 1) I was overwhelmed: there are dozens of treks in these mountains. 2) I didn't want to pay to join a group or hire a guide (I don't like hiking in groups, in the first place, and paying someone to arrange everything for you is expensive, in the second). Planning this trip by myself was interesting: when I informed people that I would be going
alone, I invariably got responses ranging from raised eyebrows to complete shock. This was making me a little nervous. So I asked millions of questions, the same questions of everyone I met, trying to find a reason for their surprise, a reason I couldn't do this alone. I could find none: "Is the trail well-marked?" Yes. "Is there water the whole way?" Yes. "Is the trail difficult or dangerous?" No, it's very easy. "Are there other people on the trail?" Yes, tons.
This trek is 4 days, though the first and last are largely spent in transport to and from the tiny villages at the start and finish. So my first day I arose at 5am, shouldered my backpack filled with spaghetti and Nature's Valley granola bars (I give some rare props to tourist towns... yum...) and got into a van for an hour, which brought me to another van into which I would have the pleasure of squeezing for 4 additional hours. The driver of the second van suggested we do "una cosita": in order to avoid the exhorbitant multi-day entrance fee for foreigners ($20! Peruvians pay nothing! I will not go off on this tangent again,
but just who do you think that money, paid to the national parks service, goes to? The local campesinos? Somehow I doubt it.), the driver would hide my bag and not correct me when I informed the guard at the park entrance that I was only going in for 1 day ($1.50!). Sounded good to me, and all went well, despite my being questioned about my day ticket by a jolly woman in uniform who then mimed pulling me around by my nose ring as though I were a bull.
Since you can't arrive to the starting point before noon, the first day of the trek only lasts about 4-5 hours. From the village of Vaquería (a tiny middle of nowhere place seemingly completely given over to the renting of donkeys and arrieros - drivers - to tour groups), you walk gradually up a beautiful, wide valley, tiny mud brick farm houses spread out along the floor, towering white-capped mountains framing the whole thing. Little kids with ruddy cheeks asking for pens. Or candy. Or an apple. Or money. A man walked up a hill with me and then asked for medicine for a toothache. I gave him a bunch
of Ibuprofen: I regret not giving him all I had.
The valley makes an abrupt right turn and from here on there are no more houses. The trail continues up and up, through a wood, the many grazing cows the only sign of human habitation. The land is rocky, the greenery sparse, the grass stubby. I think to myself that it looks ancient, like cavemen live here. Where the ascent begins in earnest there is an official campground (pit toilet with a wall around it and a sign announcing said toilet), where I find a dozen tents: I keep going. I lose the trail for a moment (having gone to check out the tents and then tried to take a shortcut back), have to toss my bag across the creek and take a flying leap, but come out at a lovely spot just far enough away that I can't see or hear the other hikers... can pretend it's just me and the mountains...
In the morning I watch a stream of folks heading past me as I brush my teeth and dip my head in the river. I am the last of those crossing the pass that day to head
The Main Plaza in Trujillo...
...looks like most of the buildings were painted yesterday.
out. This day's walk is up, up, and more up. Steeper and steeper, less and less vegetation, climbing about 1500m in 4 hours until you cross the pass just about at the snow line at 4700m by climbing rough-hewn stone steps. Walking at this altitude is a prayer, a meditation: you pay attention to every breath, concentrating on the oxygen filling your lungs. Every so often (by the pass I was stopping every 50 steps or so) I stop to catch my breath. I feel normal for a second, then I attempt to do something as simple as move my hand - but I do so without thinking, too abrubtly, out of rhythym with my breath, and I'm gasping again...
I paused for a delicious lunch of salami and cheese and chocolate at the top, but was all too quickly chased down by the wind. The way down was pretty easy, relatively, the steep part being over in much less time. I again bypassed the other tents (many more at this campground), finding a little space just the right size for my tent.
The next day I wound up ahead of everyone else, as the tour groups all went on
Totoro Boats in Huanchaco
Images of fishermen using these boats can be seen on ancient pottery; you can watch them paddle out into the surf today.
a side-trip to view Alpamayo, reckoned (by whom, I'm not sure, though I suspect it may be the local tourist agencies) the most beautiful mountain in the world. I couldn't be bothered and so continued on. About 1 hour before the village that marks the exit to the trail I found a beautiful spot by the river, surrounded by bromeliads, where I enjoyed my last night camping in true solitude - except for some cows who wandered all too close to my head during the night.
At the exit I had no problems with my ticket, and climbed into a car with a driver in aviator glasses and 6 fat ladies all jabbering in Quechua, toddlers on laps.
The next night I took a bus to Huanchaco, a fishing/tourism village just outside of Trujillo, a desert city which is said (by my guidebook) to rival Arequipa for the title of Second City of Peru. I liked Trujillo - the downtown was absurdly clean, the people very friendly. And while it was cold and foggy every morning (the Peruvian coast is a cold, misty desert - whoever heard of such a thing?), it usually cleared up in the afternoons so
Funky Mud Art
At Chan Chan. My guide kept saying, "Where there are fish, there are birds. Where there are birds, there are people."
that the blinding burning sun shone out of a perfect sky...
In the desert nearby is the "Largest Mud City in the Americas": Chan Chan, the ancient capital of the Chimu culture, which from 850 to 1470ad covered all of the northern Peruvian coast from Ecuador to Lima. In 1470 the Chimu were conquered by the Incas, and in 1534 the city was abandoned when the Spanish arrived.
The ruins, at more than 14 square kilometers, are made up of 9 different "palaces" with similar architectual traits. It's theorized that a new palace was built for each new ruler. Only one of these, called Ciudad Tschudi, is open to the public, though the rest are clearly visible in the area, tall mud walls appearing to have been partially melted by time. The size of the palace is amazing, the main square dwarfs you as you enter. In many places the walls are formed into various fish and bird designs. It gives you an idea of how very dry this area is to think that all this, carved of mud, is still there after 1000 years.
Before the Chimu, in the first through the seventh century ad, the Trujillo area was
Apparently this was the business district.
also home to the Moche culture. Though it seems they didn't have one capital, but rather regional ones spread out throughout the north of Peru, outside Trujillo there remain two huge mud pyramids, known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. The Sun appears to have been the administrative center, the Moon the religious center, with a still unexcavated city in between. The walls of the Temple of the Moon still largely retain the original paint! There are sculpted images of fighting, prisoners being led from battle, large spiders, snakes, and the "Decapitator God", Ai-Apaec, who has a feline head and is usually depicted holding a human head and a sacred tumi knife. All this done with natural paints in yellow, red, blue, and white.
After one full day of site-seeing (I went alone, but got picked up outside Chan Chan by a tiny powerhouse of a Peruvian tour guide who rushed us all over the place in her official vest), I spent several more just lying on the beach at Huanchaco. This is a surf town - so even in the off season I could while away the hours watching both modern surfers and
The Moche Temple of the Moon
Wall decoration of "The Decapitator"
traditional fishermen on totora reed boats (which are sort of like surfboards) ride in and out.
Oh, and I finally tried ceviche (famous Peruvian dish of raw seafood) for the first time - it was too lemony.
And that about sums that up. Up Next: Chachapoyas.
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