Crossing Central Peru

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May 4th 2014
Published: May 4th 2014
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Cordillera Blanca Cordillera Blanca Cordillera Blanca

from our window. Huaraz
The Incas pulled together the pre-existing tracks in the region to create an extensive paved road system of 40,000 kilometres, stretching past Quito (Ecuador) in the North and Santiago (Chile) and Mendoza (Argentina) in the South.

The roads were primarily used to redistribute goods, as different items were produced in different regions, and for efficient transfer of the Inca armies (which could number in the tens if thousands) to ensure their hegemony over the Empire.

The Great Inca Road traversed 6000 km along the spine of the Andes and, en route, connected Cajamarca and Cusco.

Today, it is not possible to make this journey without returning to the coast. Apart from flying the most direct route is to bus it from Cajamarca to Lima (13 hours) and from Lima to Cusco (24 hours).

We took the more scenic option. Our route was as follows (with journey time to the next destination).

Cajamarca (7 hours)
Trujillo (8 hours – night bus)
Huaraz (6 hours)
La Union (5 hours)
Huanuco (7 hours)
Tarma (3 hours)
Huancayo (7 hours)
Ayacucho (7 hours)
Andahuaylas (5 hours)
Abancay (5 hours)
Cusco (hooray).

In many cases the journey was more interesting than the destination, as we would be climbing up one side of an Andean mountain range to descend on the other. Wonderful panoramas were unfolding all of the time, napping was not an option.

Huaraz is the Capital town in the Callejón de Huaylas, the valley between the two mountain ranges of the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra. The snow capped tips of the Cordillera Blanca capture the eye to the east and can be seen throughout the length of the valley.

Surrounded by picturesque mountains, Huaraz itself is somewhat uninspiring. The half built cathedral has looked over the main square for over 40 years, the original having been toppled in an earthquake and dam busting flood in 1970, which ended the lives of 15,000 of the population.

The same earthquake led to devastation in the small town of Yungay.

It caused an avalanche of rock and ice high in the mountains of the next valley, which rushed down and engulfed the town, burying the 18,000 people who were there at the time. The only survivors were a handful of people visiting the elevated cemetery, who witnessed the tragedy occurring below them, and the local children who were in a school away from the path of the rocks. About 300 orphans were created that day.

We climbed to the top of the cemetery and tried to imagine what the people witnessed. The church survived and stands alone on the flat plain, which is now mainly revegetated scrubland.

A road winds high into a crack between the mountains above Yungay and ends at the beautiful blue Llanganuco lake at an altidude of 3850 metres. The air was really thin as we walked around the edge. We had to consciously breathe deeply to get enough oxygen.

There are several other towns along the valley floor, all pretty enough.

A side trip took us to the Chavin De Hauntar archeolgical site. This is a series of large temple arrangements built by the Chavin culture between 1200 BC and 800 BC. (Since not much is known about these people they are named after the nearest local town). It was quite interesting and the nearby museum was pretty good.

Everybody was most impressed when a low level rainstorm gave rise to a perfectly formed rainbow right in front of us.

Even in this case the destination was overshadowed by the journey. The bus wound its way to the top of the Cordillera Blanca where a tunnel has been carved to provide access to the next valley. At 4500 metres, this could be the highest I have ever been on the planet.

The recent discovery of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton has intrigued the local population. How different this land must have been c.60 million years ago.

The whole area of the Cordilleras is studded with quaint hamlets in remarkable locations. I could spend an interesting couple of months visiting these in a full wifi world.

To continue the journey we needed to get out from the Cordillera Blancas, through the Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range and into central Peru. This involved catching one of the few buses to the small town of La Union.

In La Union the owner of the local motorbike shop called us over to practice his English. You can buy a Chinese

View over former town
125cc trail bike for 2500 soles or a Japanese one for 3500 soles. He was prepared to do a deal.

I would not have liked to take any bike on the road to Huanuco. We were wondering why there were no buses plying this route. Squashed into the front of a collective taxi we were soon to find out.

Along the mountainside, numerous streams had washed away half of the road and made a muddy skid pan of the other half. It was a hair-raising trip that passed very quickly.

There's nothing much happening in Huanuco, though at an elevation of only 1900 metres, it has a pleasant, balmy climate and we just hung out for a couple of days.

The undisputed highlight was one of the best pizza's I've ever had (and I've had a few) opposite the dilapidated Huanuco Hostel . (It was the base that did it).

On the down side, Huanuco is at the end of the valley, as far as a lorry can get. We got plastered with dust and diesel fumes as we made our exit.

The road towards Tarma passes Cerro De Pasco, at 4333 metres it is the highest, and probably coldest, town in Peru. The extraction industry is very active here as there is a lot of mineral wealth in this area. We passed a few ramshackle mining communities. I had no plans to stop there.

At this point we were crossing the vast plain of the Altiplano. The mountaintops were far in the distance.

At Tarma we stayed in a colonial merchant's mansion that has been converted into a guest house. The rooms and courtyard were festooned with local art and crafts. At £10 a night, I wasn't complaining.

Apart from the Cathedral, there wasn't that much to see.

'Go to the market. We have over 200 different types of potato', said a local chap.

In fact, the advocates of the annual potato festival were dancing through the streets while we were there.

We joined a Limeneo couple to visit some points of interest in the surrounding mountains.

First up was the religious sanctuary of El Señor de Muruhuay, where an etching of Christ appeared in the rock and cured smallpox victims who had been left for dead.

Further along the road there was a pretty convincing image of Jesus in the shadowed contours of a rock wall.

We then went to the Gruta de Huagapo, a huge limestone cave 4km further up in the hills. It contains an underground river which exits here and runs down to the local fish farm. There were some pretty clear prehistoric figures drawn near the entrance (allegedly) and a path went a good distance inside with some quite challenging ladders (for oldies).

As usual with these caves, torches can be shone at the rock formations to create images of anything an active imagination can conceive.

Lunch was the freshest of trout, straight from the barrel.

This was now the week before Easter. We were privileged to be present when the local populace hoisted aloft their statue of the Virgin Mary for a circuit of the Plaza in preparation of the main event.

Easter is always a bit of a toughie when you are traveling. It's one of the few times that the native population gets some time off to go and visit their far flung families. It is best not to be too ambitious travel-wise.

Once I knew where we were going to be I made a booking for the whole Semana Santa in a hostel in Huancayo. It is the capital of the area, but is not swimming in character. However, there was a seasonal vibe in the air and street processions were commonplace, costumed dancers accompanied by the obligatory brass band.

We visited some of the regional pueblos and I got to eat Pachamanca in a hilltop tourist town. This is a traditional Inca meal consisting of large chunks of on the bone meats roasted along with potatoes, yucca and other vegetables in a ground oven heated by hot stones. Mine was a bit gamey.

Nearby is Jauja, the first Spanish capital, but now a backwater, and the convent of Santa Rosa de Ocopa, with no obvious evidence of nuns and lots of evidence of monks, housing examples of monkish taxidermy, collected as they attempted to catalogue the Andean fauna.

Despite having spent a good few weeks at altitudes above 2500 metres, we still had not adjusted to the conditions. Breathlessness at the slightest exertion and dizziness were regular occurrences for us both. I finally bowed to partner pressure for palliatives. Those coca teas were just not doing the trick.

Gingko biloba is the only non-pharmaceutical substance that has been proven to be effective against altitude sickness (according to my internet research). We bought a bottle of tablets from a local pharmacy (expensive) and commenced the routine. It has to be said that after a few days we were dealing much better with the thin air.

Prophylactic or placebo? We're still taking it.

Good Friday is the big day for Easter. People from the surrounding barrios came into town to create large scale pictures out of coloured sand in the main roads (which were closed).

Around dusk, the crowds had accumulated and the Religiosos gradually carried their sacred effigies of Jesus and Mary around the square and off into town, destroying all the sand pictures in the process. The crowd filled in behind the procession, which continued along in double slow time.

And that was it for Easter really. Saturday was a normal day, on Easter Sunday the churches held services at 4am only and Monday was back to work.

Just outside the town there is a viewpoint with a zoo. They claimed a lion, but we didn't go inside to find out.

After a couple more kilometers the landscape becomes resolutely rural and you can find your way to a canyon in the hillside called Torre Torre. The canyon was studded with pinnacles due to uneven erosion over the millennia. Old ladies were tending their flocks of sheep while a handful of tourists snapped away.

From here we walked back into town and fell into a busy grilled chicken place for a huge portion of chicken and chips. As we were eating an attractive lady came up and started chatting in Spanish. I admitted that I am only a learner of the language and she went on her way. A couple of minutes later my subconscious brain called an alert and I realized that she had made off with my bag. Too late. Gone were my camera, mp3, guidebook and various useful bits and pieces.

When I had finished kicking myself we made our way to the tourist police HQ.

'What do you hope to achieve by reporting this crime?' asked the kindly police woman.

Not much really. An official report for my scrapbook is about all I could expect.

'Insurance report', I said, though I don't suppose I'll bother, given the excess on the policy.

Huaraz, being a big town has a mall with some department stores. We spent the rest of Easter replacing the items that were stolen.

Fortunately, I didn't lose too many pictures as I have been quite diligent uploading my photo's to 'the cloud'. Just the Easter procession, the monastery and Torre Torre have been cast to the ether.

I will see how I get along without a guidebook. There is so much information online these days that I think the days of guidebooks are numbered anyway.


Market Day
Easter being over, we didn't expect much from Ayacucho.

How wrong we were.

The city is famous for having 33 churches, one for each year of Jesus's life. We had a look at a lot of them. Many were built in the 1500's and had plaques to prove it.

Once again we were housed in a colonial mansion with a well tended garden in the middle of the courtyard. (I am getting to like this)

Period buildings surrounded the plaza and cobbled streets lead to the colonial churches.

Best of although was the atmosphere. There was something going on every day because they were celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the city.

This included a mass wedding, a long distance mountain bike race and assorted parades, marches and even a political rally. We would just wander up to the Plaza Des Armes and see what was going on.

They finished things off with a big firework display, which was nice, if a little risky. I'm sure they knew what they were doing.

The town's best restaurant had a balcony over the plaza and offered quality lunches for a couple of quid. Here I tried alpaca meat. Back in Inca times alpaca and llamas were considered holy animals and ordinary folk were not allowed to eat them. Any dead animal was to be delivered to the Inca king, or a severe punishment was risked. However, there were tens of thousands of these animals used for transportation, so I'm not sure how that worked out.

Anyway, alpaca meat is delicious.

From Ayacucho it is still a long way to Cusco, with no particular towns of interest in between. We broke the journey with a night each in Andahuaylas and Abancay.

In Andahuaylas the hostel lady disappeared and locked us inside when our bus was due. After scouting around for a few minutes I found a dark passage to the street and we made our escape.

Abancay was by far the more pleasant to the two. Here the policewomen wear stetsons.

Our arrival in Cusco coincided exactly with the ten year anniversary of my abandonment of paid employment.

When I said that I was going to spend my life traveling around the world and making a living from the stock market, I couldn't help but get the impression that some folk were a little sceptical. Well, here we are, ten years and one Global Financial Crisis later and we are still trolling along. Hey ho.

Additional photos below
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Pre-Easter Procession

Pre-Easter Procession

Pre-Easter Procession

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