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Published: April 11th 2010
Arriving in Cajamarca from Trujillo, it was a pleasant change to be welcomed by cold and wet weather. The overnight bus was annoyingly too short, arriving at 5:30 in the morning, but luckily most hostels are 24 hours, so I was able to arrive at mine around 7ish. After resting a bit in the hostel, I headed straight for the main square with the aim of booking whichever tours interested me. In the end I booked 3 half days tours for a total of 10 pounds for all 3, including all transportation, entrance fees and a guide, which was surprisingly cheap. (There was one tour, which I didn’t book, which sounded bizarre - basically observing farmers calling their cows over to them one by one by calling out each cows’ name). Some of the tour agencies I’ve used before have been quite bad in the their description of tours, basically not giving accurate descriptions, though the guides, who generally don’t work directly for the agencies, seem to be much more straight-talking and knowledgeable. Luckily here in Cajamarca both the agency and the guides were pretty good. I left my first day free to explore the city, which I started in the
market where I found breakfast in the form of cheap fruit (mostly bananas). During Easter week, the main attractions in the city turned out to be free, which was an unexpected bonus, though unfortunately some of the smaller attractions were shut for the whole week from Palm Sunday until Easter Monday. The main attraction in the city is something called the Ransom Room, which has an interesting history. Cajamarca is the sight of the defeat of the Inca Empire against the Spaniards in the 16th century. The two hundred or so Spaniards managed to trick the 30,000 strong Inca army into a confrontation in the main square, where the Spanish cavalry and guns tore apart the mostly unarmed Incas. The Ransom Room itself is the only Inca building left in the city, and is where Francisco Pizarro, the leader of the Spanish conquistadors, imprisoned the last Inca ruler, Atahualpa, after his capture. Atahualpa offered to fill the Ransom Room twice with silver and once with gold to secure his release, which he promptly did (which is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ransom ever paid), only to be executed after the Spaniards converted him to Christianity. Thus
the end of the Inca Empire. The only other interesting site in the city is something called the Belen complex, containing 2 preserved 19th century hospitals which house a few small museums.
My first tour, the following day, was to a mountain called Cumbre Mayo, just outside the city, which at 3700m above sea level, is the highest point around. This tour was sort of strange, as we saw strange rock formations, then we had to pass through an incredibly narrow tunnel through the mountain (there was a longer path around the edge for those who couldn’t fit), before finally ending up at this complex system of aqueducts dating back to 1000 BC, dotted with ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) from the ancient Cajamarca culture. Despite being only a few hundred kilometres from the Pacific coast, the hill marks the watershed between the Atlantic and Pacific drainage basins, so rain which lands on the west side of the hill has a relatively short journey to the Pacific, whilst rain which lands on the east side drains into the Amazon basin and all the way into the Atlantic. The tour would have been better if there hadn’t been so many people -
the whole site was bursting with tourists, meaning we were queuing up a lot of the time (about half an hour to get through the tunnel - it really wasn’t worth the wait). I was the only gringo (foreigner) in my group, and I didn’t see many other foreigners on the site, as Cajamarca seems to be a lot more popular with Peruvian tourists than international tourists, at least at this time of year. But that makes it more authentic in more eyes. The tour in the afternoon went to a 3000 year old cemetery called Otuzco, where tombs were dug in the side a cliff face, which is why it is known as the Windows of Otuzco. We then stopped at some exotic botanic gardens, where they produce Eucalyptus honey amongst other things (which was lovely), before having a tour round a cheese factory and farm. Cajamarca appears to one of the dairy centres of the country, though 90% of the milk produced goes to only 2 companies (Nestlé and Gloria, which is the Peruvian equivalent of Nestlé) for rock-bottom prices (our guide said a few years ago that 1 litre of milk would have been sold for about
2p). When people in the past have asked which country I’m from, I tell them and then as all they know about England is football (the Premier League is big over here) they’ll ask me which team I support, but on this tour when I told the guide which country I was from, his response was slightly different, telling me instead that all of the bull semen that the area uses comes from the UK. I guess that’s what they associate the UK with in this part of the world.
The cheeses at this farm were amazingly good quality and really cheap - I bought some Andean cheese although the area specialises in Swiss and Dutch style cheeses. Plus another local speciality, called Manjar Blanca, which is a bit like toffee or dulce de leche, was really tasty. The next day, for the third tour, we were taken to a cooperative farm where they produce even more lovely cheese. They also have a small zoo, with national and South American species, such as spectacled bears, coatis, jaguars, pumas, chinchillas etc. Though some of the enclosures seemed very small for the size of animals, and I’m not sure I would call
some of them safe (e.g. when you can put your finger through the fences of a jaguar’s enclosure). The other strange thing about the whole site was that there were bible passages plastered absolutely everywhere, most of them relating to Jehovah. Between the farm and Cajamarca we saw a herd of vicuña, which are small, wild alpaca-like animals. We also passed the largest gold mine in South America (it really is a diverse region!). Even though there are 5 vegetarian restaurants in the city, as it’s Easter, most places away from the main square and shopping street are shut, especially on Good Friday, so eating was a struggle. Luckily I bought a lot of cheese, and I found a bakery which stayed open throughout the period, though eating gruyère with a baguette made me feel more like I was in France than South America. After 3 days in Cajamarca, I took a night bus back to the coast, to the city of Chiclayo, Peru’s 5th city, and home to some of the most important archaeological treasures in the continent. I didn’t spend that much time in the actual city as there is nothing special to see or do besides lots
of shops and a very large, bustling market (also the smelliest I’ve yet been to - the stench around the meat area was intolerable). The traffic in Chiclayo seemed to be some of the worst yet. Most cities and towns in this part of the world use a grid system, with most roads being one way, but at most junctions no specific direction has the right of way, meaning drivers don’t stop at junctions, instead tooting to let anyone coming the other way know to stop. I’ve seen a few accidents now when cars have not stopped from either direction. This system makes life quite difficult for pedestrians, except in the rare places where traffic lights exist. Also here I’ve noticed you have to give way to drivers coming onto roundabouts rather than to those already on the roundabout, but many drivers don’t seem to like giving way, so I’ve seen quite a few near-misses on roundabouts too.
Anyway, there’s a lot to see in the surrounding area, but despite this the city is not that touristy; consequently the tours offered by the agencies cram a lot into each tour. I booked 2 tours visiting all the main sites, though
you could easily spend a lot longer at each site. The first tour started off at the Sicán Museum, which houses relics from the Sicán culture (800 to 1100AD), mostly excavated from tombs that were recently found intact. The tour then took us through one of the oldest and largest forests in Peru, just outside of which is a complex called Túcume, more commonly known as the Valley of the Pyramids (and we are still talking about Peru, not Egypt!). There are the ruins of 26 pyramids on the site, dating back to the Sicán period, though due to subsequent conquest by the Chimu and the Incas, coupled with some damaging El Niño occurrences, the site was abandoned prior to the Spanish colonisation. The biggest pyramid, the Huaca Larga, is apparently the largest building in South America, being 720m long, but all of these archaeological attractions that I visit tend to claim to be the biggest or longest something in South America, so I’m never sure how accurate any of these claims are. After Tucumé, we spent most of the afternoon in the Sipán Royal Tombs Museum, which houses the treasures found at the archaeological site of Sipán (not to
be confused with the Sicán culture). A large royal tomb was found in the 1980s, intact, and can be compared to the discovery of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. The site is still being excavated, and so far 15 tombs have been unearthed. The tombs date from 50 to 250 AD, and the relics from the main tomb especially, that of the so-called Lord of Sipán, were very impressive. The tradition was to bury things with the deceased that they would need in the next world, similar to ancient Egyptian culture, so in the tomb was found a large quantity of gold artefacts, jewellery, ceramics etc, as well as the bodies of several other people including his “Queen”, mistress, army chief, a child and a dog, who were all sacrificed so they could accompany him to the next world. Unfortunately photographs were not permitted in the museum, so the artefacts were to be just enjoyed whilst there in person. You’ll just have to take my word that they really were something special. The town this museum is in is known for a very sweet delicacy, bizarrely named a King-Kong, which is more or less multi-layer millionaire’s shortbread with
or without a fruit flavour in the middle. Much to sweet even for me. The second day tour I had booked was less successful. This was booked with the agency that my guide book claimed was the best, though I would beg to differ. On the day of the tour, I went to the Agency as arranged, where they asked me if it would be possible to change the date to the following day, which in fact suited me better, so I had no problem with this. This left me with a day to explore the city of Chiclayo and its extensive markets. The next day, which was my last in Chiclayo, I returned to the agency’s office at the correct time, only to find out, after a lengthy wait, that there was no way they could do the tour, but by this time it was too late to find a tour with another agency. The tour was supposed to go to Sipán, to see the tombs and the current excavations, as well as another of the big museums in the area and some of the coastal fishing villages. There aren’t many public buses to Sipán, and those that do
go leave early in the morning, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to Sipán itself, though I did manage to visit the museum which was part of the tour. In the afternoon I had to wait half an hour back in the agency office try and get my money back (though I did eventually). In the early evening I had my bus booked for Chachapoyas, a 10 hour journey deep into the Andes. The next blog will come from there.
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