Dry land? and Carnaval

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February 3rd 2013
Published: April 11th 2013
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With a bit of a flight delay we arrived in Cuenca fairly late on, we’d booked ahead and were staying in an old part of the town. On first impressions Cuenca appeared to be very nice, lots of small cafes, and wide streets leading down to a tree lined river. The next day having found our land legs we wandered around the town. It had a lovely central plaza with a number of cafes and as normal lots of churches. It was easy just to wander the streets – it wasn’t full of people rushing around – it had a nice pace of life. The town has many small museums a couple we visited included the Panama Hat museum – Panama hats not being Panamanian but actually Ecuadorian in origin and a museum with an extensive private collection of pottery through the ages. After taking in the Cathedral and a few local churches, the market and walks along the river the final day we enjoyed the excellent Museo del Banco Central in the grounds of which there are remains of the Pumapungo Incan site.

An early bus took us to Vilcabamba a small town set in a valley surrounded by lush green hills, this area is renowned as one that provides through its climate - longevity of life. It is quite ‘new age’ and there are many Europeans and Americans living there. Our bus rides were becoming more interesting travelling through mountainous areas with slow climbs and swift descents - there was a lot more of this to come.

After looking around the town for accommodation and not finding anything inspiring we took a taxi up a hill and found a lovely place to stay with views back over the valley, as well as a nice garden, and three dogs, hammocks to lie in and it was immaculately clean. Once settled we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying our surroundings, Mark dipping in the very cold pool and Tina made friends with the dogs. The next day there was more time spent further enjoying the views, bird watching and a walk down to the village. We also joined a group from our hostel in a local walk, the ascent wasn’t too difficult and provided gorgeous views across the valley but at the top things got a little rainy so we all moved on quickly.

A number of those in the walking group were heading to Cajamaraca to experience Carnaval. Our route to Cajamarca in northern Peru took us via Piura then onto Chiclayo. We had a night border crossing, fortunately we were the only bus at the border as the Peruvian official meticulously checked everyone’s details. Chiclayo city is large and busy and although it has a nice plaza and cathedral doesn’t have the charm of other places we had visited. One of its more interesting sites is its vast market and this was our first experience of a ‘witches market’ basically lots of herbs and dried out animals, or animals in jars that in some combination may provide you with the solution to your problem or help you achieve your dreams. The upside of Chiclayo was internet access – Mark was able to watch Southend play and win.

We swiftly movedon taking a night bus to Cajamarca our Carnaval destination. We arrived at 5 am-ish, it was dark and pouring with rain. We looked for accommodation joined by Tim (a traveller from Holland) and we were all glad for the awnings on the buildings that stopped us from getting drenched. We were pretty tired, whilst a night bus is good for getting from A to B they are not the best way to get a decent night’s sleep. We were offered overpriced accommodation at several places but with Tim and his Lonely Planet in hand we found somewhere cheap and cheerful to stay. We had been warned that at Carnaval time things get much more expensive.

Cajarmarca was gearing up for Carnaval and early celebrations had been taking place but the main event was a couple of days away. We explored the town getting our bearings, there were lots of local people in indigenous dress a common feature of the next part of our travels; although it’s a very traditional town it is dotted with the occasional out of place café or hotel catering to the tourists. There are the obligatory enormous churches but in this town they have ornate baroque fronts. We joined a tour taking us out of the town to Cumbe Mayo a good walk through a beautiful mountain area with coloured rocks complemented by brightly coloured plants. There were a number of entertaining ‘look-a-like’ rock formations and traditional farming communities. As well as the scenery there
is a pre-Inca aqueduct and ancient carvings.

That evening we took in our first carnival event, the street was crowded and there were stall holders everywhere – the majority heating up a yellowish looking liquid that was then poured into plastic bottles and sold to any willing passers-by, most people seemed to be trying out some of this. A large band played for over an hour and we looked onto a small square and stage where not a lot seemed to take place. Some dignitaries got onto the stage, bringing some bemused looking people on with them and then nothing appeared to happen. The crowd didn’t seem too bothered so we assumed we were missing the whole point of the gathering. On the edges people gathered in small groups and danced. This was an interesting dance which involves stomping one’s feet and circling the other person, it didn’t look too dissimilar to the stomping part of flamenco dancing. We also became familiar with the Caranaval theme tune.

At this point we didn’t realise the Carnaval theme tune was the only tune that would be played for the next three days.

The following morning we prepared ourselves for the paint and water day….donning a set of clothes that we didn’t mind chucking in the bin. We’d heard that this was one of the more riotous events and Cajamarca was one of the best places to experience it. It was one of the funniest days – water attacks started early we looked out of the hostel to see some unprepared backpackers walk out of theirs and in about three steps get completely soaked. Water guns and bombs were exploding all over the place. Walking down the streets buildings, cars and pretty much everything was seen as a legitimate target.

Tim joined us for the day and we left our accommodation extremely warily. It wasn’t long before we were getting bombarded. Groups of locals walked armed up to the eyeballs with pots of paints, guns, bombs – we had nothing to retaliate with… Randomly people would run up to us and smear paint on our faces.

We walked quite a distance to join the main group of thousands of people in a procession with everyone throwing paint, some playing music and others doing the carnaval dance. By now we were covered from top to bottom in paint of all colours and some of us had a little carnaval dance too. After a couple of hours getting pelted we stopped off for lunch – the restaurant owner not batting an eyelid as we changed the colour of her chairs from white to various shades of the rainbow. Rejuvenated we re-joined the crowds and headed back to the hostel.

Our walking companions from Vilcabamba had turned up at the same hostel and they like us were doubly targeted for not being locals.

The main parade took place the following day and we set up camp early to get a good view. The procession started at around 11.30 and 3 hours later with no end in sight we had to find some lunch. Water fights continued between members of the crowd and as we left we were targeted by some small children and ended up soaked again. There was a wide range of parade costumes with different colours denoting different communities; the carnival music was still going and no-one looked ready to give up.

That night keen to see some after carnival action we joined up with a few people - we’d heard music from a local party going on next to the hostel and we decided to see what was going on. We were warmly welcomed to join in with their drinking and dancing. After a lot of stomping and being swung around we were exhausted.

Another parade took place the next day which included the Carnaval Queens and some of the previous day’s troops as well as floats. We enjoyed it for a couple of hours and then thought we would revive ourselves with a visit to Los Banos del Inca – another hot baths.

On our final day we caught a local bus to Ventanillas de Otuzco – ancient burial chambers small scale but interesting. We tried a local fruit - Peruvian cactus - but found it quite a challenge to separate the pips from the fruit. A night bus took us away from Cajamarca and a long trek down through Lima to Paracas on the coast.

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