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Published: April 6th 2014
Plaza des Armes
The Spanish were so confident that they would successfully conquest these mountainous lands that they named them 'Peru' before they had even made the first attempt.
Francisco Pizarro landed at Tumbes on the northern coast in 1528 and noted the generous amounts of Gold and Silver around the town. The inhabitants did not equate gold with wealth. To them it was a link between man and the sun, a store of holy energy and was used to cover temples and create religious implements.
Pizarro was back in Spain in 1529, raising funds for his next expedition to the country. While he was there King Charles V gave him the title of Governor and Captain General of Peru and demanded a levy of 20% of any wealth that was obtained. (Such a levy was par for the course for any 'official' expeditions).
3 years later, Pizarro landed on the northern coast of Peru with 110 foot soldiers and 67 cavalry and proceeded with the astounding colonialisation of the country, subjugating the Inca Empire with guile and political intrigue rather than military power.
Our arrival in Peru was somewhat less dramatic, although we did miss our connecting
flight and spent an extra 9 hours in Miami airport.
Many visitors to Lima stay in Miraflores, a pleasant suburb spread over the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean.
There is a lengthy Malecon – a path along the line of the cliff tops flanked by tended gardens and keep fit equipment. Residential areas sweep back from the cliffs, becoming more commercial as you approach Kennedy Park, which is surrounded by shops and restaurants including the ubiquitous brands found in all cities these days.
Continue inland and you come to a more typical, grubby cityscape.
Lima was founded by Pizarro in 1535, when he realized that he would benefit from a capital city appropriate for his supply routes with Spain, rather than in a city many days inland.
The Plaza Des Armes retains its grandeur as the core of the city, though none of the buildings are particularly old. It is the site of the original settlement and the fountain at its centre dates back to the 17th
Century. We witnessed the changing of the guard outside the Presidential Palace, a slow motion affair under a beating noonday sun.
Of the buildings we visited, the
most interesting was the Monasterio de San Francisco
. This is a complex of buildings housing a wide array of art and iconography. Beneath lie extensive catacombs storing the bones of thousands of individuals. For unexplained reasons, piles of bones have been rearranged into groups or regular geometrical shapes.
Amongst the artwork was a depiction of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the Disciples are sitting down to a roasted guinea pig. Such transmogrification was, no doubt, a tool to increase the relevance of the Christian tradition to the indigenous people. La Catedral De Lima
houses Pizarro's skeleton. It is the first thing to greet you as you enter, on display in an alcove. At that point I hadn't realized his significance in the history of Peru; maybe I will go and visit him again on the way out.
Learning about the Conquistadores is an intriguing tale of Greed Gone Wild. These were the toughest of tough men, adventurers' intent on taking gold for themselves and untroubled by the death and enslavement that resulted.
Pizarro trod a difficult line as both the chief Government official and the chief looter. Officially, there were rules of engagement with
local people and respect for their leaders. He could use these to an extent to reign in some of the worst excesses, but there was an entropy at hand and the Incas were abused, humiliated and enslaved as subsequent waves of Spanish turned up, intent on getting their share.
In the end Pizarro was murdered by his own acolytes. He was in charge of dividing up the spoils and some considered themselves to be insufficiently rewarded by his decisions.
With his share of the Inca gold he must have been one of the richest men in the world when he died. (There's a moral in there somewhere).
Peru is a big country, and places of interest are far apart. Our first taste of the bus system was a 10 hour jaunt from Lima to Trujillo, 550 km north along the Pan-American Highway.
Most companies run night buses, but we traveled during the day for the views.
However, the coastal strip is just miles and miles of barren land. Sandy mountains stop abruptly at the coast. The cold Humbolt current works its way up the Pacific coast of South America and sucks the moisture
from the land, causing desertification. Towns and cities spring up where a river comes down from the mountains, but everywhere else is just blank rock and sand.
The Pan-American Highway passes through in quite a straight line. Mainly a single lane conduit for buses and trucks, it is not particularly busy.
Nearly all Spanish colonial towns are centred around a Plaza de Armas. Trujillo has a large one, surrounded by nicely painted low rise period buildings and a bright yellow cathedral.
Trujillo was the first city to gain independence from Spain, in 1820, and set the ball rolling for the whole of the north. This is celebrated by La Libertad, an array of granite statues erected in the middle of the square a century later.
Our first taste of the Peruvian seaside was a mere 20 minute bus ride away.
The town of Huanchaco sits in the space between a set of low cliffs and a sweeping bay of coarse sand. A string of ceviche restaurants catering to day trippers line the beach road. Ceviche is a dish of raw fish or seafood marinated in a citrus juice and pepped up
with a bit of chili. It is hugely popular in these parts and tastes much as you would expect.
We found an excellent vegetarian restaurant, serving tasty and creative set meals, so eating was easy in Huanchaco.
The town is known for its reed boats that fishermen have used since time immemorial. They continue to make them to hire to tourists, who fall off into the cold sea.
On the face of it there is nothing special about Huanchaco, but it has a sort of folksy charm that eases itself into your psyche over a few days.
The town of Pacasmayo has a much more picture postcard-like appeal.
Pacasmayo was a thriving fishing port in the mid 1800's. Wealthy merchants built splendid homes nearby and Peru's longest pier was established to collect the fish from boats 750 metres out to sea. At some point things went wrong, the wealth disappeared, the mansions were abandoned and the last 200 metres of pier was eventually swept away.
A tall statue of Jesus looks down on the town from the hill top cemetery on the edge of town. A strange place to be favoured by
courting couples, but you can at least get a photo of the length of the pier.
Today the town has an atmospheric Malecon with a small beach on one side and old buildings either decaying or restored on the other. A ticket to walk the remaining length of the pier costs 20p, though you have to be careful not to fall between the planks.
The town is very famous amongst surfers, waves near here have the longest left hand break in the world. This means that if you can stand up when the wave first breaks you can stay standing up for a very long time. These particular waves are breaking at an angle to the shore, so the surfer is not being carried directly towards the beach.
Back at the Malecon, there was an incredibly small difference between high and low tide, only a couple of metres. Big waves would break directly in front of the town and roll straight towards the promenade. This is great for the local youth, many of whom have become excellent surfers and put on a display for observers as they practice their tricks.
Walking out from the town, the
cliffs are quite interesting, composed entirely of rounded stones held together by a natural mortar. The pace of decay must be quite fast whenever the sea can get at them, though they are protected by the deep pile of stones accumulated through previous erosions.
This stretch of sand appears to be a jellyfish graveyard. In one area there were hundreds of washed up jellyfish herded into one place by the tide. Some of them still had half consumed fish trapped in their medusae. The biggest were about a metre in diameter.
We were sticking to the Peruvian coast because we didn't want to venture into the mountains during the height of the rainy season. The only problem was that there weren't really enough places to visit. There are some promising places near the border with Ecuador, but that would be another 15 hours each way, which we didn't fancy.
The next beach settlement, Colan, was a disappointment. The beach was hogged by private residences and could only be reached in parts. It is also home to the oldest church in Peru, built in 1536.
I also had a close encounter with a Peruvian Hairless Dog. As
I did not know of the existence of this breed at the time I thought it was just an unfortunate mutt with a ginger quiff. Now I know better. We have seen several since.
We headed back to Chiclayo. Despite being a non-touristy city we found Chiclayo to be quite agreeable.
In nearby Lambeyeque there is the Musoe Tumbas Reales De Sipan
. 'One of the top five museums in the world' said the lady as we entered. I don't think so, but it was an interesting presentation of the treasures found in the royal tombs unearthed in Sipan
I also went to the Museo Nacional Sican
which houses the archeological finds from the Sican culture which inhabited the area around AD 750 – 1375. The Sican chiefs presented themselves as living Gods and wore mouth covers hanging from their noses so that their subjects could not see the state of their teeth. I had the whole museum to myself.
Despite the rainy season being in full swing, we decided to risk it, and took the overnight bus to Chachapoyas.
The Chachapoyas were a people who were not fully absorbed into the Inca Empire.
The first church in Peru
The Spanish used their name for the town they founded in their region and the two were allies against the Incas.
Today Chachapoyas is a pleasant market town and hosts a steady stream of tourists on their way to visit Kuelap, a monumental ruined city bestriding a mountain top in the northern highlands.
Kuelap was built over a thousand years, between AD 500 and 1500, as a city inside fortress walls. The 20 metre high walls have a circumference of about 700 metres around the top of the mountain. There are only narrow upward climbing entrances so that any invaders could be easily repelled. Inside the structure there are the remains of houses and other structures. Excavation has revealed that dead family members were mummified and kept under the floor of the family home.
For reasons unknown, it was abandoned and forgotten until it's rediscovery in 1843.
The bus journey from Chachapoyas to Cajamarca is quite famous, as the narrow road clings to mountainsides through immense valleys for 9 hours. It is both spectacular and unnerving as precipitous drops fall away beneath the bus window. Fortunately, traffic is light for if you meet something
coming the opposite way at an awkward point the driver reversing and maneuvering on the edge of a ravine is not good for the digestion.
We had time to break the journey twice.
The small town of Leimebamba is home to a museum which is known for housing mummies recovered from funerary towers discovered at an isolated lake in the Chachapoyas region.
Reaching the museum from the town was a trek in itself, only 2.2 km but requiring the ascent of a steep stone staircase in the thin mountain air. Thankfully, the views were excellent. On arrival, we roused the museum attendant who followed us around turning the light on and off as we passed through the few rooms.
The 200 mummies were housed in a controlled environment with a big window. They were all crouching on the shelves as they had originally been stored in large jars.
Celendin was another pleasant market town. We were there on a Sunday and many people came into town from the surrounding countryside. It was interesting to see them wearing their traditional hats and clothes. They frequented the hardware stores rather than the food shops, going home with
new plastic buckets and bowls.
In Celendin I consumed my first guinea pig. It was cut in half from nose to tail and gutted, though the heart, liver and kidneys were still in evidence. Presented deep-fried with chips, I assume that the fur had disappeared through the cooking process. The skin and offal tasted the same as other animals, but the meat had its own particular flavour. I was just glad that it didn't taste like chicken.
The God of Furry Creatures took Her revenge though 'cos I had an upset stomach for the next few days.
Cajamarca is the main town in the northern highlands and the most attractive place we have visited so far.
We scored a large room with a balcony looking over the historic Plaza des Armes for £10 a night, the cutesy décor of Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Poo notwithstanding.
The large square plaza is surrounded by colonial buildings, with an impressive cathedral facing a grand church on opposite sides. Colonial streets of modern businesses emanate from the square, so there is plenty of opportunity for casual wandering (our speciality).
Across from the plaza, steps run up a
hill to a small church surrounded by a park. From here there are excellent views of the city in a valley wholly encircled by mountains.
Cajamarca is the location for the seminal event in the story of the conquest of the Incas.
The Inca hierarchy had been aware of the progress of Pizarro and his men through the mountains towards Cajamarca. However, they were busy elsewhere, having just completed a civil war, and reasoned that they could quash the party of foreigners at any time of their choosing.
Pizarro et al
arrived at Cajamarca and set up camp in the main square. An Inca army of, perhaps 20,000, was camped in the surrounding hills, headed by the Inca king, Atahualpa.
The Spanish were very fearful of their lives at this point, but put on a brave front and, through their interpreters, invited Atahualpa to visit them.
Eventually Atahualpa did so, but through overconfidence bought with him a retinue of nobles and officials rather than fighting men.
The Spanish mounted an ambush and captured Atahualpa, killing thousands of his people in the process due to the overwhelming superiority of their mounted swordsmen.
next few days, the Inca army nearby did not attempt a rescue because they were now leaderless and afraid that the Spaniards would kill their leader if they tried.
Atahualpa soon realised that the Spanish wanted gold above all else and offered to fill a large room in the town with gold as a ransom.
It took about 8 months for that amount of gold to be bought from throughout the Inca kingdom. The Spaniards set about melting it down for ease of transportation. Who knows what artistic treasures were destroyed.
Eventually, Pizarro decided that he and his men would have a better chance of survival if they did not release Atahualpa, and he was garotted to death in the main square.
Circumstances had changed so much in the meantime that, rather that make a run for it with the loot, Pizarro set off for the Inca capital of Cuzco where he was sure there was more gold to be had (there was).
It is a complex and fascinating story, I have really enjoyed learning about the history here.
The only Inca building remaining in Cajamarca today is the room where Atahualpa was held.
A civic building has been built around it where you can approach the doorway and peer into the non-descript room.
By now, we had been in the highlands for a couple of weeks, mainly at altitudes around 2600m. We were not acclimatizing very well, feeling woozy and lightheaded after the slightest exertion. And it was raining a lot. There were a couple of other towns I had penciled in for a visit, but we decided to return to sea level to give our systems an opportunity to recuperate before the next leg of our journey.
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