Kuelap

Near the town of Chachapoyas in Northern Peru, on top of a ridgeline at 3,000 metres above sea level, the ancient site of Kuelap sits between shifting clouds, overlooking the Utcubamba river. First built around the 6th century AD and occupied until the Early Colonial period of the 16th century, the walled ‘fortress’ remained relatively unknown until 1843 when a local judge surveyed the area. Today it still gets little attention compared to more famous Incan sites. Plans of the Peruvian governement to restore the structures (as has been done at Machu Picchu) have thankfully not gotten very far, so when you visit the site today you’re left with stone structures in various states of decay as moss, grass and creeping tendrils take over and moisture drips from bromeliads in the trees above.

The Chachapoyans were called ‘people of the clouds’ by the Incas, and the dense patches of mist that would roll in and envelop us as we walked around certainly explained how they came up with the name.

The huge wall and narrow entrances of Kuelap certainly suggest the function of defense, but there is no clear evidence of conflict.

Inside those huge walls, there are more than 400 circular structures spread over two ‘platforms’ of flat land. They seem to be residential or storage structures, but there’s very little differentiation between them in size or design. The Chachapoyans look to have been somewhat egalitarian – the only symbols that might suggest a social heirarchy are patterns in the stonework of some ‘houses’, but most are plain with no pattern at all.

One thing we do know about the Chachapoyans is that they ate the most famous Peruvian dish, cuy. Covered stone channels inside the houses were used as a means of storage (sort of like keeping a rabbit hutch in your kitchen for a fresh supply of meat…). Many also had quernstones in situ which would have been used for grinding food products (like a big pestle and mortar).

We visited Kuelap with a guide, which I highly recommend as there were so many details we would have missed if we’d just wandered around on our own.

Like this mark on a step, eroded through centuries of llamas passing through the entrance.

Or these human bones entombed inside a wall.

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And a series of stone carvings – from top right, clockwise: soldier or monkey, jaguar, snakes, woman and man, unidentified creature, possibly a jaguar – that were found and restored (not always with care if the upside-down jaguar is anything to go by) around the main entrance.

Our day tour to Kuelap cost 38 soles per person, leaving from Chachapoyas and stopping for a late lunch (not included) on the way back (usual Peruvian day trip-style of ordering what you want in the morning and eating around 3 or 4pm). There are a selection of agencies on the main square in Chachapoyas, but prices vary a little bit so check around for the cheapest. Our guide spoke really good English, but others form the same agency did not. Make sure to ask if you specifically want a tour in English. Chachapoyas Backpackers have lovely owners who can help you out if your Spanish is not up to it.

South America by selfies

This is kind of an update, but also a peek into what’s to come. You see, we aren’t actually in South America anymore. We’re still blogging about South America because there’s so much more to share, but our trip came to an end late last year. In the time since then, we’ve relocated to Boston and have been busy with all that that entails (let me tell you, a lot of paperwork!).

To celebrate the amazing 675 days that we spent strolling around South America, here are some photos. Selfies, in fact. It’s not an exhaustive record of our trip because we rarely took photos of each other, let alone selfies, but we did take some and they remind me of the great times we had. So from Brazil to Costa Rica, over 38,540km, this was our journey.

Getting wet at Iguazu Falls.

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At Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, enjoying whiskey with ice chipped straight from the glacier.

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Sunrise at 4,327m at El Tatio geyser field in northern Chile. Cold, cold, cold!

Pausing to take a break while walking slowly in the high altitude at Laguna Colorada, Bolivia.

Gran Poder with friendsHaving fun at the Gran Poder in La Paz. We’d just eaten anticuchos and were about to tuck into a sandwich de Chola.

Playing dress-up in Chocolate Caliente in La Paz. I think every restaurant should include wigs.

Drying off after swimming with pink dolphins in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. What you can’t see, and what I didn’t feel at the time, are the hundreds of mosquitoes biting my back!

Enjoying the Incan agricultural terraces at Maras in the Sacred Valley, Peru.

Hiking in Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru.

Taking advantage of the therapeutic mud at Agua Blanca village, near Puerto Lopes in Ecuador.

Saying farewell to the San Blas islands in Panama before heading to the mainland after five days on a sailboat (and there’s a great story about this that involves the US Coast Guard. Eventually I’ll get round to telling it).

Huacas de Moche and Chan Chan

On the coast of Northern Peru, ancient adobe brick structures lie in the sandy desert. They’ve sat here for more than 1500 years and they’re slowly eroding away, leaving behind melted lumps of earth. We visited two of these sites, Huaca de la Luna and Chan Chan, both easily accessible by public transport. Although superficially they may appear similar, the sites belong to two different cultures; the Moche, present 100-800 AD, and the Chimu, who grew out of the remains of the Moche and flourished until the Inca conquest in the 1400s.

Our visitor experience at these two places was very different. There was a wonderful museum at Huaca de la Luna, which tied the history and interpretation of the site to the artefacts that had been found there. They also offered free guided tours in Spanish and English (and I think other languages where possible – our guide also spoke Turkish!). At Chan Chan, on the other hand, because we weren’t part of an organised tour, we were left to wander the maze-like structure with just a few interpretation boards to help us understand what we were looking at. The museum, which is just down the road, was in need of an update and most information was in Spanish.

Huaca de la Luna

The Huaca del Sol, visible in the background, was larger than Huaca de la Luna, but it was largely destroyed by the Spanish in an attempt to find riches (by diverting a river to wash it away!). Like the other adobe sites, what is left today is still being damaged by rainfall. It’s estimated that only about a third of it is left. The buildings between the two pyramids were centres of industrial production; workshops and workers’ housing.

Behind Huaca de la Luna is the mountain Cerro Blanco. It’s thought that the pyramid shape of the Huacas is meant to mimic the shape of the mountain. The small rocky outcrop on the right, known as the Black Rock, and the surrounding structures were sites of human sacrifice. Adult male skeletons showing cause of death by skull fracture or slit throats, along with individualised portrait pots depicting captives (which you can see in the site museum), were found here.

Whilst Huaca del Sol was the military and administrative centre – residence of the elite – it’s thought Huaca de la Luna was the religious/ceremonial centre. The iconography is unclear, seeming to depict everyday human activities like dancing and fishing, along with both real and mythological animals. For a close-up look at one particularly dazzling image, see this gigapixel picture.

Going up from the bottom row: captives, dancers, spiders, fishermen, lizards.

Built in several phases, each new layer was built on top of, and surrounding, the old structure and the space between filled in with bricks. Because of this, some of the inner layers are preserved quite well. These are the original colours – there’s been no restoration here.

This strange looking face is the god, Ai Apaec (“the decapitator”), also sometimes depicted as a spider, winged creature or sea monster. In the white area on the left, there is a small etching of a fish. Archaeologists postulate that it’s a kind of artist’s signature.

Many bricks show marks on them (over 100 different varieties) that may indicate different communities of labourers.

One last closeup of my favourite scary looking creatures: two-headed spiders (with hands?) and fishermen (with snakes hanging round their waists?).

Chan Chan

A sprawling 20km² of adobe lumps and bumps, visitors can only enter the Tschudi Complex, a dense urban area dating from the later period of occupation. Long, seemingly maze-like corridors lead between open plazas and complexes of small rooms. Restored friezes adorn some walls and statues stand guard. Had there not been large tour groups, I felt like it would have been a great place to film a psychological thriller with someone slowly going mad as they come to yet another dead end or arrow sign sending them on an endless loop.

The lattice shaped walls possibly represent nets.

Pelicans and…a frog? Or duck? Or seal?

Tell me that these aren’t the cutest little pixelated birds you’ve ever seen.

And that this doesn’t look like an old-school gameboy game or something.

In fact, perhaps it should be a game. A sort of role-playing strategy game meets first person shooter where you have to develop your own palace complex and rule over the population as well as creating craft products and ritually sacrificing young women (large numbers of female skeletons have been found in tombs here).

Real ducks! Reservoirs were built into each palace complex, and wells were used for water. In later periods, to provide for a growing population, canal systems diverted water from the Moche RIver.

Directions: Catch the bus to Huaca de la Luna between Huayna Capac & Suárez on Los Incas near the Mercado Mayorista. They drop you off and pick you up right at the museum there. Catch a bus from Ave. España in Trujillo and get off at the turn-off, Cruce de Chan Chan, where you can walk a short distance down the road to the entrance. There may be taxi drivers at the turning offering to drive you which, if you’ve come this far by bus already, is totally not worth it. Even though the distance is only a couple of kilometres, there have been some safety concerns about walking to the site from Huanchaco so catch a bus from Ave. La Rivera instead. If you’re in a group and plan on visiting a lot of sites in one day (there are two more Huacas around Trujillo), you might be better off hiring a taxi for the day.

Cost: Huaca de la Luna 13 Soles (including museum and site), Chan Chan 10 soles (includes site, museum and two smaller sites, Huacas Esmeralda and Arco Iris).

Trujillo

Trujillo, on the north coast of Peru, was one of the earliest colonial cities in the Americas. Although it was founded in 1534, an earthquake in 1619 destroyed many of its buildings so most of the architecture in the historic centre dates from the 17th century and later. We spent a sunny afternoon wandering inside the old walled town, enjoying the colourful facades and iron- and wood-work balconies. The tourist information office in the Plaza de Armas is very helpful and offers lots of free maps as well as a tour of the historical judicial building (Spanish only, I think).

The Archdiocese of Trujillo.

The Freedom Monument was unveiled in the centre of the Plaza de Armas in 1929.

The Cathedral of Trujillo was finished in 1666 (although it’s clearly had a lick or two of paint since then).

El Carmen church and monastery.

Coincidentally, we ate the most delicious fried rice in South America (we’re talking proper Chinese marinated pork here) at Chifa Chung Heng on Jr. Colón 205, just a few blocks from Plaza de Armas.

Colibri Camping – where to stay in La Paz

You may have already heard about Up Close Bolivia, where we had an amazing time volunteer teaching English classes. Today I wanted to let you know about their sister organisation, Colibri Camping.

Colibri CampingStaying in the village of Jupapina, shopping at the little stores and eating in local restaurants was one of the best things about our time with Up Close Bolivia. We felt completely at home in this friendly community. Not to mention the gorgeous scenery! The camp site was still being built when we were there, and now that it’s finished I wish we could go back to experience it. You can use your own tent, rent equipment from them, or even stay in a teepee or A-frame cabin!

If you’re looking for somewhere a little different, somewhere you can feel part of a community and not just a traveler, I can absolutely recommend Colibri Camping.

And don’t forget to say a big hello from me when you get there!

Sudado

After a year in Bolivia, where we regarded most seafood with suspicion, we were overjoyed to be travelling near the coast again to be able to take advantage of fresh fish. Of course, ceviche is the most famous Peruvian seafood dish, but I also loved sudado. It’s translated as fish stew, but seems to me more delicate than the word ‘stew’ can convey. More of a steamed fish with lots of tasty juices made with onion, tomato, chile and a dash of lime.

Served with sweet potato and rice, I ate this sudado in Huanchaco, at a tiny restaurant run by an old couple and open only at the weekend. Without a doubt it was the yummiest I had, and their pescado frito (fried fish) and fresh chicha was pretty good too. They claimed it was because the fish was super fresh and had just been caught, but it must also have been their special recipe.

The restaurant is in a single storey building, with a terrace under a palm roof out front, on Av. la RIvera near the corner of Los Pinos. Lunch for two was 20 soles.

Huanchaco

We arrived in Trujillo, bleary-eyed at 5am, with no idea where to go or how to get there. I don’t like relying on taxi drivers, let alone trusting them, but we decided it was our only logical option so we asked the driver to take us to the plaza principal so we could look for a hotel. Seeing our backpacks, he suggested we stay in nearby Huanchaco instead – mas economico. A quick fumble through the lonely planet told us there was a beach, and yes, it was cheaper. We went for it and grabbed a room at the first place we arrived (double with private bath for 40 soles). When it got light outside we discovered a little seaside town where you could hire both surfboards and traditional reed fishermens’ boats to take you out on the waves. You could dine in fancy restaurants or eat ceviche for 8 soles, drink mediocre coffee in a corner bakery or pay through the nose for some of the best breakfasts in Peru.

A postcard from a minibus at Laguna 69

bus groupThis is us. I thought the photo was taken by Melanie, but I can see her sitting behind us on the left. This is how crazy we have become after six hours of waiting in this minibus. It’s the fourth day of the Santa Cruz trek. We actually finished the trek yesterday evening because our guide kept us going for eight hours until we reached an hospedaje in Vaqueria instead of stopping earlier to camp at that nice spot by the river. The group of twelve (plus guide, porter and cook) is one of the best we’ve ever had the pleasure to tour with.

So what went wrong?

When we got to Huaraz, we really had no idea about the area and decided on a whim to do a three day trek to the archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar. Problem was, every agency we asked just said ‘no’ and that was it. No alternatives. No suggestions. Just flat out refusal. By the time we found a place called Peru Diamond, I was ready to hand over the cash simply because they were the only ones to even act like they wanted to make money.

Instead they suggested we do the Santa Cruz trek because the scenery was better. It was also cheaper because they already had a group going. We agreed. We went. It was absolutely beautiful.

On that last day, after hiking an hour uphill and waiting for the bus on a hot, dusty road for two hours, we were looking forward to spending time at the turqoise-coloured Laguna Llanganuco. We saw it from a distance, at the high pass between Yanapaccha and Chopicalqui. We drove down the winding road, getting closer and closer until it was finally out of view. And then we stopped. We stopped at the entrance to the trail leading up to Laguna 69. We didn’t know why. Finally the driver said we were waiting to pick up more people.

So we waited.

After a couple of hours we were getting antsy. The driver wouldn’t give any more information, probably because he didn’t have any. We realised that although we’d all booked through different agencies, we’d been combined into one group that was being led by Galaxia Expeditions (which is one of the cheapest and least reputable in Huaraz).

We waited some more.

We ate the last of our food (which wasn’t much as we’d binged the day before, thinking we’d be back by mid afternoon). We ran out to the ‘toilet’ in the bushes one at a time when no other vehicles were about. We discussed bee-keeping and how to use snow instead of toilet paper (something we luckily didn’t need to test out). We decided to share all our photos on Dropbox. We lamented that Laguna Llanganuco was so close, yet we were likely not to see it until it was too dark to appreciate it. As temperatures began dropping and shadows crept across the valley, we told the driver to get back in the bus and wait with us but, fearing the wrath of a group of gringos, he refused.

Eventually we began to see poor people struggling their way along the path, suffering from altitude sickness, as they returned from Laguna 69. We tried to guess if they were the people we were waiting for. We counted how long it took them to turn round the bend before they went out of sight and then guessed how long it would take until they came into view again. We waited until everyone had been picked up by their transport and driven away. Our people were the last. We’d started calling them ‘our people’ because by this point we just felt sorry for them. They must have struggled terribly if they were this slow.

Finally they arrived.

And we started back towards Huaraz in the dark, tired and more than relieved that we didn’t end up spending the night out here. When they realised we’d been waiting for hours, they were apologetic and embarassed (they also spoke English very well and could tell we were really fed up even if we said we weren’t). But it wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was just really bad organisation on the part of the tour agencies. It was something that isn’t that surprising in this part of the world.

So instead, we arrived back in Huaraz in the middle of Peru’s Independence celebrations and said our hurried goodbyes. Some of us ran to get an overnight bus to Lima. Others went straight for food. Jon and I rushed to find a room in a hostel and the first thing I did was to take a hot shower. It probably would have felt just as good six hours earlier, but I like to think the extra wait made it even better.