Wanna hear Michael Jackson in Quechua?

There are 448 indigenous languages in South America. Of these, Quechua is the most widely spoken with an estimated 8-10 million speakers (although technically Quechua is a language group consisting of 46 varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible). Despite being an officially recognized language in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia and being used in intercultural bilingual education I these countries, Quechua speakers – like many speakers of indigenous languages around the world – are still shifting towards using a lingua franca, in this case Spanish, because of the opportunities it affords.

But all is not lost. And here’s proof in the form of 14 year old Peruvian singer Renata Flores Rivera singing Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’.

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Peru to Ecuador: La Balsa border crossing

We’d heard travellers’ tales and internet forums warning of dodgy happenings at the border between Peru and Ecuador and I was a little nervous (I even started planning how to hide cash in my shoes!). In the end though, as our journey took us to Chachapoyas, we crossed the border at La Balsa, the one place we’d heard was safe. It was an uneventful two days, if a little surreal.

la balsaJose at Chachapoyas Backpackers drew us this map and outlined the route we should take. Using a combination of combi (minibus), taxi, mototaxi (rickshaw), ranchera (truck-bus hybrid) and bus. we travelled from Chachapoyas to Bagua Grande to Jaen to San Ignacia. We stayed the night in a cheap hotel and the next day travelled to the border, crossed, and continued on to Zumba and finally Vilcabamba.

Here are some things that stuck in my head about the trip.

  • In Peru it was dusty and hot. In Ecuador it was humid and hot.
  • None of the bus stations are located anywhere vaguely useful. That is to say, if you don’t bring food with you, you will be stuck with whatever you can buy at the bus stations (which was not good) because there are no restaurants or shops nearby.
  • On the plus side, transfers between buses are fairly easy because the bus stations are close to each other. Or, there are mototaxis waiting to drive you from one station to another. Buses also run frequently so there isn’t much time spent waiting around.
  • Not having much time to wait around means finding a bathroom is tough. Once you’ve found a bathroom, depending on how clean it is, you may not want to use it.
  • There were roadworks all the way from Bagua Grande to the border (August 2013). For future travellers this is great. It means the road surfaces will be improved and the roads will be wider, making the journey quicker. For us it made the journey much, much slower. And dustier. Did I mention Peru was dusty?
  • It’s disorienting to turn up in San Ignacio and not know where anything is and have to ask a taxi driver to take you to a cheap hotel. It’s also confusing to try and find something to eat after dark because wherever we ended up was kind of deserted. It was even weirder to finally sit down to dinner only to be told all dishes with beef were off the menu. It was bone-crunchingly bizarre to order fried rice and find pieces of chicken diced up but still on the bone. I don’t recommend doing anything in San Ignacio except getting the hell out of there.
  • But to San Ignacio’s credit, it has at least one very cheery and helpful mototaxi driver who was the only person on the streets at 4 am.
  • You don’t need to be at the bus station in San Ignacio by 5am. You probably don’t even need to be there by 6am. Nobody started to do anything until the sun rose. And then they put your luggage in a taxi and wait for more people to join you so they can get the full fare.
  • The border doesn’t open until 9am. Or rather, the official who has to stamp your passport on leaving Peru doesn’t start to cook his breakfast until 9am. He will communicate with you through a closed door and tell you he’ll open up in half an hour.
  • While you’re waiting, there is a restaurant where you can eat breakfast. You should do this while you have the chance because on the other side of the border they are eve more ‘relaxed’ and you will be stuck because nothing else is open.
  • You can exchange money too, but you might be lucky and find a pair of Australian cyclists who are crossing over from Ecuador and willing to exchange their dollars for your soles, without charging commission.
  • You need to get a policeman to fill out some kind of form and stamp it before you can go though Peruvian immigration. The police station is a little way back up the road form immigration, and down a slight slope towards the river.
  • After crossing the bridge you find the Ecuadorian immigration official who cheerily gives you your entry stamp.
  • Then you wait. Despite a restaurant being open and taking your order of ‘chicken’ (which is the only thing they say they are serving), you wait until midday without said chicken materialising, only to finally jump on a ranchera which is the first transport you’ve seen on this side of the border.
  • The ride is scenic, if bumpy. You also have to squash you bags in between yourself and whoever’s seated next to you and their luggage (which could be a live chicken in a bag or a giant sack of produce). You also have to get off and show your passport at a police checkpoint. Try not to bang your head on the hard roof of the ranchera as you climb in and out. If you sit on the outside of the ranchera, you’ll be able to get in and out easily, but you’ll also get much wetter when it rains.
  • The station at Zumba is pleasantly modern and with luck you’ll be able to transfer straight onto a waiting bus (with air-conditioning, no less) and head to Vilcabamba. You’ll be exhausted and hungry when you arrive, but you will be in a familiar hippie-traveller environment and getting food and a place to sleep for the night will be easy.

Have you been to La Balsa? Or have you had a memorable experience crossing a border somewhere else?

 

How to cure a cough in Peru

Everyone gets sick while travelling. It’s inevitable. You go to a doctor, you take medicine, you get better. If you’re lucky, it’s just a minor inconvenience. What’s really annoying is when you get sick, but it really isn’t all that serious so you can’t do anything about it. Like a persistent dry cough. And yet to everyone else it looks as if you’re dying and they avoid you as if you’ve actually got the plague.

After the beautiful trek in Huaraz, I was looking forward to another multi-day trek in Chachapoyas that would take me to the ancient site of Kuelap. But it was not to be. I picked up a bad cold in Huaraz that, despite the sea air, only got worse in Huanchaco. After a night of air-conditioning on an overnight bus to Chachapoyas, I was done for. The lining of my lungs and throat was so irritated from cold, dry air that I could not go for more than 7 seconds without coughing! It was so bad that I worried I might break a rib or tear a muscle.

Any kind of physical activity was out of the question – it just set off more coughing spasms – and being in public was impossible (a little old lady even stopped me in the street to ask what was wrong). Although I was pretty upset, I knew I had to rest and concentrate on soothing the awful cough. Luckily for me, we were able to get a private room with cable TV in Chachapoyas Backpackers. I spent the next two days watching reality-tv cookery shows and sci-fi movies, with my scarf wrapped around me like a facemask. The lovely owners at Chachapoyas Backpackers recommended drinking tea made from matico, a large green leaf. Combined with the humidity of the cloud forest climate, the matico tea worked wonders. From previous experience, I’d say it was one of the most effective home remedies I’ve tried. I wasn’t cured, but I was able to go out and about again. I never got to do my hike, but I did get to enjoy Chachapoyas.

Have you ever tried a traditional remedy while traveling? What did you think of it?

Chachapoyas

Whilst Kuelap is the most famous attraction in the area, the whole Chachapoyas region is full of archaeological and natural sites which, with a little effort, can be visited. The tourism industry is mostly geared towards domestic tourists, but in the last few years has started to cater to backpackers. Still, don’t expect to find anywhere open and serving food during mid-afternoon siesta time.

The town is probably the cleanest and prettiest I saw in Peru. The colonial buildings are well-kept and the climate makes it pleasantly green without being too hot.

We took three different tours and were surprised to see the same group of people each time: Peruvians using their annual holiday to explore more of their own country. They said it wasn’t as jungle-like as they expected when they imagined the Amazonas region, which Chachapoyas is the capital of.

After visiting Kuelap, we took a day trip to some funerary monuments of the ancient Chachapoyans: the Karajia sarcophagi and Quiocta caverns. It was a little frustrating because, as usual, information was incomplete. No one told us we would need wellington boots nor that the cave had absolutely no lighting except the single hand-held torch the guide had. We could rent boots easily enough for 2 soles each, but I really wished I had my headlamp with me. We sloshed through puddles and sticky clay mud with only our camera flashes and the single beam from the guide to light our way. The plus side of this is that we all made friends quickly as we warned each other about invisible holes or extricated those unfortunate enough to get stuck in sucking mud.

The caverns were only ‘discovered’ and opened to the public very recently. This is something I find really exciting about the region – there are many more sites that were previously unknown and are only now starting to be studied by specialists. If only I could get a job here!

Consisting of six connected caverns, human remains were found in the first two near the entrance. Chachapoyans often deposited bones in difficult-to-reach niches in caves and on cliff-sides. In Quiocta, they’ve now become sites of offerings by modern day people, with coca leaves strewn over the bones. I found it pretty interesting how these archaeological remains were being treated in a non-academic way.

At Karajia, mummy-containing sarcophagi were built high on a cliff.

Here you can see three different sets. On the right, there is only one damaged sarchophagus; the rest have been destroyed by looters and an empty niche left behind. In the center is a well-preserved group, 2.5 metres tall, some decorated with human skulls on top. Finally, on the left is a simpler mausolem, also decorated with molded faces and paint, but less well-preserved.

It was amazing to think how the original builders managed to get up to those niches and carry the equipment needed to create the tombs as well as the remains they were going to place there. Walking along a path below, we found more bones that had once come from tombs; the whole cliff-side must have had many more burials that have since been destroyed by time and man.

It’s nice to know that the archaeological remains are now being valued and safe-guarded as an economic resource rather than being looted. I don’t know how much revenue goes to the local communities, but we paid them directly for lunch, refreshments and even horses (for those too lazy to walk to the sites) so it doesn’t all go to outside stakeholders.

On two legs or four, the walk to Karajia was beautiful.

We saw more gorgeous scenery the next day when we went to Gocta falls.

The waterfall is said to be 771m tall and, depending on which souce you quote, is the third, fifth or sixteenth tallest in the world.

And did I mention it was only ‘discovered’ in 2005? Kind of odd, considering it’s so big, but it further demonstrates what little notice the outside world, and the Peruvian government, has taken of this region.

This is definitely somewhere you might consider travelling to independently, unless you enjoy walking at a snail’s pace with the rest of the group. We tried to stick together so we could listen to the local nature guide, but it was physically impossible for me to go that slowly.

As luck would have it, we went ahead and were able to reach the waterfall, sun ourselves on a rock and head back in time to miss most of the huge downpour that fell in the afternoon. We also got to eat our lunch at a more reasonable time. I suspect the rest of the group wished they had stopped a little less and taken fewer pictures on the way there.

Even if you choose to pay for a horse once on location, both trips still involve some hiking, traversing steps and mud, which the horses can’t do. If you’re an averagely fit person you should have no problem. The tour to Karajia and Quiocta cavern cost 50 soles per person, excluding lunch, boot rental (2 soles) and entrance fees (10 soles). The trip to Gocta cost 30 soles, excluding lunch and entrance fees (5 soles).There are a selection of agencies on the main square in Chachapoyas, but prices vary a little bit so check around for the cheapest. Chachapoyas Backpackers have lovely owners who can also arrange tours.

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.

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.

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.