Otavalo and around

We spent a few days in Otavalo before heading to our workaway in Cotacachi, a small village nearby. We didn’t see the famous Saturday market, but we did wander around the regular tourist market as well as the locals’ food market.

The 18m Peguche waterfall is on the outskirts of town. You can get there by following the old train lines north of town. There’s a little campground there, which at the time we visited seemed to be the place for local teens to hang out.

We took a half day guided hike ($35 pp, including transport, guide and lunch) to Fuya Fuya, the extinct volcano overlooking the sparkling Lagunas de Mojanda.

There was barely a cloud in the sky when we set out in the back of a bumpy truck from Otavalo. On arrival, the walk looked deceptively simple; straight, up, and up a little more.

But in the high altitude we were a little slow and as we kept going we realised there was a lot more ‘up’ than we had seen from back at the lake side.

By the time we reached the top, we were covered in clouds and our hopes for the spectacular view quickly vanished. However, it was beautiful being surrounded by spiky vegetation and drifting whiteness, and our guide kept us entertained with stories and facts.

My favourite tale was about a family of cannibals who lived along the old route between Quito and Otavalo, which passes close to Mojanda. They preyed upon weary travellers until one day a visiter stopped at their farm for food and was served pie…with a human nose inside! He escaped and ran to tell local villagers who got together a posse and killed the cannibal family.

Despite the clouds, it hadn’t rained for quite a long time in these parts; plants and animals were drying out.

Laguna Cuicocha, a volcanic crater lake nearby, was more lush.

It’s possible to walk around the whole crater in about 4 hours, but we didn’t have that much time so we contented ourselves with hiking partway and sitting to watch the pleasure boats chug across the blue water. There’s also a small, modern museum which explains about the local ecosystem and formation of the lake.

There’s no public transport to either of the lakes so you have to rent a private vehicle, hitchhike or go with a tour. We got a truck-taxi in the village of Quiroga to take us to Cuicocha and pick us up later for $10. You can get this cute map overview of the area at the tourist office in Otavalo.

Advertisements

Quito

Quito reminded us of La Paz: colonial architecture in varying states of upkeep and decay; valley sides rising around steep, winding streets; high altitude; and a strong indigenous identity. It’s not quite as stunning and probably more dangerous, but we’re willing to concede we’re a little biased since we lived in La Paz for a year and still think it’s one of the most unique cities we’ve ever seen.

A ride on the TelefériQo ($8.50) lets you appreciate the scale of Quito and it’s location between two mountain ranges. Being so close to the equator, the surroundings are quite green, but the condor decorations on the Central Bank remind you that you’re in an Andean region.

We only spent two nights in Quito, but we had time to visit one museum. It was hard to choose, but in the end we went for the Museo de la Ciudad which tells a social history of Ecuador. In each gallery there were information cards for non-Spanish speakers, including in Kichwa (Quechua).

“Don’t enter. Take off your poncho first!”

“I won’t.”

“Then, get out!”

Basílica del Voto Nacional, Quito

The Basílica del Voto Nacional, in Quito, is the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas. Building work began in 1892 and to this day it is still technically unfinished.

I loved the gargoyles, designed to look like Ecuadorian animals.

You can climb both the two clock towers and the spire above the transept, and it’s here where you can see the building isn’t completed yet.

20141101-182720.jpg

It also involves some slightly hair-raising ascents up very steep and very narrow metal ladders, which leave you suspended in mid-air while you wait for other people to descend the narrow steps.

But the views at the top are absolutely worth it.

The Basilica is open 9am-5pm and entry costs $2 per person.

 

Agua Blanca

I found out about Agua Blanca when searching information about Puerto Lopes where we wanted to go whale watching. Described in some sources as a ‘commune’, in others as a ‘private community’, Agua Blanca has an archaeological site, small museum and a natural sulphur pool. I couldn’t really ask for more!

From the entrance off the main road, the village itself is another 5km. You can walk along the dusty path through tropical dry forest, or get your mototaxi to take you all the way to the village.

You’ll find yourself at the museum where you pay your entrance fee. The museum shows artefacts from the Manteña culture (800 to 1532 AD) as well as specimens of local flora and fauna.

Local guides (our lovely young man was called Stalin!) will show you around the exhibits and then lead you on a walk around the village to see more of the archaeological sites as well as pointing out interesting animals and plants. You could walk around by yourself, but without the guides’ explanations and sharp eyes, I think you’d miss out on a lot (such as the sleepy owl below).

These special termites make their nests in trees and build ‘covered’ pathways to protect themselves as they travel around.

The surrounding land is natural tropical dry forest, but some is also used for agriculture.

Whilst the little micro-climate here was really hot and dry, we could see the rainclouds over in Puerto Lopes.

After an easy stroll through the village and up to a viewpoint, we ended up at the natural sulphur lagoon. It actually didn’t smell bad at all and was a fun way to cool off.

The murky water is full of rich sediments which are periodically dredged from the bottom and set out for visitors to use as a natural cleansing skin mask.

After applying, drying and then basking in the pool, you can take a shower with fresh water in the changing rooms built alongside the lagoon.

Agua Blanca was definitely worth the trip and it’s nice to know that the $5 entrance fee goes directly to support the community.

A mototaxi from Puerto Lopes cost us $6. On the way back we decided to walk to the entrance at the main road and hope to pick up something cheaper. As luck would have it, a villager was driving by and offered us a ride all the way back for just $2!

Have you ever visited a commune or other form of private community? As a tourist, what did you think of it?

Isla de la Plata

We already visited one ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ in Peru, when we took a boat trip to Islas Ballestas, but in Ecuador we had the chance to visit another: Isla de la Plata. The 5km2 island lies off the west coast, near to the town of Puerto Lopez. Many of the same species in the Galapagos are also found here (but sadly not iguanas), including my most favourite sea bird ever; the blue-footed boobie!

Take a look at that fabulous colour scheme!

The females are actually the ones with brighter feet, and they’re also a little larger, with bigger pupils too.

We were able to get really close to them as they were unafraid and trying to stake out their terrritory for breeding.

The island is part of Machalilla National Park, and in order to protect the wildlife, you’re not allowed to go wandering around by yourself. The boat trip took about an hour and once on the island you’re split into groups and taken down different pathways whilst a guide points out different animals and plants.

We were led down Sendero de las Fragatas – Frigate Bird Trail. And boy did we see a lot of frigate birds!

It was both fascinating and repulsive to watch the big, noisy, stinking creatures splay themselves out in the flimsy-looking branches of their roost. I remembered from watching David Attenborough programs that frigate birds don’t have waterproof feathers, so I guess they were drying themselves out in the sun. I also remembered that they attack other birds and steal the fish they’ve just caught. With this thought in my head, I couldn’t help thinking that their sharp beaks and beady eyes looked rather evil.

We also got to see pelicans, another of my favourite birds, that I’d become familiar with in Valdivia, Chile.

I watched a group of them fishing together, which I had never seen before. The noise when they hit the water was really loud! It was interesting to see their strategy of scaring the fish into moving in one direction, making them easier to scoop up.

When we first arrived, we spotted at least five turtles popping up to the surface very close to the boat. It really seemed like they were greeting us, and made me smile a lot as I’d never seen them in the wild before.

After walking around the island, we got back on the boats for lunch and then went snorkeling. There weren’t any turtles around, but I did see forests of seaweed and some big fish. Since this was only the second time I’d ever been snorkelling, I was pretty excited. Although the ocean was calm, I still felt a bit nervous as the water was so deep and every time I lifted my head I was a lot further from the boat than I expected.

I’m really pleased that we made the trip to Isla de la Plata as our budget didn’t allow us to go to the Galapagos. But it was on the way back to the mainland that we experienced the real reason I had wanted to make this trip.

Humpback whales come to these waters to mate and give birth. We were here at the perfect time of year to observe their displays of fin- and tail-slapping.

It was really hard to take pictures as the boat was rocking quite a bit. When one whale jumped completely out of the water, my hand went flying, but I did get a few shots using the sports setting.

20140704-212142.jpg

The trip cost $45 pp, including snorkel gear, boat, guide, lunch, snacks and drinks. There are lots of tour agencies in Puerto Lopez, but they aren’t all that helpful. We finally went with one on the Malecon (near the Ruta del Sol hotel) because it was the only place which could actually tell us what time the boat was leaving the following day.

What’s your favourite marine animal?

Cuenca

Travelling from Peru to Ecuador was a bit of a culture shock, but the differences were made all the more acute because the first place we spent any time was in Cuenca. Fancy restaurants, cafes and (mostly retired, American) expats were everywhere! Still, it was a nice place to spend a few days strolling old streets, eating in cafes, visiting odd museums and cloud-watching.

 

Real thieves eat caviar.

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.

20140330-214405.jpg

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.