Archive for Januar, 2012

Carpa Pastoruri + Gramadal, Peru – Blooming giant pineapples and the ultimate camping beach

Montag, Januar 30th, 2012

It doesn’t only call itself the world’s largest flowering plant but possibly its most unusual: Puya raimondii is a member of the pineapple family that grows from 3,000 m (10,000 ft) to over 4,000 m (13,000 ft) of tropical elevation. The plant is up to 15 m (50 ft) high and gets 40 to 100 years old. Only then the spherical perennial with the long sharp leaves produces the high cigar-like inflorescence where in the average 8,000 white lily-like blossoms with 8 to 12 million seeds arise. The rare and endangered flower raises this accomplishment only once in its life, and then it dies. Puya raimondii is found in the Peruvian Andes, close to Huaráz there are several stands.

You’d have to turn east seven kilometres south of Catác into a gravel road to the signed national park Huascarán Sector Carpa Pastoruri. You’ll be 5 PEN per person poorer after 13 km at the pay station. Two kilometres past the entrance there is a gaseous spring whose water is undrinkable. After another two kilometres the odd Puya raimondii grow directly beside the road, and a viewing platform allows a glimpse into a deep clear source point of a mineral spring. Besides young and already died perennials tiny flowers and cacti fight for their survival – in 4,500 m / 15,000 ft. There is a glacier at 4,900 m / 16,080 ft to visit at km 22 (500 m horse ride, 500 m walk, access to the glacier not permitted), but deep dark clouds are moving in from there.

At first we don’t succeed in escaping, ice-cold heavy rain and 7° C / 45° F catch up with us. We are rushing down, down, down, from 4,500 m / 15,000 ft to sea level, heading to the coast at Barranca. Eventually the rain gets caught in the mountains, we reach the desert, only interrupted by the narrow irrigated strip along the river that produces watermelons, avocados, and yellow plums. Suddenly people wear tank tops and shorts instead of thick wool sweaters and ponchos. When reaching the Pan Am we feel the influence of the cooling southern Pacific. We turn north for another 40 km just to see that one beach: Playa Gramadal.

It doesn’t appear in any travel guide, it’s completely unknown, so here is the crazy story: When standing in front of the stationary rack in Trujillos’s supermarket Joerg discovers the photo of miraculous shifting dunes on the packaging of printer paper and with it the magic word: Playa Gramadal. Got it into our head to see exactly this beach, we finally found it on Google Earth. The village Gramadal consists of each two houses on both sides of the road, that’s it. But the people can point us the way to the beach. And here’s the best: the feeder trail is very hard sand, not long, and in the end is a levelled concrete foundation in safe distance from high tide, as it if was made for camping: the optimal beach for RVs of all kind who wants to spend some lonely days and nights at the beach. Playa Gramadal: S 10°23’53.6’’ W 78°00’03.3’’.

Chavín de Huántar + Cátac, Peru – Underground labyrinth

Sonntag, Januar 29th, 2012

Once more we climb a smooth plateau at 4,360 m with unpleasant damp and cold climate where nearly nobody lives anymore. No wonder: Anything grows here. Instead, the few people here beg, hoping the passer-bys throw something into their hats. Right before Huari cars appear – a certain sign for pavement. From the beginning of the town on asphalt appears and will not leave us again, although the next 120 km it disintegrates and is bombed with potholes. After only 40 km we reach Chavín de Huántar, a village with an archaeological find that belongs to the oldest in Peru. Approaching from the north we first reach the museum (admission free, S 09°34’35.0’’ W 77°10’38.1’’) where finely carved steles, stone reliefs, elaborate pottery, and decorated mussel shells that served as wind instruments are exhibited. There are some odd stone heads as well that once adorned the outside walls of the shrine.

The find itself is situated at the southern end of town (S 09°35’33.8’’ W 77°10’43.2’’) and costs 10 Pen entrance fee. The facility consists of several temples, built between 1200 and 800 BC, with an ingenious drainage system. The above ground part of the shrine suffered from construction, purloining stones and a land slide due to an earthquake, but we get a good impression of the area’s extent. The most interesting part though is the underground corridors and labyrinths with numerous dead-ends, small windows, sound and ventilation openings. This area might have served to convince non-believers as they were anesthetized with a hallucinogen, and then sent to the cellar labyrinth. Priests created eerie sounds with shells, which mysteriously spread through corridors and openings and seemed to come from everywhere. As highlight the person to be converted landed at a window and in front of him the sinister terrible man-animal-deity appeared, resurrected by flickering torches. Still today it’s a moment of amazement when spotting the tall carefully carved statue. The sanctuary is well marked and can be visited without guide; time requirement one to two hours.

The remaining 70 km back to the main road are just as furrowed asphalt. 47 km before reaching the main road there is a dead straight tunnel in more than 4,500 m / in about 15,000 ft elevation. Coming from the west one would face a statue of Christ that was erected on a hill on the opposite side of the tunnel. The loop road Carhuaz-Chacas-San Luis-Huari-Chavín de Huántar-Recuay/Cátac is used by very few tourists only, but makes a spectacular Andean round trip for 4WD vehicles. Asphalting is proceeding so that the road will be accessible to any vehicle soon. The described route is 280 km long. The first 100 km to San Luis are partially paved, partially rough trail. The following 60 km are good gravel / dirt, from Huari on until the end you’ll face unpleasant dissolving pavement.

Camping in Chavín de Huántar is neither possible at the museum (not allowed) nor at the ruins (no space). The plaza on the opposite side of the police station is an option (S 09°35’02.0’’ W 77°10’39.4’’), or quieter further north outside of town on a big gravel lot, but unguarded (S 09°33’48.4’’ W 77°10’29.9’’). We continue to Cátac and sleep at the grass plaza there on the opposite side of the police station in front of the church, but plazas don’t promise the quietest nights (S 09°47’53.3’’ W 77°25’54.6’’).

San Luis, Peru – Dream route of Cordillera Blanca

Samstag, Januar 28th, 2012

The road isn’t even marked on my map. But it turns out to be the best what we have seen on our trip so far. Start early, cross the pass at midday when last night’s snow already melted and the daily rainfall that comes down as snow in these elevations didn’t start yet – that’s the advise we get from locals. We start in Carhuaz, cross the Cordillera Blanca to Chacas, and turn south then – a route rarely used by travellers. The scenery is comparable to the road along Lagunas Llanganuco, but it’s wider. We drive into a green high valley with a blue river between high precipices. Snowline is at 4,600 m, we are now on the level of the surrounding glaciers. A bit further up there is snow on the road, and we traverse two vertical snow walls. The pass is at 4,900 m, and behind glaciers filled some turquoise and emerald coloured lakes with meltwater.

The road is being improved and paved, so there is a lot of roadworks, and a big portion is already widened and gravelled. Just the pass isn’t made yet, the road is in semi-catastrophic condition here – no way without 4WD. Right after the pass conditions improve again. Behind Chacas it becomes very muddy and slippery with adventurous bridges. While we still think if the wooden bridge will withstand our weight, a construction vehicle fully loaded with heavy rocks passes us and the bridge without batting an eyelid.

Further south right behind San Luis we find a small church with a big flat area in front where we can park overnight (S 09°06’43.1’’ W 77°18’45.9’’). It is courteous to inform the neighbours about one’s request. That’s easier said than done. The only inhabitant here is a very old woman, but I can’t make myself understood. It takes a while until I notice: She doesn’t speak Spanish – at least less than I do. She speaks Quechua, the Inca’s language. It is still the mother tongue for many people in Peru although most learned Spanish as well. Not this woman, but eventually we can make clear what we want with gestures – the international language.

Monterrey, Peru – About flats

Montag, Januar 23rd, 2012

86.000 km, 21 months, 12 countries, one set of tyres. And today, the first flat one. The first puncture had to happen, since the tread decreases slowly. Joerg’s investigations into the cause of the flat reveal that we are having a screw in the tyre. He repairs the hole with our truck tyre repair set. We hope for impermeability.

Monterrey, Peru – Pisco Sour

Sonntag, Januar 22nd, 2012

Schnapps is distilled in most countries from what is in plentiful supply. Sugarcane is processed to rum and aguardiente also in Peru, but grapes grow here as well, from which a clear brandy is made. This Pisco – it got its name from the coast town, an important area of cultivation – was a once a raw matter with hangover guarantee. Today it is more beneficial and, among others, available in the italia version with a smooth taste similar to grappa. From this grape schnapps the national drink Pisco Sour was created, for which uncounted recipes exist, but that always consists of the basic ingredients Pisco, lime juice, sugar, and ice. Here a classical recipe for 2 drinks where you can leave out any ingredient you don’t like or don’t have on hand:
3 shot glasses Pisco, 1 shot glass lime juice, 2 tee spoons sugar, ½ egg white, some splashes Angostura Bitter, crushed ice; shake everything in a mixer, fill in two glasses and sprinkle with a pinch of cinnamon. Cheers!

Lagunas Llanganuco, Peru – Mountains in their most perfect form

Freitag, Januar 20th, 2012

If a painter would have invented this landscape, it would be considered pure kitsch. Mother Nature grasped here deeply into her drama box. A road leads from the national park entrance up into a valley that is by 1,000 m high deeply black walls threatened on both sides. Two dazzlingly turquoise lakes lie in the midst of lush green grass, bushes, and trees. A light blue river meanders through the valley, and slowly the glacier covered peaks of Peru’s highest mountains protrude: Huascarán, with 6,768 m the country’s tallest, and other glorious mountains over six thousand metres. This corner of Peru belongs to the best offered during a world trip.
The Cordillera Blanca isn’t only the world’s highest mountain chain in the tropics, it also houses some of the Andes’ tallest summits. In a tiny area of 20 by 180 km more than 50 mountains reach elevations of 5,700 m and more (North America has three, Europe none), 25 among them are more than 6,000 m. Parque Nacionál Huascarán comprises virtually all areas above 4,000 m and some lower areas, 600 glaciers, and nearly 300 lakes. The marvellous little spot that we visit today calls itself Sector Lagunas Llanganuco. The first lake, Laguna Chinacocha, is found seven kilometres after the park entrance, Laguna Orconcocha after 11 km.
We get the best views of these killer mountains continuing some kilometres past the lakes where the road soon climbs the Cordillera Blanca, gets narrower, and turning areas become rare. The morning is the best time to visit, not only due to clearer visibility but also due to the traffic that increases around midday. Day admission to all sectors of Huascarán national park is 5 Nuevo Soles. To camp in the park a monthly ticket is necessary, which can be bought for 65 PEN. Due to traffic camping in the park (beside the road) isn’t quieter than on the parking lot in front of the entrance.
The parking lot of the hot springs in Monterrey further south, right before Huaráz, is too crooked to camp, plus they request 10 PEN per night (entrance to the bath is 3 PEN). Just below is a restaurant with a big grassy area for several campers where camping is possible for 5 PEN per night, water and bathroom available. The entrance is 3 m wide, but needs some clearance: Restaurant Floresta in Monterrey: S 09°28’09.5’’ W 77°32’12.2’’.

Cañon del Pato, Peru – A travel highlight

Donnerstag, Januar 19th, 2012

It gets stonier, drier, and hotter. Villagers are very poor here, they don’t even have money for adobe houses; they just use fibre mats – climate tolerates. Slowly the road follows Rio Santa upriver in the direction of the Andes; ground gets more inhospitable and barren until vegetation completely disappears. The river can’t be used for irrigation since it’s completely polluted due to mining. Check road conditions at the latest at the police checkpoint in Chuquicara. 70 asphalt kilometres after leaving the Pan Am a rough gravel road starts for the next 77 km. It is used by buses and heavy lorries of the mines, so width, condition, height of the tunnels, and load-bearing capacity of the adventurous bridges are accordingly, but in rainy season things can change quickly. Some clearance and resistance to bumpy trails might help RV drivers.
The canyon narrows, which is shared by road and river. Hot wind picks up. Pitch-dark tunnels were beaten by hand into the rock to make space for the road. The mountains amongst them glow in beautiful brown, red, and yellow shades. Vegetation only comes back at 1,000 m of elevation; it’s getting cooler and more humid. The river valley knocks over to the south between two Andean chains: the western Cordillera Negra and the eastern Cordillera Blanca. We are going to Huascarán National Park, Peru’s most spectacular mountain area with highest peaks in enormous density, model mountaineer area and well-visited tourists’ destination.
The road follows Cañon del Pato where both cordilleras approach to 15 m with walls towering 1,000 m high. Since there was nearly no space left for the road, 35 tunnels were carved into the mountains. The one-lane tunnels are pretty exciting since it’s not possible to see potential oncoming traffic when entering. Hooting is the maxim. Unfortunately the interruptions between the tunnels are very short, so there are not too many views into the gorge. There are only few turn-outs, and they don’t really allow stopping.
The sector Lagunas Llanganuco of Huarascán National Park is reached from Yungay via a 17 km long rough but wide trail. It’s possible to camp in the parking lot in front of the entrance gate, but better ask the park guard (S 09°06’22.2’’ W 77°41’01.3’’).

Trujillo, Peru – Deliquesced Moche pyramids and: Stuck

Mittwoch, Januar 18th, 2012

The Moche pyramids
Two adobe pyramids of the Moche culture in the south of Trujillo are washed away from rain and covered by sand for the most part. The Huaca de Luna and the Huaca del Sol – names are completely fictitious – are about 700 years older than Chan Chan. Huaca del Sol that suggests to be Peru’s largest building, isn’t explored yet and its remnants can only be seen from outside. Huaca de Luna is partially cleared of sand, its interior can be visited. It must have been a ceremonial centre and a tomb. During generations five pyramids were built, one covering the other completely. Hence the detailed coloured friezes were partially excellently preserved. There is no reconstruction in Huaca de Luna, only preservation.
The admission fee of 10 PEN includes a guide, it’s not allowed to enter without. A tip is expected anyway. Our English speaking guide is listless, arrogant, and has a cold. No good combination to alleviate our guide allergy. “The Spaniards took everything from us”, whines the obviously thoroughbred Moche/Chimú (at least his nose looks exactly like those ones on the friezes). That is true. But he keeps the fact that grave robbers from their own ranks ply their dreadful trade still today. Remaining finds from the graves are exhibited in the museum on the opposite side, 3 PEN. Earlier travellers camped on the ruin’s parking lot (S 08°08’12.7’’ W 78°59’31.5’’).

We follow Pan Am south. Before we head back into the mountains we want to enjoy the Pacific one more time. We simply turn right through the desert to the sea. We find tracks that we can follow. After kilometres they disappear into nothing, there is a cemetery of dry branches and trunks between us and the sea, which nearly make access to the beach impossible. It’s hard to believe it’s driftwood. More probable it must have been a plantation that was abandoned and withered.
As we think to have found a passage we already sink to the axles into the sand. It is so soft that all dodges don’t help. Joerg shovels half of the desert, and the sand boards are deployed for the first time. Unfortunately it doesn’t work on the first attempt and we have to dig again. It could have been faster though. Enthusiastic about the desert we forgot to reduce tyre pressure – something we usually do even when road surface changes. Now we have to pay for our carelessness. It works on the second attempt, but suddenly we don’t want to go to the beach anymore, but rather turn into the desert. The area is called Pampa Blanca, but don’t dare to go there without 4WD (S 08°48’10.7 W 78°41’08.2’’).

Trujillo, Peru – Chan Chan: Cosmopolitan city of the desert

Dienstag, Januar 17th, 2012

It must have been a city of well-nigh inconceivable area: Chan Chan, an awe-inspiring sight. With 36 sq km it is considered the largest pre-Colombian settlement in South America. With its 60,000 to 100,000 inhabitants it housed the largest amount of people in the 13th and 14th century all over the world. Still today it is the biggest adobe city. It was, of course, very well protected so that the Inca couldn’t conquer it. But it was built in the middle of the desert, and water came in aqueducts. The Inca simply turned off the water and waited. Then they took the very skilful goldsmiths and tradesmen to Cuzco. It is unknown what happened to the rest of the Chimú culture.
The climatic phenomenon El Niño with its torrential rainfalls badgered the construction during the last centuries a lot so that the walls appear like melted ice cream under the sun. There is really not much to see anymore. It is only possible to visit a very small part of Chan Chan, the Nik An Palace (former Tschudi Palace) that depicts something like a district with walls, corridors, squares, and halls. Some of the finely made adobe reliefs, partially original, partially reconstructed, that show fishes, pelicans and other birds or geometrical patterns, are enchanting though. The facility can be visited without guide, admission is 10 PEN. The ticket is valid for two days and includes access to the museum up on the main road (the satellite photo of the whole city is interesting) and two smaller excavations. Camping is not possible (S 08°06’31.0’’ W 79°04’30.6’’).
There’s a good supermarket in the north of Trujillo (S 08°06’07.9’’ W 79°02’46.6’’). Further north, close to the airport, the fishing village Huanchaco is situated: too many bus loads of tourists, too many reggae bars, and too many tattoos and dreadlocks. But the village is known for its traditional reed boats, called caballitos, small horses. Locals use them since 2,000 years for fishing, paddling and riding them like horses. After some months they are soaked with water and useless. You can see them on the beach. There is a public beach at the northern end of the village where you can camp (suitable for any vehicle, S 08°04’19.9’’ W 79°07’12.8’’). You are in the middle of all the restaurants, bars, and shops; if you like it or not.
It is quieter further north outside of Huanchaco, but not really pretty. Crossing the ecological zone where the reed is grown, dried, and woven into caballitos another public beach follows where locals happily send garbage flying. Head further along the walls fencing empty plots, but not too far. A poultry farm will appear whose flies are even more pestering than its stench (Camp at S 08°02’42.7’’ W 70°08’53.1’’).

Puerto Malabrigo, Peru – The other Peru: the desert

Montag, Januar 16th, 2012

The road drops and drops and drops, down to the ocean, while temperature rises. The sky turns from dark to light-grey. Bananas reappear and palm trees, mangos, rice, and grapes. It becomes drier, the river thinner, and a reservoir has already lost quite a few meters of its water level. Cacti appear until even they don’t find enough water anymore to survive. Sand accumulates at the surrounding hills. As we turn south onto the Pan Am we are completely surrounded by desert. Nothing grows here, dunes pile up and sand drifts over the road. The light is always murky and the sky shows milky blue.
It’s only early afternoon, but we can’t resist. In Paiján we turn right and reach the Pacific Ocean after 20 km in Puerto Malabrigo. To reach Peru’s best surf beach, known also as Puerto Chicama, head north in front of town following a sand road and passing a whole row of stinky fish factories. Keep your left in front of the last factory, then take one of the beach accesses and continue along the beach. 4WD and differential lock can be useful, the sand is soft. The windy beach is miles long. For camping stay well off the fish factories and choose a place between the dunes – high tide can get far on the beach.
A two kilometres long and two meters high wave can arise between March and June, when the National Surf Championships are held here. The water temperature shall be good for swimming only in summer, from December to March. We try. Our toe thermometer shows frosty 18° C / 64° F. No way. Puerto Malabrigo beach, S 07°39’13.4’’ W 79°26’41.3’’

Cajamarca, Peru – Coca flour, Inca Kola, and some excavations

Sonntag, Januar 15th, 2012

A good place to stock up is Cajamarca’s Mi Metro supermarket (S 07°08’58.6’’ W 78°30’31.3’’). Although the car park attendant doesn’t want us to park in the huge and empty parking lot: “The vehicle is too big.” Ridiculous, there is a Dodge RAM in the parking that is bigger than we are, although not higher. And what’s that supposed to mean? For any reason the security man stays stubborn for quite a while. Finally I get out of the truck, slightly enraged, and explain: “I am inconsolable sorry that we are travellers and need to buy grocery.” Slightly enraged 5 ft 10 can be very convincing if you are only 5 ft – with hat. We can get in.
There are funny things to buy. Coca flour for example. Coca is completely legal in Peru. Later I regret I didn’t buy it. I could have baked some stimulating cookies. Or what about a coca bread? But honestly, without chemical treatment it’s just an herb, curing upset stomachs, and it shall help fight cold, hunger, and altitude sickness. Maybe even the Inca Kola is more stimulating. It has nothing in common with the North American tooth killer except the surname, and probably the sugar content. The nuclear yellow colour with bubble gum taste bodes no good. I wouldn’t drink it on gun point.
Cajamarca itself might be interesting for travellers who haven’t seen enough colonial cities since Mexico. But the most important archaeological find in the area is Otuzco, eighth kilometres north of town(S 07°07’35.4’’ W 78°27’25.1’’). Many little niches were carved into the rock, hence the name Ventanillas de Otuzco, little windows of Otuzco. The location probably served as burial place 1,400 years ago. Entrance fee is 5 PEN.

Baños del Inca (Cajamarca), Peru – The last Inca’s bath

Samstag, Januar 14th, 2012

Crossing the Andes, we have to descend to incredibly hot Rio Marañón below 900 m of elevation where cacti like those in Mexico and mangoes grow, and climb again to 3,800 m. There must have been some more landslides on the road, but workers already have removed them – more or less. We cross dozens of climatic zones and end up on a plateau with farming and cattle breeding. In the town of Celendín the adventure ends: The road is still unpaved, but two-lane wide now, and has unnervingly many potholes. Traffic increases significantly, especially on asphalt, which starts 35 km in front of Cajamarca. Few kilometres in front of town the national monument Baños del Inca is situated. The last Inca king Atahualpa is said to have bathed here before the Spaniards caught him. Nowadays hundreds of people feast daily in the steaming pools. So many that Joerg refuses a bath indicating potential hygienic problems. There is a quiet overnight place in the gravel parking lot behind the main paved one; the restaurants close at 6 p.m. (S 07°09’43.3’’ W 78°27’51.6’’).
Legend goes that Atahualpa was camping 1532 at Baños del Inca to cure some war wounds. On the plaza in Cajamarca he unsuspectingly met – with his bodyguards and 40,000 warriors in the background – Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro and his men who were ridiculously short-handed. But the not even 200 Spaniards had firearms and cannons, unknown by the Inca. First mentioned fired a little bit whereupon latter fled in a bewildered manner. Pizarro took Atahualpa prisoner who offered ransom to be set free. After one entire room was filled with gold and two more with silver, Pizarro let pass sentence on the son of the Sun King in a summary trial and – despite protests from his own ranks – executed him not even one year after his capture. Though centuries old advanced culture came to an abrupt, unexpected end.

Leimebamba, Peru – The landslide

Freitag, Januar 13th, 2012

On a Friday, the 13th, you ask yourself when getting up what they day will bring. It’s raining cats and dogs, that’s just not a good feeling in the Peruvian Andes. But the 38 km back to PE 08 and the following 54 gravel kilometres to Leimebamba are uneventful. South of town the Austrian Archaeological Society built an astonishing museum (S 06°43’27.1’’ W 77°47’53.9’’). Architecture and the lavish roof with many gables are award-winning, the exhibitions are professional and multilingual.
Exhibits include everyday items like pottery, combs and jewellery from the Chachapoyas culture as well as the unique Quipus. These are mathematical knotted cords that served to record figures, dates, and statistics. Variously dyed and differently long secondary cords hang along a thicker main cord and symbolized stocks of llamas, yields, precious metals, or taxes. Different knots and their location along the cord characterized units, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The Spaniards who possibly didn’t see through the system forbid the Quipus and destroyed their stock. There are only 800 specimens left worldwide. Some Quipus can be seen in Leimebamba, but highlight are the mummies that were found at nearby Laguna de los Condores. The bodies were wrapped in cloth, but the archaeologists unpacked some of them for viewers to become completely horrified. Admission to this wonderful museum is 10 PEN.
The road again becomes narrower and worse as we continue, leave the river valley where the stretch of water already breaks its banks, and get ready to cross the first pass. We meet two oncoming busses at a bottleneck. We have to back up to give way, but interpret it as a good sign that the road is still open. Although it is clear to us that this might change in minutes, even in seconds.
15 minutes later: We have crossed the first mountain range as a fresh landslide blocks our way. Nobody has passed it yet, and it’s not possible. What to do? Most probably some workers would come – but when? – and shovel the road free. So Joerg takes our spade and gets down to work. But it’s not easy with a fresh landslide. On one hand it is soft and muddy, but it contains many rocks and is difficult to move. For two shovelled loads another one slides down.
Two passer-byes, wrapped in blue plastic foil, the local version of a rain poncho, arrive: two men, coming from somewhere, going anywhere. “Do you want to cross?” they ask. We shrug our shoulders; we didn’t make up our mind yet. Immediately the men offer help and start to shovel. They skilfully fix the edge of roadway along the slope with big boulders. After a while the mud slide doesn’t appear so frighteningly crooked any more, just like a giant hill of mud and stones.
There are still two problems: Such a fresh landslide is extremely fragile, movable, and liquid. It didn’t settle down and we sink in when just walking over. Will it carry Arminius or will it slide more to the side? There is the second problem: On the right side of the one-lane road lurks a 500 m deep slope. Joerg bravely enters out truck and sets off. Slowly in the beginning, but then he sinks more in at the slope side as expected. He accelerates and the two men and I jump away to get ourselves to safety. And then everything is over. Arminius stands on firm ground. Just the hearts pound for a while.
What to do with our helpers? They want to get to the next hamlet five kilometres away. We only have to seats, but we want to return the favour. The two men are dirty and the last shower is quite a while ago. I squeeze both of them onto the passenger seat and climb into the camper cabin. During the drive they can hardly get over their astonishment. The GPS that obviously knows this tiny mountain road is fascinating: A small blue car moves and marks the way it’s already gone. “Oh, those Germans” they say with a shake of their head, not understanding what they saw.

Kuélap, Peru – Fortress of the round houses

Donnerstag, Januar 12th, 2012

It shall be South America’s largest construction. To build it more stones shall have been used than for Egypt’s Cheops Pyramid. Its grandeur is only outdone by Machu Picchu. Without knowing Machu Picchu yet, I entertain doubts. Kuélap is an imposing excavation worth seeing, but if it is a match for the Inca showpiece remains an open question. Built between 1200 BC and 900 AD by the relatively unknown Chachapoyas culture, the perfectly fortified citadel could never be conquered by the Inca, although they defeated other Chachapoyas towns.
Kuélap was constructed on a 3.100 m high rock plateau with vast view to the environs. The 700 m long oval fort is surrounded by ab12 m high wall. Only three narrow entrances lead into the inside – an ingenious safety system that transformed intruders to easy victims. The city contained 400 circular stone houses inside the fortification wall where probably 3,500 people lived. Some houses are decorated with geometrical patterns. One of the roundhouses from which only wall remnants are left was reconstructed by archaeologists, including the steep thatched roof. A watch tower and an upside down conical building are the most conspicuous buildings in that cloud forest, overgrown with bromeliads, and appearing as an enchanted garden.
Admission fee was recently reduced to 10 PEN (for most excavations, for locals and foreigners alike). Guides are available at the pay station. It’s a 2.5 km walk uphill. The good thing: There are not too many tourists yet.

Chachapoyas + Kuélap, Peru – Gentle giants

Mittwoch, Januar 11th, 2012

We pick up the car insurance contract and the sticker for the windshield in a small shop at the river bridge where we asked the collectivo driver to leave it. It is really there! In Chachapoyas, an old colonial town and famous with backpackers, we ask for the way to Kuélap. “You can’t get there in this car” I get to know. “Why?” I ask. “Only small cars go there, sedans and microbuses.” Sure. Is there a road microbuses can master where a Unimog can’t go? The boy I asked works for an agency and wants to sell trips. Realizing my unimpressed reaction he says: “Well, you can try”, handing me a useful map. From Chachapoyas we head back to the junction where Leimebamba is marked. A local there assures me the road to Kuélap is wide and good enough (Peruvians have another reception of “wide” and “good” roads, be aware).
From that junction PE 08 isn’t paved any more. We follow a river 20 km through the valley until signs point the trail to Kuélap out (S 06°22’09.0’’ W 77°55’08.6’’). We turn right and follow the one-lane gravel road (there are turn-outs) for 38 km to the end. If you like ruins or not: this road is fantastic. Mountains of exceptional beauty tower 3,000 m high into the sky. Despite their massive height they appear gentle, they are grown over with lush green grass, and interrupted only by break offs where sheer rock looks out. The valleys in between are frighteningly deep. They carved their way 2,000 m deep down between the giants. The road squeezes somewhere in the middle between mountain and slope, ascending bit by bit. People with fear of height should sit on the right side.
That’s how dramatic I imagined Peru to be. After some mountain villages we reach the already closed pay station of Kuélap, a lonely snack and souvenir stand and a terribly unlevelled grass field where levelling becomes a real task. Camping here is free (without services), and very quiet when all people are gone: S 06°25’37.3’’ W 77°55’36.3’’.

San Pablo, Peru – That’s a waterfall!

Dienstag, Januar 10th, 2012

How could this escape the whole worlds’, the Peruvian government’s, the interested tourists’ eyes’ notice for so long? Despite worldwide satellite surveillance, despite Google Earth, and despite being in the age of communication? It was the year 2004. German Stefan Ziemendorff equips an expedition with some locals and field survey engineers. Their measuring was astonishing: The Gocta Waterfall north of Chachapoyas is on of the planet’s highest ones. The current as correct accepted measurement puts it with 771 m on rank three after Venezuela’s Angel Falls and South Africa’s Tugela Falls.
To see the falls we have to walk (or ride a horse). We pay 5 PEN admission fee in the tourism office and 20 Soles for Alvaredo, our guide. A guide is not necessary to find the trail, but they are knowledgeable in botany, zoology, and history. The cascade is honestly impressive. The upper stage is 231 m high, the lower one 540 m, and there is quite a lot of water. Alvaredo is kind, adjusts his speed according to what we allow. There is only one spot to see the falls in all their splendour, all photos from Gocta are taken from this viewpoint. Following we hike to the upper basin where the first stage splashes in to take a refreshing shower. For those preferring to go without guide, send me an e-mail, I’ll forward you a trail description. The entire hike is 12 km long and takes well two hours uphill and 1.5 hours down. You can visit Gocta Falls from the other side of the river from the village Cocachimba (turn left after the bridge). The hike there (one way) takes 3.5 hours and is steeper. During most of the hike you can see the cascade, but only the lower part, never the entire fall.

San Pablo, Peru – An insurance question

Montag, Januar 9th, 2012

We don’t get far today. Right behind Bagua a police control stops us. The absolutely friendly officers aren’t used to foreigners, but they have a book showing them samples of how strangers’ documents have to look like. Unfortunately their International Driver’s License sample sais “International Driver’s Licence for Peru”. It takes a while to convince them that we are just travellers, transiting through the country, and that our German International Driver’s License with the Spanish translation inside should be fine. But we don’t have a third party insurance yet, since we arrived yesterday, on a Sunday, in a very remote area of Peru. I show our European insurance to the officer, knowing it’s not valid for Peru – but at least I’m full of good intention. He recommends getting insurance in Lima, but how to get there with all those police controls on the road he doesn’t know. I tell him I’ll try in the next town, a thousand thanks, shaking his hands, good-bye, and before he could even think about fining us we are already gone.
In Bagua Grande we find an insurance office, but things are more difficult than expected. It takes us four hours to finally receive a SOAT contract. The main problem is that our vehicle runs (also according to the customs paper) as a motorhome. This class simply doesn’t exist in Peru. Eventually I had the idea to insure the truck as pick-up. We had the same problem in Colombia and Ecuador, but they were less bureaucratic there and simply wrote camionetta in the insurance contract. That helps us now because we use these papers as a proof, which is accepted by the insurance company. The only bitter pill is that we have to pay 247.50 Nuevo Soles for three months during a local pays around 225 PEN for a year. That’s foreigner surcharge, we get to know. Admitted, it is still cheaper than any insurance we could have taken out from home.
We only receive a temporary SOAT, the original contract has to be sent from headquarter, and they only can send it to the branch in Bagua Grande. We don’t intend to stay any minute longer in this ugly, loud, and incredibly hot city, so we agree upon forwarding the papers by collectivo (microbus) to the bus station in Chachapoyas where we shall pick them up tomorrow around midday.
We continue east on # 5 and then south on # 8A. Between Pedro Ruiz and Chachapoyas we find the bridge over Rio Utucumba, turn left right before that bridge, and follow the dirt road for 6 km. The road is o.k. for bigger rigs; it is narrow, but there is not much traffic. The road ends in San Pablo at the plaza, and the tourism office is to the right. People in this tiny village with 200 inhabitants are so delightful – tourism is here only since 2008, and it didn’t spoil the people yet – that we decide to take a guide for our tomorrow’s hike to the Gocta Waterfall – despite our guide allergy. We can camp in front of the health centre beside the church (S 06°02’33.2’’ W 77°55’10.3’’) or anywhere else on the sleepy plaza.

Bagua, Peru – A rustic border

Sonntag, Januar 8th, 2012

Border crossing La Balsa (Ecuador) to La Balza (Peru) is quite straight forward. Only try to avoid weekends since the internet which arrived in these countries as a necessary part of the migration process doesn’t work then, and this might cause waiting times. The Ecuadorian customs officers uses his satellite phone instead, his only other means of communication, and after 10 trials he manages to talk to his superior to get permission for us to leave the country without the usual procedure. The only delay here is that we have to take photos of him in front of our truck, beside our truck, and in our truck – not so many gringos pass by here.
The migration officer in comparison caused me a lot of worry, since he didn’t understand if we were entering of leaving the country until we finally left his office. (Is my Spanish that bad?) Thus he refused a passport stamp, forcing us to walk back from the Peruvian side, because we couldn’t enter the new country without departure stamp from Ecuador. “Do you enter or leave?” he asked again. Gosh! He still didn’t get it. Give me that damn’ departure stamp, don’t put it on an empty page of my passport, but right beside the entry stamp. Thanks, bye.
Now nothing stands in the way of entering Peru, and with some permanent smile and an interested look on our faces (we have to listen to extended lectures of the immigration officer regarding the merits of Peruvian sights and climates) we get hold of 183 days duration of stay – whether we’ll need it or not, visa extensions are expensive in this country. The sugar cane chewing customs officer with the soccer field-big flat screen TV has also no internet access today. After endless trials, just when deciding to write the papers for our truck manually, luckily the internet connects. Maximum length of stay for a vehicle is three months. Both border crossings are free, we managed them despite technical problems in 1:45 hours. Money can be changed at both sides of the border, 1 US$ is about 2.65 Nuevo Soles (PEN).
The gravel road is getting better towards San Ignacio where the first gas station in Peru is found at S 05°08’45.0’’ W 79°00’33.1’’ at the north side of town, some others at the southern end. There are 100 km more on gravel before reaching asphalt – altogether 245 km track. The nature is worth: massive mountains, covered with green, and a wild river snakes its way through the narrow valley to Jaén. At the first toll station after entering the highway at Chamaya on Carretera Transandino # 5 east the cashier is at a loss what to charge for an RV. It’s neither a “light vehicle” nor a truck. Finally, we may leave without paying anything.
In hot Bagua we sleep at the government’s truck scales (S 05°43’52.6’’ W 78°38’19.4’’). Since traffic falls asleep over night, it turns out to be quieter than expected. Bathrooms can be used.

Zumba, Ecuador – The last bastion

Samstag, Januar 7th, 2012

The road is getting worse. During the first 30 km concrete alternated with dirt, the following 100 km are just slippery track. We are heading to Zumba and then La Balsa, the border crossing to Peru. Probably due to the road conditions this is the least used border crossing. There is definitely a need of high clearance, in rainy season 4WD. There are lots of slippery slopes and river crossings. Land slides, falling rocks, or subsidence might occur any time.
Zumba is a lonesome town, last city in front of the Peruvian frontier. Here is the only gas station between Vilcabamba and the Peruvian border respectively some miles beyond. Fill up here, since fuel is much more expensive in Peru! The gas station is suitable for overnight (S 04°51’41.4’’ W 79°07’36.2’’), but better and quieter places can be found around the bus station (S 04°52’11.1’’ W 79°08’03.4’’). The Zumba River Camp, a gravel pit south of Zumba, mentioned by earlier travellers, is fenced now and can’t be used any more. Safety doesn’t seem to be an issue in Zumba. There is a small supermarket, but better to stock up already in Loja.

Vilcabamba, Ecuador – The secret of eternal life?

Freitag, Januar 6th, 2012

Vilcabamba, a small town with only 5,000 inhabitants, is said to have the highest number of inhabitants over 100 years in the entire Ecuador. A healthy consistent spring climate, a stress-free life and a diet with lots of corn, beans and vegetables but little meat and dairy products shall be the secret of the long life. If the very old people do also eat the local specialty pan de bananas (rather a banana cake than bread) isn’t known by the author. Vilcabamba itself is a pretty village with lots of young backpackers and ageing hippies – not less, not more.

Vilcabamba, Ecuador – The wheels are rolling south

Donnerstag, Januar 5th, 2012

Farewell is a part of travelling. We say goodbye to Lissi and Mario, Sonia and Paco, and thank them for their work and hospitality. We also leave Ray and Jo behind who still have to wait for some work to be done. We head south, via Loja to Vilcabamba. For the moment we ignore Podocarpus National Park where we planned to hike – the rain doesn’t give the impression of stopping today.
Info Parque Nacionál Podocarpus: Cajanuma access, S 04°05’02.0’’ W 79°12’19.8’’, admission 2 US$ per person, camping 3 $ pp, 8 km gravel road from entrance, entrance archway probably high enough for vehicles up to 4 m. Self-guided hiking trails from some minutes up to two days. The west part of the park has interesting flora.
Instead we go to the much praised Hosteria Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba, stop along the way of many travellers, which belongs to the Bavarian brothers Dieter and Peter. It might be true that the guesthouse offers relatively good comfort and service for fair prices. The spa area is affordable even with smaller budgets. We also think the prices are reasonable, but you get for what you pay. For 4 US$ per person we can camp here, electricity, water, showers and bathrooms are included. We stand beside the road that is not much used at night – but in daytime and from early morning on.
Unfortunately a huge RV made itself comfortable and occupies half of the gravel expanse. The other half is occupied by the camper’s scarcely broad canopy. The inhabitants aren’t even at home. For us a piece of uneven, swampy meadow remains between the 30-footer and the fence to the road. As we return to our Unimog after dinner Arminius stands there crooked like before: The wedges completely sank into the mud. We have to move a bit forward, nearly into the driveway to catch a piece of gravel.
The dinner was also not what guidebooks and reports wanted to make us think. Also here: The prices are o.k. for this country (main dishes 6.50 US$ in the average), the menu is balanced, and some German cuisine from time to time can’t be bad. Unfortunately the bread dumplings are despite their exemplary spherical shape not really fresh, heated up in the microwave oven, and therefore hard and dry. The goulash is spicy and tasty, but the meat quality leaves much to be desired: extremely long grain chunks aren’t cooked long enough to be tender, besides for me the meat is too fatty. The cheese spaetzle are edible, but also no unforgettable taste experience, dripping with fat as well for a high repletion point.
The hotel staff is friendly, but don’t expect personal or too friendly love and care of the owners. The location itself is great, it’s a good stop along the way to or from the Peruvian border, still we think it’s overrated. Hosteria Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba: S 04°16’45.5’’ W 79°13’22.7’’,

Cuenca, Ecuador – The facelift

Mittwoch, Januar 4th, 2012

We are packing the tools, washing the cabin, and closing the storage compartments. The work is done and we prepare for continuing our trip. Arminius has got a new face and the back also looks different now. Besides the stack a support frame for the roof rack adorns the front. Since the feet of the rack just lean on the roof rail we feared that this breaks off sometime. Although we store little weight on the roof only the diagonal movements when off-roading are considerable. We got ourselves a recoverable underride guard at the back end below the spare wheel whose cross member could be used as a tow bar at the same time. Mario welded and painted both.
In most countries an underride guard for trucks is the regulation. The Unimog has a special licence since this would be inconsistent with the purpose of the vehicle, but Argentina is precious little interested in German special licences, actually they just care for their own rules. Travellers passing through with their own vehicle are expected to obey these rules as well. Beside the underride guard a tow bar for trucks belong to these laws. Trailer couplings jutting out to the back are also unwelcome. Fines for non-compliance are hearty. Other travellers shall have paid fine in Argentina for not-availability of a white corpse sack – whereas we attribute this law to the fertile imagination of an underpaid traffic policeman who got hold of a bribe this way.
The time in Cuenca was busy – polishing and painting here, some underseal there; some oil and filters were changed, the daylights fixed in another place, and much more. The Christmas cookies are nearly eaten up and the Christmas fat settled down. I managed to get some copies made of my anti-theft handbag (and to the effect tested in Panama!) that we carry with us now. So many travellers asked me about this purse, so now I carry stocks for passing on.
Who wants to visit the attractive Cuenca without repairing, making or painting finds a hideout at Hosteria Yanuncay like so many other travellers. Camping fee shall be 10 US$ for two people: S 02°54’20.4’’ W 79°01’40.8’’