Jenn writes on 2014-05-05:
Greetings from high in the Peruvian Andes mountains! We have already spent almost an entire week here, in Huaraz – “the Switzerland of the Andes” – and it’s pretty spectacular. We haven’t taken advantage of any of the offered tours (mountain trekking mostly) but the surrounding scenery is simply marvelous and the city itself (at a population of 100,000) has retained a strong sense of cultural identity. There are plenty of indigenous women in traditional dress wearing tall hats carrying their goods on their backs via colourful sling. Yet it’s a small city complete with all the amenities you could ever want, nestled between the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca with a river running through it.
Lots has been happening since Máncora, our beach-side surf town stop. After spending a few days on the coast, eating our fill of fresh fish and seafood, and frolicking in the surf, we packed up and continued our journey south. Knowing that our time on beaches would soon come to an end (at least the sunning-swimming beaches that we have come to know and love), it was a tough one to shake the final grains of sand out of our bathing suits and head out of town.
The ride to Piura took us a few hundred kilometers through windy coastal desert, at first undulating over sand dunes and eventually evening out to some of the flattest desert that we have ever seen. The cross-wind from the ocean kept us vigilant about keeping in the far tire track, especially since Peruvian drivers have a real issue with motorcycles driving in what we know as, proper blocking position. It seems that in Peru, motorcyclists are second class vehicles on the road, and other drivers have no qualms about forcing us onto the shoulder so that they can pass (us or other vehicles, in either direction).
On our map, we noticed that our route would take us past the most westernly point of South America, and that there appeared to be a lighthouse there, so we decided to take a little detour and check it out.
At the city of Talara, we veered off the Panamerican Highway, to the town of Negritos. Here we followed the road through town and down towards the coast. The red and white striped lighthouse soon came into view and we headed off into the most logical direction. Adam was quite impressed to see a number of off-shore oil rigs in the water, and with the number of plants along the route, we deduced that this area is heavily involved in gas and/or oil production. The road wound its way through more sandy scenery until it deteriorated into a sandy track. At this point we had made it as far as we could to the lighthouse, which was still a number of kilometers off in the distance. Somewhat disappointed, we took a few photos with the lighthouse off in the distance, and headed back to the highway.
We arrived in Piura in mid-afternoon and headed straight for Los Cocos Inn, one of the only budget options that we could find with a presence online (why, oh why more hotels don’t list their prices is beyond me). The inn was located in a grand old mansion that was once probably quite the talk of the town, but now had definitely seen better days. This is probably why it was now one of the cheapest places in town. Our room was basic and a little rough around the edges, with the bathroom being the obvious victim of neglect, as well as the uncomfortable sagging foam mattresses on wooden slat beds. The grounds and common areas were nice enough (but rundown) with a games room, a bar (not stocked), and outdoor seating. The owners were obvious animal lovers and there were a number of fish tanks dispersed throughout the establishment (in need of cleaning), a large cage in the center of the courtyard housing budgies and cockatiels, and even a tamarin monkey.
We were starving. Having pulled another one of our eat-breakfast-then-ride-all-day-and-not-eat-again-until-we-stop days, our first priority (after a shower) was to find some food. Apparently this is a difficult thing to do at 4 p.m. in Piura because all the restaurants close up between lunch and dinner to prep for the evening’s rush. After wandering around the city for over an hour, it became apparent that we would have to wait until six o’clock before we could have something to eat of any real substance. So it was off to the grocery store for our good old standby – Dorito’s – Mega Queso to be specific. Yes, we have become quite the Dorito’s fans, usually wolfing down a couple of bags a week. Not the most nutritious of choices, but tasty nonetheless, and sufficient for when a snack is needed.
At six p.m. we headed back out to a burger place that we had scoped out earlier, called Carbon Burger, for one of the best burgers we have had during the entire trip. For once, there was actual discernible beef on the bun with great toppings, grilled over an open flame right before our eyes. It almost brought tears to our eyes. Adam has been enjoying the Latin American burger as they tend to add a fried egg to most. I opted for the Hawaiian burger which was topped with ham and fresh pineapple – not the super-sweet almost candied stuff which is typical – another flavour combination popular in Latin America, especially on pizza.
As promised in most accounts of Peruvians cities, crossing the street was like an event out of American Gladiators. If motorcycles are second class on the roads, then pedestrians are bottom of the barrel because nobody was letting anyone on foot cross the street. We even stood on the street corner for so long, a cab stopped to ask if we needed a hotel for the night. I almost replied “No, but a ride across the street might be nice.” We even thought that crossing near an accident would cause the other drivers to slow down, but they whipped through the obstacle like nothing was happening. Peru must have a large population of of doctors who are late for a lot of emergency surgeries. How else can the fast, erratic driving be explained???
With bellies full and traffic evaded (eventually) – crossing in a herd seems to be the best way to dodge traffic with the highest rate of survival – we headed back to the hotel to our saggy beds.
The next morning, it was straight out of Piura, and on to another surf town – Huanchaco. Adam had a brief stay in Huanchaco four years ago, so we headed straight for My Friend Surf Hostel, where he had previously parked for the night. This hostel was also quite bare-bones and basic (what is it with the crappy bathrooms, people?), but also quite cheap and close to the beach. The restaurant downstairs was quite good, and had a daily spaghetti special that came with your choice of sauce, garlic bread, and a Coke for 10 Soles (about $3). They also served pizza and a wide variety of seafood dishes, and was crowded for most meals. They also let us roll our bikes into the restaurant after closing so that they would be secure overnight. It would do for a few days.
By happy happenstance, our friends Sheldon and Ewa (who are travelling two-up on a BMW GS 800) soon rolled up, and ended up getting a room at My Friend, as well. They had spent a few days riding around the area and were now plotting their course south. We hadn’t seen them since Cali in Colombia, and it was great to catch up with them over a few drinks on the rooftop patio.
It was definitely off-season in Huanchacho with cloudy skies, a little rain, and empty streets. The beach was not suitable for swimming (rough water), and it was a little cool to do so, anyway, but it didn’t deter the hardcore surfers who were braving the tsunami-looking waves. The beach was also quite dirty (much like much of Peru, who seems to have quite the garbage problem, or a population that just doesn’t seem to care), and even walking along the sand was a bit of a disappointment.
I can imagine that Huanchaco is quite the destination in the high season. The beach malecon was lined with hip restaurants, (almost) high-class hotels, and happening bars, and there was good activity on Saturday while we were there. Unfortunately during the rainy season, tourism mostly dries up and the music pumping from the establishments was a desperate cry to get anyone through their doors. Despite this, the beach was busy with artisans, and many totora boats, famous in Huanchaco and regarded as one of the first known crafts for surfing.
We also visited the Chan Chan ruins, located a short distance from Huanchaco. Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian city in South America (850 AD until 1470 AD) with an area of twenty square kilometres. It is also the largest adobe city in the world. We splurged and got a guided tour, which was well worth the 35 Soles (about $10) for the amount of information from our guide, who was animated and really seemed to enjoy his job. There is much criticism of the site as many of the buildings have been reconstructed due to heavy erosion. But it was pretty cool, if you ask me. The site has been heavily looted and virtually none of the treasures once buried there remain in Peru (which made for somewhat of a sad exhibition at the Chan Chan museum). It could also benefit from increased funding in order to preserve the site, but unfortunately due to heavy corruption in the government, there would be no funding this year to further digs or preservation, according to our guide.
From Huanchaco, rather than just shooting straight down the coast towards Lima on the Pan-American, we decided to check out some amazing scenery at Huaraz. The road that branches off into the mountains is 100 kilometers, or so, south of Huanchaco in Santa, and travels another 200 kilometers through Canon del Pato (Duck Canyon). This route, although not terribly long, reportedly takes a bus five to eight hours to travel. Since part of the road is not paved, we decided to check it our first before committing to the entire ride. Our investigation didn’t reveal much, as the road from Santa continued paved for at least the 20 kilometers that we rode before turning back deciding to stay the night nearby and get an early start in the morning. We didn’t want to risk being caught in the mountains on a dirt road in the dark.
The closest city was Chimbote. From everything that we had read, Chimbote was a definite skip on the tourist trail. With no attractions, people also reported it to reek of dead fish (due to its fish oil processing plants), and to be extremely unsafe during both the day and night. The internet was lousy with vague reports of muggings and attacks, and even warned about taking taxi cabs, but, it was only 12 kilometers from the turn-off and looked to be our only viable option for accommodations. So, with skeptical hearts we headed off for Chimbote.
Whilst circling the main square in Chimbote searching for a hotel with parking, we were approached by a young police officer who more-or-less explained to us that he was a member of a local motorcycle club, and that another club member had a moto-posada (posada being private guesthouse, moto being – well – moto) that regularly hosted motorcycle travellers from Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador. He, Angelo, offered to take us there. We were a little concerned when he said that it would take 15 minutes to get there and we pictured us camped out in some remote location outside of the city with no available food in the area. As it turned out, the house was located in the new part of town which was connected to the old part of town via a major thrufare. It was a busy, bustling ride but we eventually arrived at Ivonne’s house which was nestled in a small courtyard off the main road.
We were greeted by Ivonne with open arms, and she welcomed us into her home. She spoke some English and explained to us that her son Jorge was the president of the local motorcycle club and hosted people on a regular basis. Over a glass of chicha morado, Ivonne explained that she didn’t want any money in exchange for our stay and we were invited to use her house as our own home. Before long we were sitting down to eat lunch that was prepared for us by Ivonne and grandma Astura. By nightfall, there were also four Ecuadorian and three Colombian travellers also staying at the house. It was amazing that she managed to cram us all in (including herself, grandma, and Jorge), and fed us all without asking for any sort of repayment. It just goes to show you that there are good souls in this world who are willing to open their hearts and homes to strangers.
It seemed as though Ivonne would have had us for a week if she could, and was sorry to see us go in the morning. I was somewhat of a celebrity, as it appeared that they had not hosted a female rider in the past. We were told that should we be in Chimbote again, we were to come to Ivonne’s as we would always have a home there. As it was, we didn’t leave until 11 a.m., and after a short tour of Chimbote, we were on our way to Santa with a police escort in Angelo (our rescurer from the day before).
We reached Santa and headed out along the paved road that wound through the countryside in the direction of the Canon del Pato. The canyon followed an old railroad that was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1970. Many towns were also devastated at that time including the ones we were headed through, and our final destination of Huaraz. The road followed the Rio Santa for the entirety of the way, carving its way through the cordilleras, and passing through 40 or so tunnels etched through the mountains. As I was still slightly nervous about mountain travel, we weren’t sure what the day would entail, in terms of challenges presented by the road. We already knew that the road was dirt for part of the way, and that the ascent to 3000 meters was gentle, unlike some of the other roads leading to Huaraz. So off we went with optimism in our hearts.
As promised, the pavement ended in Chuquicara and we began our journey on the dirt portion of the road. At first, the road was covered in loose gravel and neither of us were all too keen about riding on that surface for another 60-80 kilometers, as it makes the bike feel rather squirrely as the tires track in search of traction. Luckily, this was not the case and the gravel subsided into hard-packed dirt with the odd patch of rock and gravel here and there, mainly from what had rolled down the steep mountainsides onto the road. The scenery was spectacular with mountains on both sides of us as we looped our way down the canyon! We passed through ghost towns, underneath gravity-defying overhangs, and through mountain landscapes that seemed to change in colour every time we came around a curve. Simply stunning. Although a fairly popular route, traffic was very light and we only passed the odd truck or bus, which was good, since most of the road was single-lane and we had to pull over for safety reasons to let oncoming vehicles pass.
Happily, the road was fairly flat and presented no great challenges. As we approached the 60 kilometer mark, where the pavement was promised to start according to a number of locals and the map that we had, pavement was nowhere in sight. As we traversed every curve and increasingly more switchbacks, hopes that pavement would be just around the corner were quickly dashed as there was only more dirt road ahead of us. Just when it appeared that all our resources were liars, we passed through Huallanca and the road surface hardened. We had found pavement! It was covered in a thin layer of sand, but it was pavement nonetheless. I had never been happier.
Over a few more switchbacks as we climbed higher up the mountainsides, through a few more tunnels, and . . . road work. We pulled up behind a truck stopped in the roadway before a sign that stated that the road was closed Monday to Saturday from 7 a.m. until noon, and from 1 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. As it was only just after three, we now had a decision to make. With rapidly enclosing rain clouds overhead and an estimated two hours left until Huaraz, we could either wait until 5:30pm for the road to reopen and arrive in Huaraz after dark, or turn around and head back down into Huallanca, which didn’t offer much in the way of hotels. We decided to wait.
And wait, we did. As the only source of entertainment on the mountain, we attracted quite the crowd of people who were all very interested in the bikes.
With over an hour and a half to wait, I was dismayed that we had arrived at the road block with no visible bushes and a full bladder. With the line of traffic quickly building, it was now time whip it out, that is, to try out my She-Whiz, a female urinary device or pee funnel, as I like to call it, marketing at women travellers and campers for those moments when a loo just isn’t available or desirable. This was a time when squatting wasn’t even an option. So I grabbed some tissues and my She-Whiz and sauntered on down the road towards the tunnel that we had just passed through where there was a large boulder that would provide some privacy. Sneaking around the back of the boulder, I unzipped my Motoport riding pants to where I could properly position the She-Whiz, and . . . hesitated. Would this thing actually work? Would I actually be able to pee standing up? Or would I end up peeing my pants anyway? With a final prayer I ‘let ‘er rip’ to great success. In a steady stream, I was amazed that the She-Whiz was actually doing its job and that I could now pee like a man. I leaned against the boulder and rejoiced that my days of squatting in the bushes, while quickly scanning for passersby were over. Feeling a little bit cocky with a swagger in my step, I went back to the awaiting Adam and the huddle of men around the bikes. Boys, you ain’t got nothin’ on me now.
Shortly after five we were on our way. The road continued to be single lane (although paved, yay!), and wound its way through many more tunnels and alongside sheer thousand foot drop-offs to the river below. The roadwork had ensured that traffic in the opposite direction had stopped but it didn’t deter impatient drivers behind us from speeding and tailgating their way along the hair-raising road. As it was only a single lane, we weren’t really sure where they expected to pass, so rather than risk our lives, we pulled over when possible to let them pass by. Only to catch up with them later as they tried to squeeze past the line of on-coming traffic that was waiting to pass by in the opposite direction.
As we made our way out of the construction zone, I gave a whoop of excitement as the road widened to two lanes once again and started to resemble a typical driveable road in any sane country. Daylight was quickly waning, and with an hour left to go, we caught our first glimpse of snow-covered mountain peaks highlighted by the red setting sun. It was magnificent. And had we not been in such a rush we might have stopped for some better photos. The road was nicely constructed, however, with many towns along the way and gentle slopes upwards until we reached Huaraz in the dark.
We located a place to stay at Jo’s Place (a Life Remotely recommend) and quickly set out to find food (yep, another one of those ride all day without food days). Chifa was on the menu and we quickly stuffed ourselves silly with soup and a dish called aeropuerto (airport) that appeared to be somewhat of a clean-out-the-fridge dish consisting of fried rice, sprouts, and noodles.
In daylight, we discovered that Huaraz was bordered on one side by the Cordillera Blanca with many of its snow peaks in sight. Breathtaking. Hauraz seemed to have drawn us into relaxation mode where it was hard to get motivated to do much of anything. Whether it’s acclimatization to the altitude, needing a bit of a relax, or staying up late and drinking with our new friends, Huaraz certainly had the laid-back thing down pat.
We managed to see quite a bit of the city, and wandered to Jose Olaya street which was the only street to not be destroyed in the 1970 earthquake. It retained its colonial architecture and was now filled with streetside restaurants. It was here that we finally sampled Peru’s famed national dish – cuy. For those of you who don’t know, cuy is guinea pig. In Huaraz it is served picante style, with a spicy sauce over potatoes. Our plates arrived with a quarter cuy each. Adam was served the head, while I took the hind quarters. The skin was very thick and crispy (almost like chicharron, or pork crackling), and there was very little meat and a little tough to eat. It tasted somewhat of pork with a touch of pet-cage, and was a little tough to eat. We are happy that we tried it, but not sure that it would be something that we would seek out intentionally.
We have also frequented the central market which boasts a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown in the region and many varieties of potatoes, accidentally but artistically displayed in bountiful sacks. As you may know potatoes are actually about as Irish as kebabs and are originally from the Peruvian Andes. It is actually our intention to check out a potato museum in Lima in the coming days.
Huaraz also has quite the showing for craft brews. On our first night, we joined a group of friends from our hostel (Mark and Tammy from England; Jaunty (sp?) from Australia; Ben from Germany) on an outing to a local brew pub. Our first stop was Cafe Bar 13 Buhos that offered a blonde, a roja, and a negra by “Luchos” which Adam described as a decent attempt at home brew. Our second stop, Trivio, served Sierra Andina beer which was far better. Adam had a good IPA and Jenn had the porter. Good beer = happy travellers.
Our second day, after somewhat of a brutal night of upset stomachs and headaches, we slept in and then went for breakfast (full english style complete with BACON – hooray for Peru and their bacon! – beans, fried tomatoes, fried eggs, bread, juice, and frankfurters/salchicha), enjoyed while gazing on the snow-capped mountains from the third floor of the hostel. After eating it was down time and then another walking tour where we stopped at Cafe Andino for cappuccinos and chocolate cake, served warm with coconut. We also took a trip to the archaeological museum where we saw mummies and monolith statues.
Huaraz has turned out to be kind of a gastro delight. You can get almost (relatively) anything your palate desires here, from very traditional dishes to typical American fare. From breakfast burritos, cuy, chocolate empanadas, steaming bowls of Chifa soup, and some great coffee (if you know where to look for it), our stomachs have been well-fed.
Since arrival, we both have been feeling slightly under the weather. This isn’t surprising since Huaraz has quite the weather system itself. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the warm, sunny morning that has turned into thunderstorms and torrential downpour was even the same day. Our stomachs and heads have been battling altitude, new foods, and colder weather. We have been drinking coca tea to try to help and have dug out our recently-buried long underwear. Brrr! It may soon be time to head back to the coast.