About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

11 January 2008


Off the beaten track, the reason I made the trek to Chachapoyas was to visit the Kuelap ruins. The Chachapoyas area was inhabited by a pre-Inca civilisation known as the Chachapoyans, of whom not much is known. Peru tourism authorities would like to make Chachapoyas the second Cusco - as there are a number of fascinating ruins around the city, with Kuelap being the principal attraction.

Again, not much is known about Kuelap - it is a fortress built on top of a mountain ridge, very much like Machu Picchu. Unlike Machu Picchu, it is not as dramatic - nor does there seem to be any complex geometry. However, unlike Machu Picchu, it does seem to be a more functional complex, and in many ways a lot more accessible. While the fortress is slowly being restored, it has its own charm being largely unrestored - with trees and vegetation covering much of the ruins, one feels a lot like Indiana Jones.

Kuelap was definitely worth all the trouble to get to Chachapoyas. It still has a cloak of mystery surrounding it, and the high walls of the fortress, untouched by earthquakes and time, give it a feel of solidity. Once restored it will look spectacular, but I just hope that it does not become the tourist money making machine that is Machu Picchu.

Asher and I visited Kuelap with a Peruvian, Gabriel and his Dutch girlfriend, Marije. This allowed us to pool together for a taxi, instead of relying on tour guides based in Chachapoyas. At the moment, this is probably the best way to explore Kuelap, although it is possible to get there by public transport from Chachapoyas.

10 January 2008

Trujillo to Chachapoyas

There are two roads to Chachapoyas - the first is a really picturesque dirt road over some spectacular mountain passes and the other, is a mostly tarred road, over lower mountain passes, which is not as spectacular. Normally, the latter route can be done in about 14 hours by bus. The more scenic route, even though it is shorter in length can take over 2 days, and there are no direct buses. If I had the time, I would have taken the first route. If I could foretell the future, I would have also taken the first route.

Early in the morning, there was a rock slide which caused an accident on the road - a bus was "swept" away by the rocks into the valley below. People died, I am not sure what the casualties were. I don't know much about the accident except that I was lucky in not being in that bus, which was not far ahead of my own bus. I was asleep at the time, and only heard about the accident later. That was only the first delay.

The second, longer delay happened only an hour later, when another landslide completely blocked the road, coupled with a river that had burst its banks about 2 Km earlier. It took about 5 hours to clear the road, and quite amazingly the buses used a pedestrian bridge to cross the river ... which looked at times that it would collapse.

We then stopped in a town called Pedro Ruiz, not far from Chachapoyas, where we were told by the bus company, Movil Tours (rated very reputable by many in Peru) that we would only continue our journey in about 4 hours time. We weren't told of the reasons, but I assumed it had to do with driver fatigue etc. However 4 hours passed, and there was no sign of the drivers, and after almost 6 hours, the drivers pitch up. We then learnt that the road to Chachapoyas is closed in the morning for road works, and thus the delay. This off course infuriated all the passengers since the company had not actually informed anybody about this problem - and people could have found a lot of other things to do rather than sit around in the bus terminal.

That said, after a day of accidents and rockfalls, I was glad to reach my destination safely.

09 January 2008


The original plan was not to stop at Trujillo at all - but rather take a bus to Chiclayo (2 hours north of Trujillo) and then take a bus to Chachapoyas. However, there was a direct bus from Trujillo, and thus we decided to change our plans.

Trujillo is one of the biggest cities in Peru, and is literally an oasis in the northern desert. It is quite picturesque, and with the remains of Chan Chan and the seaside town of Huanchaco close by, it is a rather nice destination. I think I should have spent a bit more time here ...

Chan Chan

Long before the Inca empire came into prominence, the Chimu empire dominated northern Peru since around 1100, and their capital was based in Chan Chan, a few minutes bus ride out of Trujillo. After the Incas conquered the Chimu, Chan Chan was apparently largely abandoned, and the desert around Trujillo started to take over.

Today, Chan Chan is slowly being restored, with the temple citadel at the heart of Chan Chan the closest to full restoration. Unlike the Andean civilisations, the Chimus used mud to build Chan Chan, and not stone. However, like their Andean counterparts, their buildings have also stood the test of countless earthquakes. There are a few other parts of Chan Chan that have been restored and open to the public. However, as we were leaving Trujillo that afternoon, we did not have time to visit the other places.


Huanchaco is a small fishing town near Trujillo, my first stop after Huaraz. After arriving at 6am in Trujillo on an overnight bus from Huaraz, the three of us (Asher, Daniel and myself) decided to spend most of the day on the beach before taking the next bus out - around 2 pm for Daniel who was going to go straight to Tarapoto and then Iquitos and 3 pm for Asher and myself as we were going to make a short stopover in Chachapoyas before carrying on to Tarapoto and Iquitos. It is a picturesque town, but definitely nothing amazing. We met a surfer girl, Kath, from Sydney who was equally unimpressed by the beach. The best part of the day was definitely lunch - we had the "national" dish - ceviche (also spelled cebiche) which is raw fish marinated in lime juice ... a bit like pickled fish I suppose ... but really really tasty. We bought it in a small restaurant on the side streets of the town - which in the end was a great idea as, by the time we left, it was full of locals!

08 January 2008

Reflections: Huaraz

In my original plan, Huaraz was supposed to be a one night stop-over at most - visit Chavin De Hauntar and then carry on. Instead, I ended up staying in the area for longer than any other area in Peru. As a base for hiking in the Andes it is superb, and although there are more attractions around the area that I did not visit - such as more ruins, lakes and thermal baths - I definitely had a great time here.

Although Huaraz is a pretty small town, it has an amazingly big market where one can buy everything from fresh fruit (with mangoes, avocados, bananas and oranges being the most prevalent) and vegetables to meat to clothing to pirate DVDs.

I stayed at Hostel Caroline - amazingly cheap deal at 10 Soles (just over 3 US $) per night for a dorm bed including breakfast and transport to and from the bus terminals. The hostel is quite big actually - 4 storeys high, and the owners live with their family at the hostel, making it a very friendly family atmosphere. It has definitely been one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in. I also managed to find two guys - Asher and Daniel (both from England) who are keen to go to Brazil for the carnival, via my mad idea of sailing down the Amazon. Let's see what happens ...

07 January 2008

Santa Cruz Trek

A large part of the Ancash region in Peru is a valley between the Cordillera Negra (black range) and the Cordillera Blanca (white range) mountains in the Andes. Most of the highest peaks in Peru (there are over 50 mountains in the area) are in the Cordillera Blanca, and are permanently snow capped (hence the name). It is for this reason, the area is a very popular destination for trekking, ice climbing etc.

Apart from the Inca trail, I had not planned on doing any trekking during this trip. And, I did not do the Inca trail because I did not think I was fit enough. So, in a moment of madness or insanity (or whatever you call it), I signed up together with four other people from my hostel to go on the 4 day, 3 night Santa Cruz trek. I have not done anything resembling camping for over 10 years, and apart from hiking on Table Mountain, I have hardly done anything of the sort ... so this was always going to be an interesting experience.

The Santa Cruz trail is one of the "easier" trails in the Cordillera Blanca. And the trek, organised by Montrek, a trek company with a good reputation in the guide books, was definitely more luxurious than the standard trek: donkeys to carry equipment and bags, a guide, a donkey driver, the food and the equipment were all part of the package. In those terms, the cost was also very reasonable: 80 US $ for the package and about 22 US $ for the entrance fee to the national park.

The Group

Montrek (and it seems the other trek companies) are all agencies. They contract out the guides and donkey drivers on an individual trek basis, as well as provide all the equipment and the food. Our guide, Abel, was fairly new at the job (around one year as a qualified guide), but as he spoke good English and some French on top of the Spanish and Quechwa, he claimed that he is in fairly high demand. Since he grew up in these parts he was very knowledgeable of the geography, the vegetation as well as some local stories and folklore. He was also the cook and a very good cook at that.

The donkeys were driven by their owner, Emilio, and his 14 year old son, Adrian. What was really impressive was how fast Emilio and Adrian could cover the trek - they started each day after we left, and got to the camp site before us and were usually half way through setting up the tents. Even more impressive is the fact that they did the return journey (which is much harder) in just 1 and a half days!

As for the trekkers, there were 4 others from the hostel I am staying in Huaraz. Marta, is from Barcelona, Spain, and has been traveling around Central and South America for about 4 months. In Spain, her primary (summer) job is working for a large music festival. Wes(ley) is from Canada and has been in Peru for a couple of months, mainly surfing. He is a tree planter during the summer. Andrea, Wes' friend, also from Canada, is on a three month trip in South America, most of which has been spent on volunteer work in Ecuador. She also does environmental work in Canada, mainly doing field work in the forests. Alia is from Alaska, and is taking a 10 month break from university and traveling in Central and South America. We were also joined by Benjamin, from France, an ex professional tennis player (who has been to South Africa for tennis tournaments) and who currently runs a tennis academy in Nice.

How many in a combi?

The trip to the starting point of the trek as well as the return trip from the end was done on public transport - specifically on combis. Combis are exactly the same thing as in South Africa - minibus taxis that manage to fit an extraordinary number of people in them. And because Peruvians are on average shorter than South Africans, they seem to be able to fit in more people! On both trips we had to change combis, and on second combi (to the starting point) there were 20 people in the combi, including two kids, the driver and the conductor. As we approached a checkpoint, the conductor got 5 people of the combi, and asked them to walk round the check point such that the police could only count 15 people in the combi! On the return trip, we managed to fit even more people into the combi - 23! South African taxis, it seems, has tough competition.

Laguna 69

On the trip up to the starting point, we passed the beautiful Llanganuco Lakes, known locally as Laguna 69. I am not sure why they are called that, but one of the lakes is called the male lake and the other the female lake. And they say Peruvians are conservative ...

Ola, Caramelo?

On the first day, we passed a number of small villages, and we were often greeted by the kids by the words "Ola, Caramelo?" or "Hello, Sweets?". It is really an uncomfortable greeting ... and it is in many ways sad that sweets have become integral part of the greeting. I suppose, trekkers giving out sweets has not helped either.

Day 1

Day 1 was a short trek of around 4 and half hours (including stops) to the first camp site. Starting of in a farming village, the trek first descends into the valley before climbing back up on the other side. After the ascent up the mountain, the route is relatively flat through rather marshy grounds until the camping site, which is at the base of the ascent for Day 2.

The camping site, in a meadow was spectacular, with snow capped mountains on one side, a river (which eventually flows into the Amazon) on another and another mountain on the third side.

Unfortunately, as is the case in this time of the year, the evening was wet featuring a big thunderstorm around 4 pm and then further rain in the evening. This pattern was repeated without much variation for the next 3 days.

Day 2

Day 2 was the hardest - about 5 hours of a fairly steep ascent to the highest point: the Punta Union Pass at 4750 m above sea level. The camping site was about 3800 m above sea level, so that makes it almost 1 Km in vertical ascent.

The first part of the route was fairly easy - a rocky path through a mountain stream into a valley, and a rather slow ascent up the valley. Once the valley was crossed however, it was a rather steep ascent first to a plateau about 4400 m above sea level followed by another steep ascent up to the pass.

Despite it being the height of summer, and being in the tropics, the day was very cold coupled with a strong, cold wind. There was even snow on the pass, although not much. Because of the weather, the most of the peaks were behind clouds, which meant that the promised spectacular views were missing. The view down the valleys were however still spectacular, especially the glacial lake near the pass. There was even a small avalanche of snow falling from the mountain into the lake, which was rather impressive in both sight and sound.

The camp site for the night was around 4200 m above sea level, again in a meadow surrounded by snow capped mountains and rivers. Adrian tried out some fishing, without success.

Day 3

In terms of distance, Day 3 was the longest. It was also the easiest, with most of the trail being flat through the Santa Cruz valley. Much of the valley was marshland, which did make walking rather muddy though. One of the mountains near the valley, Pomabamba, is one of the last remaining refuge of pumas, who often visit the valley to dine on horses and cows grazing in the valley. Skeletal remains suggest that, although infrequent, they are still alive.

The last camp was set up in front of a spectacular waterfall, and one of the most spectacular camping spots on the trail. Adrian tried fishing again, and did manage to catch one small fish ...

Day 4

Day 4 was a short hike (about 2 hours) down a very rocky descent into the town of Cashapampa. I think it could have been done the day before, but transport from Cashapampa to Caraz, and then to Huaraz would have been the problem and hence the extra night on the trail. The highlight of the descent was the spectacular remains of a large landslide from last year as well as the fast flowing river beside the trail.

Last Thoughts

I really enjoyed the trek, and am actually quite keen to do some of my own back in SA. Granted, this trek was made easier with donkeys and guides, and it was certainly not the most difficult of climbs. But given the altitude, I am quite impressed that I did it without much difficulty. Maybe I am fitter than I thought ... but I don't think I am fit enough to do the trail in reverse or do the trail in 2 or 3 days as it should be possible. It was certainly a great experience, and definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far.