Backpacking in Peru: emails

13th Nov to 12th Dec, 2013
During our trip, we were able to send some emails to friends and family via an email mailing list. These reports are reproduced below.

Please note that I have resisted the temptation to edit the text of these reports so as not to disturb any feeling of immediacy which they might have.
Date: Wed, 13 Nov 2013 11:40 To: Peru Mailing List <peru@maden.ch> Subject: [Peru 2013]: Message No. 1 Hello Family and Friends, Kari and I are now waiting at the gate at Amsterdam airport for our flight to Lima, which should leave at 12.25 getting to Lima at 19.10 local time. It's the start of a 4 week backpacking trip where we hope to travel mainly by bus through Northern Peru, cross the Andes, and see something of the headwaters of the Amazon. I am composing this on an iPad, which is new to me, and which only has an on-screen keyboard, so don't expect emails to be either numerous or long. The capitalisation and punctuation might also leave something to be desired! If you don't want any more mails about the trip, let me know and I'll remove you from the list. So, here's hoping that someone from the Clifford Hotel will be waiting for us in Lima in 12 hours time. Best wishes, David
Date: Tue, 19 Nov 2013 10:06 To: Peru Mailing List <peru@maden.ch> Subject: [Peru 2013]: Message No. 2 - Trujillo Bus riding and iPads seem to be made for each other. There is lots of time with not much to do, and the on-screen keyboard is easy to use despite the vibration. Of course, there's no Internet so it's necessary to write a draft then wait for a hotel and some semblance of civilisation before one can send it. Hopefully that will come in 3 or 4 hours time when we reach Trujillo. At the moment we are cruising up the PanAmericana Highway passing through miles and miles of desert, broken every now and then by a town where a river flows down from the mountains away to our right and creates a green patch. We left Barranca at 13:00, about 30 minutes late, at the start of a 6 hour, 350 km bus ride for CHF 8 each. Actually, we've just come round a corner at the top of a climb and, there below us in the distance, is a large green plain. Time to stop writing in case we can stretch our legs for a few minutes. ---------------------------------------------------- About at hour later ... First of all, the stop was further away than expected, and when we finally got there, it was more exciting than we wanted it to be. We dashed off to spend a penny to find, on returning to the bus, that they had decided that we had to change buses, and to the bus of another company at that. So we had the hassle of queuing to change tickets. Anyway, we're on the new bus now (not as comfortable by far as the first) and the sun is setting on the left, so we must still be heading north. Going back a few days, Lima went very well, the hotel being both good and quiet. We spent 3 nights there sight-seeing, visiting the Pacific (lots of surfers in the water), and working out where to go to get a bus to Barranca, 200 km up the coast, where we wanted to visit Caral, the oldest archeological site in S America. All has gone well so far. We've had thick blanket cloud every morning - just like the Hochnebel of Canton Aargau, which we came here to escape. At least the temperature is around 20 degrees rather than 5, and the afternoons are nice. I'll send a photo of Caral in a separate mail (in case there are problems sending photos via this mailing list) to show how arid and unfriendly the countryside is around here. But I think that we might have escaped the fog now. Tomorrow will tell. Best wishes, Kari and David
Date: Tue, 19 Nov 2013 10:13 To: Peru Mailing List <peru@maden.ch> Subject: [Peru 2013]: Message No. 3 - A Photo of Caral If this works, you should get a picture of the pyramids of Caral, the oldest known archeological site in S America, about 35 km up a dirt road from Barranca, 1.5 hours by taxi! Caral
Date: Mon, 25 Nov 2013 11:30 To: Peru Mailing List <peru@maden.ch> Subject: [Peru 2013]: Message No. 4 - Cocochimba Hello again! I would have liked to send the enclosed photo last night when we arrived in this idyllic spot and everything was still fresh and exciting. As it turns out, we are in the rather cut-off tiny village of Cocochimba, about 40 km from Chachapoyas, and we have no Internet connection. There is one mobile phone company, MovieStar, serving the village, and they would appear to have no Wifi router in their palette. Furthermore, our handy is with Claro, and the two companies apparently don't talk to each other. So we have no handy connection either. I shall therefore prepare this email now on Sunday afternoon/evening, and send it tomorrow when we get to Chachapoyas. Gocta Falls The photo is of Gocta Falls, the 5th highest in the world, apparently, which only became known to the outside world 7 years ago when a German was wandering around here and somehow surveyed its height to be 773 m or so. As you can see, this is a spectacular area. The picture is taken from the edge of our hotel garden, just outside our bedroom window. It's been a great 3 days. Four days ago we were staying in a beautiful backpackers' hostel in Huanchaco, on the coast just outside Trujillo. That village was a fishing village rapidly becoming a surfers' paradise. It was lovely and quiet after all the noise encountered everywhere else. From there, we had a short, 4 hour hop by luxury bus to Chiclayo, an unremarkable town where we spent the night to break the journey. We've been deliberately travelling in short hops so that we can get daytime buses and see something of the country. The usual way of doing big distances here is to take a night bus and try to sleep away the kilometres. We might have to do that to get back to Lima. Anyway, the next hop was to Jaén, a 7 hour bus ride of modest comfort. It took us from the Pacific desert along the coast, over the Pacific/Atlantic divide, and down into what is geographically the Amazon basin. It was a fantastic journey, the country getting greener and greener the further we went, and the temperature rising steadily. There was no air conditioning in the bus. From Jaén it was a relatively short hop of about 180 km to here, but not covered by a bus route. It involved finding the terminus of a 'colectivo' (essentially shared minibus-taxis, which set off on their route when full), getting to Village A, then another colectivo to the turn off to where we are now, and finally a ride up the last 6 km of dirt road to this plush hotel. It went like clockwork. We were 19 in the first minibus, but only 13 in the second. The temperature was decidedly tropical. We enjoyed a dip in the pool when we got here. Today we hiked the 5 km to the bottom of the Falls and back again in about 4 hours, seeing some parrots and toucans on the way. We were back for 12, hence my having sufficient time on my hands to compose this rambling email. Tomorrow should hopefully see us back in civilisation again in Chachapoyas, where we intend to visit the pre-Inca remains of Kuélap, before heading further east. Best wishes, Kari and David (Written in Cocochimba, sent from Chachapoyas)
Date: Sun, 01 Dec 2013 07:16 To: Peru Mailing List <peru@maden.ch> Subject: [Peru 2013]: Message No. 5 - Sailing down the Amazon Hello again! This is another case of nothing to do, and all day to do it in. So this might turn into another rambling email. But first, an apology if the photos take a long time to download - they certainly take a long time to upload. They are taken with our iPad camera, because I have no way of including photos from our normal camera into an email from here, and I have no tools on hand to compress the iPad photos. I shall, however, restrict myself to just one photo per email. Anyway, it is Saturday morning, we are chugging down the Amazon (actually, it's a tributary of the Amazon) from Yurimaguas to Iquitos, and we are swinging in our hammocks in the shade on the lower deck letting time pass by. We got on the boat on Wednesday afternoon, negotiated a price for a cabin, and started waiting for it to set off at the displayed time of 17:30. That was rather naive, in hindsight. The afternoon wound on, and all that happened was that the boat became more and more laden with everything imaginable - bags of cement, corn, bananas, scaffolding poles, eggs, etc. Everything was carried on by hand up a gangplank, piece by piece - not a crane in sight. The posted leaving time came and went, the sun set at 6, it turned dark, and eventually we were told that the boat would not leave until the next day. The next day came, the loading continued .... and we finally left at 20:30! It was a big moment. It was, of course, pitch dark again. The equipment on the bridge consists of a steering wheel, a motor on/off switch, and maybe a motor forwards/backwards switch. There are certainly no navigational aids. The helmsman's mate had a hand-held spotlight that he turned on now and then to check that there were no unlit boats in the way and perhaps to see where the bank was. This is, of course, a big cargo boat. Passengers are second priority, although we do get fed, and quite well at that. We are the only passengers of about 30 with a cabin. The rest are on a covered open deck in hammocks. We join them during the day, since the cabin gets too hot when the sun is shining and it has, in any case, no porthole. It is much more comfortable just lying here out of the sun with a reasonable breeze blowing. Yesterday was therefore our first full day on the river, and it is fantastic. The jungle slips by on either side. Usually we sail along the bank where the current is, so the other bank can be hundreds of metres, if not a kilometer away. Every now and then, the boat stops at a village of thatched cottages to unload something or, more often, to take on yet more bananas. The villages, from what we can see from the boat (we don't like to go on shore too much during the stops and get in the way of the loading), are very neat and tidy and well cared for. It's about 600 km, we believe, from Yurimaguas to Iquitos (the largest town in the world not reachable by road). We've been under way for about 36 hours now. Nobody can say when we will arrive. We think that it will probably be tomorrow evening, but it depends on how many more stops there are, and how long they take. The last stop took an hour to unload enough metalwork to build a village hall. You'll know that we are there when you receive this email. :-) Best wishes, Kari and David PS. Travelling down a river by boat is very similar to canoeing in Canada as far as seeing wild life is concerned. One actually sees very little. This morning, though, we had a pod of dolphins swimming around the boat and parrots flying overhead. PPS. The insects are nowhere nearly as bad as in Norway in summer. We have hardly used any mosquito repellant. PPPS. We arrived in Iquitos at about 04:00 this Sunday morning and are about to have a shower ... how nice! This is a photo of Pucacuro, one of the many villages at which the boat stopped: Pucacuro
Date: Sat, 07 Dec 2013 18:34 To: Peru Mailing List <peru@maden.ch> Subject: [Peru 2013]: Message No. 6 - In the Central Highlands Hello again. This could well be our last significant circular for this trip. It's Saturday late afternoon, and our flight home is on Wednesday evening. We've had a complete culture and climate change from the Amazon. We managed to get a very reasonably priced flight from Iquitos to Lima via Tarapoto last Monday afternoon, getting us to Lima for about 19:00. From the airport, a taxi took us to our preferred bus terminal, and at 23:15 that same evening we were on a night bus to Huancayo. It poured down all through the night. At 6 in the morning we were in a cold and wet Huancayo, some 3244 m above sea level, feeling pretty travel weary. We walked to a hotel and licked our wounds, or, in other words, we went to bed for a couple of hours. Huancayo is a large town in the centre of the very fertile Río Mantaro valley. It's cold in the mornings and evenings, but very pleasant from mid-morning to late afternoon. There doesn't seem to be much of historical significance to see, the area being better known for its handicrafts and pleasant villages. We spent Wednesday hiking up to some geological formations near the town called 'Torre Torre', and very hard work it was too at this altitude. Thursday was spent exploring some of the local villages using buses, taxis, shared taxis, or whatever form of transportation offered itself at the time. The highlight of the week was yesterday, when we took the train from Huancayo to Huancavelica, where we now are. The train left at 6:30 am and took 6 hours to do 127 km. The mountainous scenery was spectacular, while the state of repair of the train's rolling stock and track were to be wondered at. The train was full of local people, many of the women in their Sunday best traditional costumes. The train runs 3 times per week. Huancavelica is even higher than Huancayo at 3690 m. We had quite noticeable altitude problems during the afternoon and evening. Fortunately, they wore off before bedtime. Today has been spent ambling around this beautiful town, full of children taking part in a folk dancing festival. We also tried the local thermal pool. It wasn't very hot, maybe 27 degrees, but the scenery round about was stunning. Tonight the journey home should begin. We're booked on the 4 am bus in direction Pisco over some quite serious mountains. The alternative was another night bus, which I vetoed. Unfortunately, the 4 am bus only goes half way. We haven't been able to book anything for the second half of the journey. But we should be on a main road to Pisco at that point, and be able to pick up a second bus to Pisco from there. Watch this space! From Pisco to Lima should be a trivial 4 hour bus ride up the coast. I append a photo from today's procession to add a bit of colour. Best wishes, Kari and David Huancavelica
Date: Sat, 14 Dec 2013 11:50 To: Peru Mailing List <peru@maden.ch> Subject: [Peru 2013]: Message No. 7 - On the Way Home It's now 4:30 am body time, and we're just over half way to Amsterdam; a good time to draw a line under these occasional reports from our trip by trying to summarise our impressions. Originally, I had wanted to come to S America with bicycles, but could not persuade Kari to come too. In retrospect, she was right, at least as far as Peru is concerned. Cycling along the coastal PanAmericana highway through the desert with the very heavy, fast moving traffic must be miserable; and inland, the mountains are simply too severe for people of our advanced age. In the end, we compromised. Kari agreed to come to S America to pacify my wish to visit the continent at least once. We were both agreed that we did not want to simply join an organised group, firstly because I don't like being spoon-fed; secondly because it was difficult to find an English speaking tour when living in Switzerland; and thirdly, because we think that by organising a trip oneself, although one sees less of the acknowledged sights, one has much more contact with the local people. So, in the end, we decided to do a mainly land-based, public transport trip, similar to our 4 weeks in India, 13 years ago. As to the question, "Why Peru?", I have no intelligent answer to that question. When I came to look for flights from Switzerland to S America, I found that one could fly to Lima somewhat cheaper and with a shorter total travel time than to anywhere else. So that's where we went. With all that said, I think that it would be honest to say that this will probably be my last trip to S America. It has been a wonderful 4 weeks, we have had lots of positive experiences, met lots of friendly people, and seen endless beautiful scenery. But the points mentioned below under "Language" and "Food", on balance, incline me to think that I shall not be coming again. I would, however, encourage anyone to try it. It's quite an experience. Let me try to make some personal, subjective observations. I have already mentioned some of these in previous emails. Please forgive the repetition. Language: I knew before we came that one needed to be able to speak some Spanish to be able to get by reasonably well in S America. To that end, both Kari and I spent the last year attending Spanish courses. Despite investing quite a lot of effort into this, I was disappointed at how little I was able to communicate with the local people. This is a criticism of myself, not the Peruvians. As a result, though, our interaction with the local people was very limited. People would come up to us and try to talk to us. The most that we could do in return was smile. It was so frustrating, and our success so limited considering the invested effort, that I don't see any chance of overcoming this obstacle in the future. I never was much good at foreign languages at school. The People. The local people were extremely friendly and tolerant. Whatever the discomfort in a crowded bus or disparity between our comparative wealth and their all too evident poverty, we always felt welcome wherever we went. Safety: Personal safety, I feel, is impossible to quantify in a meaningful way. A statistician might be able to calculate the probability of being attacked or robbed, and it might be very small, but if it happens to happen to oneself, then it is a catastrophe. Both before and during the trip, everywhere we went, we were for ever being told how dangerous this place or that place was. If we had followed all the advice that we received, we would never have gone anywhere. As it turned out, we were neither robbed nor attacked. What is more, we never felt threatened in any way, nor had we the feeling that we were a possible target. Maybe we were lucky. It was clear how easily one could have been robbed. We were stopped at police checkpoints many, many times, travelling by bus and taxi, for the checking of ID cards and passports; at one checkpoint near Chachapoyas, we were checked 3 times in one day! Any one of these checkpoints could easily have been a road block set up by bandits. Some of the police on the checkpoints looked a lot like bandits anyway. Naturally we were careful, but there are limits to how careful one can be. For example, one recommendation is not to go out after dark. Given that it is pitch dark by 18:30 or so, this is clearly impractical. We did, however, take care not to be out after 10 pm, except on the night when we had to be at the bus terminal at 3 am on a Saturday night. We were relieved when we got to that terminal safely! Food: We never really enjoyed the Peruvian cuisine. Our Lonely Planet guide book enthused over the various dishes available. To us, it was chicken, chicken, or chicken, or indescribable cuts of meat, usually pork. The portion sizes were also off-putting, much too big. Just like with safety issues, there are general recommendations to travellers, which are totally impractical when underway as backpackers for several weeks. The basic advice that one reads everywhere of "Cook it, boil it, peel it, or forget it" cannot sensibly be adhered too. As a result, we took our chances in the first week and paid for it with digestive problems, as expected. Once these were over, our digestions behaved more or less like at home. We were rather conservative, though, when it came to buying food from street stalls. Hassle: We were very positively impressed by the lack of hassle from hawkers, beggars, taxi drivers and the like. Obviously one did get hassled when coming out of a bus station, but a firm "No" was usually enough to put an end to it. This was definitely not the case in India. Noise: To Peruvians it would seem that silence is a vacuum that just has to be filled. There is noise everywhere from hooting taxis, televisions in restaurants, DVDs in buses, etc. On walking into an empty, quiet restaurant, the waitress is sure to turn on the TV specially for you! Dogs: There are stray dogs everywhere. In our experience, they were all very docile and no problem, but one cannot walk without looking at one's feet all the time. Actually it's not just dogs' droppings that one must look out for, but missing manhole covers as well. For some reason or other (theft, earthquakes, ???), many of the drain covers in pavements are missing. One could easily step into one and break a leg. Once, we even saw a missing manhole cover in the middle of a busy street. The Towns: There seems to be hardly a finished looking building in the whole country. The outside walls are usually just rough brickwork, and nearly every building seems to have steel, reinforced concrete rods sticking up into the sky ready to add on another floor when money is available. As a result, every town looks like a shanty town, not very beautiful to the eyes of a tourist, but no doubt a result of money being tight. On the other hand, nearly every town and some villages have very pleasant main squares, usually called Plaza de Armas. Cost: Whilst waiting for the flight home, I did some rough calculations of what this 4 week trip cost. The total cost, including the return flight to Lima, was CHF 5574. Of this, the return flight to Lima cost us CHF 1516 each. The daily cost in Peru therefore averaged out to be about CHF 90 per day. This includes all the hotels and all the buses, the taxis, the train, the boat, and the flight from Iquitos to Lima. We didn't try to be economical. We had a hotel room with private bathroom everywhere. We didn't spend much money on food, though, mainly because this was not a very active holiday. That's about it. Treat these comments with caution! Until the next trip, maybe ... Best wishes, David