Guinea pig on a plate, pre-inca ruins and a hike from hell

My laptop has died which is really messing with my blogging rhythm so sorry for the slow posting recently. Hoping to have it fixed when I get to Lima in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime I thought I’d mix things up a bit with a story of a few days of Peruvian adventuring.

I’m in northern Perú at the moment in a town called Chachapoyas. It’s in a region full of important archaeological sites set in the Andes mountains. There are lots of tour groups taking people to see them but I decided to see how far I’d get on my own.

On Saturday morning I took a collectivo (the local public transport – a minibus that leaves once it’s full) to a small town in the mountains called Cruzpata. The journey was along typical Andean mountain dirt roads, winding their way up hill with steep drop-offs. At one point we had to pass a large parked truck on the road and we were getting dangerously close to the edge. I normally only get worried when the local people look scared so when a Peruvian lady started screaming at the driver all of the passengers decided to get off so the driver would only be risking his own life. It turned out that he got past the obstacle without any bother and we continued on our way. We arrived at Luya, a little town on the way where we needed to catch a new collectivo. The road was being dug up so together with some friendly Spanish students whose machine-gun speed Spanish was almost impossible for me to understand we hiked for a kilometer and persuaded a local taxi driver to squeeze seven of us into the car (not quite a record, I recall getting 9 in a car once in Bolivia) and take us to our first destination, Karajia, a site of 6 ancient sarcophagi together with human skulls and other bones in a cliff face.

The sarcophagi at Karajia are set in an imposing sheer cliff face with a great view of the surrounding mountains. You can see the human skulls set into the cliff around them, and the ancient paint work is still clearly visible. There are also collections of other human bones dotted around which have been found at the site.

After hiking back to the nearby village we ate our lunch at a house. Lunch was Cuy – the local speciality of roasted Guinea pig. People have been eating Cuy here for thousands of years, long before the little critters were kept as pets. You can sometimes see them running around a kitchen before being caught and killed. The taste isn’t bad actually, especially the crispy skin but as you’d imagine, there isn’t a whole lot of meat on them. The tiny little ribcage and claw still attached is also quite cute.

My new friends were heading back to Chachapoyas so I said goodbye to them and then stayed the night in a filthy but friendly little hospedaje in a small town called Cohechan. I was woken at 6:30AM by one of the delights of South America – municipal radio. It’s hard for a foreigner to understand why in an area where many people walk around with personal transistor radios that they need their local radio blasted out of speakers throughout the town and ricocheting off the surrounding mountains. Music with loud trumpets and accordions and really aggressive sounding monologues from the ‘DJ’ isn’t my ideal Sunday morning tonic, but the local people actually love it. In South America, people don’t have the concept of noise pollution like we do in Europe, as the car alarms which cycle through all possible variations of car alarm sirens if someone so much as sneezes within 20 feet, and people playing music out loud on their phones on buses confirms.

I had been told that I could catch a collectivo in the morning to my next destination, a beautiful valley called Belen. Some farmers in a passing 4×4 said they could take me part of the way so I jumped in the back. They were off to harvest potatoes which they said grew well at that altitude.

At the next village we stopped to pick up a couple of other people at this point they told me that actually where they were going to drop me off there would be no other transport to Belen and they asked me what I’d be prepared to pay someone to give me a ride on a motorcycle. This was one of those awkward moments when you’re in the middle of nowhere, with a group of locals laughing at your cluelessness and you’re wondering whether it’s a gringo rip-off or there really is no other option. The best thing to do in these situations is to smile and laugh along with them and trust your instincts. I’d only been in Perú a few days so had no idea what the going rate was so I offered a typical collectivo fare of 5 Sols (about $1.50) which was met with more laughter and the word ‘gringo’ (which just means ‘foreigner’ and isn’t usually meant as an insult.) I laughed along and said I’d just go as far as they could take me and then work it out from there.

When we got to the spot where the farmers were going to be working they pointed up the road and said “3 hours walk that way.” I don’t mind a hike so was about to set off when another local on a dirt bike pulled up and said he was going that way. Result! So I jumped on the back and we rode for an hour to get there. I was relieved that he didn’t drive like a maniac as it was muddy and sometimes loose ground with more steep cliffs. As we got close to the end of the valley he asked where I wanted to be dropped off. I was planning on having some breakfast there and then asking around for directions and making a plan, so I said “At the village” – at which point he laughed and said “there´s one house here.” Oh dear.

So I got dropped off at the only house for miles around and just as I was wondering what to do, a Peruvian came out of the house and asked me where I was heading. All I knew at that stage is that I wanted to see the valley and somehow get to a town called Congon. He said he could take me so I gladly accepted, at which point 3 friendly gringo hikers, two Americans and a Spaniard, came out of the house – they’d already hired this guy to be their guide and were going the same way as me, so I joined their group. Another result.

It turned out that our guide Carlo was awesome. He spoke excellent English although I tried to practice my Spanish as much as possible. He had fantastic knowledge of the area as well as a sarcastic, joking sense of humour so I knew we´d get along. He´d already nicknamed the two tall Americans “Chato” which is what you might call a small kitten, and “Chatito” which you might call an even smaller kitten. Great stuff.

We hiked along the lush green valley floor. It has a long winding river running through it which legend has it was created by a giant snake. There are wild horses and cattle grazing and you can sometimes see trout darting through the water.

Eventually we hiked up out of the valley onto a pre-inca trail and up into the humid cloud forest. It wasn’t long before we were at 3000M, the highest point for the day. On the way to the next town, we visited some pre-Inca ruins called Pirquilla. These were discovered relatively recently (in the 1990´s) but have yet to be properly explored by archaeologists. The trails around the site do not see many visitors so Carlo had to use a machete to hack through the jungle giving the experience a real Indiana Jones feel which I loved. The ruins are mostly stone brick platforms on which houses (long since gone) were built. Everything is covered in dense jungle and nobody even knows how big the site is.

We made our way down-hill to Congon and stayed in a hospedaje there, a wooden building with coffee beans drying out on the veranda, lively dogs fighting and loud roosters. There we had a hearty carbohydrate-fest of a dinner and tried to sleep as best we could through the animal noise.

The next day would cover some pretty hardcore terrain. A gruelling 36KM trail, about a vertical mile uphill (around the height of the grand canyon.) It was raining most of the time and there was very heavy mud on the ground. Carlo said that most people do this section on donkeys and the Americans had hired some. The Spaniard was up for walking and I thought “it´s only a hike, who needs a donkey?” Big mistake!

The first hour and a half while my legs were relatively fresh weren’t too bad, then the trail just seemed to get steeper and steeper with every step through the gloopy mud becoming tougher than the last. There was still another hour and a half of this until lunch, and even then we’d only be half way, with another 4 hours to cover in the afternoon. I made it to the lunch spot feeling almost delirious but there was no time to rest because we immediately set off on a side trail to check out some more ruins, similar to Pirquilla.

Lunch was dried meat, boiled potatoes and rice. My stomach was in knots from the climb so I didn’t eat much. We were still in good spirits though when we set off for the afternoon hike, just as the rain reached a new level of intensity. I somehow managed to hike uphill for another two and a half hours, cheating for about 15 minutes on the back of a donkey which was returning from dropping the Americans at the top. The end finally felt like it was within reach. We now had just one more hour of gentle uphill and flat terrain along the top of the mountains then an hour downhill to the town where we´d spend the next night. We were treated to some spectacular views of the cloud forest. A mixture of bright white and dark lush green rolling hills.

As we hiked along the top Carlo spotted wild blackberries growing and the five of us foraged like wild animals for a while, hungry and dehydrated. In my condition at the time I had never tasted anything quite so delicious as those berries and I then couldn´t stop myself fantasizing about eating a large fruit salad.

Finally, the trail began its descent, steep and muddy with streams of water running down them. After an hour of slipping and sliding we made it to the next town. I´d long since run out of water and was so dehydrated I drank about 2 pints of coca-cola from the local tienda to get some fluid and sugar back into me which I’d later regret as I lay exhausted but completely wired from the caffeine and unable to sleep until the early hours of the next morning.

On the final day my plan was to hike without a guide to the huge ruins of the pre-inca fortress, Kuelap. This site is known as the Machu Picchu of the north and is older, larger and far less excavated than its cousin in the south. Machu Picchu is an enormous privatised enterprise, with a huge brand and it´s over-run with tourists. 600 people per day on the Inca Trail and up to 2,500 daily on the site itself whereas Kuelap is still quite peaceful. My plan was to try to get there early before the tour groups, but after the hike the previous day I took the lazy option and stuck with my new friends who were taking transport to the site.

Our small group was joined by a whole minibus full of people from Chachapoyas and when we got to Kuelap I found myself surrounded by a really friendly, but large and noisy group of tourists chattering and snapping photos. The magic of being in such an incredible place was being broken and my heart sank a little. However once we got into the ruins themselves I snuck off away from the group to explore the ruins on my own and before long they were completely out of earshot and all I could hear was the rustle of the trees, the wind, birds and my own footsteps as I wandered between trees and the round stone foundations of houses the houses, complete with tombs for their ancestors inside each house. The fortress is spectacular, set on a mountain top with perimeter walls over 30 feet high. Unlike European castles where everything is inside the walls, the Chachapoyas people created a huge platform using these walls so the settlement was up high with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

After exploring the ruins, we made our way back to Chachapoyas. I checked in at my hostel where I was told off by the owner for using all of the hot water for a long shower, having not had a wash for four days. I slept really well that night.

The plan from here is to go and explore the waterfall at Gocta – one of the highest in the world – then make my way over land and then ferry up the Amazon to the jungle city of Iquitos.

I will add some photos to this post once my laptop is fixed and I can get them off my camera. If you´d to see them, just add a comment below and tick ´notify me of follow-up comments´ and you´ll get an email once they´re up there.

5 thoughts on “Guinea pig on a plate, pre-inca ruins and a hike from hell

  1. I can vaguely remember when I was young enough and fit enough to have even thought about doing what you’ve been doing.

    These days even thinking about it leaves me feeling exhausted!

    I’m mildly envious of what you’re up to and look forward to seeing the resulting photos.

  2. Fantastic blog man, really enjoyed reading that. Makes me wonder why we ever stopped travelling.
    Anyway, the style in which you wonder is most commendable, the ‘proper’ way to explore, and you are reaping the rewards. Keep it up!

  3. gee… tom, i never knew u had such a nice travel blog 🙂 gonna start reading them after i dig out the pig for my forensic botany practical tomorrow!

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