Amazonas in Peru

A resident of Tingo village

The crowds go wild, there are fireworks (but more modest than in other parts of the world) and the loud music is coming from several different sources. The countdown begins: diez, nueve, ocho, … tres, dos, uno! New Year has just reached a Peruvian town of Mancora. We take off our clothes and run into the warm Pacific Ocean to enjoy splashing waves and to see the celebrating crowd of tourists from Peru and other parts of the world ashore.

In fact, Mancora is an extremely touristy place, thus the quality of tourist-oriented services is very low, focused on making a quick profit only. It feels exactly as if everyone wanted to spend the New Year’s holiday here. Room prices are inflated four times, luckily I can use my tent. Besides, due to the number of people there are shortages of water throughout the city and sometimes barely dripping tap water is brackish.

After all, you can easily have a lot of fun being here, meet interesting people and enjoy the beach with waves. Thinking of some other positive things, ceviche comes to my mind.

Ceviche is undoubtedly one of the best specialties of coastal cuisine. There are as many varieties as are the types of seafood – ceviche de camaron (with shrimp), ceviche de molusco (with clams), ceviche de pulpo (with octopus), with raw fish and others, all of these served in an nice way along with red onions soaked in lime juice, vegetables and crispy corn canchita, which resembles puffed pop-corn in the husk.

Perhaps another time of year you can get better impressions, but as for now Mancora does not resemble much of a real Peru. Desperate and tired of vanity of this place we leave it hoping to find what we are looking for.

On the trail of Peru

Mancora

Considering no bus seats left together with extremely inflated New Year’s taxi prices we resolve to walk with backpacks outside the city limits. After an hour and a half of hitch-hiking, finally a truck stops. It has a wooden, fully enclosed trailer. Sitting inside all I see are the blank walls around, blue sky above and a drive shaft below through a big hole alongside the floor. With a few subsequent connections we arrive to Chiclayo, where together with an accidental Peruvian guy we find a hospedaje for the three of us to spend the night.

For breakfast we have a soup with corn and a considerable piece of meat, which after further analysis turns out to be pig’s nose! The main course is cabrito, a young goat meat baked in green vegetable sauce with white beans, rice and spicy green salsa. Also we get cebada, a black drink based on barley with sugar, vanilla and lime.

Chachapoyas

Plaza Mayor, Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas is a friendly town in the province of Amazonas. It is situated at an altitude of about 2200 meters, somewhere in the depths of the Peruvian selva. Due to the mountainous terrain, Chachapoyas is quite isolated from other parts of Peru. It helps a lot to get to know local people and experience local culture in a unique way.

Los Troncos is a bar, a shop and a local manufacturer of spirits, liqueurs and wines based on aguardiente alcohol. We befriend the owner, his brother and cousin Edwin. We treat ourselves to different varieties of reinforced wines, having flavors such as mora (blackberries) sauco (black elder), uvo (grapes) and milk-based liqueur with coffee and coconut.

We visit the manufacturing facility at attic of the building. It’s amazing that in conditions close to home-made winery you can fit all the facilities. There is a sterilization room, two thousand liter tanks with milk and aguradiente, a dozen fermenters and kegs of syrups. There is also a separate room for bottling and labeling. The daily production Los Troncos is approximately 120-150 bottles, however sleepy atmosphere downstairs in the bar suggests the sales are not so impressive.

In fact, this place has good vibes, so almost every evening spent in Chachapoyas we drop in to Los Troncos to try another taste of wine and talk with friendly people.

Amazonas

Young Peruvian girl, province of Amazonas

We visit the Huancas canyon. A black bird with widespread wings fantastically soars in the sky and only by balancing its body it follows the chosen direction. In spite of its considerable size, it is not a condor, the population of which in the region has been eliminated due to frequent attacks on young calves.

A river flows through the canyon’s valley. A vast plateau at the top is covered with bright green grass. Sun breaking through the thick rain clouds finally creates a huge rainbow on partially blue sky.

We pass through genuine Peruvian wilderness. The distances between all the little towns are enormous. Winding roads, being the only connection, are often flooded, full of holes and muddy.

However, even under such harsh conditions the inhabitants of this province live normally. They cultivate many varieties of corn, yuca, beans and potatoes. These are also the basic components of their diet. On the road I meet people carrying heavy bundles and horses or donkeys drovers covered with mud. My great attention goes to a probably 75-years-old Peruvian woman, who being humped, laden with heavy bundles of wood on her back, carrying additional two bags of yuca in her hands, ascends an endless steep muddy road. I come to thought that most likely this one or a similar task she has been performing daily for the last 70 years of her life.

We visit a small town Lamud. It is the capital of Luya-Lamud province with a population of 7000 inhabitants. From there we head towards the Pueblo de los Muertos, an ancient village of pre-Inca culture dated at about 700 AD. We pass a dangerous crossing to get to the sites of religious rites and the sarcophagi storage place. The site is separated into quarters by a series of adobe walls. Some of the walls have mural inscriptions and inside quarters there are bones (possibly human) and traditional tools, such as a large stone mortar for grinding corn.

A strong downpour rises and approaching the Karajia, the road becomes muddy and slippery. Karajia is an ancient sarcophagi site, which in unexplained way were painted and located on the steep canyon wall. Surprisingly, the paint, which was obtained from insects feeding on colorful fruit juices such as granadia, has retained its intense color for several centuries.

My another memory of this rainy season is a picture of two Peruvian siblings. A six year old boy goes along muddy and slippery path with his little sister sharing the only jacket to protect themselves from the rain. They are soaked and soiled in the mud, but the smiling girl upon seeing us keeps joyfully repeating "Buenas tardes, buenas tardes!".

We arrive to Huaylla Valle de Belen, a green valley, through which a river flows in an unusually regular, natural serpentine. This creates a fabulous surreal scenery.

Kuelap

Mighty walls of the Kuelap citadel

In the small town of Tingo it is easy to find a hospedaje. There is a smiling girl walking towards us. She is wearing a cap back to front and at first glance she looks like a Kuelap tour salesgirl. In fact, Ana is a die-hard courageous Colombian girl. We quickly become friends and quite spontaneously our dinner together turns into a small but a crazy party with the owners of the hospedaje.

The following morning we begin to approach Kuelap. Initially, we start with an intense, on the verge of super-intense pace. The ascent starts at about 1800 meters and continues to reach more than 3000 meters. Gradually there are symptoms of altitude fatigue and short breaks are necessary. Climbing to the village of Kuelap takes us about 3 hours. Ana is undefeated. At the top I am almost dead-tired and it begins to rain heavily.

We visit the fortress, its high walls and residential buildings, where the settlers of pre-Inca civilization were based. The origin of the citadel is dated for the period of 900-1100 AD. During rain the walls get glassy reflections and together with diverse vegetation and trees unique to the region of Amazonas in Peru, a mysterious thought of an unknown civilization comes to my mind. Some even argue that Kuelap is far more impressive than Machu Picchu.

We stop at a local family house for a mug of strong coffee with sugar to rebuild energy for the way back. As I talk with two girls, daughters of the host, I find out they need one hour to descend and one hour and a half to go back home every single school day. This is a way to keep-fit, certainly a better one as compared to spending the same amount of time sitting in London or New York subway.

There is a pure, 100% perfect mud on our way back. It is absolutely slippery. Soon the three of us are completely soaked in mud well above the ankle-level. Looking for shortcuts we find even more difficult (tough more adventurous) variant of the way back. The final section leads just on the verge of cliff and as we continue along the river it gets dark. Seeing only glow-worms we finally manage to go back in a dimmed light of the moon trying to make it through the thick clouds.

The degree of how dirty I am can be easily demonstrated by two facts. Firstly, all my clothes are completely wet and covered with mud. Having soaked, washed and squeezed my shoes and socks for more than twenty times, there is still brown muddy water flowing, therefore I give up further rinsing. Secondly, removing mud from the rear pocket of short jeans I come across a dead moth the size of a matchbox.

Looking for the way back

Yerbabuena

It is difficult to get out of Tingo in the southward direction. Finally, a good man, a local engineer working on surrounding construction sites, gives me a ride with his pick-up to Yerbabuena. It is a tiny village situated between mighty mountains, a little bit upriver, where the current is already much stronger.

Leymebamba is another small town with a square in the center, around which usually quiet daily life takes place. The traditional occupation of local women is embroidering. I learned that sometimes they need a few weeks or even months to finish manufacturing of a single doily.

Due to the difficult terrain the horses are another popular means of transportation. On the way to a viewpoint I meet a man who has been producing harnesses and other supplies for horses for over 40 years. This way he delivers all the necessary horse accessories for residents of villages along the valley and those on mountain slopes.

A morning bus takes me through another part of the journey. A driver’s assistant is giving away plastic bags for vomiting and pieces of cotton wool soaked in an unknown substance. Many passengers have problems with acclimatization and hardships of bumpy journey.

This is the price of a seven hour long drive along winding roads passing through the valley, traversing the river to rise again to the heights of more than 4000 meters. The landscape views are paramount and the beauty of the untouched nature is affected only by a casual hermit huts and narrow gravel road, which is sometimes cut through a solid rock, but sometimes goes right through the rockslide and mudslide sites, merely footsteps away from falling down the bottomless abyss.

It reminds me a bit of a dreadful twenty hour long ride to Kashmir Valley in India, but de facto, the status of the world’s most dangerous road has been granted to a certain pass in western Bolivia. That is why my idea is to go there too, compare it and share the experiences.

January 2012

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