Peru Part 1: The Tip of the Glacier

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
Trip End Apr 30, 2013

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

We've been in Peru for about… three weeks now? Something like that. We started at a beach town in the northernmost tip of Peru: Mancora, a town seemingly built of sand, on sand and for the sand; and reputedly one of the best beaches on the west coast of South America. It certainly didn’t disappoint on the weather front, and we spent a couple of days alternately roasting and basting ourselves on the miles of soft, yellow sand, watching the waves break, as seabirds dived like darts, splashed, swallowed, and then climbed into the air again to hover above us, coasting like kites on the warm thermal drafts. Between these periods of idle sun-worship, nature watching , and, of course, swimming, we did manage to find time to sit under umbrellas and drink beers and eat seafood of course, so don’t worry yourselves about that.

Mancora was certainly a beautiful beach town in which to while away our first couple of days in Peru, dusting off the tribulations of a generally stiff, sticky and bemusing bus border crossing through Ecuadorian-Peruvian border-crossing towns (one-horse, two-bit dives, the only reason to arrive there being to leave again). Nevertheless, despite the temptation of  warm waters and sunshine in a cheap and friendly environment, we knew we had more - shall we say more cultural - things to see in Peru (I love a nice colourful bracelet-band hand woven by hippies, or a hash pipe made of fish bones just as much as the next guy, but there’s only so many of them I can bother looking at), and, waving goodbye, took our first night bus to Trujillo (Pronounced "true-he-yo"), the most major city in the North of Peru, and the home of our first Peruvian Couchsurfing host: Fernando, a welcoming and friendly forty-something, who spoke at least some version of English, albeit in a rapid, Spanish accent which often left us having two halves of a different conversation together, but who gave us a great Couchsurfing experience.

Fernando owns a three storey building that houses Couchsurfers on the top floor, and himself and his “bar” on the second floor. The other Couchsurfers staying there somehow got roped into the running of his bar any time they were free for an afternoon (basically handing out bottles of beer or cola from the fridge – it was a bar in a very loose sense of the word), while he was out  at his day job (of teaching English, heh heh, hmm), but for some reason he never asked us to help out. It may be due to our good planning and steadfast traveler scheduling (places to see, ancient walls to photograph, you see), but we never seemed to be in the “right place at the right time.”  Shame.  Whilst here we had the pleasure of sharing his home with three other travelers, the bearded band of good time American jugglers collectively known as 'Jugglypuff’ who are, unsurprisingly, juggling their way around South America at a stop light near you; give generously.  Trujillo is a city with little to mention. It has a wide plaza with some nice architecture somewhere in the middle of all the traffic. The real points of interest lay outside of town.

A few kilometers away are the ancient ruins of Chanchan. Chanchan is “the largest pre-Columbian ruins in South America” (thanks Wikipedia), and are this massive, almost white sand maze-scape of high, disorienting walls that supposedly homed about thirty thousand people in its heyday, some eleven hundred or more years ago. Covering twenty square kilometers of desert, with coast to the west and yet more desert for miles in all other directions, it was built by the Chimu civilization and lasted until the Inca took over after about five hundred years or something (there’s a nice bit of a history lesson from us to you, you’re welcome). It was a really atmospheric place to wander round for a few hours or so in the bright, hot sun, and an amazing example of how advanced a long gone civilization could be.

The other ruins nearby the city of Trujillo are the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), built by an even older civilization than the aforementioned Chimu. The Moche, who prospered for about seven hundred years before the Chimu took the baton, were a religious lot who were pretty much ruled by their priests, and were well into ritual sacrifice and things like that. These ruins are apparently one of the best preserved archeological sites in the world, but it failed to rouse much interest from me, seeming like just a collection of walls in the process of being dug out of the sand, some (or lots) with depictions of their weird octopus-legged monkey god in all original colours (mildly impressive).  We scoured the local  museum in search of more inspiration, but found little more than a collection of pots, which I’m afraid to say just didn’t really bring it alive for me. I much preferred exploring Chanchan; it just felt more Indiana Jones-y.  Yeah yeah, the hat helped.

The other great thing about Trujillo is that it is a cheap and easy half-hour bus ride away from the seaside town of Huanchaco, another picturesque beach on which to dig ourselves into the sand for a few hours, and where large pelicans sit along the beach, quite tame and unperturbed by our presence, waiting for their share of catch from local fishermen, who do their fishing on the age-old caballito de totora, a kind of long surfboard type craft made of reeds tied together, used in this part of the world for some three thousand years by fishermen casting out their nets and riding the waves back to shore (possibly the first ever form of surfing, and another little tidbit of trivia for you).

So after a few days in and around Trujillo, we took another night bus to Huaraz, and made the wonderful transition from desert to mountains. And what mountains. Huaraz sits at an already dizzying altitude of three thousand metres above sea level, and is still surrounded by monsters of nature, The Cordilleras, the section of mountains in Peru that reach higher than any others. We arrived on a Saturday morning after a twelve hour night- bus ride, for which Kerri slept little or not at all. So while she drifted off in our hotel room, a third floor en suite with a balcony view over the streets below and the snowy peaks above (for about the price of three pints in a UK pub) , I decided to brave the world alone and gather my bearings by having a good old fashioned wander. I fell in love with Huaraz straight away. The town is not so much pretty as practical; that is its one drawback. What it lacks in architectural splendor though, it more than makes up for in activity. Its Saturday morning market thrived on a town full of people, happily milling about, with money to spend and things to buy. I didn’t see a single bored shopkeeper. Their indoor market sold nothing like the usual tat for tourists that we’re used to, but rather displayed wares of every single thing one might possibly want from their local market; from tools and fresh food to household sundries; toys to books to pets. This may sound dull, but to see a market working, swarming, thriving as it did, is a sight I cannot honestly say I remember seeing before in these financially tumultuous times of ours, and one of the most memorable things about Huaraz for me.
The other most memorable thing was undoubtedly the surroundings. The peaks seemed to laugh at me from back in that unimaginably long-ago time when they were forged; giants of black rock and white  snow, sharp enough peaks to poke your eye out, and steep enough to put the jitters up Spiderman.  We wanted to do a famous four day hike called the Santa Cruz Trek, but alas it was not meant to be. The tour operator needed a few more people to book it, and it being the rainy season meant that no other adventurers were forthcoming (we got caught in a couple of afternoon showers whilst there, and could understand why it was the low season – hail is not the typical weather of choice for mountain trekking). So we opted for a few day-long hikes, and were happy enough that we’d seen some of the most breathtaking (literally of course) views in Peru.

One day saw us at five thousand metres of altitude, staring at - drowning our eyes in - the Pastoruri, one of the few remaining glaciers in this part of South America (and disappearing at a stupid rate); an inexpressibly huge slab of icing, sliding subtly across the length of a mountain-top plateau. We were quite agog at the sight of it (we didn’t actually see it sliding; that happens very slowly, you see). This tour also took in the sight of a giant plant called the Puya Raimondii (or Queen of the Andes), which from a distance looks like a giant rocket-shaped cactus with an explosion of spikes at its base, but which, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be covered in thousands of bell-like flowers that attract hummingbirds; a strange sight to see in this mostly cold and treeless environment. The other things we saw this day were some cave paintings on a wall, that were too faded and oblique to be too exciting (people used to paint pictures back then…so what, I did a better job when I was five), and, elsewhere, a small puddle of bubbling water that our guide eagerly told us was a natural spring that gurgled up from the depths of the earth all day with mineral-rich water. This small pool was halfway up a windy mountainside, and obviously not as interesting as the tour guides hoped, as at the same little parking spot there was (possibly to make stopping the bus more worthwhile) an authentic little old Peruvian woman installed on a nearby bench, clad in her best authentic little old Peruvian woman clothes and clutching a lamb, hoping to make a few pennies from tourists who wanted a snapshot of something more than a bubbly puddle. We see these little old ladies everywhere, with their witch’s shoes, woolen socks, colourful skirts and tall, tall hats. We try to steal their image from around corners, or from afar with super-zoom, without having to pay them. Disgraceful, I know; I used to hate it when people did that to me in Asia.

After a mournful goodbye to Huaraz, we took a bus towards Lima, wistfully watching the mountains disappear behind us as we headed back towards the coast, and more desert. Lima is the capital of Peru, and is beset on all sides - except the ocean side - by something like a cross between giant sand dunes and mountains.  It’s a vast city, and as our bus inched its way through the afternoon traffic, I couldn’t help be reminded of a good old-fashioned West Yorkshire traffic jam. Gee, they really are the best aren’t they.  I really felt lucky watching those shop fronts go by at a fantastically slow rate. By the time we reached the centre of Lima, found ourselves a nice cheap hostel, and wandered around a bit through the more up-market and lively areas, we were a little more taken with the place. We spent a couple of nights here, checking out the beautiful plazas of the old district; enjoying Halloween antics in a city-centre park as a thousand miniature Ironmans mingled with a thousand miniature Spidermans, while a thousand miniature Snow Whites collected sweets; a very cute sight. We also enjoyed here our first taste of the locally famous Pisco Sour, a drink made of Peruvian grape brandy with lime juice, syrup, ice and egg white. It’s pretty good. I wouldn’t recommend coming here just for it, but it’s pretty good. It tastes like sweet tequila lemonade, and so gets you drunk with little effort.  With few other things to write home about Lima (other than a good shopping mall carved into the edge of the cliff, and more grand architecture), we were happy to take a bus to our next stop; the much heard about and anticipated Huacachina (pronounced “whack a chee-na”).

Huacachina is one of the most memorable places I’ve ever been just because I’ve never been to a single other place like it. It’s a real and genuine oasis, a beautiful green in the middle of sand dunes that ride high into the sky and, going up and over them, more rolling desert dunes as far as the eye can see. The oasis itself is really just a small, oval lake, edged by palm trees, and daubed with clumps of floating reeds; birds stalk fish around the shore; there’s a cool breeze on your face and scorching sand under your feet, and three quarters of the circumference is taken up by hostels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The best thing about Huacachina is the customary dune-buggy rides and snowboarding tours, as advertised by ninety percent of windows in town. A must do, we were told by other passing travelers.

Four o clock in the afternoon then, and we find ourselves getting strapped in to the four-wheel, crouching-mouse-shaped buggy. The engine roars into life, and we set off at an amazing pace up the dunes and into the vast, rollercoaster-like playground sandpit. The drivers obviously know where they’re going, but for those of us who only see the huge, rolling desert flying past us, towering yellow peaks above us and last-second plunges at nearly ninety degree angles, the experience was something of a giddy thrill. The scary parts of this tour were when the buggy came to shuddering stops at the top of progressively higher and steeper dunes, sand boards and wax were hastily handed out, and the drivers set off again, leaving us stood coughing in their spewed sand, to meet us at the bottom; pretty much forcing us to either board down, or stay at the top. Knowing how cold the desert gets at night, we swallowed the lumps in our throats, swapped messages of love and farewell, and took the plunge. One word: Awesome. Two words: Super awesome.  The last one was at least fifty metres of sheer, sandy face from top to bottom, steeper than I would think possible without gravity forcing the whole hill to just collapse, and I still feel dizzy just thinking about it, but I will never forget plucking up the courage, and pushing myself over that drop. Never.

So between the beaches, glaciers, plazas and deserts, so far Peru could almost represent an absolutely perfect travelers’ playground. It really does seem custom made for it. We find ourselves open-mouthed a lot; trying to look in all directions at once, almost feeling exhausted by options of what to do, where to go. The best might still be to come. Our next stop is Cusco, The Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu.  Thanks for being there with us.

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Tiago on

Too frikken awesome!!
Deserts, beaches and glaciers. You guys really are having a blast!

Yolanda on

Absolutely amazing! What an awesome adventure! Hope you had a great birthday Kez! Wishing you all the best! Lots of love x

A.G. on

Awesome guys! You do an amazing job with your blog - it's great reading! Really cool to read about your Peruvian experiences in some less known places, it's opening up a whole new country to me. Keep having a great time.

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