Desert Sands of Northern Perú

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, August 16, 2004

It was with great ambivalence that we departed from Vilcabamba - it sadly signified the end of a great experience in Ecuador, but on the other hand it meant that we were ready to embark upon an entirely new, and hopefully equally interesting, adventure in Perú.

Our final few hours in Ecuador we spent climbing to over 10,000 feet and dropping back to a mere 5,000, then climbing again, over and over through spectacular mountainous countryside until finally we reached the small town of Macará at the northern border of Perú. Of course the Channers managed to get lost one more time before leaving Ecuador.....the road signs just seemed to disappear, and we had travelled a good two hours before realizing our mistake. Fortunately, 'the road less travelled' had a decent surface and eventually brought us to the same destination!

Crossing the border into Perú was a piece of cake - especially compared to the significant expense and hours of hassle from border officials and touts alike at each border crossing in Central America. Heading south towards Piura, we were immediately struck by the distinct contrasts between southern Ecuador and northern Perú. The change in terrain meant that the mountainous curvy roads were replaced with straight, well-maintained highways, as far as the eye could see. Lush, highland cultivation was replaced with miles of flat and bare desert sand and dusty skies. We couldn't help but notice the garbage strewn along the roadsides, and the 'more than occasional' intensely strong smell of urine wherever we stopped in the desert towns and cities along the way.

It was difficult to imagine a major agricultural centre appearing in the midst of such a dry desert, but Piura, with it's population of over 300,000 is surrounded by large farms that use intensive irrigation to cultivate cotton, rice, corn and other crops, turning the desert into a green oasis. Unfortunately, this area and south to Chiclayo has several times been hit hard by disastrous "El Nino" floods, destroying roads, bridges and crops and turning the desert into the second largest lake in Perú.

Continuing southward along the Sechura Desert coast, we were finally able to cover significant distances along the 'straight-as-an-arrow' Panamerican Highway. Long stretches of endless sands lining both sides of the road were occasionally interspersed with areas of reclaimed desert, where irrigation channels brought water from the highland rivers to support large plantations of asparagus, sugarcane, onions, brightly coloured french marigolds, and even grapevines. Very basic reed and cardboard structures forming 'new towns' along the highway, housed the hundreds of plantation workers. However, in spite of the apparent poverty in the housing settlements, TV antennae dotted the skyline!

By the time we reached the Trujillo area, the Cordillera Negra foothills were beginning to close in from the east, providing some relief from the flat areas of desert. An overnight stay in the nearby laidback fishing village of Huanchaco brought yet another diversion - camping on the beach, we were able to observe the local fishermen in their totora reed cigar-shaped boats. Huanchaco brought back vivid memories of Weston-Super-Mare in England - the sandy beach along the horseshoe-shaped bay, the long pier jutting out to sea, and even the ponies decked out in all their finery for the youngsters to ride.

The colonial city of Trujillo is perhaps best known for the nearby ancient Chimu capital of Chan Chan. Constructed about 1300 AD, it covers almost 28 square km and is the largest pre-Colombian city in the Americas. However, little remains of the original mud city or the gold, silver and ceramics, as the Spaniards looted most of the treasure, and the heavy floods have severely eroded the mud structures. South of Trujillo, we stopped to climb on some of the huge, marching sand dunes - it was akin to being in a science fiction movie!

Next day brought us to Chimbote, Perú's largest fishing port. Unfortunately, as in many other areas of the world, overfishing here has led to an almost complete collapse of the fishing industry. We did notice however that some inhabitants have taken to fishing of another kind - fishing in someone else's pockets. While we were exploring the city, two young fellows managed to grab the Swiss army knife out of Gerry's trouser pocket. Noticing the slight tug, Gerry charged after them across the busy street (kicking butt all the way), while Sharon again came to the rescue, picking up the knife that had dropped onto the sidewalk in the scuffle!! Guess we've become rather complacent - we will have to take more care in future.

Finally turning inland from the dusty coast, we started our ascent into the beauty of the Peruvian highlands, or more specifically to the Callejón de Huaylas and the Cordillera Blanca. Following the Río Santa canyon, the road soon turned into a construction site with dozens of heavy equipment vehicles turning the mountainous curves into veritable gravel pits. Subsequently the road deteriorated into a scarcely distinguishable rocky track, with barely passable bridges and innumerable tunnels, first following the river and then climbing up through the starkly beautiful canyon. After eight hours, averaging little more than 25 km per hour, with fine gravel dust covered every square inch of the van and our bodies, we finally arrived in the small town of Caraz. However, the stunning scenery along the Cañón del Pato, and the anticipation of pristine snow-capped mountains somewhere ahead made it all worthwhile - especially after a cold beer and a hot shower!
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