Peru: Exploring the North

Peru is big. If you haven’t looked at it on a map before, I’ll wait. See? I told you! Peru. Is. Big. Like Australia big. Australia big in the sense that the distance from Point A to Point B on a map may be 5cm but will actually take 4 days of driving, a mule train and a river crossing on foot. Oh and pack some oxygen as it is highly likely you will be in altitude and experience varying degrees of sickness. From ‘Oh I am a bit out of breath’ to ‘I’m gonna need to stop for at least 30 minutes to regain consciousness’. Ofcourse being the prepared travellers that we are – we knew all of this months prior to arriving and properly planned how we would encounter this grandeous country. I’m joking. We discovered this on our night bus from Ecuador to Peru when we looked at our Lonely Planet, opened up ‘Peru’ and thought ‘Oh crap – Peru is big!’. And just so we could really appreciate its size – we arrived at the top. If Peru was a well dressed English man our arrival town of Mancora was the top hat, Lima is the elbow and Cusco is the knee cap. Now that isn’t completely to scale but you get my drift. Basically places are faaaaarrrrrrrr apart from eachother.

In the last 3 weeks we have spent over 90 hours travelling on buses alone. Some luxurious and spacious others not so. In between our bus marathons we have been climbing mountains at high altitude, watching local parades and election campaigns, talking to shamans offering hallucinogenic Ayuasca and San Pedro ceremonies, shopping at Witchs markets and regular markets, excavating Pre-Incan ruins (Indiana Jones eat your heart out), searching for comida vegetariano in a country of carnivores and working on our spanish in many weird and wonderful situations. Discovery a slice of the North has been spectacular and every town has been new and exciting and different. I am aware of how lucky we are with our open plan. Many travellers are time poor and are only able to scratch the (over scratched) surface of the Inca Trail. There is SO much more to Peru then Machu Pichu which we have discovered. These weeks have been some of the most eye opening, jaw dropping, ‘holy shit – THIS is the South America you dream about’ moments of the last 3 months. I am so grateful we decided to slowly make our way down the country instead of flying straight to the capital or Cusco/Cuzco.

We crossed the Peruvian border at the coast and arrived in Mancora at 11pm. We took a Moto Taxi to our Hostel which was all locked up and were suddenly stranded at midnight. Taking the advice of our 15 year old driver we were placed on the doorstep of a 5 star resort with no other option. We ended up paying a crazy amount for 8 hours of sleep, checked out the next day and boarded a bus to Chiclayo. Mancora is filled with Gringos and yeah it does sound kind of bad to turn on your own kind. But if I wanted to go to a beach and drink cocktails with loud Australians and purchase floopy hats and mesh bikinis I would go to the Gold Coast. I think we have become prejudice about our own country. Whilst volunteering in Ecuador one night around the dinner table we were talking about backpacker stereotypes of different countries. It came to Australia and a non-Aussie pointed out that Australia’s stereotype was that we don’t like other Australian backpackers. Yes, this is true. Anyway back to Mancora, beaches covered in plastic bags and black sand and the water temperature was below freezing. I am sorry Ok, I am a beach snob. But any Australian is. We are just ruined for tropical holidays – I have learnt this becoming an adult. The same way South America makes me appreciate clean air, clean water and not putting my poo paper in an open bin next to me. The little things.

From Mancora we boarded one of the not so luxurious buses to Chiclayo. When we arrived at our hostel our booking had been lost and they were full. It was 10pm and again, we were homeless. The Wikipedia page for Chiclayo lists the city’s nickname as ‘The Capital of Friendship’. A title I would be proud to endorse after our few days. Our taxi driver took us to 4 other hostels around the city until we found a place that had room – he was so delightful and city proud. When we arrived Chiclayo was in a ‘Code Yellow’ sanitation crisis. Rubbish had not been picked up for weeks. The city was growing quicker then sanitation could keep up and the mixture of dog poop and wee, weeks of opened/spilled/uncollected trash on the street and 40 degree desert sun made a beautiful welcoming scent. But we hadn’t come to Chiclayo to smell it we had come to introduce ourselves to the Pre-Incan civilisation the Mochicas. We visited the Tomb of the SeƱor of Sipan and saw jewellery, bones, pottery, textiles and artifacts centuries old in a pristine museum. We learnt about the Mochicas Adobe pyramids, similiar to the Egyptians, and their death rituals. Too bad for the royal family if the king dies, everybody (including royal Llamas and dogs) are sacrificed to all live together in the afterlife. We also learnt that all the jewellery that is now popular (turquoise costume jewellery, owls, aztec) were worn thousands of years ago. We also had a photo shoot out the front with locals who couldn’t believe how tall and white we were – one lady squeezed in between Trent and I and exclaimed she was in a ‘Blanco Sanduche’ aka white sandwhich. Her friends thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. I wish I got a photo of them, they were adorable. A reflection of how off the tourist trail we were.




From Chiclayo we headed 12 hours North – East to the Andean town of Chachapoyas. The Chachapoyas region is an archeological DisneyLand and so much of the region is left undiscovered. Tombs and sites dating back BEFORE time was even recorded are left untouched as street dogs and cats make homes out of them and locals leave their rubbish in them. The fortress of Kuelap is the main reason to visit the area, its extensive ruins rivalling those of Machu Picchu in terms of scale, height and mystery AND without the crowds are truly an ancient wonder. Located 3’000m above sea level in the clouds of the Andes, the Fortress is an archeological marvel and I spent the whole day with my jaw dropped as we walked around the ruins, much of the housing and structures still in tact. It is said that construction started around the 6th Century and the Chachapoyas people ruled this area until the Incas took over in 1460. That’s a long rein! The site is incredible but a real threat to the ruins is the lack of funding from the Government as the site is not supported or maintained and you are allowed to freely walk around. An example of how much importance is placed on Kuelap is when you look at it next to Machu Picchu. Entry into Kuelap is around $5 whereas Machu Picchu is around $60 – seems a bit ridiculous to us considering the history of both. That day we also drove around the mountains and viewed burial sites built on the edge of a cliff. Some of those sites have been excavated and perfectly preserved mummies were found. These people would have had to free climb cliff faces thousands of meters high whilst holding onto their dead. And these sites were regularly visited every year to honour their dead. And all this was done without harnesses or The North Face jackets – incredible!





From Chachas we headed back West and then South to the city of Trujillo which still retains some Spanish colonial beauty. We spent some time wondering around the Old Historic town filled with beautiful and colourful buildings and visiting the nearby fishing town of Huanchaco – known for their continued use of ancient boats made of reeds. But Trujillo is famous for its position next to the largest Pre-Columbian ruins in the Americas – Chan Chan. Hiring a guide to take us around one of the 9 Royal Palaces we learnt about the Chimu people – another pre- Incan civilisation that flourished until the Incans took over (standard). The site is incredible and freaking GIANT. Located in the desert but only a Kilometer from the beach – the Chimu people were great fisherman and worshiped the sea. The palace is filled with carvings of fish, fruits and vegetables and sea creatures. Our guide told us this was a reflection on the Chimu’s being a ‘sensitive and soft’ civilisation and favouring nature over war. This was a real juxtaposition as our guide at Kuelap had told us that the Chachapoyas were the fiercest warriors. The Chachapoyas and the Chimu people even traded with eachother even though they were WEEKS away from each other. Chimu shells were found at the Fortress of Kuelap and seeds and nuts only found at Kuelap were found in Chan Chan. Mind blown. We also visited the Temple of the Sun and Moon which was a place for High Priests to perform rituals and ceremonies – generally sacrifices to the gods, mostly women who were drugged and then killed. Seems like a terrifying way to die but the guide reminded us it was a true honour. This temple belonged to the Mochicas who we learnt about back in Chiclayo – they really spread them selves out. And to think the Incas get all the press?




On the road again we continue to head South to Huaraz – which sits at 3’100m. Huaraz is famous for its incredible Cordillea Blanco mountain range filled with snowcapped peaks and Peru’s highest mountain ( Huascaran 6’700m) – we did not climb it. We did however climb to Laguna 69 and the highest peak was 4’700m. If you are wondering what it feels like to hike to 4’700m the day after coming from sea level I suggest you fill your pants with 10kg of rocks, imagine the worst buzzing headache of your life hit yourself in the head with a hammer and then get on a cross trainer for 7 hours. The end result is self inflicted pain. This hike took us over 7hours and was incredibly painful. It did include laughs, yells and tears but we got some great photos so it’s totally worth it, Trent professes that he ‘wasn’t as affected as me’ but I was there, I know. Honestly it was truly beautiful and stunning and I am very proud of myself BUT I don’t like feeling like I am on the biggest loser whilst exercising. When we reached the summit I soaked it all in then fell asleep on a pile of rocks. Safe to say we took a rain-check on the 4 day hike in the same range that we had planned. The next couple of days I was bed ridden from a bad case of exhaustion and altitude sickness and realised that hiking at altitude before properly acclimatising is dangerous stuff. My life long dream of being a professional snow climber would have to be put on the back burner.




Leaving Huaraz and now addicted to bus travel we continued South to Lima. We originally were going to simply pass through the Capital but had been told it isn’t as bad as its reputation. Lima was a strange mix of Peruvian opulence and Western influence. For starters in the high end district of Miraflores which is located on the water, the boardwalk is lined with Californian Palm Tree’s and people exercising for leisure. We had not seen this in the North – it is simply not done. We had a strange twilight zone moment as a Peruvian roller-skated past us.. Were we in Santa Monica? We had just spent 8 hours driving through desert communities without roofs and sanitation and had arrived into a weird mix of Southern California and Sydney. The strangest thing about Lima was all of the English spoken. Waiters rudely corrected our Spanish asking us to order in English, guys trying to sell us drugs because we are ‘Ozzie and you like party party’ and hearing painful Australians just talking English at people who clearly didn’t understand them. See I told you we were prejudice. Just not what we had been around so we were having some Western culture shock. However the best thing about Lima was the supermarket – I stocked up on Gluten Free snacks – pasta yay!




We boarded our 22 hour bus and ended up in backpacker central – Cusco. Travelling around the North of Peru has been wonderful and we have explored so many different settings I am amazed looking at my own photos. But we must continue to move on and explore more that this country has to offer. Hoping to visit Machu Picchu then onto Puno and the Lake Titicaca floating islands. Adios!