A Travellerspoint blog

A snippet of Peru

From Iquitos to Mancóra through Peru's northern highlands

sunny 22 °C

There are only two ways of leaving Iquitos – by boat or by plane. Given that we were now on a rather tight schedule to get to Ecuador for our first stab at volunteering, taking a flight was the obvious choice. Here as well, there are only two direct options – you can either fly to Lima, the capital, or to Tarapoto, a sizeable town squeezed between the foot of the Andes and the edge of the jungle. We picked Tarapoto because this seemed a straighter and more adventurous way of getting to Ecuador than flying via Lima. From Tarapoto, the journey to Ecuador leads through the northern highlands and the surfer town of Mancóra. The northern highlands are home to the ruins of Kuélap which is heralded by some as the “other Machu Picchu”. Given that we decided to miss out on Peru's star archaeological site for this year's sabbatical, Kuélap appealed immediately as a fine substitute. Mancóra is one of Peru's top beach spots and sounded like a fun and well-deserved pit stop on a long trip to Ecuador.

Rice fields as you climb the hills out of the Amazon

Rice fields as you climb the hills out of the Amazon

We arrived in Tarapoto around 4pm and hurried to the street with the various bus offices in a moto-taxi. It wasn't very clear, from the information we had before, how long the journey to Chachapoyas (the nearest town to Kuélap) would take, nor if there were going to be any more colectivos from Pedro Ruiz (where we needed to change) to Chachapoyas once we got there. After asking around for a bit, we managed to get on a 5pm bus which should have arrived in Pedro Ruiz by 11pm. The road first led through a plain with beautiful rice fields and then started climbing the Andean slopes offering some stunning views. Night fell and we continued driving along the curvy road. We stopped in a small town along the way so the bus drivers could get some dinner and the passengers a toilet break. Thirty minutes later we drove on. Eventually it was past 11pm and most of the bus was asleep. The bus boy asked if he could turn off the video (generally always an awful film) and with the silence, we gave in to sleep as well. When we finally turned into Pedro Ruiz at 1am, we were mentally prepared to spend the night there. But we were lucky...

Following inquiries at the only open shop and various food stalls for the night crowd, we found an older lady who wanted to go to Chachapoyas too and a colectivo driver willing to make the journey there at this late hour. Colectivos in this part of the world are in fact shared taxis where each of the four passengers pays a fourth of the normal taxi fare to get to the destination. In this case, Dave and I quickly agreed to pay the fare for three passengers as we weren't willing to wait around until a fourth one turned up in the middle of the night. Frankly, at this hour I would have been happy to pay the whole fare (40 Soles, about USD14.50) if necessary. By 2:30am, we were standing in front of the door of our hotel in Chachapoyas wondering how on earth we were going to get in. All the lights were out and there didn't seem to be a night guard. We knocked repeatedly and phoned several times but no one answered. On top of that it was raining heavily. After trying for half an hour to get someone's attention, we decided to go look for another place though we didn't have much hope of finding more life elsewhere. This is when I spotted the door bell. We rang a couple of times and gave it a few more minutes as we had nothing to loose, and finally a very sleepy man came to open the door. Without much questioning, he ushered us into the first room he found and disappeared back to his bed. We crawled under our covers as well, happy to have made it somewhere safe and warm.

Gocta waterfall

Gocta waterfall

We took things easy the next morning and only got up around 9:30am. We knew this was going to be too late to join a tour for Kuélap but we thought that we might be able to see the Catarata de Gocta, a 771-meter waterfall also in the vicinity of Chachapoyas. Since another guest from the hotel wanted to go to the fall, the hostal owner suggested to rent a colectivo taxi for the rest of the day and share the cost. This turned out to be an excellent idea and barely more expensive than taking a tour. Accessing the village that leads to the fall is difficult by public transport and you have to walk four steep kilometres up from the main road. Two French guys, also from our hotel but who had left earlier, opted to go this way as it is cheaper, but they were quite happy when we picked them up in our collectivo for the last couple of kilometres up the hill. It is recommended that you hire a guide in the village, which turned out to be rather unnecessary with the path to the falls being pretty straightforward. That said it's a nice way to support the community and the lady from Lima, who we were sharing the i]collectivo[/i] with, was quite happy that the guide could radio for a horse to carry her back to the village. The walk to the falls is not very long but still quite challenging with a hefty climb on the return leg. Altitude adds to the difficulty so many people opt for the horses.
The fall itself has two tiers, with the total drop measuring 771 metres which depending on who you believe, makes it somewhere between the fifth and the sixteenth highest waterfall in the world. At nearly 500 metres, the lower tier was impressive on its own however. You can walk right to the bottom of the fall and go swim in the icy-cold pool if the weather is nice. We didn't attempt it as it was cold enough with the spray and the wind generated by the falling water. The guide told us of the legend of a blacksmith and a mermaid who were guarding the falls with the blacksmith occasionally making some loud noise when working. In reality the noise comes from a strange natural phenomenon whereby gas builds up pressure underground then occasionally explodes out through the bottom of the falls. Back in Chachapoyas we booked our bus to the coast for the following evening. Because it was the end of the week's holiday following the Fiestas Patrias (National Independence Days), our preferred bus company was full but the one we ended up with was just fine (a question of your definition of a semi-cama (sleeper) seat). Having sorted ourselves we went out for a nice asado (BBQ) dinner with a Peruvian bottle of wine (not as bad as you may think).

The road to get to Kuelap

The road to get to Kuelap

The next morning we joined a tour for Kuélap, the ruins of a mountain-top fortress. The spectacular road to get there is mostly unpaved (though in fairly good condition) and sometimes clings to the mountain side in scary ways. Fortunately our driver wasn't in a hurry, unlike some others, which enabled us to enjoy the plunging vistas in a relaxed way rather than in fear. Kuélap sits on the top of a ridge at 3,100 metres. From the fortress, the Chachapoyas (or “People of the Clouds”, the pre-Incan civilisation who inhabited these lands and built the fort) had a strategic view of the surrounding valleys. Dave wasn't so impressed with the ruins itself, but the location is truly stunning and well worth the visit. I quite liked the ruins too. The vast majority of the thick outer wall remains standing and on the inside you can see where the round dwellings of the Chachapoyas once stood. Some of these dwellings are in better condition than others, with line decorations visible on the outside representing jaguars, eagles and snakes, three sacred animals for the Chachapoyas. One house has been fully reconstructed, including a steep straw roof to give visitors a better understanding of their original shape. Inside the house ruins, you could see fireplaces, stone channels where guinea pigs were kept, and holes in the floor where the bones of the dead were kept. The Chachapoya people believed that with the dead resting in the house their spirits would protect the family! Within the complex there was a large sun temple resembling an inverted cone from which the priests would conduct ceremonies. Closer to the military quarters, a separate platform allowed priests to pour animal blood mixed with magical herbs through a channel. The Chachapoya warriors would drink this empowering concoction prior to a battle.

But what I was most impressed by was the cunning entrance to the most protected part of the fort. This was in the form of a funnel, where at the end only one man could go through at a time. Within the funnel, there were a series of giant steps connected by wooden stairs that could be easily removed (most likely burned down) in times of conflict. The guide described the gruesome scene of the Chachapoyas raining arrows, stones and hot oil down on their enemies whilst they floundered on the giant steps. The second entrance wasn't much safer. In the form of a funnel too, it would lead on to a fake platform that would collapse under the weight of the invaders and fall down the steep mountain side. In the end it was the usual epidemics of cholera, measles and smallpox that the Spanish brought, which conquered the Chachapoyas. After visiting it, I'm still not sure whether Kuélap can substitute for Machu Picchu but I am glad we went. We definitely jumped on our night-bus without any regrets of having chosen this route through Peru's northern highlands.

Royal entrance

Royal entrance

We arrived in Chiclayo at 4am. For once the bus was on time even though we had hoped this one would be a bit delayed (allowing more sleep). Whilst I watched the bags Dave went in search of a recommended bus company that would take us on to Piura where we could change again for Mancora. It turned out their office was only two blocks down the road so we ventured out on the streets with our bags despite the darkness. We were amazed at how busy the various bus offices were at this early hour and had to wait until 6am to get a bus as the 5am was fully booked. Despite the many people travelling, we still couldn't find a bloody coffee though. Hot and a bit tired, we reached Mancora by lunchtime and after the afore-desired coffee and a juice in a road-side café we were ready to find a hostel. Mancora offers a lot of choice and if you're willing to spend more than 60 USD you can stay in some gorgeous places with swimming pool, wifi and beach-view room. Given our laptop was dead we decided to go for something cheaper and settled on a small place with two lovely little cabañas. In the end Omar, the owner, didn't have space in those so he put us up in his house which he usually reserves for groups of 10 or so. It was now the last weekend of the Fiestas Patrias and he didn't expect many more large Peruvian families to show (Casa y Bungalows Gonzalo, www.vivamancora.com/gonzalo, +51 972 820 946).

After taking a bit of rest we went shopping for swimming suits having forgotten ours by the pool in Iquitos, where we had hung them out to dry following our last dip. Finding a swimsuit in South America isn't easy for a European woman. Not only are the ladies a fair bit smaller, but they also have tendency to wear only skimpy little swimsuits which show a lot of flesh on your bum. I had to try on quite a few bikinis before finding the sexy brown, yellow and pink number I ended up buying (and which provides, just about, a respectable amount of coverage). I'm not sure yet whether I'll wear it on a beach in Europe but it will do for the Caribbean coast, our next top beach destination. A pisco sour stop later, and we managed to find something suitable for Dave too – some normal looking shorts, not revealing a lot of flesh. By that time it was dark and the hour of more pisco sours and dinner.

Self-potrait on Mancora beach

Self-potrait on Mancora beach

The next day, we chilled out on the beach in our new swim gear and took a dip in the Pacific. This was the first proper swim in this ocean for both of us, having previously only immersed our toes into the cold waters off California. Luckily the waters of Mancora were a touch warmer though still fresh. I managed to spend 15 minutes in the water so it couldn't have been that bad. Later on in the afternoon we tried our first ceviche of the trip in a beach bar. Ceviche is raw fish or seafood soaked in a copious amount of lime to “cook” it. It normally comes mixed with finely chopped onions, peppers, tomatoes and a touch of chilli, and served with fried plantains. We liked this dish greatly and would often look for it at lunch time in Puerto Lopez (Ecuador) as well. We didn't do much else in Mancora but it was easy to see how you could spend a few more days there. It proved to be exactly what we wanted it to be, a fun and lively beach town to have a quick rest in on our way to Ecuador. The following day we took the bus across the border to Guayaquil.

Here are some more pictures of our journey through northern Peru.

Posted by barbla 17:07 Archived in Peru

Table of contents

Comments

Had a quick catch up with the travel blog while in Brussels... good to hear Pisco Sours were on the menu... curious to see what we replace them with when I join the Barbla&Dave tour in Cartagena! :)

by Mark

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.

Login