There is a big difference between the Living in Peru kind of travel and the Backpacking in Peru kind. In the first, you have a beautiful apartment that you love. You make french press coffee while you listen to streaming NPR. You wave at the CostaGas propane company man because he’s been to your house three times to help you fix your leaking stove. You invite all your friends over and laugh about inside jokes. Living in Peru was a deliciously slow paced, sometimes sunny, always full of friends, and usually wonderful three months. But last week, Cameron and I emptied out our apartment, stored our big backpacks at our lovely downstairs neighbors’ house, and climbed back into our traveling shoes. We were off to Chachacpoyas, nine hours by bus and at the end of the paved road.
Chachapoyas is in the Northern Highlands of Peru on th edge of the Amazonian region (see our trip on this map). The 15 kilometers surrounding Chachas was paved about 10 years ago, and we were really happy to learn that in the last few years the dirt road has been smoothed and packed, leaving it much more easily traveled that our guidebook (the 2003 version) led us to believe. Turned out that even a packed road doesn’t guarentee that your bus will show up, but we’ll get to that later.
Arriving in Chacas, I was drunk on the excitement of being back on the road. The colors were the first thing that got to me. The blue mountains, the green of actual trees (I was so deprived of trees in sandy, dusty, Huanchaco), the bright pink and yellow skirts of the women in the market. Away from the comfort of Huanchaco, my heart started singing.
It immediately became obvious that we had strayed from the Panamerican highway and the Gringo Trail, not to mention that rainy season is starting and the tourists and fled the moutains. The tour companies are running infrequently if at all and the public transport to the popular tour destinations are hibernating until next season. So our 2 hour public bus trip to get to see one of the cliff side burial sites of the Pre-Incan Chacapoyan people, turned into a full day and soaking wet affair. The way the public transportation works is that each combi (12 person vans) waits until it’s full and then takes off. If you’re trying to get to a a sparsly populated mountain town, that could be hours. Eventually we made it into the mountains, discovered there are no public buses to the Sarcophagi this time of year, and hired a cab to take us the rest of the way. Remember that smooth, packed dirt highway I mentioned? That highway is nowhere near these ruins, and this road was the opposite of smooth. Half way into our hour long ride on a road that was better suited to horses or dirt bikes that a taxi, the afternoon rain storm started. We were sure we’d have to turn around when our cab started slipping and sliding around the mountain road, but somehow we made it to the top. I was relived when the driver offered to wait for us while we hiked into the ruins because it was becoming obvious that otherwise we’d be walking.
As soon as the rain slowed to a Seattle-like dizzle, we started out, thankful for my gortex jacket and regretting my cotton pants. Without our hiking boots, we may have not made it because the entire desent to the Sarcophagi was one long clay/mud slip and slide. Soon, my coots had transformed into 2 inch high platforms as the mud continued to cake onto the soles. The Sarcophagi were beautiful, we didn’t see another soul on the entire trail, and much to our delight there was a dry taxi waiting for us an hour later. We even managed to get home by dark, which we had decided was key to our survival considering the incredibly steep switchback road carved into the mountainside that would take us back to our hotel in Chachapoyas.
And this was only out first day. After Chacas, we ventured even further off the beaten track. But I’ll save that story for tomorrow.