Saturday, January 30, 2016

Peru 2... More Mountains, More Dirt

We used and abused the fugly coast of Peru purely for it's flat highways to cover ground quickly, before heading back into the mountains through the deep and narrow Cañon del Pato (Duck Canyon). The road started off uneventful, but eventually and abruptly became a horribly dusty dirt track chalked full of washboard ruts. It's redeeming quality was the cool hand carved tunnels that this road is full of. Soon we were in the heart of the canyon, so close to the bottom and narrow that you could have spit and hit the opposing wall! We passed through a handful of dusty ghost towns, just a short row of dust covered old shops and houses, without an open door or soul to be seen. There would be a small graveyard set in the hill and maybe a long ago abandoned rusty shell of a car, but no signs of life. That is until Mallary got out and walked down the road for a picture, and as she is standing in the middle of the road with the camera, an old raspy voice comes from nowhere with a sweet but surprising "hola mamita". So there is life!! It is a mystery of what life might be like way out here away from civilization, where the steep rocky walls don't allow for cultivation or raising any animals. In hindsight we should have sparked up a conversation with the lone old woman, but sadly our thoughts at the time were soley on hauling butt! The road thankfully turned to pavement at some point and the tunnels became longer and more complex, the longest of them even having cool dug out windows that gave a glance into the canyon as we drove through the pitch black one lane darkness, hoping that we wouldn't all the sudden see headlights coming our way! Interspersed throughout the five hour drive in the canyon were a total of 38 tunnels dug out from the solid rock... One of the most unique drives we've had to date!!!

Honk the Horn

After many hours, the road gained enough altitude to escape out of the canyon and into the stunning Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains). Hello glacier capped peaks and pristine turquoise lakes! Getting it's name from the year round snow and glaciers, this area attracts hikers from all over the world with its many campsites and trails crisscrossing the region. The Cordillera Blanca is beckoning us to explore! Sadly, we had to settle with just a couple hikes, wisely choosing what we were going to do in this region in order to make it to Cusco in time for a family vacation! After resting from the long drive for a night at a comfortable 7,000 ft, we managed to get Lola up a gnarly road to the shores of Lago Parón. We needed a baby hike to acclimate, and this few short hours around the stunning turquiose glacier lake was perfect, as we huffed and puffed trying to convince our lungs we wouldn't completely run out of oxygen! The trail along the lake provided perfect views of Volcan Pirimade, somewhat famous since it is supposedly the inspiration to the mountain seen in the opening to Paramount Pictures movies. Whether or not it is true has been up for debate for some time, but the resemblance is there! Before dusk we found ourselves bundled up to fight off the cold. At around 14k feet the breathing was a bit difficult even on flat ground. That, along with a combo of poor acclimatization choices and repeated bathroom breaks outside in the bitter cold made for horrible sleep! Our bodies probably spent the night frantically gasping for air as we slept, a high altitude phenomenon called periodic breathing. (Normally your breathing slows in sleep anyway, but up high your body is also tricked into an even lower respiratory rate because of a relative low carbon dioxide level after a day full of heavy breathing. The drive to breath is essentially switched off. However, with already low amounts of oxygen present in the air and in your blood, this causes an even lower oxygen saturation, which eventually triggers your mind to take a huge gasp for air after a few long pauses. Not exactly a productive way to get some zzzz's.) Although free and stunningly beautiful, that campsite left us with altitude induced headaches and bloating as we left the next morning tired and grumpy. In hindsight, we should have headed back down a couple thousand feet for sleeping! Learning as we go here...

Beautiful but painful campsite
The color of the water is mind blowing
Just imagine the Paramount Picture stars surrounding this peak behind us

In the quest for better camping (ie warmer and more oxygen), we headed toward Llanganuca Lodge because of their disclaimer of having the best views in the Cordillera. On the way there we needed to resupply some rations at a random village. One big positive for Peru so far, is that they have some of the best street markets we've seen! Peru having literally every growing climate possible spread around the country, including the lush rainforests and jungles, there is an abundance of tropical as well as cold weather foods everywhere you go! Delicous fruits, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, olives, and spices all laid out on rows of tarps sold by weathered old women, most of whom are outfitted in fancy traditional dresses and hats. After chatting them up and buying their produce, we would politely ask if we could take a picture with them and sursprisingly they were all very adamantly against it. So, we left the market with tons of good veggies, having the lovely smiles of those vendors forever imprinted only in our memories.

Weighing potatoes
Dried peppers
Watch out for the cords and tarps everywhere!!
Can we have a pet chick in the car?!?
Near the flower market, street dog gets a bed of flowers for her and her puppies

Stocked up on fresh food, we headed up the long dirt road along fields of flower farms to the lodge. This place was uber cool, kind of like a trekkers paradise, complete with million dollar views and grazing pet llamas out front near the hammocks. If you had a decent amount of money and wanted to come to Peru to go trekking for a bit, this lodge has everything you need including fresh cooked meals and handwritten trail outlines which are all accessible from the property. On the other hand, if you are self sufficient, on a budget, have something worthy to trade for a place to sleep in your car between hiking a bit, this was also your place! Llanganuco is run by Charlie, a young quirky British fellow who is a trekking enthusiast and seemed to get a kick out of making vulgar comments out of everything. Upon arrival Charlie pulled out a pulse oximeter to see what our oxygen sats were, which we would later have to document next to our names in the registration book alongside the rest of the hypoxic guests before us. We had spent the day around 7,000 ft before making that last climb to Llanganuco at 11,000 ft, not to mention we literally just booked it up a few flights of stairs the minute before, and as a result we both impressivly had sats in the 80s!!! We would be slapping on some oxygen if we were Mallary's patients in the hospital right now, holy crap no wonder we were out of breath!! Next, Charlie pulled out his trekking books and found a famous trekker who shared our names to tell us about, and wouldn't you know, there is a Mallory and a Chris famous in his world for something or other! The arrival welcome continued as we sipped some coca tea and got acquainted with Charlie's wife, mother, baby boy Jacques (of course named after the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau), and his two huge dogs. We got stocked up with trail guides and tips, and headed back down to the car to make a game plan. Plus, we were eager to see who was in the sweet early 90's Toyota parked next to us down in the grassy lot!! Once we met Ashley and Richard, road name DeskToGlory, out of Vancouver, Canada, we immediately knew we would be able to kick it with them. They were the first people we had met in a while who were also rocking a high mileage older vehicle, and living a super basic lifestyle on the road like ourselves. No big fancy truck or amenities, just out for an overland adventure, throwback style like us!

Making friends over a cup of coca tea
Toyota party

We had originally planned on doing another small hike before conquering the world class hike up to Laguna 69, but after enjoying the company of our neighbors so much, we were easily convinced to just join our new friends and get straight to it early the next morning. It didn’t take long to see why this trail is so famous, as we started off in a scenic valley before ascending through talus slopes where we could see stunning peaks in all directions. We arrived at the destination roughly four hours later, after one final steep ascent where we slowly and steadily flew past hoards of breathless tourists with cyanotic lips and even one guide administering oxygen to a struggling woman. Apparently not everyone on the trail decided to acclimate like we had, hiking to 15,000ft ain't no joke! At the top we turned a corner and behind the deep purple alpine flowers saw one of the most beautiful lakes imaginable! The unbelievably bright turquoise Laguna 69 sat under a majestic backdrop of sharp peaks and corniced glacier ice. Occasionally avalanches would tumble down from the upper reaches in a torrent of noise and chaos and crash down into the lake. We enjoyed the sunshine, good company, and views over a picnic lunch at the waters edge... this may go down as our favorite day hike ever!

Hiking with friends is better than hiking alone any day!
Laguna 69
A regular colored lake on the way down

Ominous clouds started rolling in, maybe a good time to head back we agreed. We hoped we could make it out dry, but that last hour was spent in the rain and hail. It didn’t phase the spirits, we were amped on the whole hike and especially that we got sunshine for most of the day. That night we stayed up with our new buds chatting and sharing travel stories and many laughs. Before heading off the next day we got in some more time with the always entertaining Charlie, some last minute snuggles with Jacques and the dogs, and said goodbye (for now) to Richard and Ashley. Our brief time in the Cordillera Blanca only sparked the desire to come back for more someday, but for now it was time to race off toward Cusco.

Flower fields below

To make up time we chose to cruise south back on the speedy coastal highway... again... yes, it’s dispacable, but hey we needed to cover over a thousand miles! Two hours out from Lima little shacks started popping up here and there along the barren dunes, then an hour out from Lima sprawling post apocalyptic looking neighborhoods became more common, until it just became one big hazey mess of little buildings leading us into the modern capital city of Peru! Totally would never expect that a city of 10 million, would be its own urban oasis set in a lifeless desert that surrounds it.

Scattered desert shacks. Possibly Steven Spielbergs idea for sand people
Desert neighborhood
Getting closer to Lima!

Things were going smoothly until we reached Lima, then as we crept along the highway in an onslaught of angry and crazy drivers through stop and go traffic, we suddenly heard an odd squealing sound coming from the rear axle. Within a few more miles the unnerving sound became more metallic and more violent. Something was very wrong. We needed a mechanic asap! Miraculously, iOverlander showed a 4x4 mechanic less than three miles away. After a couple of weeks of driving mostly through the middle of freaking nowhere, we knew that the overland gods must have been on our side for this problem, and slogged our way to a shop called AutoLac for a diagnosis. The owner, Renzo, got us into the crowded shop quickly and made a prompt diagnosis the we needed new rear wheel bearings. After 15,000 hard miles down the PanAm it was about time that Lola had something to replace other than oil! We would be stuck in Lima for a couple days while waiting on the parts, but Renzo took us in like old friends, understanding our time crunch and prioritized our work, personally overseeing the job. He eventually pointed us to the only hotel within walking distance of the shop, which we naively checked into, only later to realize that other customers here were using the "pay by the hour" system offered!! Oopps!! Looks like we landed ourselves in a well disguised "love hotel" for two nights!!! :/ Needless to say, we will be spending most of our time holed up in the shop's waiting room or at the nearby mall!

Renzo hovering. :)

By the time the parts had arrived from Peru's Toyota warehouse, and installed, two days had wasted away. To hastily make up some time, we left Lima and drove until 1am, long past reccomended driving hours, and overnighted in a 24 hour gas station for the first time of our trip. The presence of two armed guards compensated for the disturbing thought that we are in one of the more dangerous parts of the country. Early the next morning, at the end of their shift, one of the gaurds woke us up knocking on the window asking for a small tip, which we gladly obliged... we slept like babies in that gas station thanks to him! With the wakeup call, we jumped up and kept the pedal floored until we came to the Nazca Lines. Most of the lines are well designed geoglyphs of animals, insects, plants, and even an extraterrestrial martian dude created roughly two thousand years ago by the Nazca people. Before arriving we had the impression that these lines would be mysterious and complex, leaving us to question how they could be created by man with primitive tools. The reality is that they are actually just 4-6 inch deep trenches, the color contrast in shallow sediments and soil creates the lines. To us, the more interesting question is how the hell did these shallow trenches survive for all these years?!? Wikipedia says that it is the unique environment lacking wind and rain that has kept them preserved. And while we are sure that is partially true... we did see a display at one tiny museum showing pictures of the community "touching up" the figures. Hmmmmm.... The lines are best observed from expensive hired bushplanes, but we chose to view what we could from a couple shaky viewing platforms along the road. Honestly, from ground level this UNESCO site is just plain underwhelming. Of course you can only see one or two figures from the road anyway. Oh well, worth a quick stop. If you're ever in the area, maybe try the plane thing and let us know what you think!

The GPS showed the figures! Here is the tree, via GPS and viewing platform.
The nearby Palpa Lines
One and a half days later, through Vicuña (a relative of the camel) inhabited desolate terrain and high plateaus, we reached Cusco! Holy crap, we actually made it there 2 days before Mallary's family arrives!
Coming next, Jamisons Do Peru!



Friday, January 15, 2016

Northern Peru

Leaving Ecuador via La Balsa was smooth as silk, and after crossing the bridge into Peru we found ourselves walking into a shipping container converted into an Immigration Office. Our first Peruvian interpersonal experience kicked off with a friendly, yet very peculiar Customs Officer. The typical bureaucratic paperwork for the car's temporary import permit began, and right off the bat it seemed like we were on one of those TV shows where the unsuspecting customers are being pranked. In our case, the officer would slide Chris a document and ask him to fill in some of the blanks, but before Chris could even put pen to paper the officer would pull the paperwork away. Over and over this would happen. He was overly meticulous in filling out the handwritten document, and unnecessarily checking and rechecking each and every word and shuffling the paperwork around. Meanwhile, he was distracted every few minutes with curious questions about us and once he found out Mallary is a nurse, he asked a few times if we had vaccines that we could give him. Ummmm, NO! We tried hard not to get caught laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole situation as a five minute process evolved into almost two hours long. Punctuating the ordeal was the officer’s frequent coughing fits that were so violent that he had to run outside, spit phlegm and slowly recover before coming back in. Seriously just the most peculiar of behaviors.

With our paperwork complete, and fingers crossed we did not catch his Tuberculosis or whatever he had, we pushed south into the rural countryside, surprisingly filled with bright green rice patties and tuk-tuks cruising the streets. Seeming great already, Peru did come with a reputation that caused us a bit of concern. Many northbound travelers told us stories of bad roads, trash covered streets, and rampant police checkpoints forcing bribes. And, even one story about some villagers using firearms in attempted robberies. To make matters worse for us, tinted windows like ours are illegal in Peru unless you have the difficult to acquire "Lunar Permit" allowing it. One unlucky northbound traveler was pulled over and harassed into giving money to the officer because he needed money to buy lunch. What the heck?? We estimated that it would require 2,500 miles of driving to traverse the country….the odds are not in our favor of making it through unscathed! Our first mission was to make it to a town where we could buy insurance without getting pulled over... Lucky for us we made it to the steamy town of Jaén and bought insurance without a problem, before making camp at a wierd little "thermal baths" place, which was essentially just some people who put rocks out in the river and called it a bath... Hello Peru... We think we are going to love your quirkiness!

Thermal baths in the background
This is going to be a slow 2,500 miles at this rate...

After a couple days of navigating our way through the rugged mountains of northern Peru, we arrived at the imposing Incan ruins of Kuelap (6°25′07″ S 77°55′24″ W). Due to its remote location, this mountain top fortress sees few visitors, and when we arrived late this misty afternoon we nearly had the whole place to ourselves. We didn’t know much about Kuelap before arriving, so it was surprisingly impressive, with it’s grandiose 360° stunning views around the large neighborhoods comprised of more than 400 circular houses. The whole place is set atop massive architecturally sound stone walls, and even complete with some fancy gemetrical interior design. The main purpose of Kuelap remains a mystery til this day... fortress, vacation homes, and a retreat from other more vulnerable areas are the suspects, but one thing is sure that its placement on top of a steep mountain at 10,000 something feet high sure makes it seem untouchable. We just couldn't help but wonder what would it have been like to live in such a place back in the 16th century???

For perspective play a little game of Where's Chris
All of the 400 some houses had roofs like this back in the day
10 second timed photo feature is our favorite!
Puppies and ponies in front of ancient walls

Not yet tired of the great views, and not ready to get back on the bumpy road that brought us here, we slept in the parking lot that night, Lola being dwarfed by a super intersting overlander whose rig (known as an UniMog) was such a monster that it could have been ample for taking over small countries! An added bonus to the night was our very own temporary dog for the stay. (This happens nearly everywhere we go.) This little cutie hapened to be sweetest little pregnant dog ever and we reveled in spoiling her until the sad moment when we climbed in bed and she looked up at us begging to join. As much as we loved her, that was just not going to happen in our bed. Just go ahead and break our hearts as you crawl under the car for the night and dissapear by morning little baby. :(

Cooking dinner with a view!

A day later, we made a stop at the mummy museum in Leymebamba. Once again, we did not know what to expect, and as we wandered through the rooms full of artifacts and burial offerings we wondered if in fact we were going to see real mummies or what?! But just as we were about to exit, admittedly feeling let down, we spotted a dark unmarked room with big glass windows. Intrigued, we pressed our faces to the glass and squinted through the darkness at a room with difficult to discern outlines and possibly human like faces! What could be in here? We looked around, and with no one to stop us tried a few random light switches until one finally lit up the room behind the glass... then jumped back a bit as the well preserved mummies with horrifying faces came into clear view! The creep factor was pretty high as we tried to take it all in... children, babies, and adults all folded into little fetal positions with decayed clothing and horrific facial expressions stared back at us! All these mummies came from the nearby region of the Lagunas de los Condores, where human remains were wrapped in cloth and put in tombs called chullpas high up in the cliffs. Five hundred some years later, they are still intact… haunting facial expressions and all, due to the specific embalming procedures used as well as the odd dry and cold microclimates of the chullpas. Very cool! We slipped out of there just in time to greet a swarm of local school kids on a field trip, taking hilarious selfies with their parents cellphones around every corner!

The "road" aka highway to hell quickly gained altitude out of Leymebamba and soon we were slowly slogging our way through dense fog over a high mountain pass, stopping to layer up on clothes as it got frigid. After an hour, the fog broke as fast as it appeared and we were able to see steep canyons and immenent death shooting down on one side of the road. For close to eight hours we crept along the adrenaline inducing road that hugged the cliffside, honking the horn around every narrow bend in hopes that we could avoid a head on collision in the worst possible place imaginable! Lets be real, the only thing stopping a careless driver from dropping thousands of feet to certain death were a few tufts of grass... and it was exhilarating! :) The nerve-wracking twisty road eventually dropped close to ten thousand feet down to a scorchingly hot riverside town based in an oasis of heaps of mango trees. Time to stretch the legs, eat some juicy sun ripened fresh mangos, and of course for Chris to get bloodflow get back to his white knuckles before heading right back up into the mountains to the next pass! Best. Road. Ever.

The road cut into the mountainside
View of a lifetime, hopefully not the last view of a lifetime!
Caved in road next to steep cliff...
Mango tree oasis down there!
The half way there reward
Not usually big shoulders like this, but best place for a safe photo!
Oh shit

We stopped over in another random town called Belén, a quirky tall white hat loving place where we had the choice of a gated parking lot to sleep in or a nice hotel room for just $12... Not a hard decision. That night we went to most crowded restaurant in town, which happened to be in the lobby of the hotel, to try some of the famous Peruvian food that the country is known for. Ironically, we had possibly the most unappetizing food of the trip yet! What gives?!? Sometimes ya just make a bad menu choice and hope it doesn't represent the country at all!!

The streets of Belén
White hat paparazzi
Vote for the tall white hat. Vote Jorge.

Two days later and many more treacherous miles, we reached the ocean. To say that the coastline in Peru is ugly would be a very generous compliment. It’s possible that the most putrid and miserable place on Earth is right here on the coast. Most of Peru’s coast is void of typical seaside items such as palm trees, sunshine, quaint towns with boardwalks. Here bleak, vegetation-less desert spans from the mountains to the edge of the sea. The coastal desert is covered in endless trash, slums, abandoned buildings, and is socked in by a gray haze nine months out of the year. Not to mention that there are miles and miles of 20ft high brick walls that sheild absolutely nothing but sand behind them, cordoning off plots of useless land. We only had one word to describe it: Baghdad.

Trash fires on the side of the road
Gated desert
Someone said hola from the depths of this trash house as we creeped by... Promptly scaring us away!

During our time cruising through Peru, we would meticulously roll down all windows to hide the tint job at the first glimpse of a police checkpoint, which there are many. To try and prevent any hassles we would go as far as pulling over before a check point to wait for a large truck to hide behind or for a moment when the cops looked too busy to flag us! This couldn't work forever though, and while cruising through the wasteland, an older big bellied policia flagged us over. He smugly walked over to the car chewing noisily on a bag of chips, throwing his plastic wrapper on the ground as he stepped up to the drivers side. Raise up your window, he gestured in hand motions. A smirk crossed his face as he quickly examined the limo tint, "your tint is illegal, that is an infraction" he said in Spanish. Based upon this cocky guys attitude, already we knew we had two moves left in the playbook….pay a bribe on the spot or play dumb. We looked at each other and in a moment of telepathy decided that it is time to play dumb. "Lo siento, no entiendo" (translation: I’m sorry, I don’t understand) we replied, and with added effect we threw off all proper pronunciation of the words. The cop seemed unphased, possibly encountering the same moves before. He continually pressed the issue on paying an "infraction", and that we couldn’t drive, while now cooly spitting sunflower shells out of the corner of his mouth. After a solid five minutes of neither of us budging, he finally said in a voice of disbelief "you really don’t know Spanish!?" Of course, we understood everything he was saying, but still looked at each other pretending not to. In a way it hurt the soul, and felt embarrassing to act so ignorant and nieve, but hey we didn’t want to pay up! Having a very serious overlander responibility of not paying bribes and encouraging the process, we would do anything to get out of this smuck's game of stealing from foriegners. Finally, totally frustrated with us, he told us to get lost. We pulled away laughing over our narrow miss, continued on down the Panamerica hoping that would be our last call in Peru.

We lucked out in Baghdad that night though, as we found our way to a hostel that was more like a commune at the time, temporarily being run by a bunch of travelers while the owner was away. They let us park and camp out in the front yard of this little oasis hidden behind a tall wall on the beach front. This group of randoms turned out to be quite the fun bunch, and we had an awesome night out in the ugly little beach town of Huanchaco. The hostel was cozy and had tons of character, the cheap burger place was a surprise with it's tastiness, the bar down the road shook up some pretty decent mojitos, and the people were all pretty damn fantastic! Maybe just what we needed to challenge our harsh opinion of the coast of Peru, in one quick night! Peru hasn't seized to surprise us with its randomness yet, can't wait to see what in world else will it throw at us this next month!!

A rose among the depressing coastline