In 2011 David wasn’t living the life he had envisioned. So he sold most of his possessions (including his house in Washington, DC), and bought a one-way ticket to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Four months into his adventure he realized that the people he was meeting had incredible stories that deserved to be told. Almost a year later, David compiled, edited and published “From The Grand Canyon To The Great Wall: Travelers’ Best, Worst And Most Ridiculous Stories From The Road” – the first of hopefully many efforts to bring stories from around the world. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of David in Peru.
This post was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Chachapoyas, Peru, is a region in the northern Andes of Peru, covered with tiny towns, archaeological sites, hikes, cliffs, waterfalls, canyons and rivers. The city of Chachapoyas boasts friendly people, beautiful countryside and some incredible history. I spent over a week…
Day One: May 17
After three days in Chiclayo on the northern Peruvian coast, I took a night bus inland to Chachapoyas – the worst bus I’ve ever taken. I knew it was going to suck. I knew it. And yet, when it turned into a clown show of errors, it still was upsetting.
7 PM It started with a way-too-loud TV playing over a busted speaker and the passenger beside me invading my leg space. The knee control issue continued all night – and as an extra flourish he added shoulder and arm control issues as the night went on.
11 PM – The TV turned off around 8, only to be turned back on at 11. It cranked on until 12:30, when the bus fell silent. As long as you don’t count the snoring dude across the aisle. I’m pretty sure the baby in the seat behind me crapped his pants too. Then came a mystery nastiness which I couldn’t pinpoint but smelled like some sinful combination of mold, mildew and kerosene.
4:30 AM – I managed maybe 2 hours of sleep. After arriving I got to my hostel by 5. A taxi driver showed me the way but for some reason didn’t want to drive me, so I walked.
Day 2: May 18
I immediately crashed for 5 hours.
10 AM – I finally stirred and explored Chachapoyas. A friendly tourist agent sat down with me for an hour, explaining the Chachapoyas sites, encouraging me to explore without guides.
1 PM – I stopped in again during my wanderings to ask where I could buy some postcards. They gave me two for free and thanked me profusely for visiting Chachapoyas. Great people doing a great job.
Street signs are rare in town, and so are signs for its attractions: a pre-hispanic trail still in use after 600 years, a mirador overlooking a beautiful valley, churches, parks. But it was a nice afternoon meandering around choppy paths, eating a $1.75 3-course lunch. I was even stopped on the street by Carmen, a lawyer taking evening English classes who practiced her language skills with me.
6 PM – Even though I wasn’t hungry, I grabbed a HUGE chicken meal at a local restaurant because I needed something to do. I hope I didn’t insult the chef by leaving left half of it on the table.
Day 3: May 19
7 AM – I set off in the early AM for Gocta, the 4th-highest waterfall in the world. The area around Gocta is, somehow, devoid of tourists, so I took a combi minivan to the barely-there town of Cocahuayca then walked five kilometers to slightly-larger Cocachimba to hike to the falls.
2 PM – I returned 3 hours later – a bit quick. Maybe I didn’t take enough time to sit and appreciate the scenery; I was worried about transportation back to Chachapoyas – I would have to hitch-hike. The earlier I could get that thumb out, the better. I walked down to wait for whomever would give me a ride.
I waved down a bus – for $1.75 the driver agreed to take me on. I sat up front and for the next hour we talked about the US, Osama bin Laden, traveling in Peru, local food, and European tourists. He really enjoyed speaking with a tourist who spoke Spanish.
6 PM – I spent the evening trying to fix a schedule for the rest of my trip through northern Peru and set a date to let my host family know when I will arrive in Lima. It’s tough to schedule travel in a place with iffy public transport and relaxed attitudes.
Day 4: May 20
6 AM – I colectivo’d to the town of Huancas for spectacular views of Rio Sanche Canyon. The driver dropped me off a block above the town’s square. As soon as I stepped out I saw something I wanted to take a picture of. But my pocket was flat – it had held the camera not 10 minutes earlier…
I shouted to the taxi, but he was already a block down. My cry “Señor!” got no response. So I took off running.
He turned right. I went right too, running parallel. “Señor!” I yelled, realizing that going belt-less had been a mistake. I’ve lost weight recently – enough that my belt would’ve really helped as I sprinted down the road.
I reached the town square, one hand grasping my pants, the other waving frantically at the car now one block to my left and one ahead. I crossed the square diagonally. “Señor!” I yelled. He was a block and a half ahead, about to turn left out of town and gone for good.
Feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent, head back, I let loose. “Seeeeñooooorrrrrr!” I screamed. If the townspeople weren’t awake before, they sure were now. The brake lights lit up! Then reverse lights. A second later he handed me the camera. I muttered “Thank you,” hitched up my pants and made for the canyon.
11 AM – There are two miradores providing spectacular views of the Rio Sanche valley outside Huancas. The day was beautiful as I walked the solitary road out of town. And lazily walked back, two hours on the return trip.
2 PM – Rather than wait for another colectivo I walked back to Chacha, two hours along a dirt road.
Day 5: May 21
5:10 AM – Wake up time – to catch a colectivo to the ruins of Purunllacta. I was told by the tourist office that cars leave from 2 blocks off the main square every day, 6 AM.
5:50 AM – “No autos today until 2. But tomorrow, one runs at 5 AM.” OK – change of plans. I’ll catch a colectivo to Luya, to get to Karijía. Over the next three hours I waited, colectivo’d to Luya, waited, then colectivo’d again to Cruzpata.
9:15 AM – Finally in Cruzpata after two hours of teeth-rattling driving on a gutted and pitted dirt road. The 13-year-old girl sitting outside the ticket “office” – a small wooden desk barely upright in a dark one-room adobe building –sold me my $1.80 ticket.
The driver would wait for me, and I walked to the site down a small trail and around a cliff hanging over a bright green valley. After a kilometer, I saw a set of 6 faces, atop 2½-meter conical “chests” set on a ledge about 10 meters above my head. 1,000 years old, and spectacular. Their colors and patterns popped, their faces gleaming with intricate detail – sunken eye-sockets, jutting chins.
I took all kinds of photos, wondering how they were placed on the cliff in the first place, how they had remained intact for so long, how their colors were still so bright. Sometimes imagining the construction, imagining the people’s lives as they created the relics, is the most fun thing about an archaeological site.
My interest piqued and the day’s effort worth it, I walked back to meet up with my driver.
10:15 AM – Driver’s not there. Ticket-office girl had some advice: “Walk. There will be a car again at some point.”
10:50 AM – I walked 3 km to the closest town, Chocta, to wait for a car. No one knew when one would come, but one would, I was assured. I sat in the square, school-age boys on the other benches around me. After 20 minutes, an older man came to me with arms spread – their teacher, it turns out. As his cowboy hat and smile hinted, he had a booming voice and a big personality. He asked me questions about the US, leading to an…interesting…exchange…
“…when did the USA become a nation?” — “1776.”
*Confused* “No, it was 1798.” — “Well, it was 1776.”
*Really confused, but certain he is right* — “Oh, yeah, you’re right. It was 1798.”
The big smile returned. He saved face, and I didn’t feel like debating US history. But, out in the Peruvian Andes, a classroom of boys knows the US gained independence in 1798, certain because they heard it straight from an American.
11:50 AM – A camión driver decided after some hesitation to let me ride down to the next town. “From there, lots of cars go back to Luya.” For 45 minutes I braced against the top of the truck trying not to get thrown over as the driver managed the dilapidated road as best he could.
12:35 PM – Wanting to kiss the ground in Cohacha, I got confirmation that cars come through headed for Luya. And finally a bit of transportation luck: a taxi came along minutes after I was dropped off, headed in that direction! He wasn’t going to Luya, though, and waved me off.
But right when I was convinced my luck was going to be awful all day, another pulled up! This is apparently so rare– two cars within 5 minutes – that a lady nearby chuckled and muttered “¡que suerte tienes!” (“what luck you have!”).
1:50 PM – Another stroke of luck – I’m the last passenger to fill a colectivo back to “Chacha.” AND the others left me the front seat. Leg room! The driver was talkative, and the hour went by quickly.
3 PM – Back in Chacha. It felt like 10 PM. I think the Chachapoya would have appreciated the effort I put in today to see their sacred site, 1,000 years after they built it – I know it’s a day I’ll never forget.
Day 6: May 22
8:30 AM – I slept in today and woke up with a spectacular breakfast – coffee, papaya juice, eggs, ham, bread, jelly, grilled cheese. I watched the ceremonies in Chacha’s main square for Peru’s Flag Day – local schoolkids marching, military personnel present, flags, drums and patriotism on full display.
12 Noon – I packed up and waited an hour for a combi to fill up and take me to Tingo, an hour away and the base of a mountainous hike to Kuelap, a 1,000-year-old fortress.
3 PM – I exhausted my entertainment options in Tingo quickly by walking the length of the town, crossing the bridge, taking pictures of the surrounding landscapes, buying some food, and sitting down with Joel.
Joel saw me sitting outside my hostel and sat right down. It may have been the most wide-ranging conversation I’ve ever had, and we eventually got around to Peru’s upcoming presidential election. Joel liked Ollanta – I asked him if he was OK with the Ollanta’s vow to make military service mandatory. “Yes!” he replied, “I want to join the army to kill Chile! I want to drop atomic bombs on them!” I laughed…Joel didn’t. Peruvians really don’t care for their neighbors to the south.
The conversation went on…Joel was hilarious, and surprisingly informed for a 14-year-old kid from the middle of nowhere. His 5-year-old cousin, meanwhile, amused himself by rolling a car tire up and down the road.
7 PM – I ate dinner at the hostel – the best chicharon de chancho I’ve ever had. A pair of tourists (French and Peruvian) hopped off the day’s last bus and into the hostel. They’re making the hike tomorrow too.
Day 7: May 23
6:50 AM – Maick, Julietta, and I headed out for the fairly brutal 3 ½ hour climb to Kuelap.
10:30 AM – We made it to the city walls, paid the entrance ticket and $7 for a guide. She had been working as an archaeologist until money ran out – now, with elections looming, no money will come in until the new government is sorted. So she guides tourists for now.
We entered on the north side; explored two city levels, excavated and un-excavated areas, temples and various archaeological finds; and finally exited through the amazing military entrance for a very complete 2½ hour tour.
- -Kuelap held perhaps 4,000 people at the height of its power.
- -The city walls? 26 meters high.
- -The Chachapoya built in circular fashion. The Incans built in rectangles.
- -The city had multiple levels – the higher up you lived, the more important you were.
- -Much of the site is un-excavated and stands with 500 years of shrubbery growth obscuring vaguely circular shapes.
- -The conical sun temple was an impressive feat of both engineering and fealty to the star.
- -People were buried everywhere – underneath houses, behind rock walls. Our guide pulled out a stone in one of those walls – I reached in and took a picture, the flash revealing centuries-old bones.
- -Intricate details of pumas, serpents and llamas decorate temple walls still today.
- -The huge military entrance angled in from its widest point in the city center to its narrowest point at the wall, shrinking from 20-bodies-wide to 2, controlling people-flow in this incredibly well-defended locale.
- -The back of the fortress was built up from the edge of a 200-meter cliff. They knew they didn’t have to worry about defending that side.
- -The Incans used pieces of the Chachapoyan construction: The circular and rectangular buildings bled seamlessly into each other, even though they were built hundreds of years apart.
Kuelap was fascinating, and our guide knowledgeable and friendly. After a 2 ½ hour walk down the mountain and a 1½ hour wait, a car rolled through town to take me to Leymebamba.
5 PM – As I walked through Leymebamba’s humble main square, a tall Swiss guy recruited me to hike with him to the Laguna de los Condores – I readily agreed, as that was my plan anyway. We met the man whose land holds the 1,000-year-old mausoleum to which we will hike over the next three days. The cost is reasonable, about $35 a day total for a guide, horse and all the food.
This week is over, but I have a feeling the next one is going to be just as good!
David is the brainchild behind (and fellow contributor to) “From The Grand Canyon To The Great Wall: Travelers’ Best, Worst And Most Ridiculous Stories From The Road”. It’s a collection of 67 stories by 54 authors from around the world, including hilarious encounters, ”I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened” moments, epic personal realizations, dynamic depictions of cultural diversity and its uniting power, and just about everything in between.