If we visited nothing else in Peru, we would already be happy with our Peru visit. Over the course of eight days, we drove 360 miles, passing through the small towns and sights of San Ignacio, Gocta Falls, Chachapoyas, Kuelap, Dos de Mayo and Celendín. Most of the way we travelled with Rich and Ash of desktoglory, which made our time even better – it was extremely nice to have travel companions besides our own selves for a change.
The Crazy and Amazing Drive
This entire northern route was a bit daunting initially. There isn’t a lot information about it on the internet, and the information that we did find often talked about scary one-lane mountain roads shared with crazy bus drivers that leave you stuck precariously between the mountain on one side and a thousand-foot drop on the other. The reality, as always, is somewhere in between.
First of all, the roads are now paved, not dirt. Even though they are still mostly one lane wide, the area is remote enough that not many cars come through. And when they did, Simon maneuvered the van like a champ and played a great game of chicken. At every blind turn, we laid on the horn. Only a couple times did we need to back up to a wide enough spot to let a bigger bus through. Along with the drive back in Ecuador from Vilcabamba to the border, Simon had the most fun on these roads. And the scenery – just amazing. It makes everything worth it.
It was also exciting to see and feel the signs of a new country. In northern Peru, houses were back to traditional adobe, from mostly concrete in Ecuador. There were even more livestock on the road, many of them un-shepherded and just roamed free as there was so little traffic. We found the people warmer and much quicker to smile and wave. This region is not frequented by many tourists and still retains a very innocent and pure vibe.
Gocta Falls Hike
Gocta Falls is supposedly one of the tallest waterfalls in South America. The hike round trip was about 4-5 hours and Ty took a horse for most of that way – his first time riding solo on a horse! Our horse guide, Daisy, was a young girl from the village and she was very sweet to her horse, treating it more like a pet than a working animal. It was very unusual, and nice, to see. Also the fact that she was a female horse guide was not typical elsewhere, although it seemed common in this tiny village. The falls are beautiful, and the hike very serene. We only saw maybe ten other people the whole time, unbelievable how little traffic this beautiful area gets.
Chachapoyas – little town with a cool name
This town is known as a travel hub, for tours going to Gocta Falls up north, Kuelap further south, and a few other ancient tombs in between. It has good tourist infrastructure but is still very low-key and not touristy by any means. By the time we got here, we had been driving every day for a while, so we stayed to recharge for a couple nights. We visited the mercado every day and bought fresh food to cook up a storm. It was here that we had our first taste of the fruit cherimoya, a rather ugly fruit with a taste which is indeed as Mark Twain said, “the most delicious fruit known to man.” It was also here where we bought a couple kilos of pure beef fat from the butcher, so that Simon could render the fat to grease about 60 meters of leather lasso that we bought in Colombia. This is the kind of exciting stuff that we do in our downtime.
Of course, I need to mention beautiful Kuelap. But that deserved its own special post for its spectacular ruins and for leading us to Luna, our new family dog.
Dos De Mayo – The Sweet Peruvian Village
We rolled into this small village on a Saturday evening after a long drive. We found a couple matriarch looking women, asked for permission to camp on their soccer field, then started to set up camp. For the first time in our travels, we experienced an audience who watched us like theater (or circus). We had heard of it happening to other folks but this was our first. Oddly it didn’t feel that weird, and when Simon and the kids started playing volleyball with them, that really broke the ice.
That night a man who called himself the President of the village came by to warmly shake our hands and talk our ears off. He told us we were welcome to stay there for one night, or for ever, and that everyone is a brother and they welcome people from all countries. He said the majority of the town moved here from Cajamarca, the big city ten hours south, for clean water free from pollution. As we talked to a few more people, even kids, that seemed to be a theme. We thought we might have stumbled across a Peruvian hippie village but we learned later in our travels that the gold mines in Cajamarca are a huge controversy and environmental disaster in this region. The next morning, El Presidente returned to say goodbye to us, and as a parting gift he brought us a big bag of potatoes (Peru grows rich and buttery potatoes, as well as very good rice and unbelievable tropical fruits). I wish we had more pictures of these kind and generous folks, a reminder that things are generally good in the world.
Celendín – A Rest Stop for Luna
Luna had never been in a car. Combined with the windy roads, every half an hour we had to use a bucket to catch the damage. Poor Luna. By this time we also hadn’t showered for a few days, so after another long drive to Celendín, we decided to give all of us a break and checked into a hotel for a couple days.
It was Luna’s first hotel too. Leaving the countryside and into a town with Luna reminded us of all the things we have to teach her. She lived her first year on a mountain top in the wild and now she is asked to do scary things like enter small spaces and wear a leash!
In Celendín we walked all over town with her as much as we could. She was the happiest on walks and actually quite spunky on leash. We walked off leash too, blending in with all the other dogs in town, which was at times a little scary with the traffic but we just had to trust her street dog past. Wild or not, most dogs roam free around here. We bought dog food (she was ecstatic) and anti-parasite medicine (not so much). We used hot dogs to get her into her new body harness, only to have it chewed off overnight, so we had to buy a second one and remember to take it off at night. We lured her through doorways, but most of the time still had to carry her through. Being indoor was tough for her. She hid under the bed a few times. But at this point she’s only been with us for 2-3 days! And although we weren’t expecting it, thank goodness she can hold it through the night. The kids just love having her around, and it’s incredible how gentle she is with them. The only growl she ever let out was when Simon tried to pull her out from under the bed. She is really a gentle soul.
After Celendin we arrived in Cajamarca where our one night stopover turned into one week – our next post. To be honest before we came to Peru, we had heard many not-so-nice things about it. The people, we were told, are very opportunistic with tourists. The food will get you sick. The drivers are the worst. There is trash everywhere. While I do think we might come across places in Peru like that, northern Peru is anything but. The towns are lovely, authentic, interesting. The people are open, warm, proud. Peru might be synonymous with Machu Picchu in the south but this area is truly a hidden treasure and deserves to be a destination of its own.