Monthly Archives: February 2011

Peru´s North-Eastern Route: Rodriguez de Mendoza.

The road to get to Rodriguez de Mendoza goes over spectacular landscapes of mountains, rivers, cloudforests, the palm tree forest of Ocol, and finally the Valley of the Huayabamba River, where Mendoza lies, at 1600 meters.

Rodriguez de Mendoza

We had heard that the people from this area were very kind but what we experienced on the bus was unbelievable. At first everyone seemed stranged that 3 gringos were on the bus. Not a lot of tourists go to Mendoza. At halfway we had already been invited to Longar, a nearby village, on Saturday for a local carnival party and a concert of famous cumbia band Los Caribeños; and we had found a guide for the route from Mendoza to Rioja, an ancient Inka Trail that the Spaniards themselves crossed on their way to Moyobamba. We plan to do the same to get there, otherwise we’d have to go back to Chachapoyas and catch a bus to Moyobamba.

We had heard something else about the people from this area: that the women here are the most beautiful in Peru. A high claim you might think but in fact, if you ask a Peruvian where the most beautiful women are in the country, chances are he or she will respond “in the North”. If you go North and ask the same question, people will say “go to Rodriguez de Mendoza”. And once we arrived here we asked and people answered “go to Limabamba”. We might be doing that in the next few days. Women here are definitely beautiful and my 2 gringo friends are already thinking on getting married with a local. But there is an explanation for this beauty. When locals are asked they say that it comes from the Spaniards who settled here on their way to Moyobamba, the first Spanish-founded city in the Peruvian jungle. But also there’s the legendary saying that the Chachapoyans were ‘white and blonde’. Fact is people here are blonde in a much larger amount that anywhere else I’ve seen in Peru. They call themselves Huayachos and if I say I am from here, people believes me. I´m sure that gives you an idea. There were also some German settlers in the area that came in the 1800’s, and the isolated this valley has been for 4 centuries have contributed to this local mix of beauty.

We checked in at Hostal Paraiso, next to the police station. We figured it would be the safest place to rest but truly we have nothing to worry about as everyone here has been very kind and helpful. Even the locals will say “people don’t steal here”. The terrace of the hostal has quickly become a favourite place to watch the surroundings and wash our clothes. The balcony is the perfect spot for my preferred urban hobby: people watching, and since we are right next to the market too, ours is a busy street.

The morning after we arrived I went up to the ‘chacra’ (field) of Alfonso Saldaña, a local elder who is a guide and offered me his services. He wanted me to admire the view from his property and show me his ‘sacha inchi’ plantation. I’ve learned that this area grows lots of sacha inchi, a phenomenal pod that produces a kind of peanut with high level of Omega 3 and Omega 6, the healthiest natural fat. Also coffee and sugar cane are popular plantations in the surroundings. There are still some sugar “moliendas” or “trapiches”, the old mills moved by a horse to get the cane’s juice and turn it into honey or into ‘guarapo’, a typical strong liquor. As for coffee we visited the local cooperative where they have excellent coffee that they export. We have also chosen a little spot for breakfasts based on “humitas” (corn tamales), fried bananas, good local coffee and juice. Also the owner, Elisa is charming and, you guessed, beautiful.

I have run several times with Don Alfonso on the streets in the last couple days. Just the other day he was at the main square with his friends and I joined them for a chat. I asked them how come that Mendoza has an airport and they told me that actually the airport came first, back in 1945, and it remained the only major way of communication until the road to Chachapoyas was finished in 1968. They mentioned the current mayor wants to revive the airport, something that would be great for the area since the Chachapoyas airport is too dangerous and has remained shut since 2003. With an active airport Mendoza would become the entrance to this part of the jungle. I can only hope this great place never gets spoiled by being exposed, knowing that the cause of its charisma is precisely its isolation.

I also asked them about how was life in the days of terrorism back in the 80’s and they seemed to have skipped most of the horror of those days. Nevertheless there were, and apparently still are, poppy plantations in the area that go to the drug-trafficking business.

Don Alfonso encouraged me to go to Huamanpata with him by showing me a document where lists of birds and other fauna and flora. The area is very promising for bird watching and presents many endemics. But this time I’m avoiding tough walks as the one to Huamanpata, a beautiful seasonal lagoon next to primary forests. It will have to be next time for me to go to this new protected area.

Thursdays and Sundays are market days, so today we visited the market. Yuca (cassava), peanuts, sacha inchi, bananas, sugar cane, guava, cane honey, potatoes, fish, etc. were all offered by the women in loud voice. A seller called me “gringo aleman” (German gringo) as if I was from Limabamba, a nearby village where the blonder people from this area come from. They must have German blood there I guess. I am intrigued so I have decided to go there tomorrow with Erick and Matt and check out the town and some waterfalls nearby.

This Thursday was a very hot day and asking around we learned that there is a pool in the town so we headed there. It’s a huge water reservoir used as a pool. The water comes from a natural spring and it’s fresh.  Local kids go there to play and impress the young girls. It was so hot today you could see kids with balloons filled with water playing carnival on the streets.

As for the food today the best surprise was breakfast on the Restaurant Tivoli, across the street from our hostal, where I asked for a coffee (already a pleasant custom here) and a Juane. I suspected Juanes could be different here but I never expected them to be so different. This dish has a sort of evolution as one goes along North-East Peru. In Chachapoyas for example they make it with yuca and chorizo (sausage), while in Mendoza is made with rice and yuca and is fried not boiled; whereas in Tarapoto and Moyobamba is prepared with boiled rice and cilantro (coriander). I can safely say that this morning’s  Juane has been the best I’ve had ever and I can’t wait for tomorrow’s breakfast to go across the street and ask for another.


Filed under Alternative tourism, Backpacking, Birdwatching, Cultural Differences, Food, Immigration, Peru, Travel, Travel Stories, Travel Writing, Trekking

Peru’s North-Eastern Route: Sonche Canyon, Kuelap and more fun in Chachapoyas.

The last 3 days have been intense. Lots of coincidences, nice places and people. We decided to stay at Hotel Revash, an old and pretty house on the main square. Our room with view of the colonial plaza. The next day after arrival I met with Michell Leon, who lives and photographs Chachapoyas and its birds on the surroundings. He recommended us to go to Cañon del Sonche on Huancas, a short 30 minute ride from Chacha (as locals call it). There is a lookout or mirador overlooking the canyon. Views are breathtaking, specially if you have in mind that all of this land was under the ocean some millions years ago. We found out that there is another lookout point on the other side of the mountain and we decided to walk there. It was longer than we expected and we burned under the sun for 3 hours to get there. On the way we had to pass right next to a high security prison, a huge structure with towers and walls that looks completely out of place on the beautiful countryside.

Sonche Canyon with Erick

There at the mirador we met with 2 Chilean girls and we ended up going back to Chacha with them. The night was a bit chilly but anyway we headed up to the mirador of the city with a bottle of rum to enjoy the full moon over the city.

Sonche Canyon

It was not easy to wake up the next day to go to Kuelap. Added to the rum a bottle of the local Milk Liquor was downed. The road to Kuelap is full of cliffs that will make people cry their hearts out if the driver manuvers a reverse, something that is not strange at all considering that big trucks go that way too and at stretches the road is a single lane.

The mountains here look different to any others I’ve seen. They are not as rugged as in Cusco, rather green and square-like, with flat tops as tableaus have. Waterfalls hanging down producing oasis of lush green cloudforest on the ravines. Kuelap for instance is located on a dramatic mountain top. The city extends for 600 meters length and 100 meters wide of walled construction. The outer walls measure 20-30 meters in height and inside around 500 round houses and buildings with beautiful designs on their rock walls are found. Houses are so well preserved one can still see the holes built on the ground with rocks that were used as refrigerators, as well as guinea pig corrals. The inner part of the city is divided on 3 levels, each higher than the other one, as in a pyramid distribution. Only 2 of them can be seen because archaeologists are still excavating the third one. Kuelap was, according to some, the last refuge of the Chachapoyans, who resisted for several months there the siege of the Incas until they ran out of food and water. Then the Incas sent the fierce Chachapoyan warriors to work as slaves (“mitimaes” in Quechua) in the construction of Chokekirao, a huge archaeological complex nearby Cusco. In fact, I’ve been to Chokekirao and I must say that the decoration on the walls and the stone work is very similar to that of Kuelap. The area here is full of archeological sites of the Chachapoyans, so many that here it’s called the northern capital of archaeology in Peru. Places like Karajia, the Gran Vilaya trek, Revash, Laguna de los Condores are all impressive burial sites and constructions.

On our tour we met more travellers and once we were back in Chachapoyas we headed to one of the local pubs. Our guide joined us. We tried Blackberry Liquor, Pur Pur Liquor and Chuchuwasi Liquor, all made from tree barks and fruits macerated with alcohol. After we headed to the local club to dance some salsa and 80’s music, something I have learned to live with since I’m not a big fan of 80’s music but in Peru they play songs like “Down Under” and “Money for Nothing” like they came out yesterday fresh from the studio. There are only 3 clubs in Chachapoyas and it was the weekend so the place was packed and people seemed surprised that 5 gringos showed up at their disco. Some of them wanted to have a beer with us. So far people have been very kind and friendly around here.

Needless to say the next day I didn’t go to the Gocta waterfall tour with Erick and Matt. I had been there before and I felt like sleeping in. On my wanders around the city I coincidentally ran into Jorge, a good friend from Tarapoto. We chatted a little about my idea of the agency and he expressed interest in be a part of it, a great thing because he is one of the people I wanted to work with in Tarapoto. Later that day Erick and Matt told me they met a guy from Tarapoto on their Gocta tour and we saw him, once again coincidentally, at the main square. He turned out to be another friend of mine, Chelo. We stayed talking with Chelo about our idea and things have begun taking shape. It’s as if the people who we could work this out are simply coming our way. And that always gives me the feeling that the universe is conspiring, that life is happening, that something has been set up to motion…

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Peru’s North-Eastern Route: Chachapoyas

My trip to Northern Peru is about to begin. I got my ticket to Chachapoyas, the bus leaves tomorrow at 4pm and I should not arrive there until next day around lunch. It’s a shame the airport there is too dangerous and remains closed after the airplane crash there on 2003. I hope the weather, specially the rains are good with me. I leave on the wettest month in the jungle, and Chachapoyas is where the jungle begins, the Cloudforest. In fact the word “Chacha-poya” means “People of the Clouds”, or at least it meant that for the Chachapoyans.

I made a simulation with my backpack, which is huge and heavy (23 K). I’m carrying the tent and rubber boots plus the lap top (otherwise these lines would be impossible) and a lot of other gadgets among my binoculars, camera, ipod, etc. This has made me concerned about the security of these things along the trip. I have to say I have never been robbed from a hostel or on the streets of Peru, ever. But traveling with all this expensive gadgets makes me know in silence I carry a lot of expensive stuff in city streets where few gringos are commonly seen. My other concern is my back and leg, just being recovered from a muscle strain in January that sent me to physical rehab after 3 days without walking.

I do know the area somewhat. My aim with this visit is to organize everything for the tours I’m designing. Do some birdwatching too. Meet with my friends Erick and Matt and help them with their aim of writing a book on Peruvian cuisine and travels. And enjoy it of course. I can say I love the area and I would live there if I could.

I arrived to Chachapoyas today at 3pm. Just before arriving Erick called to say he and Matt  were on their way too from Cajamarca through a different route. They would arrive 2 hours later than me. So I went in search of a hostel for all of us and after checking 8 hostels we decided to spend the night at Hostel Revash on the main square. The price is a bit higher than we expected to pay (25 soles each) but it’s a treat as it’s on the main square and close to everything, it has wi-fi, good beds and a delicious hot shower. The bed is what I’m more interested in after the terrible night I spent in the bus last night. My leg started hurting as it did today even though I have done my exercises.

Chacha Church.

With the boys we visited the main market area and got a menu for 3.5 soles and later walked up to the viewpoint to check the sunset. Just before that we were introduced to a friend of the owners of our hostel, Janet, who owns a restaurant in town with typical dishes. She spent some time talking to us about local dishes and invited us to a “Yunsa” on Saturday, a local festivity held usually this time of the year. A yunsa is like a carnival party where they place a tree, previously cut, and they replant it in the middle of an open area where the party takes place. Sometimes in the middle of a street. Then the tree is adorned with gifts and colors in the fashion of a pinata. The host family usually cooks and gets drinks for all the people, who can be hundreds. There is a band playing and as they music fills the air, the typical food is served and the beers flow, the attendants dance around the tree and they also ax the trunk of it. That’s right, you just read the words ‘beer’, ‘dancing’ and ‘ax’ in the same sentence. But you gotta be clever with your strokes (add that up to the formula) because he or she who brings down the tree has to organise the yunsa party for next year.

The weather is been nice with no rains so far. Chachapoyas is looking beautiful and I can see a few more tourists here than I did on my last visit 2 years ago. Women are very beautiful here, with a beauty quite unique. It has been said by some Spanish chroniclers that among the Chachapoyans there were white or “fair skin” people. Also there’s the fact that the Incans, once they conquered the Chachapoyans, brought here people from other parts of Peru. And then during the Republic, German immigrants came here too, so all that mixture shows on their women here. At least that’s where I see it.

Chachapoyas under an almost full moon.

The trip has begun!

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