The Cordillera Blanca– part three: Chavin, the Pastoruri Glacier, and Lima.

We don’t remember having been in Chavin de Huantar when we traveled the area forty years ago, but we do remember having heard about its old and important culture that flourished between 1200 – 400BC. This time we wanted to make the trip across the Cordillera, also to see if we’d recognize anything or not. The road across the mountains was supposed to be good, and there was a possibility to make a roundtrip, along the accessible Pastoruri Glacier.

The road was indeed excellent, leading us over gentle golden slopes that slowly turned into craggy peaks before we went through a tunnel after which we descended into the deep valley where Chavín de Huantar was located. We could park close to the entry of the impressive archeological site, where we happened to enter during peak visiting time (bad idea: lots of waiting for people to finish their selfies before we could see something!) There were a few nicely decorated surfaces and monoliths, and one “nailhead” (= are stone head sculptures with elongated horizontal stems to fit like nails in wall-openings) left in a wall, but the most important part of the site is an enormous ruin of a temple  with a labyrinth of underground tunnels and chambers. We found one out-of- the-way underground section that we had to ourselves for a while, where we could freely explore the many tunnels, chambers and light shafts, before a fresh crowd filled up the space. 
The second part of the visit would be the museum that contained all the artifacts found on the site. However, the way to the museum – on the other side of town – was hard to get to because of a large festival in the town center. There were processions, cockfights, concerts, guinea pig shows, fairground games and a huge market that all blocked most through streets. When we finally got to the museum we found all of the relevant exhibitions closed because of a “power outage” – but we heard from some locals that this is the excuse when the employees want to attend the festivities. So no artifacts to be admired by us! Since the next day -Monday- the museum would be closed, we went back to town and enjoyed some of the party, and went on…

Grand Plaza surrounded by the Chavin complex. Under the roofs are areas in need of protection, like the gate and the “nail head” below.

To reach the Pastoruri glacier, we decided, rather than continue over a long stretch of questionable dirt road, we’d  turn back on our tracks and take that good pavement again to the Carretera Central, because our windshield started to protest by thumping and cracking with every bump in the road. I was afraid that soon the time would come when we’d have no protection from wind, weather or thieves… something had to be done ASAP! To secure the window somewhat, Thijs created and installed a few rubber-lined brackets at the bottom, where the windshield had completely separated itself from the cabin. We added some wide tape over the worst cracks to keep glass splinters from falling on the dashboard. That‘s all we could do for now…

So we took the popular road across the mountains to reach one of the tropic’s more accessible glaciers. This time around, we made sure to visit this touristy site early – before the crowds took over- by spending the night just before the entrance to the park and depart early in the morning. At that time of day the light was beautiful, with long shadows that accentuated the golden grasses and the huge tall spikes of the once-in-a-hundred-year blooming Puya Raymondii along the way.  And nice to see that even very primitive thatch huts in the fields were powered by solar panels!

Another beautiful overnight spot, just before entering Huascaran National Park

When we arrived at the base parking, we were the first ones there. We prepared ourselves with a thermos of coca tea and full winter gear. Even Kakao wore a sweater and, of course, his backpack with his own water. The walk up to the glacier was paved and easy going- but cold. However, at close to 5000 meters above sea level, it was not easy to gather enough oxygen to walk that last kilometer up to reach the glacier. Once there, despite what many are saying that it is too small to be called a glacier, I thought it was worth it. I loved the meters-high ice walls with deep, icy blue crevices, the wet and dripping hollow caves, and pillars of icicles, all within touching distance. It is hard to imagine, that forty years ago Pastoruri was a popular place to ski. Now, the glacier is too dangerous to walk on, with many cracks and crevices that deteriorate the surface. Instead of being a ski attraction, the place is now inviting tourists to be confronted with the tragedy of global warming. With a rate of the ice retreating by about fifteen meters per year, it is expected that in another twenty years the glacier is no more.

On the way back down we discovered petrified fern leaves imprinted in the rocks, but missed the dinosaur’s footsteps. Everywhere there were reminders of how much larger the glacier used to be, and we were so happy to have come there before there is nothing left. When, after a few hours, we returned to the base parking, we were still by ourselves. Only after our lunch the hordes arrived. We felt so lucky to have come with our own transportation!

After our visit to the glacier we made our decision to drive down to the coast, to Lima, because of four reasons: 1. There may be a windshield there that fits our car. 2. It is warmer on the coast, so we would not need our heater. 3. At sea level our diesel stove might work again, and otherwise, we may find a propane stove there. 4.The road to and along the coast is good and smooth, so if we don’t find a windshield, at least it does not deteriorate more, and we may make it to Chile to get one.

We had not intended to go to Lima, but what can you do? Make the best of it, right? We enjoyed the ride down from the highland to the coast. For hours we had driven along the mountain’s edge of a fertile green valley without any possibilities to stop. But halfway down, on a flat, orchard covered outcrop, we found a beautiful spot to spend the night, and soaked in the beauty of a breathtaking sunset behind multiple layers of mountains. Further down, the green valley strip got narrower; the surrounding mountains turned rockier and drier. Drying pimientos seemed to be an easier source of income than growing them. When the inevitable fog appeared between the mountains, we knew the coast was near. Along the four lane highway, everything is grey: sand fields…mountains…the sky, and even the ocean. Makeshift houses, constructed from four woven reed mat- walls topped by one on the roof keep piles of plastic trash company, and add a sense of despair to the dry and unfertile coast. The only variety of farm that thrives in this desolate landscape is what must be thousands of chicken farms… (also sad)…

But, late in the afternoon, around the time we started looking for a place to spend the night, we looked down from the sandy cliffs and spotted an intriguing site on the beach beneath us. We turned back to have a closer look and found out it was Eco Truly Park, an ashram with adobe buildings in a tall, conical trulli style, which seemed to fit the purpose of the premises and the use of the building material perfectly.  For a small fee, representatives of the Hare Krishna community showed us around the ten acre premises and explained about their life principles of living organically and spiritually with little impact on its fragile environment. Though overwhelming, we learned about the Hindu pantheon and what each god or deity stands for. Quite interesting! Then we had a (very!) light vegetarian meal at their restaurant, and spent the night on the beach.

We entered the city of Lima in the morning and made our way through along the coast, to find our camping spot for the week in quiet, suburban Miraflores. From here, we had the opportunity to find the autoglass section in town, where one of  the eager shop-owners found us the right windshield, installed it, provided our windows with a break-in proof film, and new windshield wipers, all within a couple of hours. In Miraflores we found a sporting goods store that could sell us the right little gas cooker, so we were pretty much set to travel again.

Parque Antonio Raimondi, in Miraflores, Lima.
Lover’s lane at Parque Antonio Raimondi, Miraflores, Lima.

Relieved, we looked for a last item in Lima to check off our bucket list: we wanted to eat at one of Lima’s two word famous restaurants. Even though we knew that reservations for a table needed to be made months in advance, we heard that at Maido, you may get in when you wait and hope for a cancellation. Maido was a ten minute walk from where we were camping, so we gave it a shot…or two. The first time we arrived at the restaurant close to opening time, and already found a long line waiting. We had no chance. We tried to make a reservation for next Monday, which seemed to be available, but received no confirmation. So on Monday we made sure we were there an hour before opening, and the first ones in line this time. Still- no luck, but the friendly receptionist advised us to come back in two hours and see… so we came back in one hour and waited another hour. We got a seat! We ordered the full tasting menu, with small bites that incorporated a variety of exclusively Peruvian ingredients. It was a delicious, lifetime experience and it was all we wanted out of Lima. In 1978, when  the city of Lima was much smaller and our urge to explore much larger, we had seen most of the capital…been there, done that… we didn’t feel like doing that again. So, after we went to the market for some grocery shopping, we left the city, heading south – completely satisfied.

While waiting, first in line, for the restaurant to open, we met this cute peruvian hairless dog ( and his friendly owner) Below, a few pictures of the pretty dishes: the first one; my favorite one; and us starting the first of three deserts. Delicious!
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The Cordillera Blanca of Peru – part two

From our neighbors at the Caraz campground we heard that the road up to the lagunas de Chinacocha and Orconcocha would be much better – although past those, the road to the pass of Llanganuco, would be bad – maybe worse than the road to laguna Parón. They had decided to make these trips by hired taxi, which turned out to be a minibus. We again decided to just go with our camper, so we could continue our travels southward. Before we turned off the central highway (”Carretera Central”), we stopped to see the remains of Campo Santo de Yungay, a town that got buried by an avalanche caused by a major earthquake in the early 1970s. Thousands of people perished, and of the town only a few walls of the church and the cemetery hill escaped the onslaught. Now, there is a memorial garden where the town used to be, a site littered with gravestones at places where people remained buried under the rubble. It is strange to think that we must have driven by this place forty years ago, when the disaster happened just a few years before – and we were unaware at that time… it goes to show how fast one forgets something even so dramatic, and how building a memorial, even decades later, serves the purpose of remembering a tragedy.

Campo Santo de Yungay.

At the modern day Yungay we took the road that led us up in the mountains, on our way to the lagunas. Now I have to say, I scanned this photograph that we took forty one years ago, of a place somewhere in the Cordillera Blanca, and ever since we arrived in the region, I was trying to recognize the spot where we took that picture. And we did, just a distance above Yungay! As expected, the landscape had deteriorated a bit: what used to be a pastoral scene with fields and long views, was now a place filled with brightly colored concrete houses, and the view over the mountains was partly obstructed by eucalyptus trees and a billboard advertising infrastructure improvement. But I could not believe how excited I would be about recognizing that exact same place after all these years!

The road to the lagunas was indeed better and smoother than the one to Laguna Parón, which makes sense when you see the amount of tourists that are transported into the park to see the lakes, both the easily accessible ones for many selfies, and for Laguna 69 – which takes several hours of strenuous hiking up the moraines to reach. (We did not even try the latter: we have no equipment for long hikes, and anyway, I am convinced we’re too old for that. Or, we just didn’t feel like it!) The lakes that we did see were a little disappointing after the gorgeous Laguna Parón with its beautiful perfect snow peaked back drop. Maybe it was also because we arrived there late in the afternoon, when the volume of visitors was irritating and the blue water did not sparkle as much under a cloudy sky. When we recognized the meadow at the far end of the second lake as a camping spot we used, way back when, we pulled in for a nostalgic picture but were immediately chased away and told to park across the street at the official- and for Peru outrageously expensive- campground. Instead, we moved on, climbing higher along the winding mountain road until, at 4000m above sea level, we found a perfect little rock-strewn meadow, where we asked the cows for permission to join them for the night. At this altitude the vegetation was fragrant, with soft pastel colors; the views over the mountain peaks breathtaking. Waking up to this majestic landscape is memorable.

Parque Nacional Huascaran. Beautiful!

As we approached the pass, the road became rougher, and the road’s surface at the hairpin switchbacks was worn down to the rock, surrounded by deep holes and loose stones. Confident with our good ground clearance, we took the curves slowly to prevent too much sway and jumping around of everything we own in our camper. We were slowly getting used to this kind of driving and enjoyed the reach our adapted vehicle gave us here. Fog drifted over the crest towards us. When we reached the pass, we were surrounded by snowy peaks, but much of our view was obstructed by clouds. A little disappointed – the weather forecast had predicted clear skies – we settled in for a coffee break and… (yes!)…the clouds gradually dissipated and most of the 360 degrees around us revealed itself with raw, cold, white beauty. Satisfied, we continued on the other side of the mountain range. It looked different on the other side… along a high mountain lake, the lupines were larger and greener; its flowers on long stalks more pink then purple. The road was still rough, but the slope down more gradual. In the distance we began to see signs of human presence again, with small patches of fields, and the occasional roof top of shiny tin or red tiles.

Coming down from the mountains, on the eastern side.

The village of Yamana rests peacefully in a picturesque valley with tree lined fields of green produce and golden wheat. Above it, where the mountains meet the sky, a broad band of white snow crowns the view. The air was crystal clear, and the people on the clean (rectangular) town square were friendly and curious.  We looked for supplies like bread, fruit and vegetables but with most stores closed for siesta, the choices were limited. We continued our drive via an uncertain, potentially muddy road south-east to the next town, Chacas.

The town of Yamana

Chacas was a small and pretty town with colonial style houses, showing off intricately carved wooden balconies, overlooking a generously sized plaza that doubled as a sports field. There must be a master woodcarver in town with enough recognition to sculpt the enormous church doors with a full story about the different spiritual stages of mankind as they knew it. There was also a large school and workshop for artisans, founded by an Italian priest in the nineteen-seventies. Talented students are chosen from the area’s neediest communities, and the five year education, plus all living costs are free. We stayed overnight around the plaza and walking around town, we were astounded by the amount of construction that was going on everywhere. Streets were broken up to install a water-  and sewage system, new houses were built and old ones restored.  We realized that one of the town’s sources of income was a nearby mine (don’t ask what they mine) which was also the reason why the road from Chacas to the Carretera Central on the other side of the mountains, is so perfect. With a road that smooth and wide, it didn’t take long before we were close to the snow again, although this time there was a tunnel that took us under the highest peaks. Emerging out of the tunnel we were awestruck: against an intensely blue sky, the snow around us seemed so close and abundant, we stopped several times because we couldn’t get over the beauty of it.

On our way down between Yamana and Chacas, we encountered two bicycle travelers, who had a hard time driving up on the rough road.

The town of Chacas surprised us with its colonial style and carved woodwork

Patchwork fields outside of Chacas
Way up, we noticed these climbers in the snow
Way up, we noticed these climbers in the snow… straight above our camper. It took them six hours to climb from where the (small) car is parked behind our truck, to where they were at the moment

The road down was a pleasure to drive. There was hardly any traffic and the pavement was perfect. At one point you could look down and see where you’d be going: what looked like a giant’s staircase, a count of 21 switchbacks would bring you straight down into a valley leading you out of the high mountain range. The flat valley floor had inviting grasslands, cut in half by a meandering clear water creek. Waterfalls dropped down from the rock walls embracing the valley, and looking back to where we came from, the snow caps bid their farewell. It was not long before trees, fields, and houses appeared where the valley opened up. To our surprise, the perfect road suddenly turned into a rough, uneven track that led us around a village… (hard to imagine those mining trucks, where that perfect road was built for, having to go through there!)…but after several kilometers the good road was back and in no time we were on the main road heading to Huaraz. Here we had some service done to our camper and asked around for a replacement windshield – our current one was slowly becoming a piece of artwork with many cracks and pieces – some of the cracks were starting to feather now! No luck for the windshield. No luck for finding parts for our failing diesel heater and cooker, either. As a backup, we thought it would be good to buy a propane cooker, and we were sure something would be available in Huaraz – a base for hikers and trekkers, so with several sports equipment stores. They had some tiny, ultralight backpacker’s contraptions that looked so unstable, we considered them dangerous, so…no. Instead, Thijs took our stovetop apart and cleaned it again, which made it work somehow for another week or so…as long as we were not too high up… like we will be on the next trip – which will be part three of the Cordillera Blanca.

I counted 20 hairpin switchbacks to make it down to the valley.
Our campground in Huaraz, with beautiful mountains in the background. Too bad about that billboard, advertising Huaraz…

The Cordillera Blanca of Peru – Part One

There is much to see around the Cordillera Blanca, so we started with a few days of rest – to get to know the small town of Caraz, the finca/camping/horsefarm/flower- and fruit growing nursery, and the constantly changing units of fellow overland travelers who each had snippets of information that could be of interest to us. We had the good luck to be present during a local horse event, which was organized, on the premises, by the owner of the finca. We, like the other camping guests, were invited to attend. The horses present at the event had recently won a major competition with their fine Peruvian Paso Llano horses, and now wanted to raise funds to participate in the nationals in Lima. So they staged a show with their horses, and offered loads of food, drinks (pisco sours!) and music to encourage the Soles to flow from the individuals to the club. I think they succeeded, and anyway, we had a great time!

We were not in a hurry to get anywhere fast, since we still awaited news about the birth of our granddaughter, who, just like her slightly older cousin, decided to let us wait some weeks beyond the due date. When at last her arrival got announced, we were on our first trip up in the mountains, away from any internet connection.  

For starters we wanted to get a grand view of the snow peaks, from across the valley – from the Cordillera Negra. The road creeped up through small villages and farmland with hairpin switchbacks loaded with soft, ultralight dust. Along the road, trees and shrubs made way for meadows of golden grass, opening up the stage for a view across the white capped mountain range. Before the road went over the ridge and down towards the Pacific coast, we parked our camper and walked up the last incline to take a good look at the mountains that seemed so close (but really were not), breathe in the cold air, listen to the wind move the grasses, and hear the far away sounds that raised up from the valley floor. Below us we could see a lone truck creeping up the serpentine road we used before and were planning to return to – soon… On our way down, we found a pretty flat field with a gorgeous view over the white band of mountain peaks – almost prettier than the viewpoint higher up. It was the best spot to have lunch and let Kakao explore the area. He found a field of sweet smelling lupines to disappear in. When he re-appeared, he was covered with tiny seed heads that were hard to remove, even from the short, smooth hair that he has. This was the time that we received word that little Cordelia was on her way, ready to be born.

When we were sure that everything was well with mother and child, a drive up to Laguna Paron could be realized. We weren’t sure if we could make it up there, after we heard horror stories (and saw some evidence) of campers that got torn up by the rough road. Go book a tour, or get a taxi… we were advised… you can’t make it up with such a heavy truck; the roads are too rough and too steep, the curves are too sharp…and there are low hanging branches over the road!  But we’d also heard that staying up there for the night is a beautiful experience, plus we’d heard such warnings before at other locations, to find out afterwards that we could easily have done the route…  So when we heard that Sprinter vans with a lower clearance than ours regularly drive up there, and after we studied somebody’s video recorded on that road (knowing that people tend to record the extreme – the roughest, worst parts, but also knowing that those parts at the same time are rougher in real life than they appear on film), we decided to take the chance, and drive.

Yes, the road was rough, especially after the gate into the park. At the tight hairpin curves the road was uneven with holes and large exposed rocks, and steep, and we were glad we had high clearance with a sharp turning vehicle. Thijs took these curves slowly to avoid extreme shaking – which leaves such a mess in the cupboards. We could speed up on some stretches of smooth, straight road. We concluded once more that Peruvian roads may have more hairpin switchbacks, but the general incline of the mountain roads is much gentler than in Colombia. When we arrived at Laguna Paron and saw the turquoise blue water against an ultramarine sky separated by snow-white mountains, we were so glad we drove up! After the sun went down, and we thought the beauty of the sun had taken the stunning view with it, we were surprised by the magic of reflected light, where the white snow peaks replaced the cool magic color of the absent moon, and the lake’s mirror-smooth water doubled the effect. Later on, a sparkling curtain of stars above us seemed so close, I wanted to touch it. But it also was getting cold… fast! We went inside and filled a pot of water to make some tea. Our diesel cooker had difficulty starting, and only after ten micro explosions, it started – raising the inside temperature by a degree or two. Our diesel heater turned on, but created so much smoke outside, that we decided to do without and snuggle under the covers instead. In the morning we let the sun warm us before getting up. The lake was serene, the colors stunning. Except for a few guests in the Refugio, we were the only campers there. After breakfast we went for a walk, up to the lookout point above us, on top of the moraine mountain that holds the lake in place. At 4200 meters above sea level (over 13500ft), the climb went slowly with lots of rest stops to catch our breath. With only a narrow path, we trusted our dog Kakao to walk ahead or behind without wandering off…but, not! At the top, not far from our destination, there are big rocks to scale, with drop-offs on both sides…Kakao decided, that was it, I’m going back! Calling, coaxing with treats… all didn’t help. I had to run after him and retrieve him, taking him back up on a leash. Still, even right next to us helping him along, he showed too much fear for us to insist. So we decided that Thijs would go on, while I stayed behind with Kakao, and when the view would be worthwhile, I would take my turn afterwards.  Finally, on our way back, Kakao went ahead down the path. Occasionally he would wait for us, but as we got closer to the base, he confidently went ahead, leaving us in the dust. From above, I could see that instead of turning right towards our camper, he shot down into another trail, which split off into several side trails. No amount of calling brought him back. An hour went by. We called and whistled, but Kakao was still gone…until we heard him howl, far away… Now, when called, he would answer with a howl. It sounded like he was back up on the mountain again…and I was afraid he would be stuck, maybe in a bush or between rocks. I found myself hurrying up the path- no time for breaks, though my body was screaming for it. Then I saw a glimpse of him, way up, almost at the top. Relieved to see him walking- and occasionally looking down, I kept on talking to him while struggling my way up, until we met in the middle somewhere. Poor, silly dog, it is not easy to get older and your senses don’t work the way they used to…!

Back at the campground in Caraz, Thijs took the heater apart, to see what was wrong with it. He found one of the fans (a plastic one?) inside the unit had totally melted and needed to be replaced. Since it is a specialty item, we need to order it and get it mailed to us – somewhere. Until then, we’ll have to do without – even when our next trips will go higher up.  

Northern Peru: from the coast to the mountains

Trujillo’s beach town of Huanchaco was our hometown for three weeks. We enjoyed our twice daily walks along the beach, always in awe of the gigantic waves that kept on pounding the shore. Out in the frigid water, surfers in wetsuits waited for the perfect wave to ride, while the local fishermen worked in between them on their tiny reed boats called caballitos or little horses (because of the way they are ridden). For thousands of years, coastal Peruvians have used this type of boat to paddle out through the surf and cast their nets to collect fish from the bountiful cold water of the Humboldt current.

Local fishermen are working on the construction of a large totora boat for an upcoming festival…. too far ahead for us to attend.

Kakao, as usual, loved hunting for crabs, and this time he didn’t need to dig for them: here the tiny critters would race over the sand in large groups, too far removed from their burrows to find shelter. Caught in the middle of such an abundance, Kakao would need some time to decide which of the crabs to single out for a chase, then he’d run after it- trying to catch it, but more often than not the crab would outsmart him by suddenly changing direction and escape between his legs, while Kakao is still looking in the sand ahead, confused about where his prey went.

Waiting for our grandson to be born took longer than we thought, and after a while we’d seen most of what we wanted to see in the small beach town…We’d been to the market to buy not only veggies and fruit, but discovered they also offered good whole grain bread, cheeses, yoghurt and salami. We tried out a variety of restaurants and their versions of ceviche or more universal foods like lasagna or spaghetti.  We went to nearby Trujillo to find an ATM that allowed us to withdraw Peruvian soles from our card (strangely impossible for us in Huanchaco) and visit a real, well stocked supermarket.  

After the birth of our grandson ventured out to Huaca El Brujo, about 40km north along the coast. We heard that this Moche archeological site was well worth a visit. The Moche civilization flourished around 900-200BC along the coast of northern Peruvian and preceded the Chimu culture (of Chan Chan – previously visited), which preceded the Inca culture.
El Brujo is one of three adobe pyramids on site which had been partially destroyed – either by man or by nature, to be covered by sand and built over the old mound several times. Most of the sand mound has been left intact, but the various digs in the mound/pyramid revealed stunning reliefs and frescoes. The biggest attraction however is the Lady of Cao, a ca 1500 year old mummy of a tattoed noble woman, who had been buried there with a wealth of pottery and jewelry. 

The model of the pyramid El Brujo in the foreground shows where the various digs in the mound are. The model is located on the large ground level square, and the grave of the Lady of Cao is located in the upper right side of the mound.
Gravesite of the Lady of Cao. Her grave is in front, covered by wood branches, the other graves were of minor persons.
These beautiful bas-reliefs were found deeper inside the mound. Stylized fish, like manta-ray and catfish dominate the design and stand for the importance of both the freshwater and saltwater fish. Many animal symbols were used on the murals in on their pottery.

A well designed museum holds the many artifacts found on location and explains about the culture’s way of living. The last, most interesting room is hidden from direct sight by a black curtain. No photography is allowed here.  Entering the room, the left wall is dominated by a display of heavily detailed jewelry:  multiple gold and semi-precious stone necklaces, finely embossed gold earrings and nose rings, as well as  four golden diadems and four enormous crowns.  On the other side of the room were her power symbols, like staffs, arrow throwers, a gold plate body cover and symbolic pottery.  Finally, on the far side of the room lays Lady Cao’s brittle mummified body in a dark, sealed glass case; so well protected that you can only observe her through a reflection in a mirror.

What makes the Lady of Cao so important?  Before this find, the accepted thought was that these ancient civilizations were only ruled by men.  Lady of Cao, only in her mid-twenties, ruled over a brutal, war loving people and must have overseen the killing/offering of countless defeated enemies.  Many questions still remain about her and her rise to power, but after this find, more graves of apparently powerful women were unearthed, confirming a status of power to women in that culture.

These artifacts were found in the grave of a person of less importance.

After three weeks in Huanchaco we were itching to get on the road again, although now the birth of a second grandchild was expected – days after the first. Then we learned about a camping with excellent WIFI, in the Cordillera Blanca; just a day’s drive away. So we drove south; first over the smooth and wide Pan-American Highway, along which stretches of passion fruit-, avocado plantations and sugarcane fields took advantage of an excellent irrigation system that supplied the sandy dry coastal desert with water from the nearby mountains. Farther along, there was just desert: bleached sand, rocks and bare hills.

Isidoro the cat took claim of our camper, out of reach for Kakao.
Going inland, we crossed the river we were going to follow up the mountains. At that moment we witnessed a baptism.

Soon after we turned inland, the hills became bare rock mountains. We followed the path of a river, so the climb was nothing dramatic, however the cañón between the mountains became narrower, as did the road. When the mountain ranges of the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra came to meet each other on either side of the river, the road seemed to have nowhere to go but through the mountains. The Cañón del Pato was so tight that only a one lane road for two way traffic wormed its way through 54 tunnels before the valley opened up to reveal a fertile valley with fields of flowers and vegetables.  Looking up, the first bright white peaks of one of the world’s highest mountain ranges shimmered against a royal blue sky. We continued on through the small town of Caraz, and found the perfect little campground with pristine bathrooms and excellent WIFI. Here we will wait to hear the happy news about the arrival of our first granddaughter. After that we plan to spend some time between some of the 6000m (and higher peaks) with inviting blue mountain lakes, stunning views, crisp air, and nature trails to satisfy Kakao’s desire for long walks.

The tunnels of Cañón del Pato: Honk your horn to make known that you’re coming and hope for the best that no-one comes from the other side… otherwise one has to back up to a space where passing is possible. We were lucky and only met a few trucks and buses where we could go to the side to let them pass – or we were allowed to pass. No need to drive back up. We only met one motorcycle in a narrow tunnel, but there was enough space.

On the Plaza de Armas of Caraz the white peaks of the Cordillera Blanca spy over the mountains that obstruct their view in other nearby places.
Potato vendor on the Caraz market
We took a little longer than five hours, but the drive is doable in a day. The drop was our staring point in Huanchaco, the car logo is where we are now, in Caraz. The 3N logo would be where you find the Cañón del Pato.

Coast to coast: Ecuador to Peru

After Machalilla and Isla de la Plata we drove north, in search of paradise. We passed some pretty beaches right along the highway and villages that looked like the world had forgotten them. We stopped in Canoa, which offered a little more life and entertainment, a cozy beachfront hostel backyard with internet, and an opportunity to get our growing load of laundry done. The vast Pacific Ocean rolls onto the wide beach with strong, long waves – a surf rider’s magnet. During the weekends the beach is full and the small town is noisy; on weekdays everyone goes back to sleep.

Sunset at our campsite/ Bambú restaurant in Canoa

After a few days of long walks, rough dips, and lazy lounging, we decided it was time to slowly return south again and visit some of the towns we passed by on the way up the coast.

Canoa ocean front street on week days
Lovely flat beach is great for long walks
Along the coast we came across fishing villages where nets are still made by hand

That’s how we arrived at the north end of Puerto Lopez – the town where we previously embarked on our trip to the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”. We really had not looked around much in that town the first time around, so when we found a palm tree shaded strip of land with a few campers settled under the rustling canopy, we happily joined them there. The next morning the group of Uruguayans left, and just us and an Argentinian family in an old VW combi stayed. We practically had the beach to ourselves. With the shade of the coconut palms, a cool ocean breeze, and a direct view over the clear blue ocean, it was heavenly. Our Argentinian neighbors effortlessly included us in their culinary passion and soon (sea) food feasts topped off our sense of perfection.

Puerto López, where frigate birds try to steal fish while it is unloaded from the boat. Pelicans are satisfied with small fry that gets thrown overboard.
It takes a village to haul in big nets …
This night our Argentinian neighbors treated us: squid and arepas for dinner!

It was too good to be true! After a week, some guys on a motorcycle came by to tell us that this area was a turtle nesting zone and we should park on the boulevard instead. However it was not turtle nesting season, and there were no signs indicating it was a nesting zone (a kilometer further up there were) and a few shade structures -with flooring-  invited human visits, so we concluded the hotel across the street probably wanted us gone. Since we’d had a wonderful week there, we decided it was the right time to leave.

When we made an overnight stop in the very popular surfer town of Montañita, and we knew instantly that this spot was for fun seeking, souvenir shopping, sun bathing, selfie obsessed spring break- people. The beach was pretty, the water clear, the waves were surf-perfect, but the town…not for us.

We were ready to head back to the mountains again – towards Peru. However, before entering Peru, there was one more town that we needed to visit, since we heard much about it: how beautiful the environment is…how great the weather, and how relaxed the town of Vilcabamba … but also how many weirdos hung out there… We needed to see for ourselves. 

Crossing the mountains towards Cuenca, you have to drive through the high altitude Parque Nacional Cajas

The good thing about low expectations is that the reality can turn out better. When we arrived in Vilcabamba, we thought the town was just right. Yes, there were a couple of “Gringos” around, but not enough to turn us off. A bunch of shops and restaurants were clearly foreign owned; which satisfied our craving for good bread and yoghurt. But the best was the place where we stayed: the resort-like Hostal Izhcayluma offered a space to camp in their parking lot, and allowed us to enjoy everything the resort has to offer: a panoramic restaurant, a pretty pool and flower gardens, walking trails – and best of all -free early morning yoga at the most beautiful Yoga Shala I have ever been to: a high roofed space with glowing floors and open air views over the mountains, where the wind, birds and rustling grasses make any music unnecessary. I did not want to leave! But Thijs – not into yoga- was getting restless and looked forward to Peru.

Vilcabamba town square
Vilcabamba town square
View over the valley of Vilcabamba
Yoga Shala at Hostal Izhcayluma, Vilcabamba

The road from Vilcabamba to the Peruvian border is primitive. It begins as a normal, paved road, but it rains a lot in these mountains, and the slopes collapse easily, depositing mud, rocks and trees on the road. Cleanup service seems to be efficient, but the constant scraping of the pavement leaves its toll. Potholes and cracks, and finally just dirt road became the norm. We passed numerous landslides, but we were lucky enough not to get stuck in its mud, nor had to wait very long to pass the roadwork. Nearing the Peruvian border, we sometimes wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn, since the road looked more like a country track than a border crossing road. The Peruvian side of the border, however, had perfect, brand new pavement.

Roadwork after a landslide
Roadwork after a more serious landslide
Ecuador border to Peru
Perfect roads on the Peruvian side….just watch out for the coffee!
The road is still perfect, but watch for the overhang!

We smoothly rolled into the city of Jaen to get our car insurance and continued south to see one of the world’s tallest waterfalls, and a series of pre-Inca archeological sites. When the Gocta waterfall remained in the shadow, we were somewhat disappointed (we had imagined a tall spray of water sparkling in the sun) but the city of the dead “el Pueblo de los Muertos” and the human shaped sarcophagi of Karajia surprised us with their sudden presence, tucked in some crevices of steep rock walls. All of these places needed extensive hikes through fragrant and colorful mountain slopes. Our twelve year old dog Kakao loved these hours of trekking and never tired despite his age.

Record high Cocta falls….but always in the shade
Behind Thijs you see the Cocta falls from across the valley, during our walk to Pueblo de los Muertos
Finally, in the rockwall across a deep canyon, we discover the cluster sarcafophi at Pueblo de los Muertos
Ruined mausoleums on the cliff’s edge at Pueblo de los Muertos
At Karajia, the sarcafophi high in the rockwall are large and human looking. Some have human skulls on top of their heads, and other human at their feet…
Sarcafophi of Karajia

The vast mountaintop ruins of the Kuelap citadel with its towering walls closed off our tour around the Chachapoyas civilization. The easy way up by cable car was out of order, and one more time we had to drive a narrow, bumpy but scenic dirt road to reach the entry.

The road to Kuelap
Along the road to Kuelap
Two bulls and a wooden plow work the land
A good example of a traditional rammed earth house

Towering 10 – 20 meter high walls surround the settlement of Kuelap, which was built between 500AD and 1500AD by the Chachapoyas. Well crafted stonework – with relief designs, and decorative friezes show sense of detail, while a few enormous structures leave no doubt of the importance of the site. Surrounded by many other settlements, this city was probably a most important spiritual center, inhabited by religious and intellectual leaders.

Towering walls surround the whole site of Kuelap
Kuelap is still getting restored. Nature wants to take claim
Machu Picchu is not the only site with roaming llamas
The base of one of the round houses
The round circles are foundations of houses. About 3000 houses are said to have been built in Kuelap
At the museum in Leimebamba you can see the mummies and human remains that were found on the various Chachapoyas sites
Mummies at the Leimebamba museum

After driving for days from one site to the other, we were getting tired of the bumpy roads and the dust, even when the vistas were breathtakingly beautiful, the villages charming, and the air clean (when not dusty). So when we passed the intersection for the painted tombs of Revash, we drove on. I regretted it almost right away. But there will be so much more to see in Peru… Or maybe we were already preparing ourselves mentally for the road ahead…

Life along the Peruvian roads
Always a reason to celebrate something
Always a reason to celebrate something
Along the Peruvian roads: meat, hanging out to dry.
Downtown Leimebamba

Word goes around about the road that connects the Chachapoyas region with Cajamarca. Carved out of the side of steep and tall mountains, this road is compared to Bolivia’s Death Road; only those with nerves of steel should drive it….

While the narrow, winding mountain road is constantly under construction, only few guardrails are installed. In every hairpin switchback curve you hope not to meet traffic from the other side, since there will be no space to pass – someone has to back up, and someone has to teeter at the edge of the abyss.

The narrow road across the Andean continental divide is not for everyone.

The road construction was both a disadvantage and an advantage. About half an hour away from Leimebamba we found the road blocked, and were told it would only open after 5PM, when the work crew goes home. The road would be open all night and close again at 7:30AM for the rest of the day. We don’t drive at night, and especially not on a treacherous road we don’t know! That would leave us one hour driving time in the evening, and less than two hours in the morning. We knew we should accept however long it would take, as long as we could find places to stop along the road – we had enough supplies to survive a week at least…

Waiting for the road to open…

At 5PM on the dot, we started driving, along with about five other vehicles that overtook us within the first ten minutes. The setting sun in our face made it hard to see the oncoming traffic of the road-crew going home, and the curves in the road ahead of us. When the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the sky turned shades of orange and magenta, we reached a small village with a dusty soccer field bordering the road. It was no problem to spend the night there, according to the small gathering of youth that was about to break up and go home. The next morning we continued at the crack of dawn, and again, the only oncoming traffic was that of road workers. Around 8AM we had reached the end of the construction zone and only needed to work our way across an old bridge with low hanging cables and a few kilometers of Swiss cheese potholed road, when suddenly a perfectly smooth and wide pavement laid ahead of us for the rest of the way to Cajamarca.

All things considered that road was not that bad and we were glad to have taken it over the boring, days long detour alternative.

Across the summit, endless views
Right in time before dark, we arrived at a small village with a flat soccer field along the road. Perfect for the night

Cajamarca reminds me a little of Cuenca (Ecuador). Both are midsized, accessible cities with a Spanish colonial style center, located at a pleasant altitude in a fertile valley. Both cities have a town called Baños as a neighbor. Ecuadorian Cuenca may be larger and certainly has a bigger international population, but Cajamarca has some worthwhile archeological sites in- and just outside its city.

Only steps away from Cajamarca’s main square, hidden behind a normal city façade I was impressed by what a small, roofless building represented: this “Ransom Room” represents the dramatic change of the mighty Inca culture to the oppressive greed of the Spanish conquistadores. After the 1532 massacre of Atahualpa’s court, the Inca ruler was held captive in this one room building, and negotiated a ransom of gold and silver, enough to fill the room up to the nobleman’s reach. After receiving the ransom, Atahualpa was killed anyway, his palace destroyed, and colonial Cajamarca built in its place. This marked the end of an empire. The ransom room is the only complete Inca structure standing, only damaged by time and natural elements.

Inside the house, where you see a red stick with a sign underneath, there is a line on the wall that indicated the limit to fill the room with gold and silver as ransom for Atahualpa’s freedom

Just a few minute’s drive out of town, we parked our camper at Ventanillas de Otuzco. From far away, a rockwall seemed to be pockmarked with hundreds of rectangular holes. Upon a closer look, we learned that these holes sometimes had multiple side niches and were used as depositories for the bones of notable ancestors. These funerary walls have already been in use for thousands of years.

Ventanillas de Otuzco

On the other side of town – about an hour’s drive towards the south- you will find the unbelievably perfect pre- Incan canals of Cumbemayo: cut out of the rocks, an aqueduct runs arrow straight or with clean curves, tunnels through boulders or takes inexplicable detours with 90 degree angles. Why were these canals constructed, with such care and precision? So far, no-one has a logical explanation… diverting water from the source to a location below seemed unnecessary, with the natural stream going the same direction just meters below it…  and there is plenty water all around…

In addition to admiring this peculiar human feat, we enjoyed a pleasant walk through fields full of wildflowers and unusual rock formations. Several of the Peruvian archeological sites – especially the less frequented- did not mind us taking our dog along.  What a bonus for us, to enjoy a trek though the beautiful nature of the Andes mountains, take Kakao for a long walk, and visit some very interesting historical features all at the same time!

After leaving Cajamarca, there was one more site along the way to Trujillo that we wanted to visit; the huge mountaintop complex, measuring 5 kilometers long and 500 meters wide, surrounded by 12 meter tall walls… Marcahuamachuco.  Built from 400AD until 1300AD, it appears to have been Northern Peru’s most important religious and political center, with oracles and later a burial site for the elite. The place has impressive structures, though, as at Kuelap, many are still under restauration and therefore off limit. But again, the three hour walk was beautiful (and its entry free of charge). After our visit we were invited by the guard to spend the night at the top of the mountain, an invitation we gratefully accepted

Golden sunset hues over the valley below kindly reduced the pockmarks of the many mines that Huamachuco is known for. Next day, on our way up over the pass, and down along the river bringing us to Trujillo, the sad wounds of mining in the serene mountains were omnipresent; wounds bleeding  bright orange through the river, all the way from the summits to where it reaches the ocean…

Even at the highest summit, black plastic covers the mountain top where mining has contaminated the surface
And on the other side of the road, this magnificent view!

Entering Trujillo we were welcomed by banks and fields of garbage; a welcoming committee that seemed to say: we are civilized here – we know how to consume! Happy to find a street that led us in, through and out, in the fastest way possible, we drove on to Huanchaco, Trujillo’s beach town, where we found a nice little location where we could park our camper, and use WIFI for the first time since entering Peru. And we met some new traveling friends: a Kenyan couple traveling the world on motorcycles.  With our newfound friends we visited the ruined adobe city of Chan Chan, built by the Chimu empire, which, before being conquered by the Incas, was the largest adobe city, not only in South America, but in the world!

We love our stay in Huanchaco because of the intimate little campground  (two campervans max), but especially because of our instant friendship with Wamuyu and Dos. We shared stories, experiences, drinks and food, and together with us they were waiting to celebrate the birth of our second grandchild. Now, a week has passed, and the grandchild still leaves us waiting. The Kenyans had to continue on north, while French and Mexicans have taken their place. I wonder when we finally can crack open that bottle of prosecco…..

Bon voyage, dear friends!
Traditional totora reed boats are still made and used here for fishing just outside the surf
Start in the North: Canoa; A= Puerto Lopez B=Cuenca, C=Vilcabamba, D=Jaen, E=Leimebamba, F=Cajamarca, G=Cajabamba, Finish in Trujillo

Ecuador – the Poor Man’s Galapagos

We’d heard that the entire coast of Peru is polluted, at times unsafe, and therefore not very attractive, so if we want to enjoy some days on the beach, it is better to do it in Ecuador. So after many weeks of living in winter clothes, we wanted to feel the tropical breezes of the Pacific Ocean…which had been a while.

We arrived in the steaming lowlands and were greeted by sugarcane and cacao plantations. Not interested in visiting the port city of Guayaquil, we chose the highway around the outskirts of the metropolis, which accentuated the stark contrast between the life of the rich and life of the poor in Ecuador: here we passed hundreds of Mc Mansions within gated communities, with neatly planted medians and clean swept sidewalks, mega malls and shopping centers, which made us feel like we landed in Southern Florida. As we turned away from the city, the walled-in mansions made place for condo units and finally tightly packed concrete townhomes, before the countryside revealed breezy, ramshackle bamboo houses standing high on stilts above flood prone fields. Along the beach, within easy reach from the bigger cities, rows of luxury vacation homes sat comfortably together overlooking the ocean – clean, white and mostly vacant. Occasionally we passed through small surfer towns, where tiny streets were clogged with vendors, roadside restaurants and back packing tourists.

In general the road along the coast was excellent, while most of the villages would not attract any tourists. Here, missing sidewalks made walking difficult. Dust settled on chickens roasting on the barbeque … stray dogs lapped up gray-green water leaching from the homes into the mud along the curb… We settled ourselves just outside one of these villages, in Machalilla, at a street side “campground” facing the beach, because the family who runs this place does their best to keep their area and facilities clean, was very welcoming, and offered to watch Kakao when we went to visit Isla de la Plata at the adjacent Machalilla National Park. Isla de la Plata is sometimes called “Poor Man’s Galapagos” because several of the same animals assemble there, with little fear for humans, and in contrast to the Galapagos archipelago, it is only a one hour boatride from the coast, which makes an affordable daytrip possible. Just enough for Kakao to be left under care!

The first few days we remained where we were in our camper to wait out the weekend, and to settle down. We wanted to make sure Kakao knew the family and the local dogs and vice versa. We let him and enjoy the beach and run free until he felt at home. The morning we climbed into the taxi to bring us to the boat landing, Kakao remained quietly behind. On return we heard he had cried a bit, but not too long.

At the boat launch in Puerto Lopez, 14 other visitors, plus 2 guides and 2 crew members joined us on a powerful speedboat. We flew over the waves towards the island where, upon arrival a group of 5 green turtles came to greet us. For the walking tour, the group was divided into English and Spanish speakers and with a few minutes distance between the two groups, we climbed uneven steps to the plateau where most of the island’s birds roosted.  At the top we could choose which one of the two available trails we would walk. Since this time of year was breeding season for the Magnificent Frigate birds, who’d roost in the trees along the plateau loop, most of us picked that. The other one would lead us down to the coast for an opportunity to observe these and other birds in flight – much more difficult to photograph.

Before we even started on the trail, a pair of Blue Footed Boobies stopped us with their charming foot up dance – it was the start of a delightful walk through their colony. Though their breeding season had not started yet (at the end of the rainy season the risk of rain flooding their bare earth nest was still too big) there were a few of them already sitting on eggs, and certainly many of them were selecting a partner with extensive courtship rituals, rarely getting fazed by us humans passing within a few feet of them. Often we even got the impression that they called out to us if we’d walk by without noticing them. These birds are too funny!

Facing the other side of the island, low trees were littered with frigate birds. Only now, during mating season, you’d see how the males proudly displayed their bright red balloon-like gular sack, hoping to impress their favorite girls. After a skirmish with one or two other males, we saw them take off and fly past us with a slowly deflating red bulge, until it looks like a shriveled old bag, flopping left and right under their beaks. In awe of this spectacle, we’d almost forget to look on the ground, where the Blue Footed Boobies still call for our attention with whistles -by the males, and toots -by the females.

As we looped around to our starting point, we had to walk around a juvenile booby on the trail and our guide took the opportunity to point out that juveniles don’t have their trademark blue feet yet; they turn blue with age as they consume carotenoid rich fish like anchovies and sardines. As they get older and stay healthy, their feet become ever brighter blue in color.

At the far end of the island there was also a small colony of Red Footed Boobies; their diet consists more of red coloring squid. Since they are so rare on the island, their territory, as well as that of the Nazca Boobies and the threatened Galapagos Albatross breeding grounds, were off limit for us.

After a roughly three hour walk we had lunch on the boat, watched the turtles some more, and went to a nearby inlet for some snorkeling. The turtles rushed over to see us jump in the warm water, however most of us swam the other way, and only the last ones in the water had the luck to meet them eye to eye (too bad, not us).  We didn’t have an underwater camera with us, but I have to say, there was not much to see but a few schools of blue with yellow tailed tropical fish and dead coral. The ocean is dying! Nevertheless, the swim was refreshing after the midday heat, and we sat back happy and satisfied on the ride home.

Back at our camper Kakao was happy to see us, and after a good night’s sleep we left Machalilla the next day to explore the coast going north.

Colombia to Ecuador

After three weeks staying at La Bonanza, it was time to move on. The barricades on the road between Cali and Pasto had lifted, however it was not certain if it would stay that way. The indigenous people were still upset about the president’s refusal to talk to them about the many serious issues they have with the government, and barricading the main traffic route in their region seemed to be the most effective way to get their point across. It meant that the main artery between northern Colombia and Ecuador was blocked. Within this southern region, fuel could not be delivered, stores could not be supplied with new stock, and people were left stranded. The economic disaster and the uproar should force the government to give in to demands, but it looked like the president was not willing to negotiate. For us, it meant that we had to stay put where we were near Silvia, but since we had stumbled upon one of the nicest campgrounds with the best hosts in memory, it was not a sacrifice. Together with a French couple, a Swiss couple, and an Argentinian family -all in campers, we had been marooned with some French and Chilean volunteers, and we all made the best out of the situation. We helped a bit around the farm and celebrated our togetherness with food and drink. One day our hosts Kika and Anouar decided to treat us to a Moroccan experience with a giant couscous dinner, combined with a fashion show of all the caftans Kika had collected through the years. All of us women could show off like queens!

When it was time to leave, some went north towards Cali, and some, like us and the Argentinians, went south towards the Ecuador border. We took the fast road along the Panamericana, and though the scenery was beautiful, we stopped just for the night, with just some activity before leaving. Within three days we were at the border. In Ipiales, the border town, we visited a supermarket to spend our last Colombian pesos. We bought so much, that for the next couple of weeks, we would not need to go shopping again, except for fresh bread and produce. Since grocery prices are much higher in Ecuador, this was a good thing. In the grocery store our Argentinian friends were approached by local customers warning that, if we’d like to cross the border, we’d better do it now, since the next day, the border would be barricaded. So, rather than spending a nice quiet last day in Colombia, with a visit to the famous Santuario las Lajas, we rushed towards the church, saw the long lines to get in, and decided we did not have enough time for a real visit, so instead we just took a picture from the road above it, and sped towards the border.

The border took its usual time; it was around 5PM when we and our friends drove into Tulcan and decided to spend the night in the street in front of the cemetery, in the middle of town. This cemetery is known for its crazy topiary sculptures; a must see if you have a chance, and we did. Giant boxwood heads stood beside birds and turtles, while a congregation of fantastic figures held court around a stone Pieta. Enclosed by this topiary art lay the graves of the deceased, gaily decorated with flowers. The perimeters of the grounds existed of cemetery walls where the fronts displayed small shrines dedicated to the ones laid to rest.

We said hasta luego to our Argentinian friends at the Hot Springs and Holy Waters of the Grutas de la Paz, where they wanted to stay a few days to catch up on their children’s schoolwork, while we were curious about a campground we heard much about: a place to meet other travelers and exchange information about places to visit. Finca Sommerwind was, as expected from a camping run by a German, well organized and clean. The neighboring racetrack, however, chased us away with deafening  howls of pumped up racecars. Before we left, or rather upon arrival, we met our new friend Hans, a Dutch guy who for the next two weeks would follow the same route as us.

We remembered Otavalo from our first South American travel, some forty years ago. We recalled a small town colored navy and white by the local dress of the proud Otavalo indigenous people.  We remembered camping near the lake, and visiting the market in the small town of Otavalo…so we wanted to see if we could recognize anything. The town had become a city and the lake was now built up, but we could still camp in a lost corner. The market had become huge: still colorful with an abundance of produce, jewelry and daily necessities, but with a craft section that had become too focused on tourists with junky commercial craft. The people however were the same: they still proudly wore their traditional dress, and still approachable, with a sharp sense for commerce. As we’d expected things to have changed, we were not disappointed.

Our new friend Hans had joined us at the lake and on our visit to the Otavalo market, and for the next  two weeks we would share drinks and an evening meal together, and often go our separate ways during the day. But not always! When we found each other at the center of the world (the campground “El Mitad Del Mundo”) he invited us to join him in his truck, to drive up the Cayambe volcano, over  a “road” that we never would have been able to finish. The Cayambe volcano is the only snow-capped mountain on the equator, so you can imagine how high it must be! As the road went higher towards the icecap, tarmac turned into cobblestone, then into gravel with increasingly more and deeper potholes. Until at one point it looked more like a riverbed with boulders and rocks of various sizes. Left and right, cars were deserted by people who decided it was safer to walk the rest of the way. Motorcycles struggled to keep their vehicles upright while navigating the uneven terrain. Stubborn bicyclists seemed to do best on this stretch. And Hans! With a huge smile on his face he was able to show off the capabilities of his amazing camper truck….handled it like a pro, all the way to the end of the road! From there on, we could walk for about another hour to get to the glacier. We had to leave Kakao in the truck, because 1: he was officially not allowed in the park (even though we saw stray dogs running around there) 2: he was a little sick, maybe from all the shaking and the high altitude, but probably  from a bad infection of his gums – we’d have that looked after later.  We got ourselves dressed as warmly as possible, got out, and braved the icy mountain wind… and discovered, at 5600m (or 15,100ft) it is exhausting to walk! Even walking on a flat surface took our breath away, but going up was close to impossible! During a cup of hot chocolate at the refugio, we studied the trails leading up to the glacier, and decided for the easiest one to the bottom of the glacier. That trail was hard to find, and only when we had climbed up to the first split, I saw it below us. Being a way up already, Thijs and Hans wanted to continue up, while I decided to go down to the lower trail. So, together we saw both sides, but none of us managed to reach the ice. Maybe we were just too old for that!

After a short stop at the Equator monument, we drove into Quito to find a veterinary that we could trust with dental work for Kakao. We spent the night on a parking lot for a park, used by tons of people devoting a chunk of time on sports and workouts. We walked to the vet’s clinic, where Kakao was looked after right away. A bad case of gingivitis could hopefully be solved with antibiotics, mouthwash, and new toothbrush and paste. Now, a week later, I am happy to report his mouth looks much better!

After the vet’s visit, we decided to walk the 4km towards the old center of Quito. We visited the cathedral and looked around the Grand Plaza, searching for a place to eat with dog in tow. We came to the conclusion that Ecuador is not big on street side restaurants, but hidden away you can find some beautiful courtyards with outdoor seating.

We didn’t stay much longer in Quito, but decided there that we needed to check out Mindo, since everyone talked about how nice that place was…  Mindo is located on the west side of the Andes mountains, much lower and warmer than Quito: a tropical little paradise, we heard. On the way there, we passed another Center of the World equator monument, this one clearly visited by many more tourists, with a museum, souvenir shops, restaurants and model houses of the country’s indigenous peoples. 

We arrived in Mindo late in the afternoon, in the pouring rain. As we drove down the main street, expecting gazes followed us from deserted, fluorescent lit restaurants. Stray dogs lay around in dry crevices, expecting handouts…maybe the crowds would only turn up during the weekends…? We stayed here a couple of days, and explored just about all the streets of town. We discovered a few standouts in eateries, and ventured out into the jungle to visit the Mariposeria, a butterfly sanctuary. It was a magical experience to be surrounded by hundreds of colorful, light flutterlings, and especially rewarding to get a big blue morpho butterfly to land on you. 

The main attraction of Mindo is adventure experience, like tubing or ziplining, and that is not really our thing. With unpredictable weather and regular showers, even hiking to the waterfalls was not attractive. So we left, a little disappointed, to see if the weather would be better in the mountains. 

We visited a popular and well developed national park around Cotopaxi, a perfect looking volcano-and at 5897m Ecuador’s second highest summit with a pretty good road leading up to a trail towards the glacier. With the car park at over 4600m, I was already dizzy before I even got out into the freezing cold, so you may conclude already: we didn’t continue to walk up! We did however enjoy the views over the bare landscape and the international company around a fire on the campground.

To top off our volcano tour, we took a side track through picturesque pastoral country to the popular Quilotoa volcano, this one with a lake deep inside its crater. Here we were lucky with the weather: it was not too cold and it was not raining, so we had the opportunity to walk around the crater’s edge, accompanied by some dogs who loved to challenge Kakao for some play, about a foot away from the precipice… had me stop my heart more than once!

As usual lately, Hans joined us at the end of the day for a nice meal together (he ventures out to see about double as much as us in a day) and together we chose our next stop to be Banos. While we would travel straight towards this old hot spring resort, Hans planned to make one last volcano visit, because it would be the highest one to visit…we were done with that already!

While Banos was not exactly what we had in mind while thinking about a Spa Resort (the town was what we thought of as an very average South American town, the many hot springs were like commercial swimming pools, with an exemption of one old fashioned, old dame hotel/resort) we found, just a few kilometers out of town, inside the narrow canyon that defines Banos’ character, a nice little campground on a flat piece of grassland next to the fast running river. Now I would not have mentioned this campground if it did not have this challenge: not only was the road along the canyon wall rather narrow, but the drive down to the camp was so steep with switchback turns, that once we were down, I had nightmares about us not being able to climb back out again. The place itself was just perfect, with wifi, hot showers, clean bathrooms, laundry service, freedom for Kakao, and friendly hosts. Hans joined us a day later and took us along in his car for shopping and a look around Banos, and another drive up the nearby volcano – we took the wrong road that didn’t bring us to the top, but there was an opportunity to swing over a cliff…wow! Thank you Hans, for another exciting ride with you!

Our last dinner together with Hans. From here, he went north, we went south.

The main attraction in Banos nowadays is not necessarily the hot springs. Banos is the jumping off point for adventure seekers, zipping over the canyon, rappelling off the steep cliffs, white water rafting and jungle tours. We were ready for the jungle – not with a tour, but by ourselves.

The night before leaving the campground, I laid awake, worrying… would our truck be able to make it up the steep, switchback driveway…? As far as we heard, there had only been smaller campers down there, and one big overland expedition vehicle, and they’d all made it out ok….but they’d all had low gear, and four wheel drive! With memories of our experiences in Copacabana near Medellin still in my mind, I decided I didn’t want to sit in the camper on the way up, too afraid it wouldn’t make it all the way up…roll back…tip over, and what not. So I walked halfway up the drive, to watch the steepest climb, the sharpest turn and the next climb, which altogether would be the worst part of the drive. Fortunately, the drive was rather short. Thijs didn’t think anything of it, and in full speed he blasted by me, turned, and without hesitation drove on until he was on the main road. What had I been worried about? I guess I just need to gain my confidence back, and this surely helped.

Down there under the trees, along the river, you should see a glimpse of our camper

From Banos we went down towards the Amazon watershed. In Rio Verde we stopped and took a hike down – and up – to see the Pailon del Diablo, an impressive waterfall. Then we went on to Puyo, where we wanted to see the botanical gardens or the orchid gardens. Wrong directions and unexpected closing made it difficult and steady rain made an extended effort miserable, so we decided we could do without and, hoping for the rain to stop, we drove on south, past ramshackle houses and much clear cut forest-turned-into-pastures. In Macas we turned towards Cuenca and the mountains again. The sky finally cleared. Higher up, we were above the clouds, with a gorgeous view over endless layers of mountains. Along the mountains facing us, we could see long silver ribbons of waterfalls cut their way down the mountains, dropping into wild streams, to eventually feed the mighty Amazon.

Cuenca is a lovely city with beautiful buildings and a mild climate. At the moment it rains a little too often for my liking, but I guess, since it still is rainy season, it is to be expected. Cuenca is also known for its many churches and conservative religious attitude, so we thought it would be an excellent place to observe Semana Santa, the Holy week before Easter. Now it looks like Semana Santa here is more of a private affair: we missed Palm Sunday, so we started on Thursday, when you have to visit the seven main churches and go to confession, on Friday there is are small processions in the morning, and after that you have to eat Fanesca, the traditional 12 grain-and-bean and salted fish soup (no meat, since it’s still lent!) , accompanied by puffy empanadas del viento and all kinds of additions like plantain, avocado, white cheese, egg, etc.  Quite delicious! On Saturday you cannot eat that soup anymore, it is reserved for only Thursday and Friday. There may be another procession on Saturday, but we took a day off for shopping and to prepare for a Sunday trip along some village markets in the area.

Venezuelan refugee/musician, is obviously not enjoying the rain
Fanesca, the traditional Semana Santa meal

Of the villages that we visited: Gualeceo, Chordeleg, Sigsig, San Bartolome, and Santa Anna, we were lucky to enter San Bartolome during their 445th year anniversary. The narrow streets of the small mountain towns were filled with parked cars and along the church square, vendors sold fried foods, sweets, barbequed chicken and guinea pigs and the occasional whole roast pork. People from the surrounding area, dressed in their best, lined up to show samples of their harvest. A grand jury selected winners among them, and with loud music the party ended into the night.

For us it was getting too late to make it back to Cuenca, so when we found a wide, flat and easy spot on the edge of town, we decided to spend the night right there.

Yes, that is the advantage of traveling by camper!

Starting point= Finca la Bonanza in Colombia, A = Tulcan, the Ecuador Border town, B=Otavalo, C=Mitad del Mundo/Cayambe, D=Cotopaxi, E= Quito, F=Mindo, G= Lago del Quilotoa, H=Banos, I=Macas (Amazon Basin), Car logo= Cuenca