Northern Peru: A Series of Contrasts

My first week in Peru has been a series of contrasts.  

I left my beloved Baños Saturday afternoon on a night bus that would carry me into Peru, stopping at the border to get my stamps. We would arrive in the tiny surf town of Mancora at about 8 in the morning. I was joined by Morgan and Joey, the American couple we met first in Quito and later in Baños, who were going to the same place. 

Unfortunately, my sins of the last couple days caught up with me on Saturday, leaving me with a mild cold. I blew my nose a lot during the ride but at least the bus, a double-decker, was one of the most comfortable I’ve been on yet. We didn’t even have to suffer through another terrible American action movie. 

While rarely do I complain about getting somewhere early, especially when it comes to transport down here, we weren’t exactly thrilled to be dropped off at 6 a.m., under-slept and a wee bit cranky from the long commute. 

Going there mostly on recommendation and location, we soon learned that Mancora  is a magnet for young backpackers for two reasons: 1) it has one of the best beaches around with a lively surf scene, and 2) the mega-hostel/resort known as Loki (appropriately named after the norse god of mischief) is a party that rivals that of the Full Moon Parties in Thailand, if not on a smaller but nightly scale. 

Well loved by most who visit it, Loki is respectably a very well run joint. It has a pool, excellent and affordable food, a massive bar, countless organized actives to prevent any boredom, and an attached surf school. Unfortunately, Loki also attracts some of the scummiest travelers I’ve encountered, horny for hookups and looking to get as wasted as possible. 

Good luck going to bed early at Loki. As nice as the rooms are, the music blasting from the bar reverberates through the entire building (if not the entire town) and doesn’t cease until the wee hours of morning. In my shared dorm room, I walked in on not one but two instances of couples doing the nasty on bunk beds. Never has the expression “get a room” been more appropriate. 

With the right people at the right time I know I could have had a much different experience, but instead I was sick and desperate for some alone time. For such a head space, this was not the ideal place for me.

All grievances aired, I made the best out of my time in Mancora. 

Because this hostel is so coveted, we had to wait until 1:30 p.m., seven hours after our early arrival, to know if they even had vacancy. Such a late checkout time is great when you don’t pass out until 4 a.m. but quite annoying when you’ve been on a bus all night and just want to sleep. Thankfully, Loki was good enough to store our bags and let us use the grounds. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole establishment is their plentiful hammocks, which I made good use of. Pretending to already be paying guests, Joey and I got a free breakfast. 

After hammock napping and killing some time on the ping pong table (the place is absolutely dead before noon, as the bros and hoes sleep off their rum slushies) the three of us wandered the town, pulled out some Peruvian currency, and had a nice lunch at a veggie restaurant. 

Then I hit the beach. After so many mountains, deserts and rain forests, it was nice to finally dip my toes in the ocean and read my book on the beach. In fact, it was so relaxing that I dozed off and gave my chest the gnarliest sunburn I have had in a long time. I’m usually very good about using sunscreen but with my lack of sleep it must have slipped my mind. 

Since finding alone time outside of the beach was nearly impossible, it was nice to hang know Morgan and Joey, who were at least on a similar page as far as avoiding the party. We got had a cheap Peruvian meal that included ceviche. While I had thought of ceviche as a Spanish dish since it is often found on tapas menus, it is in fact a Peruvian invention. Given our proximity to the ocean, this seemed like a good place to order it. It was delicious, but because it is mostly considered an appetizer, it’s been difficult to find a place that will give you a portion larger than a very small plate. 

I came back to Loki running on fumes. Thanks to my noise canceling earbuds and pure exhaustion, I was able to fall asleep under the cruel thumping of bass and high shrill of drunken coeds. Though I got some rest, I think I slept better on the bus, which is saying something.

After 24 hours in Mancora, I knew I’d had my fill, deciding to move on that evening. 

First, however, I needed to get my surf on. At 8 a.m. I lathered my lobster chest with SPF 45 and got an early breakfast before anyone else was awake. For $3 I was able to rent a board for two hours. I am a retardedly novice surfer, but I can manage to stand up every once and a while, which is all the thrill I need. Despite being from California, Joey had never surfed and decided the price was worth giving it a shot. I always forget how much of a workout you get from paddling and fighting the waves. These particular waves weren’t the easiest to surf and I only caught three waves on my own, but it was good fun. 

A local instructor named Carlos, who was in the water at the time, saw Joey struggling to make use of his board. Carlos offered him a couple free “one-ways”, where he would set him up with a good wave, hold onto the back of the board while kicking, and send him on his way once he stood up. Later he gave me one too. He was a nice guy, and though he approached us later to see if we were interested in buying a full lesson, he was not the least pushy about. We started around 9:30 a.m. and by 10:45 we were beat.

In the afternoon I booked my night bus south, had lunch with the Californians, and read some more in a hammock, killing time until my 10 p.m. ride. I’ve come to appreciate that Peru is much larger than Ecuador or Colombia, and it seems you have to take a night bus to go anywhere. This is not all bad, especially because you save on a night of lodging, but it requires a little more planning than before. 

The Californians were also leaving on a 30-hour bus to Lima. Shortly before they left, we ran into our not so old friend Sarah, the flower thief. She was just arriving at Loki, a place that suits her, but it was nice to say hello to a familiar face. As my trip goes on, I realize more and more how most backpackers take the same route that I am. Even if I’m not acquainted with everyone, I repeatedly see the same people over and over again – at hostels, restaurants, sites and bus stations.  

After an interesting goose chase for the correct bus station (Mancora has no central terminal) I was once again on my way. 

It was one of the most dilapidated, uncomfortable double-deckers I’ve seen, and somehow a different company that I thought I was booking with, but it got me there. Falling asleep to a Spanish speaking Sylvester Stallone, with his impassioned use of mortal combat and firearms, was comparatively peaceful to another night at Loki. 

I met some nice guys on the bus, two from Singapore and one from South Korea. Though they were heading toward Lima, I had them convinced for a while that they ought to come to my next destination, Huaraz. As friendly as they were, I am thankful they decided against it. I still just wanted some time to myself. 

Although the bus ran parallel to the coast, they landscape was not exactly idyllic

The hills turned grey and rocky, with not so much as a tree to suggest any life was possible in this region. For the first time in my trip I witnessed real widespread poverty. I saw shantytowns where few of the shoddy concrete structures were still inhabited. Not many had roofs, and those that did were made of straw and recycled trash. The barren earth was too dead to plant crops or graze livestock. All the towns I passed through looked practically abandoned, largely forgotten, but people lived there. I saw far more dusty graves than I did humans. 

It is in these situations I really reflect on what I’m doing here. While the third world traveler often gets cast as some benevolent or enlightened being because we live cheaply and reject resort-style tourism, we are in one of the most selfish beings out there are. We are frugal, entitled and do nothing for the places we visit except stimulate the economy with a few bucks here and there. Sometimes we just make asses of ourselves (as my gang did in Baños). We try to convince ourselves that we are getting to know this foreign land by visiting their museums, eating their food, and zip-lining over their natural landmarks. But that has little to do with the people who live here. 

I know I’m demonizing myself here. There is nothing wrong with taking a vacation, enjoying yourself and seeing the parts of a country that it’s most proud of. Perhaps my real frustration is how many travelers, a high percentage of which can be found at Loki Mancora, don’t consider the fucked up reality of how while they are playing beer pong on the beach, dropping their parents’ money on round after round of flaming shots, there are people struggling to stay alive a literal stone’s throw away. 

On a personal and philosophical level, I wonder what my responsibility for action is when I see this extreme suffering in front of me. Am I helpless or lazy? Wearing TOMS and buying free trade chocolate may be a noble act of consciousness, but not of benevolence. Few things that I (or most people) do makes more than penny’s difference to improve this world. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have a many bus rides ahead of me to reflect on this more.

I jumped off the bus in Chimbote, a smoggy middle of nowhere town that smells like dead fish. 

The next bus to Huaraz didn’t leave for two hours so I got lunch at a cafe-restaurant. I tried to be as clear as possible in requesting that my dish be made without meat if possible. The waitress assured me she understood, but of course my dish came out with a heaping helping of shredded chicken. My mediocre Spanish usually gets me by, but I was in a bus terminal in Chimbote where sin carne is not really a concept. I ate it, and with thanks to the spicy yellow sauce and other ingredients, I did end up enjoying it.

The bus to Huaraz was the standard roller coaster commute over windy mountain roads. I chose Huaraz for obvious reasons: this small mountain city is Peru’s outdoor sporting capital, and home to the highest peaks in the Andes. Outside of the Himalayas, these are the tallest mountains in the world.

As our bus approached the climax of the pass, 100 meters from dipping downhill into Huaraz, a female gringo on the bus decided she couldn’t hold her bladder another 30 minutes like the rest of us and had the driver pull over. She got out, did her business and returned. When they tried to start the bus again, the engine wouldn’t turn. So, at god-knows-what elevation, the passengers on the bus cleared out and lined up behind the rig to push it the football field distance it needed to start rolling downhill. 

It was almost a special moment of solidarity, everyone pulling together, except Gringo Girl and the only other cracker on the bus decided that they were too good to help, standing aside to watch us push instead. I can’t believe people sometimes. In this situation, what gives people the nerve to think they don’t have a responsibility to roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution? Especially when you are the reason the bus is stopped the first place? No thanks to them, we got the bus rolling downhill. Needless today, I didn’t offer to share a cab with either of those two when we finally made it to town. 

I checked into my hostel and swiftly headed out for nourishment. 

I found a decent looking pizza place, and shortly after ordering two young travelers wandered in as well. Seeing me by myself, they asked to join me. Their names were Kate and Thomas, from Canada and the Netherlands, respectively. Like most folks in our situations, they are traveling alone but have repeatedly met up along the way. We got along well over dinner and they invited me on a hike they were doing in the morning. Having no plans, I accepted. 

I met them outside my hostel around 7 a.m.  

I had risen early enough to sneak out and find a bakery that would make me an egg sandwich for breakfast. When they showed up, two more people had been recruited for the hike, Hege, a Norwegian, and Shaun, a Brit. Altogether, we were a very international hiking team.

To get to the trail head, we took a collectivo, a small van that functions as a shared taxi. We filled the 12-seat van, and poor Thomas had to sit on the spare tire on the floor. Collectivos are cheap for a reason: they are constantly picking up and dropping off passengers along en route, squeezing as many people in as will fit. As we headed out of town, we did a lot more picking up than dropping and the van filled up like a clown car. At its height, that little rig had 25 people in it, over double its capacity, and my knees acted as seats involuntary for old ladies with big hats and bigger butts. Since our stop was the end of the line, the Sardine Express eventually emptied out and we had some leg room by the end of the half-hour ride.

The hike was a gnarly climb to a serene glacial lake called Laguna Churup. Despite the lingering effects of my cold, I was the strongest hiker in the group thanks to my Colorado-bred acclimation to high altitudes. At 4,450 meters, we were getting way up there, and even I was slowing down in such thin air. Like any good hike, you get in what you put out, and in payment for our perspiration we had the pleasure of eating our lunch overlooking a beautiful lake surrounded by craggy white giant peaks.

After the hike, people were making plans for the evening. 

When asked what I was up to, I said I had read about Sierra Andina, a local microbrewery started by none other than a couple Colorado beer enthusiasts. They idea was popular, and after showering and cooking myself some pasta at the hostel, I met up with Kate, Thomas and a bunch of their friends. We overfilled two taxis to get there and found ourselves the only customers at the small but cozy taproom. As my travels go on I’m meeting ever more people going in the same direction, and backpackers make fast friends. We split three pitchers, had some laughs, and I continued to fall ever more in love with this town. The beer was excellent and the proprietors were very friendly. 

After the previous day’s trek, Thursday started out nice and slow, but I made a big decision about my trip. 

Looking at the calendar, I still have a lot of this continent to see and not very much time. While some places can be explored over a day or two, I’ve come to realize that some places deserve more time, Huaraz being one of them. Deciding it’s best to give myself more time to better experience less territory, I think I’m going to skip Bolivia entirely. 

I didn’t make the call lightly, I’ve heard great things about the country and was looking forward to several stops there on my way south, including La Paz, a jungle tour and mountain biking the world’s most dangerous road. However, of all the countries on my itinerary, it was the one I looked forward to the least, and given my schedule, I was only going to spend a week or less there. The decision was made easier after I recently learned that U.S. citizens have to pay a $150 entrance fee as part of a political act of retribution enacted several years ago by the Bolivian government. 

I have fallen in love with this continent and know I’ll have to return to see everything I want to see. For this trip I am content with my decision, and now have the luxury of finishing out Peru with little rush and still giving myself over two weeks in both Chile and Argentina. I call that a good compromise.

After cooking myself some eggs and catching up on some writing, I headed out to explore the town on foot

The real draw of Huaraz is its surroundings and I quickly learned that the city is not that special for sightseeing. I did enter the local artisan market and bought up some gifts to take home. On all of my previous trips I’ve taken, I’ve been unforgivably bad at bringing home souvenirs, so this was part of a resolution to defy that trend this time around. I’m pleased with all I could get for less than $100, but now have the problem of it taking up a terrible amount of space in my backpack. Once I get to Lima, I’m going to find a cheap way to ship it home early, as it’s too much to haul around for another five weeks.

With my new itinerary, I was psyched to justify another day in Huaraz. Along with Kate, I booked a ride to the area’s most acclaimed one-day trek, Laguna 69, as well as a night bus to Lima afterward. I made lunch (I love having access to a kitchen) and spent a few hours on my own. With all my new friends staying at a hostel up the street, I’m pleased to have my own place to decompress at. In the afternoon, the big group from the night before met up and walked to a gem of an establishment that sells cheesecake and other treats. I ate the local specialty, Tres Leche cake, and it was awesome. 

We finished afternoon dessert just in time for happy hour to begin and moved venues to a great cafe/restaurant/bar called Cafe Andina, surely my favorite place in town. We drank pisco sours, moved on to beer, and stayed well past happy hour. As good a time as I was having, I had a long day ahead of me and decided to head home, organize my things and Skype the fam.

At 5:30 a.m. I woke up, packed up my bag for storage, made some PBJs and hit the curb to be picked up for the big hike. 

It took close to three hours to get to the trailhead, stopping along the way to eat egg sandwiches and drink coca tea. When the driver dropped us off, he told us we had six hours to complete our round trip. With that we headed off, trucking across a long valley filled with hairy cows. As we followed the stream toward its source, the elevation began to climb, first gently, then not so gently.  On either side of the valley we saw numerous waterfalls, each more impressive than the last. 

Kate is a great person to hike with. With a masters degree in geology, she is an expert on natural science and taught me a lot of how the workings of our surroundings. While she is a strong hiker, the Toronto native struggled quite a bit with the elevation. Though we started out in front of the pack, most of the other hikers passed us during the climb. Not one to leave a companion behind, I was patient in waiting for her. It was hard to complain about how fast we were moving when I could enjoy (and photograph) postcard worthy views in every direction all the way up.

In her defense, this was no hike for wimps. Our final destination, Laguna 69, sits at 4,400 meters above sea level, which converts to about 14,500 feet. In other words, we were climbing a tall 14er. After the first climb to a false climax, we traversed another long valley to the real push. As strong as my lungs felt compared to those around me, it’s impossible to not be fatigued. What would be a pretty strenuous hike at any altitude is made twice as hard when your body is not able to absorb the amount of oxygen it is used to. Many people didn’t make it to the top at all. 

When we finally got there, we received our reward. Surrounded by gorgeous white glacial peaks that violently tower above, the perfectly round lake stretches wide, colored a vibrant indigo blue. It looked otherworldly. The melt of the glaciers above creates several waterfalls feed into the lake from multiple points. I can honestly say I have never seen such a beautiful place anywhere – this took the cake. As if the view wasn’t enough, we rewarded our efforts with chocolate bars, relieving our tired feet with a dip in the icy cold water.

On the way down we could really appreciate the distance and the climbing we had done to get there. Despite the weather usually turning sour by mid afternoon, the skies remained clear until we could make it to the van. We were the first back an after waiting for the rest of the weary passengers to trickle in, we endured the long drive back to Huaraz utterly exhausted. 

After a much needed hot meal and showers, we caught our night bus to Lima, so completely happy to have a padded place from which we didn’t have to move from for the next several hours. 

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