Thursday, December 3, 2009


If you go to Cajamarca, chances are you'll at least have a connecting bus through Trujillo. The people in Trujillo will tell you that it's only a further 4-6 hours to Cajamarca, but that will be a lie. Plan to spend at least 9 hours on that bus. On the bright side, it's a beautiful ride. It goes right through the lower ranges of Las Cordilleras Blancas, an area famed for its glacial snow caps and hot springs, and we saw some really pretty landscapes along the way. Cajamarca is best known for its festivals - especially Carnivale / Mardi Gras - and for its beautiful colonial streets. A lot of the Peruvians told us it's "like Cuzco was 20 years ago," and I think they're probably right. Unfortunately, it was a festival week (Corpus Christi started two days after we left) and that meant most of the tourist destinations were closed.

We spent our first night exploring the streets around the Plaza and watching fireworks in the church courtyard. We missed most of the festivities because we were eating dinner, but we caught the very end of it and had a decent time in the aftermath. When these people celebrate, they really celebrate! All of the streets had well-maintained cobblestones, and there weren't really any ugly buildings in the town center, so we just sort of wandered around until bedtime.

The next morning, we opted not to go on a 9 AM excursion to Cumbe Mayo, the nearby ruins we wanted to visit, and decided to take a later tour. We wandered through the town and found out that most of the good sites were still closed. We did have a chance to see the "Ransom Room," though, where the Incan Empire officially died. The Emperor Atahualpa was held captive by Pizzaro, and to buy his freedom he offered to fill his prison cell with gold. The Spaniards took him up on that offer, but executed him anyways. But back to the story: as it turns out, there are no later tours to Cumbe Mayo. We had to hire a car to drive us out there, which was a little more expensive, but not incredibly so. The cab kept overheating as we climbed the mountain, so we stopped to chat with a family of Quechuan farmers who gave us some water for the radiator and let us park our car to cool it down. They were grating the roads, so that was another fun obstacle, but we made it!

A man gave us a tour of the museum and offered to sell us a tour of the site, but we decided to do the self-guided thing. It was a very, very, very good decision. The sudden change in elevation started kicking my butt as soon as we started our hike, but I hobbled along as Brice did his usual billy goat routine. We explored a deep tunnel ascending through the rock, checked out the petroglyphs. They're ancient, Pre-Incan, and largely undeciphered, but it was pretty neat to just walk up and touch them. Most of them look like a series of scribbles, but there were some geometric patterns in a few of them. We kept looking for them as we hiked, spotting a few here and there, and then we found ourselves standing at the top of the valley looking down.

At that instant, we knew we had left Peru and entered Middle Earth. The valley at Cumbe Mayo must harbor goblins, Orcs, and Gollum. Maybe even some trolls. Any other explanations simply cannot account for the epic, fantastical setting left more or less unlauded in the normal tourist literature. I fully expected a giant Eagle to swoop down and pick me up, or a hobbit to come over and ask for elevensies. Brice explored all of the small caves and crevices, goblin hunting, while I wandered amongst the monoliths and let the walls of the canyon close in around me. I've only been this overwhelmed by natural beauty at Land's End or the Cliffs of Moher; Cumbe Mayo is absolutely stunning.

Towards the bottom of the valley, we saw some of the oldest aqueducts in South America and a rounded rock - shaped like a cheese wheel - where the Incas used to make human sacrifices. OK, so we don't KNOW that they made sacrifices, but that sounds cool so it's what they tell all the tourists. I listened in on a Spanish tour guide while Brice climbed around the near by rocks. I also petted another baby llama and gave money to the begging Quechuan women who were holding it, but shh! Don't tell Brice. We walked back up the valley along the aqueduct, pressing ourselves into the rock face at points. When we made it back to the car, I was winded, sore, and exhilarated all at once. Cumbe Mayo is totally worth the 9 hour bus ride from Trujillo.

We spent a second evening in Cajamarca, since our bus didn't leave until late that night, and it was a really good time. The churches with catacombs were still closed, but there were lots of bands playing in the streets to prepare for Corpus Christi. After eating the best pizza of my life (ham, chicken, pineapple, onion, and pepper with good sauce and fresh cheese on a thin crust cooked in a wood oven), we went to a peace rally for the riots in Bagua, a small jungle town not all that far from Cajamarca.

At around the same time we were walking to Cusco, Bagua underwent a similar agricultural riot. The government leased 70% of the indigenous land in the Bagua department (state) to oil drilling and coal mining, basically leaving the Quechuan farmers of the area high and dry. They made a road block that locked down the the department for nearly 60 days, so the police intervened. As far as official reports go, it looks like 50 people (from both sides) were killed and about 200 were injured.

Peru's government kept the violence under wraps for a while, but we started seeing headlines about the massacre by the time we made it to Trujillo. The activists in Cajamarca brought large pipe horns that let out a mournful bellow, candles, and a loudspeaker to the area outside of the Cathedral. They prayed for peace in Bagua, and led the whole plaza in chants. We didn't really join in, but we wandered through the people and chatted amongst ourselves. I bought a hot rice pudding from a street vendor, but there was a really bitter jam on it and I couldn't eat it. That was probably my worst encounter with street food in Peru.

After the rally, a concert band set up on the other end of the plaza, so enjoyed the free concert and watched some kids play on the grass. Then, all together too soon, it was time to go back to Trujillo. We got back on the bus, curled up in our seats, and slept until we smelled the ocean again.

Everyone read Brice's comment. He made some really good observations! Here are some photos to go with them:

1) El castillo rock formation.

2) The pizza oven.


Brice said...

Outside of Cajamarca may have been the prettiest greenest place I've been in my entire life. Leaving the town was interesting, because the trip is, of course, longer than the cabby said, and we just kept climbing out of the city, and we could even see the royal hill in the center of the city. And then the cab overheated and we had to wait while he refilled it. Those things never happen in the states, but maybe they should. Keeps life exciting.

As we neared the park? ruins? I saw some rocks that looked eerily similar to weathertop, or an ancient castle... and it turns out it was even named similarly. Ray didn't want to hike the two miles over to it (and back), but it was pretty cool from a distance. If I ever return to Peru, this will be high on my list. My little brother would happily spend all day climbing there.

Anyways, at one point I scrambled across a rock through an opening in a wall and found a 50' waterfall, not a torrent, just a trickle cascading off of the rocks in front of me and falling down into the hole in front of me. It is like an entirely different world, or a movie set, except so much bigger.

By "fireworks" she means an old man launching home-made rockets that look like they could (and sometimes did) veer off in any direction. Usually when children walked by. Best retirement job ever.

Also, Ray didn't mention the food. Cajamarca had amazing pizza. We tried two places, one of them was a pizza-maker who chatted with us the whole time, who spent time in italy learning to cook, and the other was recommended to us by an ex-pat tea-bar guy (really good hot chocolate) as the best pizza in the city. We got some cool seats where we could actually watch our pizza cook inside the oven, and the place was full of locals eating in and taking out.

tonia said...

This sounds nice... Really nice. And I like pizza... I could live on pizza... Well pizza and beer...

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Ray Yaegle said...

Peruvian beer is its own tongue-chilling reward... But some of it's palatable.