Returning from Peru I was peppered with: “How was Machu Picchu?” I was apologetic in my answer. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I didn’t go.” The reaction was silence, followed by: “How do you mean, you didn’t go?”
Cue to the mantra I heard – from Peruvians – throughout my trip to the land of the Andes and cloud forests: “Peru is more than Machu Picchu.” As I, to my enormous benefit, discovered.
I spent my time way off the well-worn Gringo Trail of Cusco, Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley. Instead I went to northern parts where the likes of me are still a bit of a “novelty” and the ancient sites, such as Kuelap, are pre-Inca and three times older than the magnificent Machu Picchu.
I flew to Iquitos, one of the few cities in the world inaccessible by road. This buzzing Amazonian gateway, crumbling at the edges, is steeped in exciting history. In its glory days it was home to European rubber barons who lived like kings (with their queens) in extraordinary opulence, surrounded by the steaming, torrid, alive-with-danger jungle. Now it’s a jumping-off spot for those who want a taste of life in the Amazon.
I got my Big-A experience via Earthwatch, which signs up “volunteers,” in exchange for a hefty bundle of cash, to act as gofers to help scientists with field research. The team I joined was exploring the effects of climate-change on the wildlife and indigenous communities of the Amazon basin.
For 12 days, home was a historic three-deck boat built in Glasgow in 1899. It looks like it came right off a Hollywood back lot. We made our way into the Pacaya-Samiari National Reserve, a beguiling maze of a waterway that is off-limits to tourist boats. In motorized dugouts, we plied lagoons, rivers and tributaries, taking note of pink river dolphins (unique to the Amazon), jewel-colored macaws, noisy giant otters and fierce caimans.
We squelched (it was the rainy season) through dense, humidity-soaking, story-book jungle, often grappling with knee-high mud. Closed in by a thousand shades of green punctuated with glorious streaks of scarlet, purple and gold foliage, we searched for howling and wooly monkeys and lazy, upside-down sloths, always with the hope a jaguar might take a daytime stroll. A favorite memory is catching piranhas, then, after weighing and measuring them for the survey, turning the tables and devouring them. After a quick sear in the frying pan they were delicous.
The Amazon encounter was challenged by Kuelap for the top spot on my Peru adventure. Dating back to A.D. 600, Kuelap is a citadel fortress built by the Chachapoyas, aka the People of the Clouds, high in the northern Andes, overlooking the mighty Utcubamba River gorge.
It takes some real travel to get to it. The first stop, a 90-minute flight from Lima, is the delightful historic town of Cajamarca, dating back 2,000 years and dubbed the “new” Cusco. Stay awhile, exploring its splendid colonial architecture and some of the spectacular sites that surround the town.
Top of the list is Cumbemayo, an archeological site famed for its tall, spikey limestone outcrops and its marvel of hydraulic engineering, a thousand-year-old aqueduct. It’s a wonderous hike, punctuated with giggling children in native costume jumping onto the path to lure you into buying an Inca-Cola, the neon yellow Peruvian soda.
Next stop, on the way to Kuelap, is Chachapoyas. The only way to get there, in the absence of scheduled flights, is a hair-raising 12 hours on a bus. It’s billed as one of the scariest rides in the world. The mountain climbing, hairpin-bend extravaganza of a journey, on a barely paved, single-track road, with only inches between you and the deepest of mountain-side tumbles, can shred nerves. But concentrate on the wild, spectacular scenery and all fears dissolve.
Chachapoyas, with its cobbled, pedestrianized streets, is delightful. As for Kuelap, you can do it on the cheap in a “collectivo” (shared, bone-rattling covered pickup) to the entrance. Or you can fork out $70 for an English-speaking guide, private SUV, all fees and lunch. Getting there takes a two-hour road journey, followed by a stunning half-hour on a cable car. That puts you on the steep, mile-and-a half slog to the actual site.
I did not come across any Americans or Europeans. My companions were a few enthusiastic Peruvian families taking advantage of the way the cable car, which opened in March last year, has taken the physical hardship and excessive time out of reaching Kuelap.
The fortress is surrounded by stunning Andean peaks, though not, admittedly, quite as breath-taking as the ones that provide the Machu Picchu backdrop. The joke among Peruvians is that some Gringos think the famed peaks framing Machu Picchu are man-made.
Keulap, which once had a population of more than 3,000, boasts over 400 pre-Inca round-houses within its 65-foot-high wall walls. Some are restored and many still display distinctive carvings of zigzag patterns, animal heads and the soaring Andean condor. There are only three, very narrow, one-person-at-a-time entrances, designed to keep raiders at bay. To visit to Keulap, with it’s absence of mass visitors, is to be shrouded in a spiritual force.
Hang out, for a couple of days, in Chachapoyas and soak up its 500-year-old history. If you’re fit enough, head for Gocta, reputed to be the world’s third longest waterfall. A magnificent reward for a six-hour hike.
After all this, hit the coast for some R&R. If you haven’t had enough of ruins and ancient sites head to Huanchaco, not only to join or watch the surfers, for which the beach town is a huge draw, but to crawl around nearby Chan Chan (A.D. 900), Huaco de la Lunes (A.D. 300) and the historic elegance of Trujillo.
Wherever your Peru travels take you, it’s a pretty sure bet at some stage you’ll end up at Lima airport. If you’ve visited Lima before and you need to stay overnight, don’t go downtown. Stop in Callao, headquarters to the Navy, just north of the city. It’s the place many travel sites post a red flag against. They say it’s rough, broken down and dangerous. It might be all that in parts, but then aren’t most port towns?
So do go. Not just because of its 20-minute proximity to the airport, but because, like Kuelap, it’s a Peruvian secret. Its fabulous art gallery arcade, Casa Ronald; its 1740s-era fort and military museum; the lively, ubiquitous street murals and the Humboldt penguins and sea-lion colonies of the Palomino Islands, where you can swim with the latter, make it, like Keulap, a place you’ll boast about having been to.
- In Iquitos pay homage to Gustave Eiffel (he of the Tower) at the Casa de Fierro (House of Iron) created in 1890. It’s now a pharmacy. Stroll the Malecon, a hive of activity with street entertaners and lined with bars and cafes.
- Cajamarca is Peru’s cheese-central, as the cheese-only shops testify to. Time to Travel will see to your day-trip outings, including a visit to the cheese maker. Contact Ander Gonzalez Llanos, phone (076) 340618; firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Book for Kuelap at www.triphobo.com/tours/kuelap-ancient-fortress-day-trip-by-cable-car-from-chachapoyas.
- At Huanchaco, the Paradise Apart Hotel overlooks the beach. Eddie, with his perfect English, will point you in all the right directions.
- In Callao, stay at the Seamen’s Club, a magnificently restored 1912 mansion with a stylish restaurant.
- Despite Peruvian food being a global gourmet hit, few realize that the traditional meat of Peru is guinea pig. Like piranha, when you get over the perception, it’s outstanding.
- For Earthwatch’s unique Amazon experience go to www.earthwatch.org/Expeditions/Amazon-Riverboat-Exploration.
- For “all in” itineraries of northern Peru: www.kuelapperu.com/index.html.