31 Jan 2012

Peru - Callejón de Huaylas

We then embarked on a family tripette with young Laura, back down to Lima by bus (17 hrs) and then up into the highlands (in a pick-up (or 'the beast' as it came to be known) most generously lent to us by Humberto!) which meant driving north along the coast for a couple of hours in the desert heat and then turning right (at Barranca) and climbing just over 4000 metres in little over 80 kms of winding switchback road. It is yet another spectacular route to follow.

The last 20kms or so of the climb took place in fog (visibility down to 10 metres in places but still very aware of the drop of several hundred metres the other side of the white line - no barrier lots of the time) before cresting the final 'hillock' leaving the fog behind us and gently dropping down to Huaraz (a balmy 3000 metres) across the now expansive valley caught between the Cordillera Blanca (has snow) to the east and Cordillera Negra (no snow) to the west.

It is, to say the least, a different world up here (partly because you can’t breathe properly) very fertile farmland (tropical highlands) but frightening unpredictability (earthquakes, landslides, flash floods) where the locals speak Quechua and live (survive) off the land – more of all below...

We stayed in Caraz a little further down the valley (2200m) from Huaraz. It is rainy/low season this time of year, which was reflected in the available choices in terms of places to stay and eat, but Cafe Rat did us proud for breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days as we climbed (in the truck) up to the lakes of Parón and LLanganuco. Once again the scenery in these upper limits (4185, 3850 metres respectively) is incredible with some precariousness thrown in for good measure on rather infrequently used dirt tracks.

The prize at the top are beautiful glacial lakes (although there is very little of the glaciers left) with extraordinary colours as a result of the minerals in the water.

We also met some beautiful people on the way (sorry no photis), not least Jorge who lives with his wife and 3 young children in an adobe hut way up above Caraz on the way to Lake Parón.

Jorge has no legs, so his family help him move about in a wheel barrow, or he drags himself along the ground. Of course the terrain surrounding the family abode is not too much of a wheel barrow friendly environment - very steep fields - but they seem to live in surprisingly good spirits, growing what they can, fishing the local river trout and selling their produce in the market in Caraz - an hour down the mountain on the afore mentioned treacherous track. 

It did not escape our notice whilst talking that Jorge's wife (traditional bowler hat, pristine white blouse, yellow and pink skirts) and children were immaculately dressed, even though it rains regularly and everything else around us was covered in mud.

Not sure we are worthy of saying this coming from the decidedly privileged world that we do in comparison, but total respect to Jorge and his wife for their dignity in the way they are clearly bringing up three children in what to us look like impossible circumstances.

We also visited the open air memorial at Yungay, a permanent reminder of the devastation that can occur in this area.

On May 31st 1975 as 22,000+ people from the town and surrounding villages celebrated a festival in the main plaza, an earthquake struck. Within minutes the town and everyone in it had been buried by a landslide caused by the earthquake shaking free a large section of the glacier high above the town that then brought down everything in its path.

The only survivors were 92 children and a few parents who were being entertained by a circus just above the town on a hillside that wasn’t affected.

All that could be seen of the town a few minutes later were the tops of the palm trees in the main plaza and the mangled remains of a bus, the cathedral and the petrol station.

Today the site is covered by beautiful gardens, very moving.

Back towards Huaraz we stayed the final night in the old Monterrey Hotel, which includes free entry to the thermal baths. Sounded fabulous until we saw the colour of the water, but with stiff upper lips extended we partook and luxuriated accordingly.

That said, if ever you are in these parts then you have to stay in this hotel, it is magnificent. It looks like it hasn't been altered, updated or changed for 40 years or so, all the better, a little bit of faded grandeur for a ridiculously low price.

Back down to earth
And then there is the drive back down to the coast, this time on the road to Casma which from a driving perspective gets our vote as the best road on the planet yet driven.

Picture the opening scenes of the original Italian Job film (before the crash in the tunnel) with the music, the ferrari and the switch-back hairpin after hairpin on a perfectly smooth beautifully engineered empty road...

with an edge to remind you of how the film ends...

Unfortunately the weather wasn't great so we couldn't do justice to the view, another reason to go back another day.

Copyright - half of photos above are provided courtesy of Ms Laura Lucangeli - aka 'La'...

Peru - Lima and Mancora

From Mendoza we had the usual choice to make in terms of how we travelled to Lima, a flight of a few hours or a bus ride of immense proportions - in this case 56 hours.

We chose the flight from Santiago option which meant travelling by bus once more from Argentina to Chile across the andes, which is another spectacular road, up to over 4000 metres above sea level through what is effectively a massive canyon.

Unfortunately, for various bus trip type reasons, we were well late arriving in Santiago, which meant that when we finally did arrive we had to muscle our way through the gaggle of equally frustrated co-passengers, thrust a suitably large tip into the sweaty palm of the bus’s baggage handler so that he took an overly professional interest in our bags rather than anyone else’s, then sprint 400 metres or so through the bus station’s maze of kiosks/food outlets/music pumping stores out into the street to find a taxi, which with nearly 60 kilos of luggage (all those liquid xmas presents) got the heart going to say the least, to then leap into a cab whilst offering another cash bonus if he got us to the plane on time, which he did at speeds well beyond those recommended by his vehicle’s service history.

Anyway, we made it, the calm of the airport enveloped us and we were delivered to Peru a few hours later for Xmas and New Year - marking the psychological half way point of this trip (week 19 of 34).

It’s been two years since we were last in Lima and once again the city has changed for the better. The sights out of the window along the road from the airport (make sure you experience a Lima airport welcome at least once in your life- cwazy!) into town and the chat with the taxi driver always seem as good a yardstick as any to get an initial take on the state of the Peruvian economic/political and social situation, and although the gloom of austerity focussed Britain is a few months behind us, any comparison between the two is stark.

Maybe shedding the London cabbies’ Eeyore gloom and doom approach to life is harder than we thought, we do not expect taxi drivers to be bundles of joy, but listening to our Limenian driver expound the virtues of his country’s situation right now, its (and his) bright future (even though it will be hard work) with lashings of eternal optimism - well it was a joy to behold.

Yes the traffic flow (or lack of it) is still dominated by combis (‘public transport’ buses) pumping out clouds of thick black diesel fumes, yes it is still grubby, messy and chaotic but it is smarter than it was two years ago and there is visibly more success on the streets and in the restaurants and shops. 

And indeed Peru is enjoying more foreign investment than ever before, the currency is approx 7% stronger against the dollar than it was in 2009 (the english pound isn't!) and everyone we spoke to in our 3 weeks in Peru was positive about the present and future - albeit with a slight question mark over the new president’s (Humala) chummy visit to Venezuela to see his mate Chavez – who knows where that might lead...

After a few days enjoying Lima’s spectacular hospitality (thank you Ceci/Humberto/Nico/Francis/Linny/Sam) we flew north to join Kathy, Luigi, Laura, Giulia and David in Mancora for xmas and new year – amazing, beautiful, happy happy times...we even caught some fish..:)