Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Lazy Dogs in the Cordillera Blanca and Gastronomical Adventures in Lima

Well, let me begin by saying that the night bus to Huaraz was considerably less terrifying/uncomfortable than our last experience with a night bus. The cama section is basically the equivalent of sitting in first class on an airplane. You get a blanket and a pillow. There's even a hostess to all but tuck you in after bringing you a snack and a small glass of Inca Kola (offensively yellow carbonated beverage of Peru that actually out-sells CocaCola; sort of tastes like a cross between Mountain Dew and Cream Soda). The seats were wide and comfy but once the passenger in front of you fully reclines you pretty much have to stay put because the back of their seat is now in your lap. Chris was lucky to have a vacant seat in front of him for part of the trip but I was stuck behind a jerk who kept ramming his seat into my knees trying to force it further down. Oh well. I still managed to sleep for a good chunk of the trip so I think it was worth the slightly higher price and is a good way to survive a night bus when there are no daytime options.

Cabins at the Lazy Dog Inn.
We arrived in the mountain village of Huaraz a few hours past daybreak. After groggily reclaiming our bags we met the driver arranged by our accommodation. Theo ushered us into his station wagon and we tried to keep up with his small talk while fighting our semi-fatigue. We didn't get very far into our ascent up from Huaraz when Theo had to pull over, fill up a plastic bottle with water from a brook, and cool down his radiator. He repeated this activity about 5 more times, stretching the 40 min trip into about an hour, for which he apologized but did not offer us a discounted fare. Oh Peru. Finally we arrived at our destination: The Lazy Dog Inn. Owned and operated by a couple originally from Calgary (!), the Inn is perched on a beautiful piece of property with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, including some of the spectacular snow-capped peaks that are the namesake of the Cordillera Blanca region. We were instantly in love with the place.

Max (upper left), Runtu wrestling with Apu or Mayu, the black Lab brothers
 (upper right), Runtu  requesting some attention (bottom left),
Chris walking Max and Runtu (bottom right).
Four boisterous canines greeted us as we made our way from the gate to the lodge. Only one of the four (Max) ever displayed behavior that gave credence to the name "Lazy Dog"; the others, Runtu, Apu, and Mayu, were hyperenergetic pups but we enjoyed their company nonetheless, even taking them on a few walks during our stay. We had a room in the lodge itself but there were also cabins with fireplaces a bit further down from the lodge. One of the owners, Diana, is onsite full time, while her husband works during the week in Lima. She is a very interesting person, with lots of opinions and ideas about life and living, but also a great passion for working with local people. They've contributed a lot of infrastructure to the community, including a school and a computer lounge with a library. She also employs several local people. Which is probably good for her because labor is cheap but good for them because it's a nice place to work and probably pays better than other jobs they could have.

One of the porgrams Diana has introduced at the village school they helped build involves educating the kids about
healthy eating and where vegetables actually come from. Although they live in an agricultural area, most families only
grow large grain crops. When Diana asked the kids where vegetables come from, they answered "the market". Here
you can see their amazement when they discover you can grow them in a garden!

Sunset on a snow-covered peak of the Cordillera Blanca.
Diana and her husband have also taken several measures to make the Inn environmentally friendly, including installing urine-diverting dry composting toilets. Those took a bit of getting used to - no tank or water in the bowl, just a spray-hose to wash things down when you're finished! Everything about the Inn was comfortable and homey. We spent lots of our time just sitting in the common area, warming ourselves in the sunshine streaming through the skylights or in front of the huge fireplace.

Mobile huts used by the indigenous people to catch a rest while guarding
their livestock or harvests.
We met some interesting people from Britain, Australia, the US and Germany during our week-long stay. Most people were just stopping in for a night or two before they set out on a multi-day trek. One of the best parts of our stay was the home-cooked food. It's amazing how sick you can get of going out for dinner. Even just having to decide what to order becomes tiresome after a while. Diana's kitchen always produced something hearty and delicious and one morning she even spoiled us by serving pancakes with REAL maple syrup and bacon. Mmmmmm.

View of the Cordillera Blanca on a sunny morning.

To the left is Quebrada Llaca, right is Quebrada Cojup. We hiked into both during our week at the LDI.
Beautiful views everywhere!

Huffing up the path to the trail-head for Quebrada Llaca, 3 km from Lazy Dog.
We did two big hikes during our time at the Lazy Dog. The first was into Quebrada Llaca, found in Parque Nacional HuascarĂ¡n just up from the Lazy Dog. I say "just up" but really it was a grueling trek even to reach the park entrance, with another 6 or 7 km to the refugio and laguna. It was difficult partly because we were still acclimating to the altitude - 3620 m at the Inn, 800 m elevation gain to the refugio - and partly because we'd spent the previous week mostly lounging in Huanchaco.... The entire hike in to Laguna Llaca was quite challenging but Chris and I both agree that the views were unrivaled by any hike we'd ever done before. The quebrada was bordered by steep black cliffs while the valley was lush and full of tropical plants and gorgeous flowers. Rain from the previous night had left a dusting of snow on the ridges of the canyon, rendering dozens of beautiful waterfalls as the morning sun began to melt the remaining drifts. A glistening white glacier was visible in the distance, a stark contrast to the dark canyon walls. Our photos capture some of the beauty but even with Chris's mad photography skills it's hard to truly show how amazing it was.

Waterfall cascading down the black cliffs to the brook that cut through the meadow.
For a reference of scale, the tiny black specks are actually horses grazing
beside the brook. 

A few flowers of the Andes.

I don't think this needs a caption.

Dam at Laguna Llaca; view looking back on the Quebrada towards Huaraz.
We made our way up up and up to the refugio where we found a big group of guys packing up tents and camping supplies. It was the wrap up of a search-and-rescue training course. After making our final ascent to the laguna (bit anticlimactic actually... it was more of a murky jade color than the promised turquoise jewel) we decided to eat lunch inside the refugio since it was quite muddy and cold outside. We'd just unpacked our can of tuna, tostadas, carrots, and bananas when a man came by to see if we needed any help. We said no thanks, we just wanted to eat our lunch. He left for a moment and then returned to tell us that the refugio was private BUT we could eat there if we were quick... awkward..... None of the refugios we'd visited in our previous travels were private! We ate rapidly and made a quick, albeit rather obtrusive exit through what appeared to be the graduation ceremony for the training course. Oops.

Chris leaping over the icy brook on our way out of the Quebrada.
It was either jump or climb up over the boulders to circumvent the water.

"Pasteurized horses" of the quebrada.
One interesting thing about the national park is that local indigenous people retain grazing rights for their livestock. So, it is not uncommon to see cows munching happily beside the babbling brook or horses streaking through the boulder-strewn meadow. We'd wondered whether the horses were actually wild because they seemed very scared of us so Chris asked Diana about them when we returned from our hike. Specifically, he inquired whether those were "pasteurized horses" in the park..... Hahahahahaha. After a good chuckle, Diana explained about the grazing rights.

After one day of rest, we did a second long hike into the other quebrada behind the lodge and were joined by Leoni, a lady from Australia. This time it was 5 km to the trail head but most of the way was along a gravel road with a very gradual incline. This quebrada stretched back to Laguna Cojup but we decided against making the entire 34 km round trip jaunt... bit long for a day hike in my opinion and we were a bit underwhelmed by the other laguna we'd hiked to anyway. We hiked in about 10 km to a viewpoint where we had lunch in the crisp mountain breeze. The views weren't as spectacular as Llaca but the hike was more relaxing and it was nice to visit with Leoni.

The road up to the Quebrada Cojup entrance gate was a bit treacherous...  This slump left a gash in the road that dropped down at least 50 meters to the ravine below. Luckily someone placed a dead tree in the road as a warning to drivers of the hazard...
Our lunch spot during the Quebrada Cojup hike.

A very awesome thing about the Lazy Dog is the dry sauna the owners have built. So nice to soothe sore muscles after a long hike! Another awesome thing is that they have horses and we got to enjoy a few hours of horsebackriding through the mountains and sprawling farmlands with Diana. Our week at the Lazy Dog was over far too quickly. We had time to get used to the idea of leaving though when our flight from Huaraz to Lima was delayed for 3 hours! Luckily the tiny Huaraz airport had free wifi so we were able to do some trip planning while we waited. They also brought us a delicious meaty empanada to temporarily sate our hunger (there are no restaurants).

Finally, our plane arrived from Lima, the usual source of air traffic delays in Peru. It was a tiny plane - a DASH 8, which is a turboprop. The flight was so empty that I moved to the window seat in front of Chris in order to get a good view as we flew out of Huaraz. I was a little nervous once the started the propellers because my seat was directly adjacent to one and all I could think about was how I'd be sliced in two if they somehow broke free. I soon forgot my fear as we took off and the incredible views captured my attention. We were able to see the tallest mountain in Peru - HuascarĂ¡n Sur, it's snow-covered peak towering above the cordillera at 6,746 m. It was also neat seeing the crazy high mountain roads used to access the multitude of high altitude farmlands.

Flying into Lima we had a bird's eye view of the poorest barrios, closely resembling the desert shanty towns we'd seen during our bus journeys along the north coast. We'd made arrangements for an airport pickup and eagerly scanned the sea of signs held up by the dozens of chofers gathered just past the arrivals door. No "Chris & Ange" to be found even though we'd made contact with our hostal to let them know about the flight delay and they'd written back to confirm our ride would be there... We waited another 20 minutes, during which time a particularly keen taxi driver, who claimed to know every hotel in Lima, struck up an elaborate conversation with me in pretty decent English. Eventually we gave up on our prearranged ride and hired the chatty driver to take us to our hostal. It ended up being an interesting ride as he took us the long way from the airport (fares are set prior to departures so we weren't concerned that he was trying to run up the meter... in fact, most taxis don't have meters), following the coastline and pointing out various parks, restaurants, and other areas of potential interest. He also asked plenty of questions about Canada, including when was the cheapest time to visit there and where was the cheapest place to live. We think he may have aspirations to relocate in the future.

Miraflores, overlooking the ocean, Lima.
It was quickly apparent during our drive that there is enormous disparity in Lima. The further we got from the airport, the more modern and upscale the neighborhoods became. Towering, artistically designed condo buildings line the oceanfront along with countless fine dining venues and immaculate parks. Lima is by far the most modern city we've visited so far in South America. After our 60-minute impromptu tour, we arrived at our hostal, Pension Yolanda; an unmarked building in a residential part of Miraflores. The owner, Erwin, met us with a hearty welcome and perfect English. He said his driver had waited for us at the airport but we were skeptical considering how long we'd waited after our flight's arrival. Shrugging, Erwin escorted us to our room, which was directly adjacent to the kitchen and dining area.

It was immediately apparent than we weren't at the Lazy Dog Inn anymore... the room was quite filthy and the ensuite bathroom was no exception. A heavy scent of BO and cigarettes lingered in the room even after we opened the window (that looked at the exterior of another building less than a meter away). At first I thought it was just the smell of Lima but then I made the mistake (?) of sniffing the bedding and rapidly recoiled in revulsion as the true source of the stench became clear. We were disappointed, especially considering the great reviews we'd read on Trip Advisor coupled with the recommendation in our guide book. Still, we thought we'd try to make the best of it and cope with the less than stellar conditions for the next 5 nights. I removed the comforter from the bed as it seemed to be the smelliest and swapped my pillow with the one on the single bed that was also crammed into our room. I unpacked my bag in an effort to make the room feel more homey (and to hide some of the grime under cover of my clean, personal items). Then we went out in search of dinner.

The overcast skies of mid afternoon had sunk lower, enveloping Lima in a strange hazy fog that reminded me of frosty winter mornings in Edmonton except that it wasn't cold and we were walking among palm trees and shrubs and flowers instead of snowbanks. It was nothing short of eerie. Unfortunately our trek to what was supposed to be one of the best Italian restaurants in Lima did not pay off; evidently 6pm is too early for dinner in Lima - they didn't open until 8. Luckily we were in Lima, one of the culinary capitals of the world, so it was easy to find somewhere else to eat.

Still craving Italian cuisine, we made our way to "Pizza Alley", which is exactly what it sounds like only more absurd. Approximately 2 dozen nearly identical restaurants line a pedestrian strip just off Parque Kennedy, the triangular, cat-infested central park of Miraflores (maybe 'infested' is the wrong word - the cats are actually very cute and don't seem mangy. But there are LOTS). Anyway, Pizza Alley... every restaurant features a covered patio, neon signage, LCD tvs showing futbol matches, a chalkboard advertising exactly the same specials in suspiciously similar handwriting, and an obnoxious tout standing at the entrance proffering passersby a free pisco sour and the best food or it's free. We chose La Glorietta, simply because it appeared in our guide book. Chris thinks they must've paid for the promotion since there wasn't anything unique about the place and we were quite sure the menu was no different than that of the other 23 joints. We  drank our free pisco sour, ate our pizza (reasonable but not especially good) and returned to smelly Yolanda's for the night.

The next morning we were awoken quite early by other guests breakfasting in the kitchen outside our door. After braving a rinse in the soap-scum coated shower and finding that we had barely more than a trickle of water pressure we decided we weren't willing to pay the nightly rate of ~$40 for such a dive. Chris went out in search of alternate accommodations while I packed our bags. When Chris returned we semi-apologetically announced to Erwin that we were leaving. I don't know why it's so hard to be honest when you have a genuine, justified complaint about a place but for some reason it made both of us feel incredibly awkward. Maybe it was because the owner seemed so friendly and hospitable. Too bad he doesn't know how to clean!! Actually, we have a theory that the hostal used to be co-owned by him and his wife: he was responsible for speaking multiple languages and helping tourists navigate Lima while she was responsible for upkeep of the rooms and laundry. We'd noticed a mild aroma of alcohol whenever Erwin was around so we speculate that maybe his wife left because he's a drunk and he has tried to continue the business in her absence but things have gone way downhill. Plausible... clearly we have an excess of free time to ponder these relatively trivial scenarios.

We hoofed it about 15 blocks to our new accommodation: a small hostal whose name, Hospedaje "Trust Me", certainly inspired confidence. It turned out to be a decent place, CLEAN, and actually cheaper than Yolanda's. The downside was that it seemed to attract noisy guests (often of the amorous sort...) and every afternoon the cold water was shut-off for some unexplained reason until we asked for it to be turned back on.

Right. What else did we do in Lima? We took a few long walks in an effort to maintain our fitness for our upcoming Inca Trail trek. The terrestrial part of Lima's oceanfront is very beautiful in a cosmopolitan sort of way. We walked from Miraflores to the even more opulent district of Barranco and marveled at the swanky condos overlooking the sea. The sea itself was less alluring, its shimmering surface is sadly marred by frothy pollution and bits of debris. Surprisingly, there were still several die-hard surfers catching waves.

View of Miraflores's oceanfront condos from Barranco. 

Not-so enticing ocean...
 We also made an effort to sample some of Lima's world-renowned cuisine and, as can happen in South America, experienced both ends of the spectrum, enduring a few epic fails mixed in with some of the most gourmet meals we've ever enjoyed. The most notable fail was at a cute cafe we'd walked by several times, noting the impressive espresso machine and delicious coffee smells wafting out across the patio. We decided to try it for breakfast one day and were pleasantly surprised by the diverse number of options on the menu. Tragically, the coffee did not taste nearly as good as it smelled and when the server delivered a plate of soggy white bread posing as French Toast. The look on Chris's face was that of a 4 year old boy who was just matter-of-factly informed that there's no Santa Claus. Another minor fail occurred at a restaurant named Los Brujos (the witches) where I thought I'd ordered an interesting beef dish and then was served the same old lomo saltado (beef strip sauteed with onions and tomatoes) that you can get anywhere in Peru. To top it off, they charged us for a "bread service" that we didn't order but had happily eaten when they brought olives, red peppers and bread to our table before our meals. Lesson learned.

Two highlights of our culinary experiences in Lima were Pescado Capitales and Central Restaurant. The former, whose name translates to "Capital Fish" but is a play on words because "Pecados Capitales" is the Spanish reference for The 7 Deadly Sins. The menu gave hilarious descriptions of the sinful properties of each dish and often depicted the ingredients as possessing the characteristic sinful traits such as the carrot slivers being jealous of the avocado curls. The food itself was also amazing. We shared a ceviche mixto (raw fish cured with lime, served with corn, sweet potato, lettuce, etc.) including salmon, tuna, and a white fish that I can't remember the name of. Then we savored a causa (mashed potato layered with seafood and avocado) of grilled shrimp followed by canelones of passionfruit cheesecake. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. We just kept watching dishes go by to other tables and wishing we had bigger stomachs to order more.

Peruvian minestrone, asian noodle salad (both at Tanta, one of Gaston Acurio's restaurants); grilled shrimp causa, canelones of passionfruit cheesecake (both at Pescado Capitales).
Central Restaurant is rated #1 according to Trip Advisor and is recognized as a superb place to have a gastronomical adventure (yes, I am nerdy). We were lucky to get a reservation on our final day in Lima and arrived at the restaurant dressed in the best clothes we'd packed but still felt very under-dressed. The staff were unperturbed and, with great hospitality, showed us to the bar where we could have a drink while waiting for our table. We were seated such that I had a great view of the kitchen, which was entirely visible through glass walls at one end of the restaurant, about 3 meters from our table. I loved watching the frenzied but organized chaos of the cooks and I coveted every piece of cookware I could see from my vantage point.

Grouper tiradito with leche de tigre and avocado jelly (left), potato trio (top), salmon vietnam (middle), veggie crisps, butters, olive oil and sweet potato done 2 ways (bottom).

Our meal began with "sweet potato done two ways", which was crispy and whipped. Simple but tasty and interesting how different cooking methods can result in such different textures and flavors. We were also served some veggie crisps with a creamy herb dip and a tomato-based salsa with cheese and a bit of kick. Next came four mini-breads (rye, coca leaf-infused, brioche, and a bun baked with cheese and tomato) served with two types of butter (white with red rock salt from a city near Lima and a brown butter with burnt salt) and extra virgin olive oil. Each bite melted in our mouths. While we enjoyed these complimentary (we hoped...) starters, we sipped on pisco sours (Chris got his with maracuya = passionfruit) and watched the other tables fill with affluent Limenas and dolled-up turistas.

Next came our appetizers - Chris ordered had the "Salmon Vietnam", which was a very fancy salmon ceviche that the server doused in an asian-inspired sauce after placing it in front of Chris. I had the "Grouper Tiradito", which was also like a ceviche, served with a sauce made from rocoto, one of the rarest species of the capsicum (bell pepper) genus. Mine was also served with three tiny potato preparations, all of which were infused with some sort of smokey essence. Mouth in heaven!!! For our mains, Chris had the "Singha Seabass", which came with a rice dish of shrimp, mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes. I had the lamb shoulder, which came with crunchy squash croquettes and whipped potatoes. It was tender, rich, and flavorful. Chris's was delicious too. We were too full for dessert but ordered tea and they brought us some petit fours (assorted tiny confections including chocolates, jellies, and marshmallows) that we managed to squeeze into our full tummies. It was by far the most expensive meal we've had during our travels but it was a truly unique and satisfying experience.

Upper - breads. Bottom left - smoked potato cube with flower garnish.
Bottom right - Salmon Vietnam appetizer.
Lamb shoulder (left), Singha seabass (top), us enjoying our meal! (middle and bottom).
Petit fours, aromatic tea, chocolates made from Peruvian cocoa, marshmallow cubes infused with chicha morada (purple corn beverage) and guanabana.
We didn't do much else during our time in Lima aside from arranging some future travel plans (small fiasco trying to pay for a trip to the Amazon for Chris and Neil next month), visiting not one but two of Gaston Acurios restaurants in search of his award-winning book about Peruvian cuisine in order to purchase it and send it home to my Peruvian friend in Canada, Chris got a haircut (and beardcut), I got a pedicure, and we stopped into a strange modern art gallery where we watched a short film of an artist painting the palm of her left hand so it looked like the back of her right hand. We also visited central Lima and the city's Plaza de Armas, arriving serendipitously just in time to witness the extravagant changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace. Seriously. I've never seen such an extensively choreographed military display! Twirling and juggling their guns while completing complicated marches in various formations to the music of a brass band. And they performed at least 5 different numbers! Amazing.

Start of the changing of the guard ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Lima.
Plaza de Armas, Lima.
We are now in Cuzco, acclimating to the altitude in preparation for our upcoming Inca Trail trek. Our friend Neil arrived this morning, fresh out of his final exams at the University of Calgary. It's interesting how his excitement about everything is renewing our own enthusiasm and reminding us of just how extraordinary this year-long adventure really is.

On a side-note, I've been wondering whether anyone is actually reading these blogs in their entirety... especially lengthy ones like this particular entry. Officially, we have 10 followers and a few additional people consistently "Like" or comment on the link when I post it to Facebook. The other day my mom mentioned that lots of my cousins and other relatives must be reading the blog because most people knew what I was up to and why I was missing from my Gramma's memorial service. Well, when I logged in to write this post I was welcomed by the new blogger interface, which now includes very detailed webpage statistics. So, basically, I now know exactly how many page views we have, where our views originate, and even what sort of browser people are using! The reality is that we have A LOT of lurkers (people who read the blog but don't comment). I guess that's cool. I'm happy someone is reading the blog! Or at least visiting the blog page... is anyone still reading??

Monday, 9 April 2012

Peru - the North Coast

Via a nine hour bus ride, we crossed the border into Peru. The crossing was simple enough. Our bus pulled over on the Ecuadorian side while we submitted our exit card and had our passport marked to reflect our departure. We then walked further up the road to the Peruvian control office and completed their required paperwork to get our entry stamp. It was a bit chaotic in terms of vehicles being abandoned all along the roadway while people did their business at the border stations. Very different than border crossings in North America!

After the excitement of crossing the border we still had about 4 hours left to reach our destination of Piura. At first it didn't really feel like we'd entered another country because everything looked the same. Then suddenly we emerged from the forests of the Andean lowlands to a flat, barren desert speckled with dry brush and clusters of dusty brown shanty-towns. A stark contrast from the lush mountainsides we'd grown accustomed to seeing every day. Our first impressions of Piura were dominated by the nostril-searing heat and the obnoxious, incessant honking of car horns. This was a whole new level of honking noise, fraught with novelty horns belching a myriad of tunes, whistles, and melodies. By far the worst offenders are taxis and combis but private vehicles are not totally innocent. The latter are often left screeching car alarms to apathetic passersby while their owners are somewhere out of earshot or so desensitized to the sound they don't even bother to silence the alarm.

To be frank, we didn't like Piura and were looking forward to getting away as soon as possible (I suppose that's why there are no photos of our time there... that and it felt much sketchier than other places we've been). Our main reason for stopping there was to rest after our long journey from Ecuador (it's the first major hub after the border) and to check out the nearby artisan markets at Catacaos which are recognized as the best place in Peru to buy weavings, silversmith creations, and pottery from Chulucanas (also close to Piura). We decided to forego a private trip in a moto-taxi (basically a motorized tricycle with a covered bench seat) and braved the slightly safer form of public transportation - combis.

The market town was fairly quiet because it was midweek but there was still lots to look at and we managed to buy enough to fill one large box and a 1.5 m long PVC tube... Unsatisfied with the packing done at the market, we searched Piura high and low for a bigger box so that we could stuff more paper in to secure our fragile cargo for the shipment back to Canada. It was almost comical how difficult it was just to find a box! We tried at tiendas (small shops), electronics stores, our hotel and even began keeping our eyes peeled when we passed empty lots. We finally chanced upon one at some sort of government agency when we were walking back from the laundromat (in a sketchy part of town). They seemed bemused by our request but handed over the solid looking box nonetheless.

After repackaging our treasures to the point where we were 86.3% confident they'd make it home intact we trekked through the hot sun and the bustling crowds of the Plaza de Armas to the Servipost. Unfortunately, the postal workers of Peru were on strike. We'd actually seen the protests as they were taking place just a few buildings away from our hotel but the post office, located in another part of town, had appeared open when we'd past it previously.We had a confusing exchange with the clerk during which we initially thought she was going to allow us to pay and leave our parcels to be sent after the strike but eventually it became clear that this was not possible and we'd have to carry them with us to our next destination. That same day, from our hotel window, we watched something the protesters had lit on fire burn in the street, churning thick black smoke up through the trees of the boulevard park, and we wondered if we might be carrying our parcels for a while.

Small museum at the site of the Sipan ruins near Chiclayo.
From Piura we took a "3-hour" bus ride (actually took 5 hours for some reason) to Chiclayo. A bigger city than Piura, Chiclayo was more modern but just as noisy and hot. Our reason for stopping there was to visit the ruins known as Sipan. And also to mail our parcels home... The former we did as a full-day tour that was pretty neat. First stop was the ruins of pre-Inca structures made by the Moche people. Rain and wind have wreaked havoc on the pyramids and walls to the point where it is hard to see them as much more than eroded hills but the views from atop one of ruins (yes you can climb on them) were pretty great. It allowed us to see all the crazy rice paddies spread across the valley. I don't know much about agriculture but I found it very confusing that they have chosen to grow rice in the desert. Rice grows in flooded soil, right? Isn't the desert the opposite of that? I don't get it.

The Moche ruins at Sipan.

Anyway, after the ruins we went to "the best museum in Peru", according to our guide. I thought this was very fortuitous because it would allow us to decide whether or not visiting any other museums in Peru would be necessary/worthwhile. It turned out to be quite neat, housing relics from the tombs of the Lords of Sipan as well as their remains. Our final stop was the site where the tombs were discovered. There the tombs have been recreated to show how the Lords and priests were buried. It felt like a real archaelogical site but after a while the tombs all started looking the same. "There's the lord and there are his wives and/or concubines and there is the dog and the llama and the boy..." We were never told why they bury a boy with the lord but the guide did say it wasn't a relative or a slave... hmm.

We managed to take care of our other piece of business in Chiclayo the next day. The postal workers were still on strike, as was extremely evident by the noisy protests taking place right outside the Servipost, but a solitary clerk was working when we arrived and she set about weighing our parcels, which we took as a sign that we'd get to send them. While we were completing the required documents and declarations a TV crew arrived and filmed us. We could just imagine the indignant reporter describing the two insensitive extranjeros (foreigners) flouting the valid concerns of striking postal workers to mail our souvenirs home. Oh well. We made the Peruvian news and got rid of our parcels. Hopefully our stuff makes it home...

Plaza de Armas of Trujillo. Nearly all the cities we've visited have one of these plazas as a result of being built by Spanish conquistadors who modeled  their cities after the Roman military fashion. The plaza was a centrally-located refuge where city defenders would be given weapons if the city were to come under attack. Now the plazas are the main square or park but are typically still surrounded by government buildings, churches, and palaces. 
From Chiclayo we travelled further south to Trujillo and then to the oceanside town of Huanchaco where we have spent the past week at a small beachfront hotel. It's sort of a mini-resort with a pool and big airy rooms that look out on the ocean. Even our bathroom looked out on the ocean.... yes, it had a giant window open to the street and beach. Not much privacy when we were only on the second floor. The staff hung some curtains for us the next day when I let them know we didn't feel comfortable using the facilities while we were so visible to the traffic and beachgoers.

Sunset bail. Some surfers are better than others.
Huanchaco is a premier surf destination and we've been watching some talented surfers masterfully ride the huge waves. The ocean here is much colder than it was in Costa Rica - wet suits appear to be essential. Chris had planned to do some surfing but hasn't been feeling well enough to get out there yet. The crowds of Easter weekend travellers have been a bit of a deterrent as well. I think we made a good choice going to the beach for the holiday - celebrations are definitely bigger in cities - but it was still quite busy. On the plus side, it meant that the town gained a lot of life, making it less creepy than when we arrived midweek to find dozens of empty restaurants whose staff peered wistfully out at us as we passed by. We watched a few games of a soccer tournament set up on a beachside cement pitch and even got a bird's-eye view of the Easter parade, which consisted of several dozen locals processing down the malecon with a glass-encased effigy of Christ followed dutifully by an effigy of the Virgin Mary. And a brass marching band.

Huanchaco beach on an overcast afternoon.
We've had some really good seafood during our stay (mmm ceviche) but overall haven't had great luck with restaurants. Our worst experience was at the same place we saw the parade from. After ordering grilled fish with asparagus sauce (for me) and a hamburger (for Chris) we waited nearly an hour for our food. Mine arrived as a piece of fish with french fries, no asparagus. When I asked the server where my asparagus sauce was he seemed very confused and thought I wanted a salad. He finally comprehended and said he would go prepare it. Meanwhile, Chris's burger arrived. Without a burger. But it did have a fried egg... We decided it was time to leave and tried to explain why we were upset while returning our food to the kitchen. Doubt they understood but at least we didn't have to wait another hour or pay for it. One funny thing we have noticed about Huanchaco is that the restaurants at the north end of the beach all seem to have been sponsored by the local brewery and display nearly identical signage! We were pretty sure they all served the same food too.

Hmm, which restaurant to choose... they all look the same!
Two days ago we went sand boarding just outside of Trujillo. Despite our illusions of it being just like snowboarding only warm, it was not. We knew we'd be in for a hike up the hill - no ski lifts for sand boarding - but it was hotter and harder than I expected. Especially with sand whipping in your face. Still, we were excited to start carving down the slope and eagerly strapped on our boards only to discover that sand is much more resistant than ice. Who would've thought? We could barely get moving even when we straight-lined. I did still manage to have one epic bail that left me absolutely covered with sand. It's the worst when you are sticky with sunscreen! Ahh well. It was good to try it out but definitely not a sport we will get into while we're down here.

Trying to get some speed...
The local transportation has left us quite entertained and somewhat befuddled. There are two types of combis between Huanchaco and Trujillo: red, white and yellow minibuses and cramped 15-passenger vans. When we've taken the vans, the driver's assistant (guy who yells out the stops/destination and takes your fare) would jump out of the vehicle and various places and sprint like a maniac through traffic or up the block to a window or doorway and then run back to the van. Watching carefully, we discovered that he took a piece of paper and got it time-stamped. We can not figure out why this is necessary. The vans are driven at furious speeds, barely slowing down to let passengers in or out, and don't appear to run on any schedule. The buses are exempt from this practice but are still exciting. On one bus ride we had an airplane fly just meters above us as it came in over the ocean for a landing. Kind of a rush, kind of terrifying. We also got totally lost and ended up somewhere in the north of Trujillo after missing our "stop" for the main plaza. Don't get me started on the taxi drivers... suffice it to say that most of them are shysters.

We haven't really don't much else worth noting. Most of our time has been spent reading and planning future parts of our trip. It has been good to relax and take it easy after some long bus rides coupled with short stays in busy cities.

Chris reading on the terrace at sunset.
Two very significant things happened at home this week. On April 4, my sister had a baby girl! Her name is Fiona and she's precious. It was so exciting to hear about her arrival but very hard to be so far away. The second thing was also very hard. My Gramma passed away on April 6. Her shockingly rapid decline was heartbreaking for our family and we are all very sad to have lost our matriarch. An incredibly emotional week, for sure. To be candid, I have felt really homesick. Yesterday we skyped with my parents and then my sister. Both visits helped alleviate some of those feelings.

Tonight we are taking a night bus to the cordilleras. We are going to test out the bus-cama mode of transport - bed buses that have fully reclining seats. Hopefully it will be an ultra comfortable 8-10 hours...