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...


  1. Great update, Ange!! Things sound so exciting. Congrats on being an Aunty and so sad to hear about your granny. Be safe!!!!

  2. PS Hope you know I am Gee on my Google account......Gee is Gail Maher!

    1. Haha! Yes, I knew it was you Gail! Glad I have at least one avid reader of our blog. :) Tell Kelly I say hi. She's not responding to my emails...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Wonderful updates! The skeletons are super creepy. Also, hugs and hugs for all the things.
    I hate and love you! Enjoy more of the trip!!

  5. It's cool that you are giving things a try even if it's a bit tricksy at first and maybe not the most fun (i.e. Sand boarding).

    The Sipan ruins are great! Jealous.