Micah: Unmitigated

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Not just another weblog

Limestone Cowboy

August 17th, 2010 at 17:26

While traveling south from Ecuador into Peru, the crossing known as La Balsa, about 5 hrs south of Vilcabamba, is recommended. Though the journeys are long and uncomfortable, the scenery is amazing and it is a good way to get to the Kuelap Inca ruins. You will find that the Northern Highlands of Peru are everything the adventurous traveler could hope for and more.

From the border, it is about a 3 hr journey by shared taxi over gravel roads to San Ignacio. If you happen to be hanging your head out of the window of your 4 deep backseat, you may get a local kid walking with his family to point and yell “A GRINGO!”. While your car mates are laughing, you should just politely nod your head in acceptance. You have been formally welcomed to Peru.

When visiting San Ignacio, try to plan your stay around one of their rare earthquakes. Your bed will shake for an unusual amount of time, then when you put your feet on the floor, you will realize the whole hostal is shaking. Women and children will be heard evacuating the building, but you can just put a shirt on and go back to sleep. Now, it may take a little effort to plan, studying seismic charts and such, but it will be well worth it.

From there, you will make your way to Chachapoyas via 4 different collectivos (shared taxis). One of which may be driven by a man in a hurry. He will pretend to be eating and blow past a flagger into a construction zone, while honking his horn loudly and laughing. Then, you will pickup a man with some chickens who will give you 2 bananas each, just what your malnourished body needs. After 10 hours of transit, you arrive in the fairly large mountain town known as “Chacha”.

August 12th is a good day to visit, when they hold their annual festival with an unknown name. There is a church service and then a parade of kids dressed up in costumes representing the countries/places they like. All of the Spanish speaking countries are represented as well as those that did well in the World Cup. With the South African group being the biggest and loudest, singing and dancing for hours. They do not have a USA section, but they will celebrate the existence of Hawaii.

The Bolivian group

The Bolivian group

From Chacha, you will want to get closer to Kuelap, so try to catch a collectivo to the small hamlet of Maria. But, they only run there at 4 am, thus you decide to make it up as you go and take the next best destination, Tingo. A small junction town along the river, where a road splits off into the mountains, to make the winding 2 hour journey to the ruins. They have reasonable accommodations that occasionally have running water. Better yet, the lady at the hospedaje (small hostal) will inform you that it only takes 3 hours to hike to the Inca site and not the 6 you had thought. You will be very happy and will enjoy the quiet afternoon, walking the towns one road. If you time it right, at about 4:30 pm, two local boys will see you playing with your camera and ask to have their picture taken.

kids in Tingo

Look for these kids in Tingo

If you are lucky, they may even drop their plastic ball in the creek and need help getting it free from being caught in the current. Now what you do is, grab a big rock from the pile to your right, throw it at the ball swirling around, and it should be enough force to make it come out the other side of the bridge. The kids will collect it and thank you vigorously.

Get up at 6:50 am the next day to have time to grab breakfast before your hike. Make sure you have enough water and snacks to keep your energy up, and wear sunscreen. The trek begins off the main road heading south, just before the bridge. It starts with gradual up and downs, following the river valley, before you see the sign for Kuelap pointing up. The real climb begins. You should have chosen your hiking stick by this point, partly to aid your upward walking and partly to ward of dogs or potential robbers. Look for the stick pictured below at the trail entrance, but please return it when finished.

and add your name

and add your name

If you eat mandarin oranges and drink water, it will remind you of your youth soccer days back in Lawrence, Kansas. The fruit and the memories will make the time go by quickly as your feet traverse the limestone rock sides of the ridge. The rock is soft and stair like footholds are common. After you pass through a small valley village, you will get your first look at the Kuelap ruins up above. If you are an extremely fit and intelligent person, it will take you about 2 hours and 45 mintues to reach the site. If you are 3 French girls, it will take you 5 hours.

the first view

the first view

After catching your breath, ask the lady selling water where the ticket office is to receive some bad news. For some reason they want you to purchase tickets back down at a parking lot 20 minutes away, where most people arrive. I guess they don’t feel the need to cater to the 1 person a day who hikes there from Tingo. At this point, it is recommended that you just walk around the corner and eat your lunch, waiting an appropriate amount of time before passing by the lady again with a smile to enter the ruins. You will slightly hope that this means you wont have to pay the $4.10 entry fee, but the man asking for tickets at the top of the stairs will bring you back to reality. He will send a runner to get your ticket for you, and you will have been correct in assuming that they wouldn’t make a humble hiker, with a return trip still in their future, hike an extra hour for a piece of paper. Everything has worked itself out and the ruins are yours to explore.

Up on the top of a ridge, with sweeping views of the surrounding valleys, you will be impressed. Kuelap receives far less visitors than it deserves but that just means you are in for a treat. Finding quiet areas among the rugged overgrown ruins, gives you the feel as though you discovered it. You can easily avoid the few tour groups that are led through and have time to just sit and contemplate life. Go ahead, explore the space, and feel free to ignore the tape that the current excavators have put up.

(You can see more photos of Kuelap and northern Peru at the following site: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=75141&id=1408574607&l=20e6a83706)

From back in Tingo, it is a another 10 hr transit day to the town of Cajamarca. Though it may be shorter if your bus doesn’t breakdown in the middle of the switchback, one lane road, requiring the driver to break out the tool box. Just try not to think about the as-the-crow-flies distance, you will sadly wish they would build bridges across the valleys or tunnels through the mountains.

Cajamarca will greet you with the cheapest hostal you have ever seen ($3.70/night), the cheapest internet ($.37/hour), and the cheapest street hamburgers ($.37 for simple, $.74 with egg and fries on top). You will start to think that Peru overall wont be as expensive as you thought and that just the travel will be costly. So, relax and checkout the museums, bust out some blog posts, and upload some pictures to Facebook. Your butt will need the travel break.  Un viaje seguro!

E = 104

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3 Responses to “Limestone Cowboy”

  1. Nick Says:

    I like this format a lot, Micah. Very well written!

  2. Stanley Says:

    Great post. I laughed, I cried.

  3. Miriam Hoelter Says:

    This reads like the future guidebook that some have suggested you write after this trip. I do wish a few extra pounds for you, though. Dad has said that maybe we should wire you a cash gift so you can treat yourself to a huge dinner somewhere. Love to you.