Amazing Adventures part 1 – Christmas por la costa

Gocta waterfalls

The holiday season arrived and with no time to waste, we packed up the day school finished and the following night caught the bus north to Trujillo on our long-awaited costa – sierra – selva adventure. Peru’s incredible diversity with its distinct coast, mountain and jungle regions is not only about the different flora and fauna, the climate and the landscape, but also ethnic differences in the people native to each area and in the cultures, traditions and food of each region.

Knowing the end of the year would be stressful and not wishing to plunge straight into 30 hour coach ride hell, I had decided to break up the long journey to the jungle into bite-sized chunks. Chunk 1 – Trujillo / Huanchaco and the seaside for Christmas surfing relaxation – trying not to break the board this time. Chunk 2 – Chachapoyas in the mountains – cheese heaven – for trekking, natural beauty and ancient ruins. Chunk 3 – a boat down the Amazon (and tributaries) to the jungle city of Iquitos.

One easy overnight bus later we arrived fresh and bright-eyed in Trujillo. There is some nice stuff to see in Trujillo. The adobe complex of Chan Chan between the city and the beach, and the temples of the Sun and the Moon. I eschewed such treats for surfing, sleeping in and eating ice-creams on the malecón.

Pelicans by the pier

Pelicans by the pier

Huanchaco sunset

Huanchaco sunset

Reed boats

Reed boats

As always, I managed to cut up my feet my first day out on the waves, wedging some kind of rock crap into the ball of my foot which I was then too much of a coward to remove, choosing instead to play the waiting game of Savlon and bandages and letting it work its own way out. However, I caught a couple of nice waves and stood up a few times, so in the end it was worth it. Note to self – there’s no excuse for being rubbish at surfing when you live 20 minutes from the beach.

Christmas Eve or noche buena was the big night for Peruvians and at midnight, sure as eggs is eggs, there were fireworks around the town. It was nowhere near the scale of Lima’s celebrations where it feels like the apocalypse just arrived and it brought all its friends, but it was a pleasant and cheery evening.

Christmas day there was nothing much doing, so after a morning jog along the beach, which was filling up with families enjoying a summery Christmas day, we were off again, this time on a 13 hour journey up into the mountains to the city of Chachapoyas, the capital of the Amazonas district.

Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas

We arrived, somewhat the worse for wear this time, around 6am on a quiet, post-Christmas morning. I would say Boxing Day, but I have to remind myself that along with Bonfire Night and Pancake Day that’s another phenomenon I bring from home that no one else celebrates. At around 2,700 meters above sea level there was a chill in the mountain air and clouds hung low over the city, obscuring the tops of the surrounding hills. Quick enquiries in the plaza de armas found us a hike out to the Gocta waterfalls for the same day. Organised for the day we found our hostel – the incredibly warm and welcoming Chachapoyas Backpackers – dropped our gear, found breakfast and then headed off on our hike.

The cataratas de Gocta were ‘discovered’ (obviously they’ve been there in plain view of local residents since time immemorial, but they were discovered to be impressively high and worthy of promotion for tourism) in 2006. At 771 feet high, they are marketed in Peru as the third highest waterfall in the world. In fact, there are two parts to the full falls, and so the rest of the world (presumably especially the country that has the third highest unbroken fall) classes it as around the fifteenth highest waterfall in the world. Either way, it’s still the highest waterfall I’ve ever seen.

Gocta in the mist

Gocta in the mist

The hike to reach it – 2 ½ / 3 hours from the tiny village of San Pedro – is a pleasant and pretty easy trail taken with a guide who pointed out interesting things along the way such as some examples of cave paintings along the route. She also told us about the local industry – sugar cane, coffee and chirimoya or custard-apples. At one point in the hike, I found myself puzzling over the smell of liqourice flooding the air. It took a while before I put together the information about nearby sugar farming and the sight of the village across the valley surrounded by cane fields to work it out!

Our guide, Segunda (the second of three girls, her sister’s names are Primera and Tercera, for real) was a fountain of information on the forest fruits and flowers, as well as a local legend about the founding of the village of San Pedro. This Romeo and Juliet story involved doomed lovers from warring families in the village, some very Catholic mystical blood drops appearing in church, a heavenly deluge and the collapse of the original village, church and all, into what is now a large lagoon further up the mountain. San Pedro was formed as the image of San Pedro was washed from the church and down the mountain in the flood. Where it stopped a new church was erected.

The falls, when we finally reached them, were spectacular and well worth the hike. It had been softly drizzling on and off all morning and clouds hung atmospherically over the hills, closing and then clearing to offer a view of the falls before closing again. Close up, the trail petered out although there was a scramble that could be undertaken by the adventurous to get closer. I was not feeling so adventurous and stuck to getting within sight of the first fall, where I got soaked enough to feel like I’d had the full water experience. On the hike back, a slightly easier 2 hour stroll, the weather cleared and the sun came out, drying us off and offering great views down the valley.

Llama on guard

Llama on guard

The following day was set aside for the real gem of this part of the trip – the ruined mountain fortress of Kueláp, a site to rival Machu Picchu. According to the Lonely Planet (among other sources) the Inca never conquered the northern hill tribes of the Chachapoya. This is the reason given that the mountain people of the north of Peru speak only Castellano, not Quechua. According to our fascinating and highly knowledgeable guide Augusto, the Inca were certainly there, even if they never used it as a base and probably weren’t there for very long.

The Chachapoya people chose the site for their fortress well. Overlooking four different valleys, the site is still accessible only by a three hour drive from Chachapoyas through cloud forest inhabited by spectacled bears (el oso de anteojos – basically any animal with bear in it in Spanish sounds super cool to my ears) or a stiff, four hour hike from the slightly nearer Nuevo Tingo.

Round house

Round house

Back in the day it was built to be pretty inaccessible to pretty much everyone. Hence the position – anyone approaching from any side could be spotted when they were still a four to eight hour hike away. To make themselves even safer, the Chachapoya built immense stone walls, entrances wide enough for only one person at a time in gullies deep enough to allow arrows, darts and rocks to be rained down on the intruders and, cleverly, a trick floor so that any invaders who did get through who would rush through the entrance and fall through it to perish hundreds of feet below. Very probably in a spot that had taken them a good few hours to climb up from already. Poor buggers.

Taking the bus meant I did have the virtuous feeling of being among the 1% of tourists (I don’t know where that figure comes from or even if it’s still true) to Peru who go out of their way to visit the wonders of this hidden gem in the northern sierra. Perhaps if I’d gone all-out and done the hike too it may have equalled the euphoric sensation of reaching Machu Picchu. However – euphoria aside – it was a fascinating and enjoyable day trip that I’d definitely recommend on any Peru itinerary.

Somehow even after arriving back in Chachapoyas at 6pm, saddle-sore from six hours of driving, we were eager enough to be on the road again to pack up and bundle off to the nearby town of Pedro Ruiz for the next leg of our epic adventure…

Kueláp - mountain fortress

Kueláp – mountain fortress

For the travellers:

Lima – Trujillo – Chachapoyas in figures, December 2012

There are a huge number of bus companies, hostels, hotels and tour companies running all of these routes with tariffs to suit all budgets. These were what suited us on a small but not shoestring budget.

Bus

Lima – Trujillo: Movil Tours, 10 hours, s/.60

Trujillo – Chachapoyas: Movil Tours, 13 hours, s/.65

Hotels / hostels

El Ancla, Huanchaco. Doble, s/.25 pp/pn

Chachapoyas Backpackers – the most welcoming, friendly, comfortable hostel I’ve stayed in for ages – s/.15 pp/pn

Tours to Gocta and Kuelap

Revash (on the plaza de armas)

s/.30 pp to Gocta, with transport and a guide. The entry fee when you arrive in San Pedro is a further s/.5

s/.45 to Kuelap, but with some haggling s/.35 as there was a place around the corner that did it for s/.30 but we liked these guys from the day before. They promised a really great guide, and Augusto certainly lived up to their promise.

The entry ticket at the site is a further s/.15, and lunch on the way back in a tiny village which serves great fish fresh from the river is around s/.12.

Our total cost for 6 days travel:

s/.287 + meals, snacks and drinks

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