Saturday, 15 December 2018

Comemos Mucho Ceviche

Despite being down at sea level, 2700m beneath Cajamarca, Chiclayo is surprisingly cool due to the cold Humboldt Current that flows offshore in the Pacific just 20km away, so at least the climate wasn't a shock when we arrived.  The size and pace was slightly foreign though, as it was the largest city we'd been in since Manaus, about a month earlier. Chiclayo is Peru's fourth largest city with a population of about a million. It's bustling city place, but with few obvious tourist attractions in the city itself.

What we mostly had planned for our time in town was day trips to the outlying villages and eating.  Being our only coastal(ish) stop in Peru, there could be no better place to gorge on Ceviche, that delicious combination of raw fish (or other seafood, often including octopus) marinated or “cooked” in lime juice and salt and served with (variously) steamed or crunchy corn kernels, swee potato and seaweed.  We ate ceviche at Chiclayo's big central market (traditional style) the, at a little resto-bar near our hotel (made with a more fishy, oily mackrel-like fish than the typical whitefish) and we ate double ceviche (two lunches in a row) with the revolutionary tortita (little deep fried pancake) to soak up the delicious juice during our slightly accidental two night stay in the town (suburb really) of Lambeyeque just north of Chiclayo.

We also had probably the best bread I've ever had in South America which came, rather unexpectedly, from a big chain supermarket just down the street from our hotel that we popped into on our first night in town.  And of course some of the local speciality which, in the case of Chiclayo, was Tortilla de Raya. Basically an omelette filled with slivers of dried, then grated, then reconstituted stingray. I'm not a big fan of dried-salted fish, but A. I didn't realize the ray was dried when I ordered it and B. it was surprisingly okay.  The restaurant we had it at (for brunch) got bonus points for having little flasks of intensely powerful coffee at each table which were then added to cups of hot water to make your breakfast cuppa.

On the next afternoon we had a few more special drinks, these at a fun little neighbourhood bar around the corner from our hotel made with house-infused strawberry Pisco (a Peruvian [or Chilean… major point of contention there!] spirit similar to grappa).

Dessert? Why yes, thank you. It seemed that artisanal ice cream was a big deal in Chiclayo, so it would've been impolite not to try some (our flavours included Pisco Sour and mora [blackberry]).  We also had a few incredibly sweet but delicious pastries stuffed with manjarblanco, which is the Peruvian equivalent of Argentina's dulce de leche.

So that dispenses with one half of our activities in Chiclayo.  The other half was occupied almost entirely with museums. The area around Chiclayo is a hotbed of pre-Columbian archaeological sites.  Most of these predate the Inca by a long time. The foremost of these were the Moche culture. They didn't do stonework like the Incas. They did produce plenty of monumental structures, but these were mostly huge mud brick ziggurats that, while still very present in the landscape are just so big and pale brown that they just blend into the desert landscape.  So from an aesthetic perspective, the highlights of their creations are their ceramics and especially their gold and silver metalwork.

The first museum was in the town of Sipan, site of many of the best preserved Moche tombs.  The artifacts in the museum were fabulous. And they were presented fabulously. There were lots of photos of the tombs during excavation illustrating their condition when they were first found.  This really gave you an appreciation for how much minutely painstaking work was involved first in excavating, then in restoring them.

Another cool feature of the museum was that it next to many of the artifacts were images from pottery or murals illustrating the individuals whose tomb they came from.  And they were often wearing the jewelry, clothing, headdresses etc. that were on display, giving (at least some) feeling for how they were used in real life and how their owners related to one another.

But perhaps the coolest bit of all was that the excavated tombs and their ziggurat were just across the street.  They'd been left intact, and in many cases had replicas of the artifacts placed back in situ so you could see, well not quite what they looked like when placed or when excavated, but a cool sort of hybrid of the two.

Our other two museums were just north of Chiclayo in Lembayeque.  We moved accommodation for these partly because it's nice to bring some business in the towns where the attractions you visit are located rather than just the major centres and partly because we didn't realize that Lembeyaque was really just a suburb of Chiclayo 11km from the centre.

The first of these, which we visited on the afternoon we arrived was the Bruning Museum, named after (and in fact founded by) a German archaeologist/anthropologist who was one of the first to take an interest in the area. It contained the treasures of the first eighty years or so of excavations in the area. Like the Sipan museum it did a great job of putting its collection in historical (both ancient and recent).

For a long time the Bruning was the premier museum of northern coastal Peru.  That all changed in 1987 when an American archaeologist started noticing some very impressive pieces appearing in the markets in and around Chiclayo.  He concluded that a major site must have been discovered by looters.

By carefully asking around he discovered the location of the site and remarkably quickly measures (including an act of US Congress!) were put in place to protect it. Not only that, but it turned out that the looters had thusfar only scratched the surface of its contents.  So the tomb of the Lord of Sipan himself, a Moche ruler from around 600 AD was entirely untouched. While many of the contents of neighbouring tombs are in the Sipan museum we'd visited earlier, the very brightest gems are in a specially constructed gallery in Lembayeque.

Unfortunately for us we'd misunderstood the opening hours, so it was only when we went to take a photo of the (pretty cool looking) museum building on Sunday afternoon we discovered that it was closed on Monday and we wouldn't be visiting the next morning as planned.

No matter.  We had a cheap and pleasant place to stay so we spent a day looking around the market and local neighbourhood and trying (sadly failing) to get in on a local bingo game (we'd been misled about that too… the sign saying Bingo! Today! was an old one).

The museum was just as well done as the previous two and it's contents were even more astonishing.  The Lord of Sipan's tomb has been called (with perhaps only slight exaggeration) the grandest unlooted tomb ever found.  They are remarkably strict about what enters the museum (metal detectors and all) and cameras and mobile phones aren't on the list, so unfortunately we don't have by photos of the collection for you.  You'll just have to trust that the hammered gold and silver and beaded items that were buried with the Lord are really amazing.

Lembayeque turned out to be our final overnight stop in Peru.  After visiting the museum on Tuesday morning, we caught a bus north to the city of Piura. Once there we discovered that buses north to Loja, in Ecuador only ran in the early afternoon or at night.  Since leaving in early afternoon would mean we'd do much of the journey in the dark anyway and would arrive in Loja at night we decided to hop on an overnight service that evening.

This gave me just enough time to spend our remaining Soles on some little Christmas gifts and a Peruvian football jersey for myself.  I needed a new shirt anyway, and it seemed like a fun souvenir, though given Peru and Ecuador's unfriendly past history I may need to think twice about wearing it for a bit.

We crossed the border almost spot on midnight, to the point that if we'd been a couple of places ahead in the queue, Sarah and I might have entered Ecuador on different days.  But the process was smooth and friendly, and when we arrived in Loja at 04:39 (it seems that it's only when you're scheduled to arrive before 06:00 that buses are ever early) Sarah had a new country on her list.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Comemos Mucho Queso

Part of the reason we spent an extra day in Leymebamba was to ensure that we got the two front seats for the minibus ride to Chachapoyas.  Despite still being in Amazonas region for half of the journey, this trip went right through the heart of the Andes and was reputed to be really spectacular.

It was pleasantly surprising that everyone in Peru is scrupulously observant of reserved seating numbers (Peru sure ain't China!) so we actually got our reserved front seats  despite the minibus having originated back in Chachapoyas. But this is where the positivity for the morning ended. From here on in it went downhill as we went uphill.

Pretty soon after leaving we'd climbed up into the clouds and couldn't see a thing. Not long after that it was raining heavily.  Through the mist we spotted a sign noting that the pass we'd just climbed up was at elevation 3600m.

The road was barely a lane and a half wide but was almost all well paved and smooth.  The only places it wasn't were where landslides had covered the road and been moved out of the way.  This, in conjunction with the rain, had us both wondering when we were going to come across a more recent example that might not have been cleared yet.

Eight thirty was the answer.  A pile of rock and mud was strewn across the road with no hope of getting the van past.  We sat and watched as more rock-mud-slurry came tumbling down the hill. The driver sighed loudly.  "Well now what?" everyone in the van seemed to be thinking. "And we haven't even had breakfast," sighed a fellow passenger.

First thing was to drive back to a restaurant on the otherwise mostly empty roadside that was conveniently placed only a kilometre or two back.  Then wait around in the (only slightly warmer than the chilly outdoors) kitchen while the family who owned the place got cooking for these early surprise customers.

While we sat we talked with our fellow passengers.  We'd often had trouble explaining where we were from to people in Peru (Nueva Icelandia? Finlandia? Irlandia?) but we did have on or two things going for us.  First, New Zealand had lost to Peru in the final qualifying match for the last football world cup. And second there was the ever present Señor de Los Anellos.  One of our fellow passengers (a bit of a know-it-all — takes one to know one) explained this all to our fellow passengers as we chatted.

I think Spanish is probably the foreign language I'm most comfortable speaking.   Not the one I'm best at. Poor as it is, that would be French. But most times I find myself speaking French it feels as though I ought to know more than I do.  When speaking Spanish meanwhile, I feel no such inadequacy and can just get on with it and have a (limping, but usually still functional) conversation. It certainly helps that a lot of vocabulary can be picked up by saying French words with a bit of a Spanish accent or even just by having a big vocabulary in English.

So we sat and waited and talked with our fellow passengers, drank sweet herbal (mostly chamomile) tea, ate breakfast of potato stew with rice, and waited.  The plan was that after breakfast we'd return to the slip and hope that the slackening rain would make it safe to walk across and meet the company's other bus coming from Cajamarca, which could turn around and allow us to complete the journey (always assuming, of course, that there were no other slips further along the road to keep them from getting there...)

The rain had pretty much stopped and in watching for ten or fifteen minutes there was no sign of further movement in the slip, so around 11:00 we unloaded our bags and quickly but carefully made our way 20m or so across its base.  Sarah cut her toe somehow (she had a rock splinter in her toe!) and as we treated it someone commented "see, gringo blood is the same colour as everyone else's!" Also entertaining was when, a while later someone bid me farewell by saying "ciao Pizzaro!" Apparently my beard made me look like Francisco Pizzaro, the conquistador of the Incas and founder of the Spanish colony of Peru.

Before the bus arrived to meet us, a van and backhoe showed up on the other side and began to clear the slip.  As with a similar experience in Georgia, I was impressed by how quickly they got the job done. Once they started working it took less than two hours to clear over 500 tons of rock.  (I assume they knew what they were doing when they just dumped it over the cliff by the side of the road and that there weren't any other roads or houses down below in the mist...)

So we ended up getting back in the original van after all and continuing on our way after a total wait of four or five hours at the slip.  It added a bit of adventure to the day at least!

Before the slip we'd looked out the van windows and seen little beyond the edge of the road.  It was obvious that there was a steep hill or cliff next to the road, but any hope of seeing beyond the edge vanished into the mist.  After the slip l the cloud started to thin and as soon dropped below its base. So although we'd missed out on the climb up to the pass we got to enjoy the descent into the Marañon Canyon.

We enjoyed it, but anyone who suffered from any degree of vertigo would not have.  The descent was around 1800m of narrow winding road, with the yawning cliffs below very visible for the whole way down.  Especially given the frequency of heavy rain and earthquakes in the area, this was one of the most amazing roads I've ever driven.  Like approaching Karakoram Highway level of amazingness.

Over a mile down from the top of the pass, we drove through thick green orchards alongside our old friend, the Rio Marañon.  The Marañon was the river we spent most of our boat trip from Iquitos to Yurimaguas sailing up. It looked like it still might be navigable in some sections up here, 700m above where we'd left it.  But the rapids on the way and even the raw speed of the chocolate milk river would have prevented any large boats making it this far.

While it had been damp and chilly up on the tops, it was dry and even hot down at 850m above sea level.  We stopped for a few minutes, picking up some of the fruit that grew so readily in the valley. Orange and the size of large grapes but with a pit inside the celuaras were sweet, juicy and a bit tanniny.  Like caju (cashew) fruit would taste if it tasted good, Sarah said.

The climb back up out of the valley wasn't quite as dramatic as the descent down had been.  And before too long we'd found our way into the mist again. A further two hours of travel through rich green high altitude pasture took us to the town of Celendin where we changed to another minibus for the final run into Cajamarca.

By the time we arrived this clouds had given way and a nice sunset saw us into the city, about four hours late but still at a reasonable hour.

After having checked out a few hotels I ran into a hotel manager who invited me to check out his place.  It turned out to be spotlessly clean, well located and very comfy. After a bit of negotiation it was also a great value, so we decided to make it our home for two or three days.
Cajamarca sits 2700m above sea level, and is packed with history, great cuisine and a few natural wonders to boot.  It's population has increased by a factor of ten in the past thirty years, largely due to a big mining industry in the mountains above the city.  Depending on where you draw the border (and whether you count beach resorts), Cajamarca is arguably northern Peru's foremost tourist town. But it's still a far cry from Cuzco, with maybe 5% the number of visitors, and the large majority of these being Peruvians.

Our first day in town we set out to see the sights straight off, finding a collectivo to the village of Otuzco about 15 or 20km north of the city.  The attraction here was the ventanillas de Otuzco. These are a series of pre-Hispanic funerary niches carved into a big outcrop of soft stone above the village.  The site was actually only modestly interesting, but it was nice to get out into the countryside and have a bit of a brunch picnic at the base of the site.

We'd planned to carry on to Combaya, another larger and better preserved funerary complex further out of town, but could figure out neither how to get there from Otuzco or from town, so we changed our plans and returned to town.  First stop was the iPeru site to try and sort out transport arrangements for the rest of our sightseeing and avoid a repeat of the morning's failure.

Second was a wander around the town centre.  Unlike Chachapoyas, which was pleasant but most of whose charms lay outside the city, there was tons to see and enjoy in Cajamarca.

First, the market. It sprawled over several city blocks, with various sections of street stalls, narrow laneways full of fun vendors and indoor covered sections.  The uniquely Cajamarcan products are undoubtedly dairy. Yogurt, dulce de leche and most prominently, cheese were featured specialities (indeed, it was a travel guide's mention of the region's “exquisite cheeses” that was one of the prompts for our [or at least Sarah's] visit).

And just to be contrary, we had ceviche, chicharrones de calamar (deep fried squid) and arroz con mariscos (shrimp rice) for lunch.  We were sucked in by a good looking sign and prominently displayed prices (an important feature for me) and boy were we glad of it. The ceviche was fabulous, as were the traditional accompaniments of crunchy fried corn kernels, sweet potato and seaweed.  The rest was almost as good!

After the market was a stroll through the colonial streets.  In a twelve square block area there are five amazing old stone churches.  I think the youngest of them was over three hundred years old, and the decorative stone carving on the facades must have taken years to complete at each.  Also dotted through the historic centre were similarly intricate stone portals over sets of double doors leading into pretty interior courtyards, still in use as schools, banks, offices, hotels and (occasionally) homes.
hese portals reminded us of ones of a similar vintage in Potosi, Bolivia.

By the time we'd finished the day sitting atop the Santa Appolonia hill looking out over the city, I was already charmed by Cajamarca and we'd decided to spend not one but two extra nights in the city beyond our original plan.

That evening we stopped into one of the city centre's ubiquitous cheese shops to pick up some for dinner (accompanied by bread and, on this night, a bottle of too-sweet Peruvian rosé).  Every one of our dinners in Cajamarca was the same. Except for the variety of cheese, of course. Over the four evenings we tried Ecologico (salty, firm, dry with tons of oregano), smoked provelone, mozzarella, campesino (fresh, squeaky) with rocoto chilli, gruyère, cabro (very lightly goaty) and Gran Peruano (like a slightly softer, milder Parmesan).  The rest of Peru makes okay cheese, but it's almost always a mild, more or less salty fresh cheese with a slightly funky note to it. Often good stuff, but nothing compared to this embarrassment of riches.

The next day was similarly inauspicious with respect to transportation, but at least as fun and interesting in its results.
At seven thirty in the morning we went to the location provided by iPeru to catch an 08:00 collectivo up to Cumbemayo.

Nope. The best we managed was someone telling us that one left from nearby at 04:30.  That's okay though. It gave me an opportunity to try an emoliente at a local neighbourhood stand. Emoliente is a herbal health drink mixed up from hot water and the contents of half a dozen bottles of extracts and syrups.  It tasted kind of like a sweet, thickened chamomile tea. As we chatted about our visit to Amazonas, his home region, the other gent having a drink at the stand told me it was particularly good for the kidneys.

We'd been considering not even going to Cumbemayo, but a retired American living in Cajamarca we'd met the previous day especially recommended it, so we popped back to the square to see about potentially taking a tour there.  The 25 Soles per person was about double what we'd have paid doing it independently, but it also was only ten bucks, so we decided to give it a go.

It turned out to be better than expected, both in terms of how much we enjoyed the tour and how much we enjoyed the site.  All the way up (Cumbemayo sits at 3500m above sea level) and down the guide kept up a constant stream of talk.  All of the 18 or so other guests were Peruvian, so it was all in Spanish, but we got most of it. Discussions of the local mining industry, the history of dairying in the area, and an impressive rattling off of the forty different varieties of cheese made in the area were among the memorable bits.  There was also a fun stop at a Mirador looking over the city where we bought some coca lollies (tasted sweet, slightly minty and a bit grassy) that ladies there sold to “help with the altitude”.

Cumbemayo itself began with a squeeze through a narrow, 10m long cave and then a walk through a Cappadociesque valley of eroded rock formations.  This was pretty neat in its own right, but the ancient (~1000 year old) canal was even cooler. 9km long, it diverted a stream across the continental divide, stealing its waters from the Pacific and bringing them down into the Cajamarca valley to provide irrigation during the six dry months of the year.  The stream had eroded through most of the soft stone, so the aqueduct was carved out of hard bedrock for most of the kilometre long section we walked along. Impressively, the slope of the canal was one in five thousand. Along its length there were decorations carved in the stone and (it is speculated) several entirely superfluous ninety degree bends placed in the route by the builders to show just how important the work of providing life-giving water was.  There were even survey marks in a few places. I tried to imagine how I'd lay out a project like that using bronze age tools and had ideas, but I suspect the Cajamarcans did a far better job than I could

Back down in town we had a lunch of traditional Cajamarcan specialties.  Not cheese, but close enough… a bright green cheese, herb and egg soup called Caldo Verde and a half avocado stuffed (and smothered with) ham, potato and veggies and doused liberally in a rocoto cream sauce.

In addition to this luxury, we spent the late afternoon at the Baños del Inca. The baños are series of natural hot springs in a diatant suburb. They actually have been used for recreation and bathing since at least the time of the Incas.  Atahualpa had a residence on the site. You don't need to be an emperor these days. All you need to do is pay six Soles per person and then figure out how to get into the pools. The complex is mostly just a garden courtyard surrounded by a bunch of closed doors with no bathing area in sight.  Eventually I gave in and asked and realized that all the baths were private and your ticket entitled you to half an hour in one when the staff called out your number.

All the baths are drained and cleaned between uses.  It felt a bit wasteful to fill the empty bath with over a thousand litres of hot water solely for our 30 minute dip, but I guess it is just coming out of the ground anyway.  The hot water at least. As it leaves the ground at over 70°C you need plenty of cold mixed in unless you want to cook yourself.

As the baths were private Sarah and I skipped using the togs we'd brought and soaked in warm, enveloping bliss for twenty five minutes.  We left feeling warn, soft, utterly relaxed and as clean as we'd been since leaving NZ. I almost considered a return visit the morning we left.

Our final day in Cajamarca was meant to begin with a visit to the vebtillas de Combaya, which we'd missed on day one. We went to both of the collectivo stops suggested by iPeru and completely failed to find transport to our destination.  I still really like iPeru and their staff, but they'd had an unenviable record of providing correct info on collectivos over the past ten days or so.

Instead we headed straight to the Cuarto de Rescate.  It might not look like much from the outside: just a stone portal less ornate that many in town. Even from the inside it just appeared as a small rough stone building with no roof (except for the new addition to protect the site).  But it's arguably the most significant site in the history of Peru.

It was here that Atahualpa, the final Inca emperor was imprisoned by Francisco Pizzaro.  His ransom (an unbelievable 5 tons of gold and 11 tons of silver, worth about NZ$250 million at today's prices) was kept here. There's a simple line marked on the wall about two metres up to show the depth of the pile of precious metals. And it was just outside the Rescate where Atahualpa was killed. Thus, more than any other place, this one small building marks the place and moment where Peru went from being at the heart of the Inca Empire to a Spanish colony.

We spent the rest of the day revisiting the market, picking up some delicious Peruvian olives to go with our cheese and another local speciality, a slab of 100% cocoa mass chocolate.  It's identifiable as chocolate, but just. Intensely bitter and earthy, a little goes a long way, but it still makes a yummy after dinner treat, perhaps in the same way that something like Campari or Chartreuse does.

We also had a nice sit out in the central Plaza de Armas.  It was pleasantly brisk, verging on cold out. Despite being on the equator, Cajamarca's elevation does a great job of moderating the temperature.  It rarely goes much above 20C and rarely goes much below 10C. Even more equatable than Wellington!

Our final morning was mostly just heading straight to the bus station, but with one important stop on the way: purchasing Bus Cheese!  We picked up a nice round of Campesino con Pecanas (pecans are a local product too!) which kept us snacking almost the way down to Chiclayo.

Though Cajamarca sits on the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide it's only about 150km from the Pacific as the crow flies.  The Andes rise fast! And a bus ride down out of them happens pretty quickly too when it's on a wide, smooth paved road. The shading of our windows by the bus company's branding meant that we couldn't see too much on our way down, but the first half of the trip reminded me of the road from Santiago, Chile up to the top of the same mountain range a couple of thousand kilometres further south.  And once we were down, the ride along the Pan-American Highway through the northern desert reminded me of a drive along the same highway through Peru's southern (Atacama) desert about one thousand kilometres south.

With our arrival in Chiclayo we'd very nearly completed our journey across South America from Atlantic to Pacific (spoiler alert: because Chiclayo is actually about 20km from the coast and because we actually headed north-northeast from there we never quite made it!  But more on that next time…)