Landscapes should not change as dramatically as they have from Macarã, our Ecuadorian border town crossing, to the Peruvian coastal town of Huanchaco. Perched in the lower southern highlands of Ecuador, Macarã is neck deep in lush native South American bush. Not long after the border into Peru the lush mountain ranges lose moisture and are replaced by gigantic sand dunes and rock as far as the eye can see, some of which resembled a scene in Star Wars. We felt like we were back driving the wild west of Kenya or Tanzania. The stark, harsh landscapes, mud huts and villages strewn over the vast nothingness.
We progressed into a headwind to the Pacific Ocean, we had not seen the Pacific since Panama City. During the afternoon we drove up the main drag of Huanchaco, our overnight stop at a beach side car park complete with a ‘paid for’ 24 hour guard. The beautiful white sand of Huanchaco, with a lazy left off the pier lures local & foreign surfers in steamers and beach ready bikini girls to its beach. Our days had been long since the border and we unanimously wanted a decent restaurant meal and a cold local beer. Our first Peruvian meal, complete with frosty Cusqueña Cerveza, was at the first restaurant that had a sunny beer garden. We devouring a ‘meat fest’ which included the obligatory ‘salad and sopa’ (soup) and our first taste of the fluffy alpaca! It wasn’t long before the salt air started calling and made our way to the beach front for a few days at the ocean!
The beach side car park was pretty hard to miss and we completed a lap of the beach in Troy. Restaurants and beach side apartments lined the northern end of the street while young Peruvians on the fire water, hanging out beside cars peppered the south stretch towards town. We carefully selected a site that ticked as many boxes, as can be ticked for a public parking lot, and after finding and paying a local security guard a few Soles to keep an eye out during the night we set chairs facing west and settled in for another Pacific sunset.
In this part of Peru the midday weather offers sun, sun and sun but during the afternoon the weather is for cold and wet, typical Peruvian coastal weather.The sandy coastline rises from the cold Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes and without not so much as a blade of lifeless grass in some areas. From the foothills the hills soar before reaching far & high up into the mountains of the Andes. The barren coastal topography of mist, sand & rock and mountain after mountain continues for thousands of kilometers along the Peruvian Northern and Southern coast and extends short of Santiago, Chile.
This was not the typical Peru we were expecting and the when we awoke to early morning fog/ mist/ thick low cloud and decided to leave the cold, misty, sandy coast for the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca and the mountain town of Caraz. The Cordillera Blanca, Spanish for “White Range”, is a mountain range in the Ancash Region of Peru and part of the larger Andes range. It includes 33 major peaks over 5,500 metres (18,040 ft) high in an area 21 kilometers wide and 180 kilometers long. We were keen to trek deep in to Peru and felt like some adventure in Troy after the last 10 days of solid driving and not much exploration in Ecuador.
We left the coast, after a shopping fest in our last big chain supermarket, stocking up on all things imported and expensive. The drive turned from smooth tar to gravel and then dirt and we had reached the Canyon De Pato. The mostly rocky canyon was formed by the river where the north end of the Cordillera Negra range (to the west) converges with the Cordillera Blanca mountain range (to the east). These two Andean ridges run generally parallel for nearly 140 km from south of the city of Huaraz northward to the Cañón; The highway along this entire route is unpaved and has 35 one-lane tunnels before it emerges onto the western face of the Cordillera Negra high above the town of Huallanca.
This particular canyon was our route up and into the snow-capped Andes, something we had not seen before and were rugged up, ugg boots on ready to spy these beauties for ourselves. After 3-4 hours of driving and winding through this spectacular sheer cliffs and sharp mountain peaks we started scouting our Canyon bush camp for a night in the wild. We had two GPS way points for camping were stored in the Garmin, but we didn’t count on them both having been washed away by landslides, but we did have a plan C, the mountain town of Caraz that was only an hour away. The climbing further into the canyon eventually brought us to small mountain town and our first real obstacle of the dying afternoon. The only bridge in town, which we need to cross, was being replaced and looked far from being finished. There is nothing quite like driving a very long & remote road to a bridge that should be there, but isn’t Russ had a quick chat to the lead engineer, who spoke English, and explained to Russ how to get to the alternative route and up our last mountain. The alternative route was a bonafide goat track from start to finish and under the setting sun, perfect conditions for another decent adrenaline rush for both of us. We were assured that the track was best traveled now, on dusk, because bus, taxi and general traffic was done for the day. In saying that, now picture an oncoming, downhill truck, us and a single lane mountain track in the dark. After two of these encounters my balls feel bigger and we still don’t know how close we came to driving off the edge.
Darkness and the track in our headlights gave way to lifeless mud huts and then into a small rural town at the top of the mountain, we drove past a farmer’s pub in full swing and had to bust through and out run drunken local farmers trying to grab on for a lift and certain pain or embarrassment. A bewildered, but helpful, Policiá directed us toward Caraz until a fork in the road that threw us straight into a game of paper, scissors or rock. A nice taxi driver just so happened to drive past in his truck not more than 30 seconds later and happened to be going our way, lead on Amigo. The Hostel took a bit of finding in the dark, I winged a parked tuk tuk’s side mirror outside the local discotek/ tradition pan pipe music ho-down and we were finally able to shut off the engine and pop up for the night and hour or so after dark.
The next morning Anna had found us a lake high up in the Cordilleras, we took stock of where we were and then drove high into the mountains of the Huascaran National Park and up to Laguna Paron. This was the first time we had seen snow-capped mountains and needless to say coming from Aussie we were very excited to be there. Laguna Paron is simply stunning, the lake is nestled beneath Peru’s highest peaks and it is fed directly from an adjacent glacier. When mornings are still the reflections of the mountains across the lake rival the same scene anywhere else in the world. Laguna Peron itself is at 12000 ft, the surrounding peaks summit up to 22 000 ft.
Getting to the lake itself was no problem except for the skinny one horse (donkey) mountain road and outrageously steep switch backs barely large enough for a 4×4 truck. The road up wound through local farms, complete with hill side crops of corn, maize and lots of other green stuff. After we drove through the Park gates the crops gave way to bush as we climbed further up and into the clouds. The road crested to a small plateau as we breached the cloud layer and finally, far above us in the afternoon sunshine, there was the Cordillera Blanca in all of its Andean splendor. To quickly digress, as a person who knows a bit about roads, it is worth a mention when a mountain road is carved through rock up a mountain and the impact of the construction is negligible to the surrounding environment, this is one such road.
We arrived in the mid-afternoon amid blue skies and sunshine. We settled in and contemplated a bit of tanning time but by the time we set the chairs the clouds had rolled over, the temperature had plummeted and it was no longer sociable to sit outside. After 5 or so minutes of persevering we moved inside for shelter which is just as well because no sooner had we mover in then it started to rain and I’m not talking any ordinary rain, but Peruvian Andean freezing cold nearly ice rain. The camper internal thermometer swung toward the zeros so we set the couch with blankets and pillows and hunkered down in warmth and watched a bit of telly. The last time we had been at a lake was in Columbia where we experienced altitude illness, this was as high as we had been and even going for a pee took effort, we have never huffed and puffed lying down in front of TV as we did that night. The night was freezing and inside the camper it may have been slightly colder, we had layers on for bed and snuggled in our super cosy and comfortable bed and panted ourselves to sleep. Its nights like these we reflect on our time with a roof tent in Africa, and marvel at our home on wheels. Being tucked inside our Penthouse with all the comforts of our apartment in Bronte we smile at how much we love our life on the road. ‘Turn the furnace up Russ!’
The next morning the sun was out and not a cloud in the sky, and as usual not a sole to be seen. The mountains looked close enough to touch but we knew better than to attempt to walk up another mountain and tucked our boots further to the back of the shoe cupboard. After our morning brews it was decided to move camp to another location further along the Cordilleras. At the next Park gate we told that the fees had increased to crazy tourist price park entry fee and the guards had a chuckle at Russ after he told them he had to talk to the girl about these high fees before paying, apparently Peru mountain rangers don’t need to discuss the big issues with the wife. We decided to save our cash and proceeded to a Private Lodge for well-earned rest and relaxation. The drive from Laguna Peron to the lodge, via the expensive National Park, was simply stunning, snow-capped peak after snow-capped peak could be seen before we again climbed to our Inn and rest stop for a few days.
The Way Inn is high up in the foothills of the Cordilleras with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. Rain was threatening on the trail up and as we drove into the lodge it began to spit, not long after the drizzle came and then the rain in a steady cadence. Our idyllic mountain side retreat, complete with sweeping alpine vistas was not to be as the weather closed in and the cold also became wet. Not to be beaten we set the couch and settled in for a few cosy days off watching movies, playing cards and doing nothing and just marveling at the tranquility of the Cordillera Blanca’s.
The next stop on the route is Lima, Peru’s capital on the coast, so we set the GPS to Lima and put the pedal to the metal. A few towns into the journey an old lady had a huge steaming pot of something good, good turned out to be pork on a spit sliced appropriately and served in a bread roll with a funky spicy salad. Absolutely delicious and at 1 Peruvian Sole each a dead set bargain, 20 please.
The descent in altitude was felt immediately, Russ was no longer panting when adjusting the electric side mirrors and we were able to climb in and out of the truck without taking a breather half way in. The drive down to Lima from the Cordilleras is a truly spectacular road, the descent seemed to last all day and the landscape slowly morphed from snow to sand.
After the peace, tranquility and huge space of the Cordillera Mountains, Lima was like driving into the truly crazy mad Mombasa traffic, but on steroids. It’s hard to say which city we have driven in has the worst/ mad/ crazy driving in the world, Bangkok? Nairobi? Brisbane when it rains? All we can say is we’ve never experienced anything like driving in Lima…Russ loved it and Anna just closes her eyes and hums along to the music.
The route to the Miraflores, a beach side suburb of Lima and our next stop, was never more confusing and chaotic as it was that afternoon, we cocked up our navigation only once, before miraculously navigating our way through the heaving, antisocial, shithouse Lima peak hour traffic to the Hostel as if on rails. We pulled into the Hitch Hikers Hostel, which was only just large enough to park us, and suddenly found ourselves boxed into a concrete urban jungle, far from the snow and mountains.
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