We began our end-of-finals Northern Adventure with a shopping trip to the Magdalena Market. On the list: snacks, batteries, medicine, and a rain poncho. For the last item we ran into an issue.
As Chelsey put it: “I don’t know how to ask for what I need, because here ponchos are actually a thing.” Again came the awkward word game of trying to describe one object with at least ten other words that just aren’t quite exact. Vocabulary is always a work in progress.
We didn’t find a poncho, which is amazing considering the endless ability of the Magdalena market to procure anything we might need or want. Unfortunately we are about to find out what rainy season in the sierra was like. While Lima is graced with sunshine, the sierra experiences rain of varying intensities almost every day. According to one woman at Kuelap, December is not actually summer but winter. The daily downpours make life even more difficult for the small villages in the hills, turning roads into mudslides and occasionally washing out bridges and houses. We went anyway. Where the buses go, so do tourists.
After our 24 hour bus ride (half a book and two movies is a better way to think of it) to Chachapoyas, Chelsey and I hiked to Gocta Falls, which is either the third or seventh highest waterfall in the world (apparently the measurement of waterfalls is in dispute). As a man had warned us as we started out hiking, we got caught in the afternoon downpour right as we finished lunch at the waterfall. Fortunately it was still warm, but we were happy to get back to a warm hostel room.
The next day we struggled out of bed at 3:30 AM in order to catch a colectivo to Kuelap, the so-called “Macchu Picchu of the North,” a stone fortress built before the time of the Incas by the Chachapoyas civilization. We bumped in and out of sleep in the dark, thinking perhaps we should have gone the tourist tour-package route, but I’ve found that it’s usually cheaper and always more interesting to take the local transportation.
We arrived at the entrance to Kuelap at about 7 AM. In the haze of the early morning I had forgotten to pack hiking boots, and I looked down at my sandaled feet with resignation that it would be a cold, wet, muddy day. We were the first tourists there, and so the local man available for tours offered up his horses to get us up the hill. For ten soles we got to cling on to the horse’s mane, without a saddle or bridle, up a rocky and muddy path. As with many of our travels, you have to learn to just trust that you’ll make it.
Kuelap was amazing. I had pictured something out of Indiana Jones, but it was very similar to Macchu Picchu in that it is on a hilltop overlooking endless valleys. Apparently the walls were built to keep out intruders, but I can’t imagine who would be crazy enough to even attempt to charge those walls. Inside there were reconstructed houses, sacrificial stones, and a burial chamber.
Since we didn’t have a pre-arranged ride back, around 10 we realized we’d be hanging around on this hill for a while. We went down to a house and found an older woman cooking. In addition to receiving coffee we got a short life history of Rosa, a solitary woman who cooks eggs, potatoes, and hot drinks for tourists. Her husband left her with three children, all who now live in the cities for the better opportunities. Some other lessons we learned from Rosa:
“Yesterday I sold 400 cups of coffee.” (Kuelap is seeing more and more tourists, as in all of Peru)
“Asi es, chicas, asi es.” (“So it is, girls, so it is.” her philosophy on life, betrayal, and work)
“People here are poor. Life is hard. We don’t have electricity, and water only when it rains.”
We met her two companions, the dogs Pistola and Captian, and then were asked to help her carry her bags of food, soda, and candy up the grassy hill to where other vendors were laying out the rows and rows of identical trinkets that they hoped to sell that day. We spent a while sitting by these people, amusing the kids with our funny accents and awkwardly laughing of the tour guide’s attempt to set us up with his son, who is “very nice, and handsome!” Finally our guide arranged for us to tag along with a tour bus that had two extra seats.
The next morning we woke up early yet again for a bus to Cajamarca. We hadn’t been able to find a night bus, which for us as students on a tight time budget were the only thing that made weekend trips possible. Ten minutes on the road and we understood why no one would dare drive this route at night. Let’s just say I vividly pictured my death at least 20 times, comforting myself with the thought that at least it would be quick, and in a beautiful place. At one point during the ride we had to get out and transfer buses because part of the road was washed out. Though it was dangerous at times, the ride was beautiful and I will never forget the views.
Cajamarca is my favorite city I’ve traveled to in Peru, similar to Cusco but without the tourists and massage offers at every corner. There were churches built in the 17th century of volcanic rock, a hilltop garden, Andean men and women in big cowboy-like straw hats, and extremely friendly people.
My trip north was one of my favorite trips, and we got to see some very unique places. I really liked the cloud forest of Chachapoyas, and the people we met were all so open and helpful. The pressure of finals was left behind and we spent whole days just wandering around Cajamarca. Chelsey and I also ventured out of the city to the Inca baths, hot springs where they say the last Inca, Atahualpa, bathed his war wounds.