The Pan-American highway that runs on the coast of Peru has very little to offer to an overlander as far as natural beauty goes. The landscape is dry, rocky desert with long stretches of straight asphalt. So this time on our way south, we had no intention of spending any time here, with the only exception being a visit to the ruins in Chan-Chan near Trujillo. But let’s take things from the beginning. After crossing the border into Peru we spent one week in Swiss Wassi, a camping spot right on the beach that is by far our favorite place on the Peruvian coast. Here we met up for the last time with TD overland crew, as they were on their way back home, before we pushed to Mancora, for our last overnight on the coast. With that done, we were ready for some high mountain action. Leaving the coast, we took the road that leads inland towards the Kuelap ruins, where vast unexplored jungle and misty mountain ranges guard the secrets of the northern highlands and their people. This is the part of Peru that the Andean peaks and the thick forests stretch from the coast all the way to the Amazonian jungles and it’s this area that the Chachapoyas, the “people of the Clouds”, call home.
First stop was Chachapoyas village, the capital of the province, also known as Chachas. This is a laid-back village-town that makes up for nothing more than an excellent base for exploring the ancient ruins left behind by the Chachapoya culture. Vast zones of little-explored cloud forest surround the village-town, concealing some of Peru’s most fascinating and least-known archaeological treasures. The weather, time, as well as grave robbers and treasure seekers, have caused great damage to many of the ruins, while others, found later by the archaeologists, have managed to survive remarkably well. Kuélap, our next destination, was by far the most famous of these archaeological sites. Matched only by the ruins of Machu Picchu, this fabulous ruined citadel city in the mountains, southwest of Chachapoyas, is the best preserved and most dramatic of the district’s extraordinary archaeological sites. This site receives very few visitors but people like us, who do make it here, get to witness one of the most significant, isolated and impressive pre-Columbian ruins in all of South America. It’s in the country’s plans that this changes, and the new construction of a cable car that cuts the travel time to the site in half is aiming to do exactly that. In that same cable car, we had the chance to meet an older couple that was the actual owner of the land that the citadel is in and during our time in the cable car, our chat helped us understand their culture. Among other information about the area, they told us that the land was given to their ancestors by the Spanish conquistadores before their departure and that their kids have already moved to Lima without caring about what will happen to their land. After a short hike the monumental stone-fortified citadel, that crowns a limestone mountain, appeared to our astonished eyes adding exceptional panoramas to the land once inhabited by the Chachapoyas. Unfortunately for us we experienced the site under rain and with me being sick but that didn’t make the experience any less remarkable.
The upcoming days and after visiting a couple of other minor sites, our time travel through the Chachapoyan culture was completed. So we took the day long adventure route over two Andean peaks of 4200m each, before ending up in the famous hot springs of Baño del los Incas, 6km away from the city of Cajamarca. It’s here that the last chapter of the Inca Empire and their king, Atahualpa, took place and although there are very few things to remind you of the event, the Inca king’s hot springs were well worth the day’s long visit of soaking in the warm water. With the Northern Highland route completed, we headed back to the coast in order to visit the ruins of Chan-Chan. “Beachbums” as we are, we picked to base ourselves one more time in the laid-back surfer village of Huanchaco, just 20 minutes up the road from the Chimú capital of Chan Chan. Back in its hay day, Cha-Chan was the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, making it the top attraction in the region. With only a very small part of the once great city restored, we got a good understanding of what it would have been once here before the time and the desert sand covered it completely. The next day and before we pushed on, we also visited other Chimú sites in the surrounding desert. The ones that stood out the most were the impressive Moche Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (Temples of the Sun and Moon), which date back 1500 years.
Heading back to the Andes, we pointed our GPS to the direction of Cañón Del Pato, an outstanding crossing between the coast and the highlands. It’s here that the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra are separated by a 15m wide canyon, with the drop below set at 1000m height. The road snakes a path of sheer rock, over a gorge, while in order to drive through it, you need to criss cross about 34 tunnels sculpted straight on the rock. The most dramatic stretch is between tunnels 10 and 18, where the road starts ascending, according to Rochelle’s count of fear where the canyon is at its narrowest point. After almost two hours of switch backs and with the canyon behind us (and Rochelle’s levels of adrenaline back to normal) we finally reached Cordillera Blanca, an elaborate collection of summits, razor-sharp ridges, turquoise-colored lakes and green valleys with spectacular glaciers. More than 50 peaks of 5700m or higher can be found in this fairly small area. Huascarán, at 6768m, is Peru’s highest mountain and the highest pinnacle in the tropics anywhere in the world. Firstly we based ourselves in Caraz in order to acclimatize, before we pushed further up to our final destination of Laguna Parón. This postcard pastel-blue lake (4200m), 25km east of Caraz, is surrounded by spectacular snow-covered peaks, of which Pirámide de Garcilaso (5885m), at the end of the lake, looks literally something out of this world. The road to the lake goes through a canyon with 1000m-high granite walls. This drive, although hard off-road, was high on our list to do and now that it’s in the past, I can assure you that it proved to be much more spectacular than we were hoping for. It was in our plans that if the altitude allowed us (I get really sick in high altitude) or the weather was mild, we would spend one night here in the lake and so we did. That night would be probably one of the most memorable free camps of the whole trip. Waking up the next morning to this wonder of nature can only be described as simply spectacular. Next up was Parque Nacional Huascarán, the main trekking area of the Cordilleras. Our guide book stated that there’s something here for all skills and fitness levels, from short, easy hikes to multi-week adventures requiring technical mountain-climbing skills. For us it was another spectacular drive we were after, the route to the Llanganuco Lakes that are located exactly under the peak of Huascarán, the giant of the Cordilleras hoping for one more spectacular camp out here. As expected though in this type of environment, the weather can change rapidly and in our case that meant a mix of rain, sun and gas-winds that are not exactly the ideal conditions to enjoy the fantastic views of the lakes.
Finally, as altitude started getting to us, we were forced to move lower to the village of Carhuaz to spend the night and get our energy levels back to normal. Carhuaz lays claim to one of the prettiest plazas in the valley, with a combination of rose gardens and towering palms that make lingering here a pleasure. The Sunday market is a kaleidoscopic treat as campesinos (local farmers) descend from surrounding villages to sell fresh fruit, herbs and handicrafts. After finally a good night’s sleep and with our energy back, after countless drive-by’s, in order to film parts of the Sunday market scenery, we were ready for one more time to hit the peaks of Parque Nacional Huascarán, this time via a paved road that passes over the Cordillera Blanca to the beautiful Quebrada Ulta and up the Punta Olímpica, one of the highest drivable passes in the Cordilleras, at an elevation of 4700m. At this elevation and as the levels of oxygen are really low, even Voukefalas struggled to climb up. At the end of the pass we drove through a newly opened tunnel and reached our final destination, the turquoise-colored Laguna Cancaraca. After the obligatory pictures and drone flights in order to collect the necessary footage, we took the road back heading to Huaraz, the capital of this Andean adventure kingdom that in our humble opinion is one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world. Nearly wiped out by the earthquake of 1970, Huaraz isn’t going to win any Andean-village beauty contests. Although for most visitors it’s the introduction and acclimatizing base before they hit the peaks, for us it was just a last overnight stop after our magnificent week long experience to the spectacular Cordilleras. On our final push and before returning to the coast, we took a scenic road through some scenic highland valleys with high peaks surrounding them, where we stocked up in local products (cheese, honey and fruit).
After all the mountain adventure, a dose of civilization was desperately needed and we knew exactly where to do that. For one more time we headed back to Lima, the nation’s capital that although is shrouded by history, it’s gloriously messy and at the same time full of aesthetic delights. It’s one of those places that you’re always happy to go back to.