Strange, Long, and Stunning: The Peruvian desert

We didn’t know it at the time, but the surrounding area of Cuenca would be the last time we would see high peaks and lush countryside with scores of white, thin, waterfalls all around you. Instead, the ugliness of Macara would reappear in countless other Peruvian cities, so far, with the exceptions of two cities: Miraflores in Lima, and Arequipa in the south (Although even these are surrounded by desert.

Since we veered of the Pan-Americana north of Cuenca, crossing the border to Peru was easy as pie. No lines, no tourist to scam, no disgruntled state employees. Instead, the border crossing consisted of a small bridge over a river, with small immigration offices on both sides of it, and a mango tree. After changing loose dollars we ended up with 8 soles. We spent 2 on juice and were left with 6. I mention this only because we entered a new reality in Peru. It was a reality of long, windy (moving air, not curving asphalt), remote roads, with a noted scarcity of gas stations. A few miles after the border, we realized we had 100 miles or so before the town of Piura, where the next proper gas station would be. We used our 6 soles to buy low grade gasoline (only a quarter of a tank each) on the way, rode in the wake of buses. We made it in on fumes.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

bye Ecuador. it’s been grand

While in Ecuador we got 70 miles for the gallon (curvy roads dictate low speeds) in Peru we would often get 50 or 52. Moreover, gas here is 6 or 7 dollars a gallon, as opposed to $2 in Ecuador. On the other hand, food here is way cheaper. The roads in villages and cities are lined with competing restaurants, all serving set lunch menus, including juice, a huge portion of soup, and an entrée of your choice, all for under $2. Still on the other hand, it’s hard to find a room under $15. One of these days maybe I will understand why the ratio of prices (eg price of room / price of lunch) differ so much from place to place. For now it is a big mystery.

In Piura we got some cash, and ate ceviche in the street, and hit the road south. The road from the border to Piura was desolate enough, but it was nothing compared with the stillness of the desert between Piura and (my memory is gone – forgive me)-Miles and miles and miles of flat desert on both sides, with the occasional sand dunes, and whipping wind from the west. We had to lean our bikes into the wind if we wanted to go in a straight line. The only time we could straighten them up was when we passed a semi-trailer. You could rest for three seconds, and then the reality of the wind would hit you in the face again as soon as you got out from the shadow of the truck. By the time we got to Chiclayo we were beat. We found a hotel, parked the bikes, went out to Chinese food and zombied out in front of the television for a good 4 hours. At times like these I wonder why Friends became international and Seinfeld did not.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

mmmm…ceviche

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan
From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

we get tired a lot

When I went to take the bikes from the parking lot in the morning, the attendant wanted 12 soles. Roughly $5. The previous night the hotel assured me that parking was included. A few weeks before, we went into a restaurant in Ecuador, did not ask for the price of lunch (it is usually $3), shared one lunch, and wound up being charged $11. I’m not boring you with figures for no reason, bear with me here. After fighting a bit with the woman from Ecuador, I finally gave up, and paid her. I figured that wasting all of this time and energy for a few bucks is simply not worth it. I was wrong. For the next few hours on the bike I couldn’t help but have a shitty taste in my mouth due to the bullshit I was fed by her and the way she scammed me. By now I have learned my lesson, and told the parking guy that he would have to take it up with the hotel. After explain my situation to him reasonably a few times and seeing that nothing is sinking in, I put the bike in gear, and made a gesture to leave. “You are not going to pay?” he asked, quite shocked. “No,” I said. “Then you cannot leave the garage.” Clearly he didn’t know me. I told him I liked him, and that he shouldn’t take it personally, and rode off to the hotel. I also wouldn’t pay him when he followed me there. We packed, and left, leaving the parking guy and the hotel guy fighting between each other. Am I a gringo that makes a fuss over $5 when it’s nothing to him and everything to the locals? Maybe. Did I ride that morning with the taste of shit in my mouth? Only if shit tastes like dulce de leche.

The desert continued, surreal in its endless mud flats. We stopped in the ancient city of Chan Chan and a guide pointed out to us where the king was buried, surrounded of course by all of his slaves, servants, wives and children, because naturally he needed company for that long journey. The city is staggering in its scope, and many of the ancient adornments are truly beautiful. My favorite area was the pond formed by the natural spring. This small oasis made the place come alive for me more than the ancient walls and burial sites.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

sweet nothing

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan
From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

chan chan

We spent the night in a hotel in Trujillo. In the main square were hundreds of people, mostly families, milling around. They had decorated the square with giant Christmas trees, each sponsored by a company with their sign next to the tree. The main activity seemed to be getting your picture taken next to the tree (or with santa) of course always with the subtle marketing in the background. What was strange, and nice for a change, was there were no real vendors there. There were just artists, either singing or painting or telling jokes. The comedians/clowns drew the biggest crowds, and once again I sorely felt the language barrier, since everyone else was laughing so hard they cried. All in all it was a sweet scene.

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

direct line

From Peru: Ecuadorean border through Trujillo and Chan Chan

The road now followed the coast. The great dunes rolling down into the pacific were truly stunning. For days and days we had beautiful desert all around us. At night, when camping, my favorite game was “find the scorpion,” which was admittedly pretty easy. Just roll over a rock and there one is. I managed to refrain from staging scorpion death matches. There is nothing like camping in the desert. It is so still and so quiet and so isolating. I never before understood how silence could be deafening. You can sit and hear the blood thumping in your ears, then a low buzzing starts, slowly getting louder until you feel like maybe a plane is passing overhead But it is just the silence. Cooking pasta or soup and drinking wine (we usually travel with at least one bottle) while watching the sunset, it’s just too wonderful. We have no cares, no worries. Tomorrow we will do just what we did today. These are the times that I feel most thankful for being able to do this trip.

From Peru: Trujillo to Lima

near Trujillo

From Peru: Trujillo to Lima

love the view

From Peru: Trujillo to Lima
From Peru: Trujillo to Lima
Arriving in Lima takes hours. You reach the outskirts and think “great, we are in the city.” But really you are in one vast surrounding shanty town that encompasses Lima like a giant brooding mass.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

our host caleed them “pixel towns” for obvious reasons

Once in the city proper, we went to the cute neighborhood Miraflores, next to the sea. We drove our motorcycles into the Nomad hostel and were happy to pay $25 for a private room with bathroom. Nothing like a hot shower after a few days in the dirt.

That night, after unsuccessfully looking for an affordable sushi restaurant, we went to the fancy grocery store and bought delicious cheeses, meats, wine and fresh bread. Back at the hostel we set up our picnic outside next to some guys doing a BBQ. It turns out that one of the guys was the manager of the hostel. After exchanging some of our cold cuts for their delicious steak, we became friends. He invited us to go the next morning to the beach with him and his girlfriend’s family. We had been planning on leaving the next morning but this was too good an opportunity to pass. We woke up early and all piled into the hostel van which Jose had appropriated for the day. His girlfriend, Marianna, drove like a madwomen trying to get us out of the city. It was so relaxing to sit as a passenger and watch the world go by rather than being constantly on the alert for the next crazy cab driver or impervious bus. Marianna’s mom kept us all entertained with the constant refrain “que rico” which I insist on translating as “what tasty” in my head.

The beach itself was beautiful, the water freezing. We were stunned by the low prices of beach front property there and were quickly lost in real estate schemes. By the time we started heading for home in the afternoon we were thoroughly exhausted and sunburnt. Jose and Marianna took us to their favorite ceviche restaurant and we loaded up on tangy fish and fried calamari. Stuffed and sandy, it was time for a nap. Even though we were technically “behind schedule” it’s these types of experiences that make travelling wonderful and exciting.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

Soon we were rolling south again, trying to keep awake on the long boring roads. Our next stop was Huacachina, famous for its ginormous sand dunes. The tiny village is a true oasis, glimmering green in the surrounding tracts of sand. We elected to skip the dune buggy ride and instead rented “sand boards.” We left our hostel early in the morning and started hiking up the closest 100 meter dune. It was soooooo hard. We are both incredibly out of shape after months of sitting on our bikes all day. Huffing and puffing up the dune was much more difficult than I anticipated. About half way up I decided this was the one and only time I would be reaching the top, and even that seemed less important every step. After resting a bit on the crest, we admired the view of endless waves of sand, with little Huacachina nestled in among them.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

Next we practiced a bit with the boards. I was extremely ungainly, falling down every foot or so. Yaniv, was better, he even got in a turn. Then it was time for the big downhill. I elected to sit on my board and slide on my butt. The slope was so steep it took me a little time to work up the courage to let go and slide. The next minute and a half are a hazy blur of speed and exhilaration. The board kicked up a steady stream of sand that hit me squarely in the face, so that by the bottom I was completely covered and had to spit out big mouthfuls of grit. Yaniv had less luck going down. His board was defective and he went in starts and stops. When we walked back to the hostel, people pointed and stared at us. I didn’t understand until I saw a mirror and realized how black we were from the sand.

From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina
From Peru: Lima through Ica and Huacachina

From Huacachina south to the Nazca lines took only a few hours. The Nazca people created giant animals and lines in the desert that are only fully visible when in an airplane.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

from the top of the mountain

Nobody is completely sure why or how they made these spectacular creatures, but kooky theories abound. I favor alien intervention, because some of the lines really truly resemble landing strips. That being said, the plane ride was too expensive for us. Instead, we pulled off the road and traveled cross country to camp next to some mountains. I fell, naturally. Sand is like a magic sleeping potion for my bike. One little whiff and down she goes.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

typical

We eventually made it to a safe flat place and set up camp as the sun set. Yaniv made a small fire while I made a special fetuccini alfredo dinner.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

after dinner coffee

In the morning we started to climb the mountain next to us. About halfway up Yaniv noticed a “landing strip” that seemed to be leading right to the base of the mountains. Unfortunately jeep tracks had obscured almost half of it.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

As we continued to climb I was struck by the immensity of their undertaking. As if eking out a living in a barren desert isn’t hard enough, they had to go and shove all the rocks around too. From the top we could see the endless lines stretching out across the plain. They all seemed to originate from the base of our mountain, which makes me think that this must have been an important spot for them. It is a humbling experience to stand on a spot that thousands of years ago was (perhaps) sacred to another people, and have no idea really what the significance was to them.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

Another day of desert travelling, another night of camping. This time we found a place that had the beginnings (or remains) of low stone houses. We sheltered in them out of the wind. The next morning the vicious sand flies explained the abandoned state of the area. The riding through this section was really beautiful. We kept dipping into lush valleys then climbing sandy bluffs with views of the ocean.

From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa
From Peru: Nazca to Arequipa

KABOOM BLAM WOWZERS

The next night we had a hard time finding a side road to camp on. When we did, it was surrounded by deep sand. I have a deep aversion to deep sand. Perhaps it has an aversion to me as well, because I quickly got stuck and fell. Yaniv had to slog back and finish riding for me. It was the most barren place we have ever camped. Only sand, completely devoid of any visible plant or animal life.

From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes

boo

From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes

watermelon break

It was with some relief that we arrived in the mountainous town of Arrequipa. The road leading to it was pretty extraordinary. It was very curvy with views of shimmering mineral deposits of all different colors. The city itself was beautiful and chilly. We shared a bottle of wine and a nice meal and felt like real people again.

From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes
From Peru: arequipa thru camping on sand dunes

he’s a little withdrawn for a first date

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One Response to Strange, Long, and Stunning: The Peruvian desert

  1. Patsy Rowe Watt says:

    Erika
    I have been following you two since you left California. What an adventure! Your dad sends me an email whenever you add a new post and I can hear the pride growing in him for you. We all love hearing your adventures. Keep posting – I love reading your stories.

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