North Peru: Chiclayo & Lambayeque

Reproduction Moche Wallpainting

Monday, 18 August 2008, Huanchaco (near Trujillo), Peru
After 4 days of doing very little in Vilcabamba, we left on Sunday morning to head for the border with Peru at Macará. We made a stop in Loja to shop at the Supermaxi - you just never know how far it is to the next big supermarket. I remember when we were leaving the USA for Mexico; we stocked up on things that we didn't think we would be able to get in Mexico, and then discovered that they had huge supermarkets all over the place. And almost all the countries we have travelled in since have also had reasonable supermarkets. But we still like to take a few extras of the things we have come to like in any particular place. We left Loja at midday and arrived at Macará around 5:00. The road was not that good in places, and it passed through barren looking mountains. It went up and down a bit but mostly we didn't go above around 2300 m - quite low compared with what we had been used to. As we descended into Macará the land began to look more fertile and agriculture became more prevalent. We were most impressed by the rice fields, which looked just like they do in so much of Asia, and appear to be farmed entirely by hand, unlike the enormous fields we had seen in Los Llanos, Colombia.
We slept the night beside the road outside of Macará, since the town itself didn't look very inviting. In the morning we had to fill up with fuel - we had thought to do it on Sunday afternoon but all the service stations were closed. When we arrived in town in the morning we found that fuel stations were either closed or had a queue of vehicles waiting. When we finally worked out the system we were lining up at the wrong station. Eventually we found the one which was selling diesel and waited our turn. When we arrived at the pump it was to find a soldier with a clipboard taking down details and deciding how much fuel each customer could have. At first we were only going to get $10 worth, but then he relented and added another $5. This almost filled our one empty tank and we were grateful the other tank was already full. But we had to stop at another station to get our jerry can filled with petrol to run the generator. The whole exercise took us an hour and we are no the wiser as to why it was that way - our only postulate was that it was to make sure that only locals and real travellers could get fuel. No Peruvians crossing the border to fill up on the cheap...
We arrived at the border at 9:00 and took exactly one hour to cross. It was a very simple process, but we seemed to be continually just behind this large family who would take up all the counter space filling in forms so that no one else could get access to the officials. It was also apparent to us that most of the officials were a bit past their 'use by date' - they seemed to be incredibly slow getting things done. I had to work out what date was exactly 90 days from the day we entered - and when I told them I was a Profesora de Matematica, they took me at my word! Despite all of this we found everyone we dealt with to be friendly - even the police, who made jokes about kangaroos constantly.
Initially when we entered Perú, the landscape looked a bit similar to what we had just left in Ecuador, but it quickly became obvious that we were indeed in a different country. One of the first things we noticed was that the Peruvians have a garbage problem which is as big, if not bigger, than the Mexicans. The sides of the roads are often so littered that I think they are the only garbage dump the people have. The other thing about northern Perú is that it is, for the most part, desert. And the desert is brown. The houses the people live in are similarly colourless. Initially they built houses from sticks. A bit further south and mud bricks were the chosen material - exactly the same colour as the earth around them, from which the bricks are of course made. Every so often we would see the bright colour of a flower - Oleanders and Bougainvilleas bloom here readily - but nobody seems to make a habit of trying to brighten their environment through this simple means. In most to the Central American countries, and to a lesser extent in Colombia and Ecuador, we are used to dodging stray dogs on the roads - sometimes packs of them. Here we saw hardly any dogs, but had to be constantly on the look out for donkeys and goats which seemed to just roam free. We couldn't imagine that they weren't the property of someone, so we can only assume that their owners don't mind spending considerable time searching for them to bring them home, or they are just incredibly well-trained!
From Piura to Chiclayo there are two Pan American Highway routes. We actually thought we were driving on the Sechura Desert route, which on our map looked straight, and there were no towns marked. It wasn't until we were studying the map again in Chiclayo that we realised we had actually followed the old Pan Am from Piura, which was why we were close to the mountains for a time, there were many people living there in small villages, and the road was anything but straight. Even so, the landscape was mostly quite barren and brown, and the only agriculture seemed to occur in pockets of irrigation systems. We crossed a lot of bridges over rivers, but if there was any water in them it was a mere trickle. Despite the poor appearance of the people and their dwellings, there did appear to be quite a lot of money around for infrastructure; the roads are surprisingly good, there are substantial schools even in the smallest villages, identical corrugated iron outhouses stand behind most dwellings (government or aid organisation initiative?), there are very good bridges and some under construction, the rivers seem to have stone levees near to the roads (tendency for flash floods?), and beside the road there was evidence that some sort of cabling was being laid - for several hundred kilometres!
We stopped in Piura only long enough to find internet and an ATM to get some Soles (the local currency). Then we were on our way to Chiclayo. This northern part of Perú has some great pre-Colombian sites and museums to go with them. The first site we discovered by chance by Túcume, called the Valley of the Pyramids. I must clarify something here: in Mexico and Central America, all the pre-Colombian sites were constructed of stone and were often very well conserved and, in some cases, reconstructed. All the sites we have visited here were constructed with mud bricks, known as adobe, and as such have been ravaged by weather and time. There are 26 pyramids, platforms and mounds in the Valley of the Pyramids, and even though they are fairly eroded, the view from the mirador is impressive. It is a bit of a climb but the overcast conditions made it quite bearable - we just wished that we had worn sturdier shoes and carried our water bottle.
In Lambayeque there are two museums to be visited. The first, Museo Nacional Tumbas Reales de Sipán, is a must-see for anyone who comes to this part of the world. It is a display of the contents of one of the pyramids (huacas) of Sipán, and it is one of the best examples of pre-Colombian artefacts to be discovered to date. It is of the Moche culture and somewhere in the vicinity of 1800 years old. The magnificent objects worked in metals, precious stones, ceramic and textiles are the contents of more than 12 tombs, discovered one on top of the other. The museum has been designed so that you enter up a ramp to the top floor and work your way down through it, in the same order that the archaeologists made their discoveries. It is an amazing collection simply because the Spanish conquerors somehow missed this tomb, even though they stole the contents of every one they could find! We were totally awed by this museum and the intricate work completed by the archaeologists to restore the objects to their almost original condition. There were countless collars made of very tiny beads - it is beyond me how they could have collected all those beads and managed to thread them back into their original design. Unfortunately photography was not allowed so we only have our memories of this amazing place.
The other museum in Lambayeque allowed photography - it is the Museo Arqueologico Nacional Brüning, named after a German archaeologist who worked most of his life in Perú. This museum has examples of artefacts from the Moche culture as well as the Sicán and Chimú cultures, so we have some photos of objects similar to those in the Museo Nacional. It is a nice museum with interesting displays, but we may have been more impressed by it if we had visited Lambayeque's two museums in the opposite order!
If you look at our camping page for this period, you will notice that we had had difficulty, ever since entering Perú, finding a quiet place to sleep. This all changed when we decided to drive out of Chiclayo, through Ferreñafe to El Santuario Histórico Bosque de Pómac, which is a dry equatorial forest, and includes ruins of the Sicán. We were welcomed by Edwin, one of their guides, who explained a little bit about the Park, and then he offered his services. Normally we don't take a guide into sites, because our experience is that they usually go much too fast for us, but since we understood him quite well - he had quite a bit of English - we decided it might be easier to find the right places in this huge area. It turned out to be a very good decision. In the next 3 hours he showed us the park, which he is obviously passionate about. The first stop was the Arbol Milenario, a 600 year old tree and then, by taking a short walk through the forest next to it, he led us to a bird called the Peruvian Plantcutter by imitating its call. It is a shy and endangered bird, and Edwin was overjoyed to be able to show it to us, even though it was difficult to see clearly through the vegetation.
From bird-watching to ancient ruins - we next took a walk up to a mirador which gave us a great view of the forest with various huacas poking their apexes through the treetops, and Edwin gave us a detailed explanation of what we were looking at. Our next stop was one of the huacas which we were permitted to actually walk around on, although along clearly identified paths. It was fascinating and all the more so for having Edwin's knowledge to enhance the experience. Juergen was particularly interested in the unique markings on the mud bricks - some with a certain number of finger indentations, others with a spiral, 1,2,3 or more lines and so on. Edwin explained that families donated these bricks to the building of the temples and the markings showed which family they came from. We had originally thought we would have to camp at the entry gate behind the information centre, but when Edwin heard of our experiences on the previous nights; he sought and received permission for us to camp inside the park. We had the quietest night in a long time and slept very well. Rejuvenated, we left early next morning, with our new friend waving us off at the gate. We stopped off in Ferreñafe on the way back to Chiclayo to visit Museo Nacional Sicán, which was interesting but not overwhelming. Other than a short stop in Chiclayo for shopping and the dentist, we were on our way south again, towards Trujillo.
The Pan American is a pleasure to drive in some ways - our truck is enjoying the rare opportunity of running in 5th gear and Juergen is enjoying not having to constantly dodge pot-holes - and it is straight for the most part. But the scenery south of Chiclayo was more of the same as we had experienced to the north - brown, flat, sandy desert almost all the way. We both felt like this was the most depressing terrain we had driven through on the whole trip. Even the villages we passed through had an air of depression about them, houses showing little sign of care and most of them completely lacking in colour - some even looked quite deserted.
We arrived here in Huanchaco after only 3 hours of driving and were really relieved to find an 'RV Park' with green grass, flowers and very friendly owners. There were also a couple from Switzerland staying there and it was great to meet some fellow travellers again.

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