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The next morning we were quite refreshed and ready to tackle the road ahead that was reported to be very bad. The reports were accurate in the early stages since from the morning's start it deteriorated as we progressed. Mostly it follows the river but sometimes climbs higher up the mountains on one side or the other on a series of switchbacks. We drove through several small villages along the way, some of which look deserted, while others had at least animals as a sign of life. We also saw several mining ventures where they were extracting coal. The pitiful dwellings provided for the mine workers gave a clear indication of the life they lead. The road getting close to Yuracmarca got really bad, with a few very rough-cut tunnels as well. But the further we drove, the more colourful the vistas became - almost all the colours of the rainbow were present in the rocks and soil of the mountainsides which were totally bereft of vegetation. After this town the road started to improve towards Huallanca, and the colours became even more vibrant. Huallanca is quite a large town, probably because of the nearby hydroelectric scheme. After Huallanca we climbed up and up and then entered the famous Cañón del Pato, which is an incredibly narrow canyon and contains the hydroelectric system. 35 tunnels and a fairly good dirt road later we came out into a broad river valley once again and on to Caraz. The last 20 km was mostly paved asphalt road and it was a pleasure after so many rocks. Although we had our doubts about this drive, we were very pleased we did it. The canyon is interesting in that it is so narrow and the road through there is quite an engineering feat, but the highlight of the journey is the amazing colours of the mountains before actually reaching the canyon. It took us only 7 hours to drive from our camping spot to Caraz.
We arrived in Caraz around 4:00, and found the main square, where some locals were making music and dancing. We didn't stay long but moved on to the Plazuela la Merced where the Los Pinos lodge is situated. The parking place is at the rear and here we met some more travellers - 3 cars of Swiss travellers, a couple and 2 single men. It was good chatting to the travellers, and we both noted that we seem to be meeting a lot here in Peru, in fact more than anywhere else since Mexico. We decided to take a rest in Caraz the next day and after saying goodbye to the Swiss in the morning, who were heading off to the road we had just come from, we spent most of the day relaxing and a little more catching up on some computer and internet time, since we had WiFi once again. Friday was a clear day with lots of sun, which was really nice after the grey of the coast, and we had a beautiful view of the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca. In the afternoon another traveller vehicle arrived, with another Swiss couple and their dog. We did walk into the town to take a look around and have some dinner late that afternoon, but found little of interest except an overturned beer truck which caught the attention of almost everyone in town.
Given time to relax and really think about it, we decided that we would not to take the mountain route to Cuzco as we had formerly planned. There are just too many kilometres of unpaved roads of doubtful quality. So the next morning we were on our way again towards the coast and Lima, which we had previously been adamant about avoiding. We kept following the Rio Santa with snow peaks showing along the way. Nobody seems to mark Huaraz as anything special, except as a launching point for adventures way up high, so we drove straight through it. We had no intention of tackling these snow-capped beauties except with a camera and at a distance. Our goal instead was giant bromeliads in the Parque Nacional Huascaran at Carpa. Puya Raimondii [follow links to get more information] are the largest plant of the bromeliad family and only live in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes in nature. There were some added bonuses to tracking down these plants - incredible views of barren mountains, small huts accompanied by stone-walled enclosures for animals, Laguna Patacocho and its bird-life, and the snow peaks. We were a little taken aback to realise that we had driven up to an altitude of around 4180 m (our previous highest was 4008 on the Quilatoa Circuit in Ecuador), and it was a little fresh, although not really cold. after a 45 minute drive along a reasonable unpaved road, we arrived at the gate to be told the park was closed for some administrative reason, so we couldn't enter with our vehicle. However, we were allowed to enter on foot, pay the entry fee, and walk to the plants. We could see them from the gate and were told it would take us 10 minutes to reach them. It was more like half an hour and not only because we had to take it slowly in the altitude. It is a very beautiful place and definitely worth the detour.
We have taken a keen interest in the affects of altitude taking care to be sensible about it. Our rising to higher altitudes has normally been a gradual thing, but our trip in to see the Puyas was rather more abrupt than we would have liked. We had a packet of Doritos in the camper which we had bought in Trujillo - at sea level. By the time we arrived in Caraz the bag was swollen to its maximum because the air inside had expanded. As we hadn't really expected to climb so much further, we didn't think more about it until we stopped for the night - with nowhere else to expand the bag had split open. Of course many other things in the camper were showing this type of expansion, but nothing to that extreme. Plastic bottles - yoghurt in the fridge, and shampoo in the bathroom - expand but then contract again on the way down with no real ill effects. But noticing this effect on the Doritos bag made us more aware of the dangers inherent for us poor, fragile humans if we climb too high too fast!
We wanted to reduce our altitude a bit to sleep so drove back to the main road which we reached around 4:00. At first the road continues to ascend, and it was fairly slow going because the road is badly potholed and seemed to be getting worse by the kilometre. We had some more fantastic views of the Cordillera Blanca, but not as clear as before because the clouds were hugging the peaks by late afternoon. We watched the Rio Santo get smaller as it approached lake Conacocha from where it originates, and soon after we approached the high pass on that road at just over 4000 m. After the pass the road starts to descend quite quickly through a long series of switchbacks, and it then had more holes than tar in places. When we reached around 3500 m we found a reasonably level spot next to the road and drove off to find some dinner and sleep. It was very cold overnight - 6.5° - and fairly noisy from the highway, so we were up early and ready to keep on descending.
It was 9:00 when we headed downhill on the bad road again, and once again we were seeing beautiful vistas of barren mountainsides along a fertile river valley, providing a vivid contrast. At one point we came around a bend and saw the amazing site of large areas of different coloured red chillies drying in the sun. This colour on the barren backdrop was truly striking. One of the villages we came through was called Tierra del Sol Eternal - land of the eternal sun - and it certainly looked like it. However, as we got closer to sea level and the coast, the fog came in - not too thick but enough to close out the sunshine. It took almost 4 hours on this awful road to cover the 100km from where we had slept to the Pan American Highway.
On the road to Lima we knew we were back on the highway - smoothly paved and in places incredibly straight. The last 100 km or so is 4 lanes! But the scenery is nothing to get excited about even though it follows the coast almost the entire way. We passed through some large and unattractive towns, and more of the boring coastal desert. There seem to be lots of chicken farms in huge sheds, with hovels alongside for the workers - what a way to live out in the middle of sandy desert, not a tree in sight, just brown, and grit in everything, and to really make it a pleasant place, the constant smell of thousands of chickens. How fortunate we are that we can just close the vents and drive on by.
We arrived in Lima and found the area of Miraflores without too much trouble and too many detours. The Hitchhikers Hostel has a pleasant and secure concrete parking lot which we are now sharing with another travellers' vehicle - yet another Swiss couple. We are beginning to wonder how many people are still in Switzerland if we are meeting so many travelling long term! Even though fairly noisy from traffic, the hostel provides everything else we could need - electricity, clean bathrooms, and once again WiFi - third time in Perú.