By Kristin Brinner
The continuing travel diary of two young Americans who set out on a 70,000 km road trip to realize a travel dream.
Before visiting touristy Southern Peru with its amazing Inca architecture, we decided to get off the Gringo trail. While much less visited than the Sacred Valley, the highlands of northern Peru are home to many pre-Incan cultural treasures, as well as the historically important city of Cajamarca.
We left the coast early in the morning anticipating a long drive into the northern highlands. We made good time crossing Peru's lowest pass in the Andes at 7,000 feet before descending into the Rio Marañón basin.
Our hearts sank when our rapid progress was halted in the humid river valley as traffic came to a stop. A police officer informed us that the road was closed every day from 6 am until 6 pm for repairs. While we strove to never drive at night, this time we had no choice.
Little did we anticipate that the most harrowing aspect of the drive would be navigating the throngs of impatient Peruvians in a fight to see who could be the first on the road when it reopened. People returned to their cars around 5:30 pm, started revving their engines at 5:45, and at 6 pm the floodgates opened.
A narrow two lane dirt road was turned into a three lane, one-way demolition derby, as twelve hours of pent up frustration were released in several minutes. It all seemed to work out though, since we didn't see any fender-benders, cars rolled into a ditch, or fiery explosions. Just after dark around 7 pm, we rolled into the small town of Pedro Ruiz, found a cheap hostel, and called it quits for the night.
The next morning, after thirty minutes of pavement we hit a one-lane dirt road and began the climb through stunning valleys to visit the pre-Inca archeaological site of Kuelap. Luckily we only met about four cars during the five hour drive,asscarce passing areas were located on the edge of precipitous cliffs. We could see the giant walls of the fortress-like Kuelap as we reached the end of the road. Construction of Kuelap by the Chachapoyas people began around 500 AD, and the huge complex is surrounded by 60 foot stone walls broken by only three narrow entrances.
We were the only people visiting the ruins that afternoon, and we wandered among the 400 circular stone dwellings protected by the daunting fortress walls. After our visit we ate a huge lunch in a local family's home as chickens and cuy (guinea pig) scurried around our feet, and spent the night camping in the field below Kuelap.
Next day we headed further into the wilds of the Andes on an epic drive on one-lane gravel roads to Celendín. We wound through a lush river valley past tiny adobe villages and people on horseback herding sheep before we climbed back up into the Andes. Two persistent dogs intent on snapping our tires to shreds chased our car for several minutes so we almost missed the fact that we were finally at Abra de Barra Negro.
At 12,000 feet, an awesome range of huge peaks opened in front of us spreading out into the blue distance. We descended the narrow switchbacks to 3,200 feet, punctured a tire, narrowly dodged a drunken tuk-tuk taxi charging down the road, climbed back up to 10,000 feet, and finally descended into Celendín. While we traveled only 136 miles from Kuelap to Celendín, it took us over 10 hours.
Westopped for two days in the lovely colonial town of Cajamarca. Like much of Peru, this town has a rich pre-colonial history complete with Inca baths, aqueducts, and funerary structures. We also visited the 'Ransom Room' to pay our respects to Atahualpa, the last king of the Inca Empire. Atahualpa had just emerged as victor in a bloody civil war when he encountered Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in Cajamarca.
While Atahualpa had around 7,000 supporters with him, they were armed with slings and rocks and protected by leather armor. Pizarro had only 180 men, but had 30 horses, 4 canons, iron swords, and guns, none of which the Incas had ever seen before. Feeling unthreatened by Pizarro's small force of men, Atahualpa left much of his army outside the city and entered unprotected with a small group of lords to greet Pizarro. The Spanish launched a surprise attack, easily slaughtered this force and took Atahualpa prisoner. The Spanish then masacred most of the Inca army. As ransom for his release, Atahualpa filled the 85 square meter 'Ransom Room' once with gold and twice with silver. The Spanish took the riches then executed Atahualpa. The fragmented Inca empire still took 40 years to conquer, but the Spanish eventually gained control of a vast part of South America.
After visiting the Ransom Room and wistfully wondering about alternative outcomes, we headed west. Supposedly the road from Cajamarca to the coastal town of Trujillo was a modern, paved highway. We asked locals for directions and headed out of town. On dirt roads we passed ancient Inca aqueducts among the spooky rock gardens that sprouted out of the tops of hills, and wondered when the road was going to change to pavement. We think we ended up taking a very 'local' shortcut, as it was three hours of gravel switchbacks through tiny villages before we found the highway.
But we still didn't get any road relief . Almost the entire highway, all 4 hours of it to the coast, had recently been ripped up and was in various stages of reconstruction. We arrived in the coastal city of Trujillo dusty and tired, but happy to be on the paved Pan-American highway once again.
To read more of our travels through Latin America click on the title to read:
Next week, braving the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia
For a full account of our travels, see our blog at The Darien Plan.
For those considering driving the Pan-American Highway, we have collected information on border crossings, car shipment, road conditions, gas prices, and everything else we found useful as road trippers driving Latin America at www.DriveTheAmericas.com