Travel Blog: Chachapoyas, Amazonas – Kuelap, Gocta, and more

I have had the great fortune to have found some incredible friends in my site, and not one day passes that I am not thankful for them! With two of my best friends, we had been talking about escaping Oxapampa and traveling together…and this year we finally made it a reality! We left the high jungle, or “ceja de selva” (eybrow of the jungle) of Oxapampa and we headed north to the other side of the country, to the “ceja de selva” of Chachapoyas, in the department of Amazonas.

The arrow points to Chachapoyas, and the red dot is Oxapampa.

Chachapoyas hosts tons of international tourists who come to see Kuelap (sometimes referred to as the Machu Picchu of the north), the grand waterfall Gocta, and tons of other ruins, artefacts, and beautiful natural sites, all a day trip from the city of Chachapoyas, where there are plenty of accommodations.

We were lucky to find a special and got a cheap flight from Lima to Jaen, Cajamarca, and from Jaen, we took a 4-hour bus ride (MovilTours) to Chachapoyas. (Some people fly into Tarapoto and get a car to Chachapoyas, which is about 8 hours in car. Or, there is always the option to take a bus from Lima to Chachapoyas, which is about 20 hours, and worth paying for the more expensive seats on a luxury bus like Cruz del Sur.)

In Chachapoyas, we stayed in Backpackers Hostel, and each day we did a day trip from Chachapoyas. Our itinerary included:

  • Day 1: Rodriguez de Mendoza – Leo’s cave (Caverna de Leo) and hot sulfur springs (Aguas Termales)
  • Day 2: Kuelap
  • Day 3: Gocta (waterfall)
  • Day 4: Karajía

We wish we had had about 2-3 more days to be able to visit Leymebamba, which is 3 hours from Chacha and home to the Laguna de Los Condores and a museum with bones, mummies, and artefacts found around the laguna and in the area.

Day 1 Rodriguez de Mendoza. After eating breakfast in a small restaurant (and laughing until we cried when the waitress took Carolina (who is Argentinian) for a non-Spanish speaking tourist and spoke really loudly and slowly and simply to her in Spanish), we headed to the terminal, where we caught a car to go to Rodriguez de Mendoza (S/20). It was a beautiful 2-hour drive through the majestic, green, rolling hills. There were also palm trees, which we were told were brought in by an outside organization to cultivate, but they didn’t really turn into a big venture so they aren’t really maintained, but they remain an interesting feature in the landscape.

In Rodriguez de Mendoza, we took a 20 minute car ride (S/5) to where a man named Leo gives tours of a cave on his property (S/20). (Slightly less sketchy than it sounds, but worth it!) Leo is about in his 60s and he led us up a hill, through his beautiful property, filled with native plants, coffee plants, and fruit trees, to the opening of a cave. He gave us all flashlights and led us down into the cave, which was many stories deep, with different levels and tons of great formations. He claimed it was incredibly extensive and that he could lead a 6-hour hike through the cave and still not see everything, but since we only had one hour, he proceeded to tell us what he thought each formation resembled (Biblical figures, animals, etc.) We were a little disappointed because we would have much preferred to walk around and see more of the cave, but overall, it was a really cool cave (and a great hike to and from the cave), so I’m glad we did it, and I would recommend it.

We then took a car about 15 minutes (S/5) to a site with a natural spring feeding thermal baths (S/3). This was my first time in thermal baths and I was enchanted by the experience. There were two pools of turquoise water, in the middle of nature, surrounded beautiful scenery on all sides. I don’t think I’ve ever swam surrounded by mountains on all sides, a tiny drop in the middle of paradise. The sulfur smell took a while to wash out of our hair, but it was well-worth it. We ate at a restaurant just above the springs, on the same property, and were lucky enough that two different cars gave us rides back to Rodriguez de Mendoza, where we caught a combi (van) back to Chachapoyas (S/15), just in time to be able to arrive before dark.

 

Day 2. Kuelap – ruins from a fort of the Chachapoyas culture (1100-1400 AD), in the high selva of Amazonas, with a recently-built teleferico (ski-lift type of air transport) over the mountains to arrive at the entrance. (Fun Fact: Machu Picchu is also tucked in a high selva zone, but in Cusco.) We talked to a guide agency in the plaza and secured a day trip to Kuelap, with teleferico, entrance fees and lunch included for S/75. Unfortunately, it was a drizzly, grey day, so we didn’t get quite the spectacular photos that one normally gets at Kuelap, but even through the mist and clouds, it was spectacular…and I would say that the mist and clouds passing through the mountains gave it an enchanting feel in its own right.

The teleferico …getting into a pod with 8 people and crossing green mountains and valleys, from tens of meters above, was an experience in and of itself.

Arriving at Kuelap, we had a light, beautiful (even if foggy) hike up into the mountains, where we began to approach the remainders of watch towers and walls some 900-years old. Approaching the main grounds, the entire settlement was surrounded be a wall, many meters high.

Entering, we saw the outlines and remainders of different parts of a city, living quarters, temples, storage areas.

And a llama. (Not sure if they brought in the llama for show like they do at Machu Picchu, or if llamas actually live in the area, but I’m guessing the former since llamas tend to live at higher altitude…sorry to burst your bubble.)

Our guide explained that Kuelap was used by the Chachapoyas nation independently from 1100-1450AD. Though the Chachapoyas were overtaken by the Incas, the site continued in use and didn’t change much under Inca rule because the Incas tended to let the people they conquered continue with their way of life, implementing certain additional administrative requirements to manage their rule.

In the mid 1500s, the Spaniard conquistadores came, and while the Chachapoyas resisted the conquistadores longer than most, they were finally overcome and forced to leave the site of Kuelap. Our guide was a great storyteller, and I liked that he made a point to distinguish between “assumptions” and “facts backed by evidence” (a difference that is lately getting confused by many popular mass media sources).

 

Day 3. Gocta – The 771-meter (2,530 ft) waterfall with two drops (registered as the 3rd or the 16th largest waterfall in the world, depending on who you ask). We wanted to do the hike to see the whole waterfall – both of the two drops, and we found someone who knew a guide from the village that could take us there and later pick us up for S/60.

The village that is near the waterfall (San Pablo de Valera) has organized themselves well and they require a guide from their village to accompany all visitors to the waterfall. (We paid our guide Maria S/40.) The village you pass through also charges an entrance fee (S/20), and they use the money to maintain and improve the trails to the waterfall, as well as to improve their own community. I really liked the system since it brings jobs and income to the local people while they maintain and conserve the natural area on their property, and also are able to share it with visitors.

The first stop was the pool at the base of the first drop. Unfortunately, we had another cloudy day without sun and with a little bit of rain a few times, but it was still an amazing hike with amazing views.

The second stop was a lookout point, where we could see both the upper and lower drops of the waterfall.

From there, because we had asked to see the lower drop as well, we continued the descent until we arrived at the huge pool at the very base of the fall. Again, it was cloudy, cold, and even rained a little, but that didn’t keep us from diving into the pool; afterall, how often does one get the opportunity to swim in the pool at the base of an incredible 771-meter waterfall? (Ok, I admit, it was way too cold to swim. I jumped in, screamed because it was so cold, and could only stand about 3 more minutes before I got out and hid under my rain poncho to warm up.)

From the pool, we descended about 1 hour to the nearby village where the hike ends. One of the local dogs had followed us from the very beginning, all the way to the village below, and my friends convinced our driver to let us drop the dog off closer to home.

Since we all have that adventurous spirit, we agreed that the all day hike was our favorite day of the whole trip…being surrounded by nature all day, bathing in a grand waterfall, climbing and descending, crossing through the mountains from one village to another, immersed in incredible landscapes…it was a perfect day for us all, one of the best in a lifetime.

Day 4: Karajía. For our last day, we decided on a half-day trip to Karajía (S/30 for a private car), which is where there are sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?) high up in a cliff .

It was a beautiful drive (as all the drives had been), that brought us to a little town, and from there, a short 30-minute hike to see the sarcophagi. You can’t get very close to them because they are high in the cliffs, but you can see them from below or from the sides.

Arrow points to the sarcophaguses

We dawdled a while, hiking around and taking photos and goofing off and enjoying the views, until we climbed back up the hill to the village.

Unfortunately, we only had four days to explore the area, but one could easily spend a week or more discovering Chachapoyas and the surrounding areas.

The amazing views, the history, the culture, the adventure….this trip had it all, with the best part being the memories shared, deepening our friendship, and finally traveling together – something we’d been talking about doing together for a year!

Family Vacation to Lima

My oldest (host) sister is a teacher so she gets January-March off (summer vacation in the southern hemisphere). This year she promised her daughters, ages 6 and 8, that they would take a family vacation to Lima.

Aside: Since Lima is the capital city of Peru, I think a good comparison for the US would be like a family from a small, rural town taking 12-hour drive to vacation in Washington, DC… or maybe more like New York because it is a coastal mega city, like Lima.

The girls had never been to Lima before, and they had never seen the ocean, so it was going to be a great adventure! I really wanted to join them… to see the looks on their faces when they saw things like the ocean and the crowded city full of cars, for the first time. I wanted to go because they were going to go see sights in Lima that were more family-kids-oriented that I hadn’t known about and might not do on my own. And finally, I know my way around Lima a little bit because I have had to stay there multiple times for trainings and travel, so I wanted to help them navigate the city – which can be tricky if you don’t do it regularly.

Aside: My sister kept joking that she was embarrassed that a foreigner was showing her around her own capital city. It was definitely one of those moments where I recognized my privilege – even as a volunteer, not being paid much, simply being a part of Peace Corps gives me quite a few privileges that a lot of other people don’t enjoy, even paid trips to Lima and a network of friends and contacts throughout the country that help me learn how to navigate the city and the country.

So on a Wednesday morning, we all hopped on a bus for the 10 hour bus ride to Lima. (It was also the girls’ first time in a luxury bus, and I loved how the attendant very seriously took each of their tickets, checking their names off the list and treating them like adults.) I reserved us a hostel in Miraflores to be closer to our first destination: the beach. When we got there, I introduced them to their first ride on the Metropolitano, (the public transit line which is a bus system with its own separated lane), which took us from the bus terminal to the neighborhood Miraflores.

Before going to bed, we walked out to the Malecón – a sidewalk that goes along the cliffs of the beach, and has parks and greenspace along it. There are always people walking, running, picnicking, doing yoga, doing workouts, out on dates, or just hanging out looking at the ocean. We found a playground near the Larcomar mall, where the girls expended their energy from sitting on a bus all day.

The next morning, we hopped on a city bus (1.5 soles) and headed to the beach in Barranco, and the girls saw the ocean for the first time!

I think it was more exciting for me than them (I was a little underwhelmed by their reactions), but they had a great time and learned quickly about waves – how they surprise you and splash you in the face with salty water, and about sand – which doesn’t come out of your hair and swimsuit for a few days after rolling around in it like they did!

The second day we wanted to go to Parque de las Leyendas, so I found us an AirBnB closer to that area of town so we wouldn’t spend most of the day traveling there. Parque de las Leyendas is a zoo, built in the middle of some ruins from civilizations of the past. (I admit I was disappointed because it was really just a zoo and I didn’t see any “legends” or descriptions of the different ruins that were all throughout the zoo.)

We started with the different animals found in the different regions of Peru – coastal desert, highlands, and jungle. Then we saw a mock mine which explained the different minerals that are extracted from Peru, where we learned that Peru is one of the top 5 producers of the most common minerals of the world.

And we finished with the exotic animals from other parts of the world (the giraffe, zebra, and lions and tigers and bears, etc.) Everyone agreed at the end of the day that the huge, majestic, white tiger that paced back and forth impressed them the most…was it pacing back and forth thinking of how to escape and eat us, or wishing it could escape and run through the plains….?

That night we went to the Parque de las Aguas, in Parque de la Reserva, which has magnificent fountains, each lit up with lights, some with amazing colors. At 8:00pm the show began…a laser show projected onto the water of the fountains, featuring photos depicting the different food and landscapes form the 3 regions of Peru.

One of the fountains served as a splash park for kids, and my nieces had the best time. They had definitely never seen anything like it and they LOVED it. We had to ask the announcer to call them out by name to get them to come out to go home. I would guess that was the coolest part of the trip for them…the curiosity and fascination they had for the splash park fountain is what I had expected (and maybe hoped to see) for their first view of the ocean.

The final day was a trip to Gamarra to purchase clothes and supplies for the school year, which starts in March here. Gamarra is the biggest flea market you have ever seen…it is literally an entire neighborhood – streets and streets, blocks and blocks of shops. You can get just about anything you need for the cheapest price you can find in all of Peru. This is where my sister took the lead and showed me around.

Weekends are the busiest days – there are so many people that you can’t walk without rubbing shoulders with other people, and you need a running back’s skills to navigate through the crowds to get where you want to go. It helps to go with a Peruvian – both to navigate through, and to get better prices, (and I was told it’s more dangerous for people who look like tourists because they are targets for pick-pockets and people looking to take advantage of someone).

After a wonderful time exploring Lima together and getting to know each other better, we all had to head back to Oxapampa. A few weeks later, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer went with his family to Lima and they had a similar itinerary, so this gives you an idea of a typical family vacation to Lima for a family from “provincia”, or one of the other more rural areas outside of Lima.

Travel Blog: Northern Beaches of Peru

My vacation to the beaches of northwest Peru with Peace Corps friends was  the most relaxing vacation I’ve had in my life.

The Plan: Enjoy some beach time, probably go to a few different well-known beaches in the north.

The Rules: No rushing.

After meeting up in Piura city, we took a 3-hour bus ride to our first destination: the beach town Los Organos.

To me, this beach was literally perfect…perfect water temperature, perfect depth, mild waves (good for a swim workout), and not too crowded. I immediately jumped in the ocean upon arriving, and spent most of my time in the ocean until we left.

There was also a pier where they fed the turtles and rented life jackets and goggles to swim with those massive, docile creatures.

I swear, they really are like the stoner turtles in Finding Nemo. They just swam around me almost like I wasn’t even there; one even kept bumping into my feet from below so I was basically surfing on top of him, under water. It was an amazing experience to be swimming right next to such huge, beautiful animals – almost as long as I am tall, and much bigger than me.

Los Organos was my favorite beach of the trip, but we only stayed one night because the place was expensive for our Peace Corps budgets. So after enjoying the beach to the max, we got a car for 3 soles each ($1) for the 30 minute ride to Mancora, where we met a very different atmosphere.

Mancora is pretty popular and was the most crowded beach we stayed at, by far. But it wasn’t too crowded to be able to enjoy it. The water was also the perfect temperature and perfect depth, and great for swimming (except for the jet skis that go zipping around). There was also a great restaurant right on the beach, called Green Eggs and Ham.

While relaxing on the beach, Zach plays the cajon, a Peruvian drum.
Kevin serenades us while chillin on the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed in a chill hostel called Palo Santo frequented by travelers from around the world (we met people from Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other places that I don’t remember.) By night, and well into the morning, Mancora is a party beach, with pop-up dance clubs, blaring different music right next to each other, appearing on the beach at night. Even though our hostel was chill, it’s pretty loud at night because the whole city parties all night long.

The hostel where we stayed

Unfortunately, I had a challenging encounter with pushy surf instructor I was dancing with, who insisted on trying to make out, even after I told him no. I wish I could have shown him this video that explains sexual consent using ceviche as an example, but instead I just had to talk frankly with him about respecting when someone says no, until he left pouting like a baby.

After 2 nights in Mancora, the group was all partied out, so we headed north to Los Zorritos in the department of Tumbes.

Following recommendations passed down by other PCVs, we found ourselves in an Eco Hostel called 3 Puntas, which was very different from our stays in the other two beaches.

This was a super cute, rustic site with cabins pretty spread out, a beautiful outdoor pool, bucket flush toilets that use greywater from the sinks, an outdoor, build-your-own-fire kitchen, hammocks on the beach, and again, a beautiful, perfect beach.

Unfortunately, I lost my phone getting out of the van when we arrived, so I spent the first afternoon catching a ride to Tumbes city, 30 minutes north, asking around for the vans that run between Mancora and Tumbes. A really nice guy helped us find the van, but sadly I did not find my phone. On the bright side, I got to see the city of Tumbes, which was celebrating its anniversary that week.

The church in the central plaza of Tumbes

After the little side trip to Tumbes, we had the perfect two days of relaxing that we needed.

Like true PCVs we made our meals over the wood fire, and flushed our toilets with buckets, and we loved every minute of it.

A friend living in Piura braved the 5-hour ride to meet up with us for one night and one day, but said the travel was totally worth it.

When our time was up and we had to begin the journey home, we thought about options for getting back to Piura. We decided to wait a few minutes on the side of the highway and see if a bus passed by before heading into the central part of town to find a van or car. Within 10 minutes we landed a comfortable ride in a car with air conditioning (a luxury here) and a really cautious driver (one of the first cautious drivers I’ve seen here), for the 4-5-hour drive back towards Piura.

One of the varied coastal desert landscapes between Piura and Tumbes

We stayed in a hostel called Qispi Key, which had cool Grateful Dead and hippy like wall art, but terrible service; even though we had called ahead saying we were coming, no one was there when we arrived and a guest had to let us in, and we had to wait 30 minutes for someone to show up to check us in. The next morning, our 8am breakfast came at 8:45 and we almost missed our 9:15 bus, forcing us to break our “no rushing” rule. So not a recommended hostel if you are on a schedule.

Energy production in the north – oil pipeline run through windmill fields.

Instead of going straight home, we decided to break up the travel, so we spent 8 hours traveling from Piura to Trujillo and spent a couple nights in Huanchaco, the beach town outside of Trujillo.

The Pope is coming to Peru this week, and he will be visiting Huanchaco, so there was a lot of work going into preparing for his visit.

Having swum every day for the last 5 days, at 3 different beaches, (there is nowhere to swim in my site, so swimming is a real treat), I jumped in the ocean for my final swim before heading home…and I almost died of hypothermia (not literally, mom). The water was like ice water and took my breath away. After 25 minutes of torture, I ended up running inside to take a warm shower and put on a flannel shirt even though it was warm outside.

In the afternoon I came to understand what had happened, thanks to a pre-Incan culture called Chimu. A few minutes from Huanchaco is “Chan Chan”, ruins from the Chimu culture, a civilization that peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries until it was overtaken by the Incas. Known for the architecture, this site still has standing walls, even though it’s from centuries past and is on the beach in an area prone to earthquakes.

The walls are strong and also decorated with icons of their fishing culture – fish, pelicans, and nets. The icons point in the direction of the exits to help know the way through the maze of rooms.

In one entryway, the walls were decorated with fish swimming in one direction towards a wall, and on the other wall swimming in the opposite direction – towards the other fish. The guide explained that these fish represented the two currents on the coasts of Peru: the current that comes from the south and brings cold water to Lima and Trujillo (and Huanchacho), and the current that comes from the north and brings warm water from the north to the beaches of Tumbes and Piura. So that is why I enjoyed the bath-water oceans of Tumbes and Piura and then was shocked by the ice water of Huanchaco!

The fish on the right side of the wall represent the northern current and are swimming toward the left. The fish on the left represent the southern current and are swimming towards the right.

Finally, every night in Huanchaco ends with watching the sunset on the beach; a perfect end to a beach vacation, and the beginning of a new year in Peru.

Wonder of the World

After not seeing any of my family members for a year and a half, I was so happy to see my mom and my aunts walk through the door of the Lima airport! It was also a little surreal to see them in Lima. My two worlds collided…here I was in Peru, where I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, living a simpler life in a rural area trying to integrate and live like a local, and I hadn’t seen my family this whole time, and suddenly my family was here and we were going on a family vacation here! (After a year and a half living here, I still had not had the opportunity to see Machu Picchu, and we were going to go together!)

So, that means I was going to be a tourist…something I have been trying hard not be, as I try arduously to “integrate”. This was going to be a super interesting experience as I tried to use what I had learned over the last year and a half – language, culture, and how things work in Peru –to navigate like a local, while being a tourist.

Beach time in Lima

What do I mean by that? Navigating transportation, the language, and trying to not always pay the “gringo price”. For example, in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, they tried to charge an additional 20% on our bill, saying that all the restaurants do it. Considering that there was no notification in the menu or anywhere that they were going to charge an additional 20%, I had argue that it was unfair and that I wasn’t going to pay it.  I was super uncomfortable doing this kind of negotiating when I first got here, but after a lot of practice it starts to come naturally, (and I get a lot of practice, being of light-colored skin, because I often get quoted a price twice or three times as much as the going price).  But I digress.

With only 7 days of vacation, we had a pretty tight schedule, but the great thing about Peru – and Cusco is maybe the epitome of this – is that the journey is often as amazing as the destination. So even though we had a full day of travel the next day, (flight to Cusco, and 3-hour car ride to Ollantaytambo), it was full of great sites (and surprises).

In addition the beautiful mountains and scenery on the drive, we stopped in Chincheros, where we saw a demonstration of how wool from sheep and alpaca is made into wool thread and dyed to make textiles, (and of course had the opportunity to buy some great handmade items like shawls, scarves, hats (chullos), socks, gloves, sweaters, blankets, etc.

Chincheros – textile shop

And randomly…our driver was awesome, and completely coincidentally, had grown up in Oxapampa where I live now (which is very far away from Cusco).

The next day we started with a 3-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes to catch the 20-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu. And again, the journey itself to Machu Picchu was amazing and beautiful.

View from the train window (Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes)

But, of course, nothing compares to the marvel of Machu Picchu. As my Aunt Michelle said, she was a little worried she wouldn’t be that amazed because she had already seen so many photos of it online, but then seeing it in real life is just something completely different and stunning.

Adding to the photos of Machu Picchu on the internet that just can’t do it justice.

First, it’s got its views – Machu Picchu is set in one of the most amazing spots, tucked in the mountains of the high jungle, and therefore surrounded by verdant green mountains, and overlooking a valley.

Then, it is built on the side of a mountain, but engineered in a way that prevents it from being destroyed by the natural processes of erosion.

And unlike a lot of cities of today, it doesn’t exclude nature from its design, it incorporates it, keeping green terraces, and natural streams as an integral part of its structural and functional design.

You see an interesting combination of the complex shapes and rounded, soft edges found in nature, molded into the straight edges, corners, lines, and simple shapes of the human-constructed world.

For me, this was a sight where the beauty of nature comes together with creativity and engineering brilliance, and it demonstrates the evolution of human knowledge.

And while, the beauty and marvel of Machu Picchu is unique for its location and how well it has been preserved, even the journey back to Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, was a journey that was, in itself, a destination.

Sacred Valley – Pisaq

We were able to explore the ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisaq, and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sacred Valley on the way back to Cusco…and still we barely scratched the surface of the sites that offer breathtaking views ruins that give hints into the lives of past civilizations.

Our final full day in Cusco, we explored a few sites nearby the City of Cusco, including the famous Saqsayhuaman (basically pronounced Sexy Womán), until we felt like we were experts in Incan mythology, architecture, and engineering (not even close).

Cusco from Saqsayhuaman

Turns out that 4 days in Cusco was a good amount of time to see a lot of the highlights, but an extra day, or few, would have been even better, to be able to see the city of Cusco itself, some museums, and maybe to take another day trip or two to some other cool spots like Rainbow Mountain or the salt farms.

It turned out to be an amazing trip with the family, and I am so lucky that they were able to come, and that we were able to experience these amazing sites together. While the role of being a tourist took getting used to, the role of translator, negotiator, and vacation planner was fun and challenging. In a way, for the first time in my life I felt like I was taking care of my mom and aunts, instead of the other way around. Considering that they have taken care of me my whole life, I was honored to be able to do that, at least for a few days.

A Rich New Year (2017)

There are a few interesting new years traditions here in Peru, such as sitting under a table and eating 12 grapes, one to represent each month, and making a wish for each grape. Or wearing something yellow (usually yellow underwear) to bring good luck in the new year. Or walking around the block with a piece of luggage so that you will have the luck to travel in the new year.

In the same spirit, but instead of walking around the block with my luggage, I rang in the new year 2017, by traveling to another part of Peru where I would experience not only a different town, but different landscapes, a different climate, and a different culture. (Peru has such a great variety of all of these – landscapes, climates, cultures – that I could not experience all of them in my 2-3 years here, even if I didn’t work and only traveled. Since I do in fact spend the majority of my time in site working, this new years trip reminded me that this year I want to take time to travel to try to experience some of these treasures that Peru has to offer.)

What happened was…about a week or two before new years, my bestie Karlia invited me to meet her and a few of our good friends in Lima and then travel south to a small village that is one of the epicenters of much of the history of Afro-Peruvian descendants in Peru, (which also happens to throw a mad new years party every year). Luckily I had the clarity of mind to say yes and I hopped on a bus to Lima.

After taking a day of relaxation on the beach in Lima, we headed to El Carmen, a town in Chincha, in the department of Ica.

In Chincha, we went to the supermarket to buy some new years eve snacks (wine, crackers, and champagne) to enjoy while we waited for the NY party to start (start time: 11:45pm, we were told).

At the supermarket we were all separately amazed at how the appearances of the people that entered the supermarket in Chincha reminded us so much of being at a supermarket in the US and made us feel an interesting sense of comfort, like home – because we saw such diversity in race, unlike we are accustomed to seeing in our sites. And then when we arrived in El Carmen (20-minute drive from Chincha), the same thing happened when we saw that the majority of folks living in this tiny town of a few blocks wide in either direction were majority black, Afro-Peruvians. I have never been so happy to see black people!

While Lima hosts a good diversity of race in certain areas, we all live in rural sites that tend to be pretty racially homogenous with most people being darker skinned with ancestors being a mix of indigenous peoples and Europeans.

(The majority of people in my town have a mix of indigenous and Austrian-German heritage and have the “typical Latino” look that most Americans know, though it is not uncommon to see lighter-skinned people usually with more Austrian-German showing, which is uncommon in a lot of other sites.  In my site, I have only seen one black person (who is from Columbia actually), one person that appears to be of Indian descent, and a few Asian-Peruvians or “Chinos” as they are called, despite the fact that their ancestors may be from any east Asian country.)

It struck me as strange that seeing black people was so comforting for me, and also for my friends (probably more so for them, being African Americans). Apparently, I had previously been accustomed to greater racial diversity while living in DC; then I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t living in a place with much racial diversity, until I experienced greater racial diversity again, and I was struck by how much it made me feel at home, that I had been missing that aspect of diversity in my life without even knowing it.)

We wandered around the plaza de armas, seeing what the local artisans were selling (woven bags, souvenirs like carvings featuring black figurines, locally-made wine, among others.) Someone handed us a flier about a history lesson and demonstration of zapateo that was taking place at that moment, so we hurried one block over and found a man standing outside his house and a group of about 7 young men from Chiclayo sitting around waiting for the event to start. We entered the house and the man started telling us about the Afro-Peruvian history of the area of El Carmen, and then he pulled out a fiddle and 3 young men came in and started performing zapateo, which reminded me of “step”.

Fast forward to the 11:45 start of the new years party (which, by the way, I found out a few hours before that it was a white party). First, I have to say that my friend Vanessa was the queen of the party, by far. She was looking fabulous, BOMB!, and rocking the afro hairstyle…freely and with pride here in this site, which is very different from the reality of her (and most of our) sites.

From what I understand, it’s hard enough to wear one’s hair naturally (in an afro) in the US and for people to appreciate the beauty of that look much less to be taken seriously, or professionally. And here in Peru, that is the case but even more extreme, unfortunately. It’s one of those things that is not talked about and often unnoticed by anyone that is not black, but is a real struggle to have someone telling you that your natural hair is ugly and you should really spend a lot of money and time to make it look more like white people’s hair. (Read more about this from one of the Blog It Home winners, Brittany.)

Everyone, including a few drummers, was gathering around some large stuffed dolls the size of crash test dummies. So we joined the circle, and at midnight, the drums started going and someone set the dolls on fire…to send off the old year and welcome in the new year. We all proceeded to dance around the fire, to the beat of the drums…which also made me feel incredibly at home, reminding me of my Sunday afternoon ritual to dance at the drum circles in Meridian Hill Park in DC.

After the old year dolls had burned down, the party started. Led by a DJ, bands (of course with a cajon – a drum that is a wooden box that the drummer sits on top of), and dancers dressed as devils, everyone danced and mingled like one big happy family.

The party continued through the morning and until about mid-day the next day (though I don’t know from first-hand experience; I’m not that hard core.)

It’s hard to describe how wonderful and meaningful this new years was for me…spending time with some of my best Peace Corps friends, seeing a completely different part of the country, having so many experiences that made me feel at home…it was the best way possible to start a new year – open to new experiences and adventures, and a reminder to take advantage of my time here – in this country and in this life.

First Impressions of Oxapampa, my site

So I joined Peace Corps as a Water And Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) engineer, and after working on water projects in El Salvador and Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders for 7 years, I had prepared myself to live in a small village without running water.

When I got my site assignment and came to my new home fore the first time, I was pleasantly disappointed to find myself living in a nice room with running water. (Well, usually there is running water. Without warning, we lose water for a few hours about 5-10 times a month). The showers are cold so I often take the health advice that it is not great to shower every single day. (Thank you Jessica for this entertaining article!)

My site is Oxapampa (town), Oxapampa (district), Oxapampa (province), Pasco (Department), Peru. Or Oxapampa for short.

The entire province is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the town of Oxapampa is a beautiful little tourist town as well as the provincial capital, and it takes a lot of pride in being a part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve, having clean air, and being “tranquillo” – safe and calm. The schools put a lot of emphasis on environmental stewardship, and most people have a pretty strong sense of wanting to do what’s best for the environment.

In some ways it has the feel of a small or medium-sized rural town in Texas (or in any state, but I’m more familiar with Texas), though the motorcycles and mototaxis outnumber the cars (and it’s a lot more green and jungly).

They have rodeo here a few times a year, where cowboys from here and from other towns come to compete. They play country music at the rodeos and at some local events, and they host Country Fest once a year, which includes performers from all over the world (mostly South America) singing various country songs, including many popular country songs from the US.

There are chickens and/or cows in some yards (I walk past a cow and sheep on my way to work every day,and when I hear rustling in the grass, it’s not a squirrel, nor a bird – it’s a chicken). I know this sounds weird, but the sound of roosters regularly every day is kind of comforting for me.

Most everyone knows everyone, or at least someone from the family (though the town has grown drastically in the last 10 years and that is changing.) It is very common to see women in skinny jeans and a plaid long-sleeve (which I think might be a general fashion trend?), but it definitely reminds me of the rural US.

The majority of people have farms and raise some type of animal (chickens, cows, and/or pigs usually) and/or grow some type of crops – zapallo (a large pumpkin-squash thing) and granadilla are the most popular. You can find many artisanal products made here such as honey, coffee, cheese, and yogurt.

People’s farms are usually outside the town, so the houses in town are relatively close together and the town is very walkable (which I love!) – it is about 30 blocks by 15 blocks, and there are moto-taxis for public transportation.

Just about everyone rides a motorcycle to go everywhere. Except me. Peace Corps does not allow us to ride motorcycles.

Lucky for me, I love walking and riding my bike, and I always have. Anyway, it’s actually pretty great because I have a little more time to appreciate the INCREDIBLE landscapes that surround me every day.

From Oxapampa town, there are beautiful tree-covered mountains in all 360-degrees of your vista. They call them hills, and it’s true, they are probably the forested foothills of the Andes, but they are so grand the best way to describe them is mountains. (Yes, I said grand.)

Like all the districts in Peru (and maybe all of Latin America that has Spanish influence? Help me out history people…), the city center has a small park called a plaza de armas, with the municipality and a catholic church.

In the case of Oxapampa, it has the oldest wooden church in Peru, and built of wood from a tree called diablo, or “the devil”, so they say it is the only church where god and the devil live together.

Most of these photos are around the plaza, so things look pretty ordered and the streets are paved. Currently the town has quite a few paved streets, but the majority are still dirt roads, and the dust blows around in the wind during the dry season.

Speaking of the weather…I LOVE it. One day I swear I experienced 3 seasons (as they are defined in Washington, DC weather) in one day…the morning was cool like an autumn morning, then it rained (could have been a spring or autumn rain), then the sun came out in the afternoon and it was HOT like a summer day, and then the evening was like a cool spring evening. I would say that day accurately describes the weather here…a little bit of everything, sometimes all in one day, but never too hot and never too cold.

Usually the days are 70-80°F, but even when the air doesn’t feel very hot, the sun burns – thanks to being close to the equator, and thanks to the altitude of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). And maybe it has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer which I think is nearby, a little more south of here…(but is getting smaller thanks to global efforts to curb ozone-depleting substances!!! But I digress.)

For you science or weather geeks:

Since I’m in the southern hemisphere, it’s winter here when it’s summer in the US and vice versa, right? Well, yes but no. Since I live in the selva alta (high jungle), and we’re close to the equator, the climate is more tropical, so instead of winter and summer we have rainy season and dry season. Rainy season is about October-March and they call it winter because we don’t see the sun much and so the air generally stays cool…so our “winter” actually corresponds to winter in the States. The rest of the time is called summer because the sun is usually out and so there are more days that feel hot…however, the nights get cooler than they do during the rainy season, sometimes almost reaching freezing. So this winter/summer business is a little confusing. I just always carry sunscreen, sunglasses, a jacket, and an umbrella, and life is good.

Being a Tourist in your Own City

Sometimes you can live for years, or decades, in one place, going about daily life, knowing your part of the city, but often not really spending much time doing the “touristy things” in your city. And then someone comes to visit and suddenly you have to be the tour guide and different aspects of your city come alive for you for the first time, or again after many years?

I’m still new to my town of Oxapampa – I have been here 9 months now – so I am still getting to know some of the gems that are here. I have been getting to know my family, making friends, and trying to “integrate” (and improve my Spanish so I can actually understand what’s going on around me and connect with people). I’ve been getting to know my way around the city and the surrounding areas (sometimes on bicycle with friends). And I spend a lot of time thinking about, planning, and navigating my work here…the daily grind so to speak.

I have learned that Oxapampa is a rural tourist town where Limeños (people who live in the capital city of Lima) like to vacation. It is known for its tranquility, landscapes, fresh and natural agricultural products, and interesting history of native inhabitants that have centuries of history here and the Austro-German colonists that settled here in the 17th century. It is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But in the midst of all the newness and trying to be part of the community, trying to make Oxapampa my home, I have not really stopped to think of Oxapampa from the tourist perspective – what gems would a tourist want to see if they only had 1-2 days here? Naturally, everyone expects me to know the answer since I live here, but you really have to step out of your daily life to think of your city from a different perspective to be able to answer that question.

Luckily, last weekend I finally had the opportunity to do that. I was invited to participate in the inauguration of a new tourist route called “Oxapampa, authenitc and natural”. With about 30 people – from the regional government, a local NGO, local coffee producer, and a local tourist agency – we got to participate (for free!) in the inaugural tour of the nearby native community Tsachopen (“Satchopén”), a dairy farm, and a co-op that produces fair trade and organic certified coffee.

Day as a tourist

Our first stop was one of the dairy farms in the region that produces cheese and yogurt. They have about 100 cows and they don’t give the cows supplements to make them produce milk year-round; they produce when they are pregnant, so they rotate production. In this way, they explained, the cows continue producing milk their whole life, whereas cows that are made to produce constantly stop producing after a few years. The cows were well-trained…without any direction from a person, they all filed into their stalls waiting to be connected to the machine that pumps their milk.

Cows waiting patiently to be milked

The baby calves don’t drink milk directly from the mothers, they get the milk that doesn’t go into the products (including the milk from cows that have recently been given any kind of medicine, or anything they don’t want going into the products.)

Calves having lunch

And we got to sample the 7-8 different kinds of cheese they make and the yogurt.

Our next stop was the coffee co-op, made up of producers from around the region, including native and colonial descent, men and women. They pride themselves on representing the various cultures of the region and making sure that women have leadership roles in the co-op. This woman explained the process of the plant we visited – the producers bring their product to be processed at the plant – weighed, de-pulped, washed, and dried. The product they produce is certified organic and fair trade and exported to the US and Europe.

Our guide from the coffee co-op explains that this is where they dry the coffee

Our last stop was Tsachopen, the native Yanesha community 15 minutes from the town of Oxapampa. Here we had the privilege of seeing a few dances with native costumes, drums and chanting, a lunch of smoked chicken with yucca and sweet potato, and the opportunity to purchase artisanal products (jewelry, bags, hats, etc.) and locally harvested vegetables and fruit.

A dance performance in the Yanesha community of Tsachopen
Danza en Tsachopen

This tour is not the only tourist thing to do in Oxapampa, but it was a great way to get put myself in the tourist shoes and get to know my town and appreciate it on a deeper level. I definitely recommend taking some time every now and then to be a tourist in your own city! (And come visit me in mine if you can 😉

 

*For those who read Spanish (or want to practice), there was an article in the Peruvian news about the event.

**Finally, I want to apologize for the poor quality of photos…I think I dropped my phone too many times!