Sometimes things lead you to the unexpected. And the unexpected turns out to be a pleasant – very pleasant - surprise. As part of my work trip to Perú, I went to the Ancash region to do field visits to witness our work and meet the locals with whom my organization worked. Besides the incredible insights I have gained from a work standpoint, I also gained a sense of how diverse Perú - and the world - are!
A Wild and Crazy Bus Ride
To get to Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash region, an 8 hr bus ride is needed (unless you happen upon the rare flight to the landing strip close to Huaraz). The bus ride starts with magnificent scenery driving through an ocean-side desert north of Lima. Beautiful yet different than any ocean-side drive I have done, except maybe going from Santiago, Chile to La Serena.
The road from Lima to Huaraz starts out next to the Pacific before turning inland
The road turns inland and the route crosses some mountain ranges that separate Huaraz from the ocean. Crossing these mountains, of course, yields nice views and also some mildly scary moments due to the drop-offs from the road down to the abysses (and the sometimes lacking guard rails on the road). Add to that a crazy style of driving buses at high speeds on mountain roads and the experience is most complete! Check this very short clip of what the bus ride is like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_6MMaKuiew.
Being an “Expert”
Unlike prior trips, in Huaraz, the focus of my work visits mercifully was not about entertaining the visitor, which can easily become how the local staff plans it, but about letting me see firsthand the work of our staff. This was nice for a change, though I still got a lot of curious looks especially from children. I visited various government offices throughout the week I was in Huaraz. One of these was the regional president’s lieutenant’s office who was sort of excited about an American being there and sent me to the regional tourism director to share “my opinions” with her. They were very keen on hearing an outsider’s view of the possibilities here for tourism. I found myself –again- being asked for my opinion on something I am not an expert at, but –again- I felt compelled to talk as if. I told them the truth which is that the land in the Ancash region (where Huaraz is) is quite spectacular and any traveler would enjoy the natural beauty of the area.
Diversity in the Natural Beauty of Perú
The Ancash region is different than the regions around Puno in that the latter are the “altiplano”, the high altitude plains where the lands seems to not end. Here, it is somewhat lush but not overly so; lots of mountains, canyons, rivers with lots of mini-rapids, and mountains whose sides are a vertical sheet of rock (and these are couple of thousand feet high from the altitude at which I am at). Switzerland, for example, is not as impressive in the landscape when compared to this region.
Bathing Habits for You and Me
I visited a community (called Buenos Aires) where sewage lines were being installed by the town and households were being helped to build a real bathroom not just a latrine. The engineer, who was supporting the homeowners in deciding what to build and where, asked the man of a particular house how often they showered and he said maybe every other day. Sounded reasonable, since they don’t have indoor showers, and since it is cold weather due to the altitude (and, hence, cold water). Then another man piped up and said “well, maybe once a week”. After some silence, another man owned up “well, maybe not even that frequently”. Yes, that was indeed diversity in bathing habits from what I do…
The main plaza of the town of Buenos Aires under threatening skies
Witnessing a Land of Tragedy
On my one day off, I got to visit the Laguna Llanganuco which is really two lagoons nested in a narrow canyon between the massive Mt. Huascaran and its neighbor peak. The setting between those two peaks is narrow yet magnificent. As we approached, my driver explained to me that in the 1970 earthquake (that killed half the population in Huaraz), a chunk of the mountain broke off. You can actually see this – it is a massive area; hard to gauge from below but easily 500 ft. tall. Well, that chunk would have normally fallen into a canyon towards the base of the mountain. This chunk was not only rock but part of the glacier covering the mountain at the time. It came town with such strength that it fell in the canyon and bounced OUT of the canyon wall and downhill straight into the town on Yungay. This town was obliterated and today the part where the town was is fenced in into a park called Campo Santo (Holy Ground). So many died and so complete was the destruction that the area was made into a burial ground and memorial. The town was rebuilt a couple of kilometers away. It is a very sad piece of history in the region. The mountain stands there as a reminder and the driver told me geologists say that there is a significant crack in the part of the peak that remains and that, at some point, that will come down too…
Around the laguna. Love the colors
Laguna Llanganuco, next to Mt. Huascarán
On the Lighter Side…
Here are some observations/experiences/odds and ends:
- I found a tiny restaurant near the hotel and work run by a Belgian and his Peruvian wife. I ate most lunches and dinners there; he is an incredible chef and everything is fresh (he makes the pasta, sausages, pies, flavored pisco drinks, etc.). There is a cast of regulars (to which I belonged temporarily) and it was really nice to go somewhere during this type of trip and be known and get to “catch up” with folks. The owners are very generous and friendly and I sampled most of the flavored piscos with my favorite being the “ginger vanilla” [good drinks] one.
- I have noticed in Puno and Huaraz how much construction there is going on. You see a house that is finished with a second story going up. That is, you see the re-bar going up on the second story. Or you see half walls on the second story. I noted to someone how impressive this construction boom is. I was informed that actually many houses are like that for a long time. Owners do bits and pieces of the expansion as the money comes in and it can take a couple of years before they get to finish.
- I went to the corn and chirimoya (fruit) festival in Huari where I was offered the local, special occasion delicacy of the town: roasted cat. No worries, I drew my line at guinea pig!
- I didn’t try cat but I did try at my friend’s restaurant a drink made of fermented potato. It is one of the grossest-smelling things I have decided to taste. I closed up my nose and drank. It actually was OK – as long as you didn’t breathe when the glass was within a foot of your nose. The aftertaste wasn’t particularly pleasant but the upside is that it is loaded with penicillin so it probably killed all the bacteria gathered during the day.
- As a reminder of the geologically active zone I am in, every now and then on a road you see a sign that proudly announces “Geological Fault 100m Ahead”. Pleasant thought as you drive on the cliffside roads around here! Usually the road is interrupted when you cross these faults. Makes sense.
- On our way out of town there is a guarded complex with walls that are between 2 and 3 stories to protect the complex and with guard houses at each corner of the complex. A sign in front of it prohibits parking within X meters from the main gate. The third time passing by it, I ventured asking if it was a jail or a military base. I was told no. It is a site where the local breweries store their beer. Talk about national assets and security! I love it.
- One of my favorites scenes and scents in the countryside are the eucalyptus trees that cover many hillsides. They add a grayish green color to very green landscapes and when you drive close enough to them the smell is just wonderful. I wonder if I can grow them in Atlanta. It can be very cold and hot here so, maybe??
- Coffee here is served as an extract (liquid). You are then to add hot water to it. Well, no one had told me and I had written off coffee here as pretty bad until I learned… It is actually quite good.
- The hotel is one of the few buildings in the town with an elevator. The rooftop terrace has an incredible view of Mt. Huascaran (one of the tallest mountains in the western hemisphere) and its neighbors. I love going in the morning and at dusk to see the sights.
- Internet connectivity is available just about everywhere except the most remote mountain communities. There are Internet cafes just about every corner (I do not exaggerate). I also have had Blackberry access even outside of the towns. Sometimes I have been surprised how far away from towns I can be and still have access.
- I stand by the comments about how great the people are here. Time and again, I get more and more evidence of this.