Cheshire Cat crew in Peru

Monday, July 16, 2007


Our backpacks were stuffed as full as possible with clothes for the cold weather in the mountains of Peru. We boarded the local bus bound for Guyaquil with Susan and Chuy from Libre; Mike enjoyed the usual body search that all the travelers were subjected to when they boarded the bus.

The city of Guyaquil was founded in 1537 and officially named "Santiago de Guayaquil" and is situated in the Santa Ana hills off the coast ofEcuador. The name Guayaquil originates from an old legend about an Indian chief Guayas who had an Indian wife called Quil, who according to folklore, both killed themselves in preference to surrendering to the Spaniards. Nowadays the city has become the pivotal commercial center for the country's economic progress and boasts a busy port.

We strolled along the beautiful modern Malecon, an attractive waterfront area located on the riverfront. At one end there are several hundred steps climbing to the “old town” area overlooking the city and the river. At the opposite end of the Malecon there are a number of outdoor eating establishments (including as always, a MacDonald’s). As we wandered amongst the “restaurant” area we were inundated by ‘callers’ (salesmen) trying to entice us to eat from their establishment. After an early dinner we ambled back to our hotel through a nearby market .

Our next destination was the city of Cuenca further south and inland so we boarded another bus to travel for several hours. A series of mountains gave us breathtaking views well above the cloud layers. As we traveled further into the countryside, climbing higher on the winding roads, we began to notice some of the local women traditionally dressed in layers of skirts with brightly colored shawls over sweaters and brown or black men felt hats, pork pie style; some had white blouses, frequently overlaid by ornate bead necklaces of up to 5 inches of beaded collar. Women kept their jet black hair long, tied neatly in plaits.

The route took us close to Ingapirca an Ecuadorian Inca site so we decided to make a brief stop to see the Inca ruins. The village was very small, there were a few houses on a single street with a few of dark and diminutive shops. Buildings were simple and walls often didn’t meet roofs. There was no heating – even 10,000 feet up. We saw a field being tilled with a couple of sturdy oxen pulling a wooden plough; irrigation channels crossing the hillsides were obviously hacked out by hand.

A nearby hostel found rooms for us and soon we were hiking to the ruins. Chuy is Mexican and of course speaks excellent Spanish which was terrific as he was able to interpret most of what our guide was telling us.

Canaris section of Ingapurca ruins

Ingapirca located north of Cuenca in Hatun Canar is the most important Inca site in Ecuador, built on a mountain 3,200 meters up in the clouds. We knew we wouldn’t make it to the famous sites in Peru, but wanted a taste of the culture.

The original site at Ingapirca was inhabited by local Canari people, between 500 AD and 1500 AD; long before the Inca occupied it for a brief time late in the 1500’s. Later in the 1500's the Spanish overtook everyone. Ingapirca means "Wall of the Inca" The site is strategically placed on the Royal Highway between Cusco and Quito. The Canari revered the moon and the Inca idolized the sun. The older civilization built their structures in an oval shape and created underground aqueducts to provide water while the Inca chose solid square and rectangular shapes for their buildings with an open irrigation system.

In the older part we were shown how the houses were constructed and how the people built trapezoid shaped doors and windows to prevent collapse from the frequent earthquakes that occur in the region, a custom that was also employed by the more advanced Inca with their expertly and smoothly carved stones that slotted tightly together. The Carari worshipped at a large oval stone set firmly in the center of the circle and we were a bit taken aback to learn that when a neaby circular tomb was excavated, it was found to contain fourteen virgins! We were assured that they had probably been given chichi, fermented liquor used in many ceremonies.

Inca Temple of the Sun

The Inca ruins look like a small fortress. The Temple of the Sun is at one end of the site – built on the topmost curve of the hill, overlooking the green and cultivated valley below and the surrounding mountains off in the distance. The main structure has outstanding Inca stonework, its doorways and niches designed in the traditional trapezoidal shape and the layout is, as expected, constructed to face the four points of the equinox.

Nearby we saw foundations of the principal buildings that would have housed the important courtiers and artisans. We learned that the sun king’s wives were aged between 16 and 20 and were also sacrificed!

When we walked around to a similar area built on the other side of the site by the Inca we saw they also had a ceremonial standing stone, similar tothe Canaris, although theirs was a rectangular shape. They also had a special carved rock with twenty-eight hollows ground out of the surface. Each one filled was with water and constructed specifically to reflect certain stars. This arrangement provided a celestial calendar and incidentally a means for the women to track their monthly cycle.

As the afternoon drew to a close we hiked a short trail past Inca baths, found special carved stones depicting a turtle, the image of a sun and a moon, a stone throne and a huge hook nosed face hewn out of the rock face before returning to our hostel.

By this time we were getting quite tired, and the rarefied mountain air was beginning to take its toll on us. The hostel was Spartan to say the least and boasted little in the way of modern conveniences – the showers were horrific and there wasn’t any hot water - we opted to stay unwashed that night! In fact there was no heating whatsoever – no wonder everyone wore so many layers of clothes! Night brought chilly temperatures so keeping warm under the bedclothes seemed to be the most attractive alternative. Until we discovered that the mattresses were paper thin and as hard as boards, and the weight of the several blankets firmly squewered us in place! Not an auspicious start to our adventure.

After that Mike wasn’t particularly thrilled at the prospect of touring by bus or of hostel accommodation and he made it very well known that roughing it in this fashion wasn’t on, so we were all pretty subdued when we met next day to catch the 6.30am morning bus to Cuenca.
Cuenca used to be known as Guapondeleg, which means "an area as large as heaven" in the Cañari language.

Cuenca was one of the first cities that came under the Inca Empire domination: when they arrived in this city, they named it Tomebamba, which means "River Valley of Knives".

We explored the city center with its beautiful colonial buildings, paved squares and amazing churches. The town has an Old World, Spanish colonial feel, flower boxes on windows, wrought-iron balconies, red-tile roofs, cobblestone streets and a lively, colourful market.

Flower sellers

Our favourite museum of all was the Banco Central del Ecuador. Here we were provided with the services of a guide but had to rely on Chuy and his Spanish as she didn’t speak English. We visited an array of exhibits depicting the wide variety of indigenous races and cultures in Ecuador. I had no idea that so many different peoples exist in Ecuador, but upon thought there are so many divergent geographical environments it shouldn’t be such a surprise. At the end of the day it was agreed that the most interesting exhibits were the perfectly formed shrunken heads! Each miniature head was perfect in detail – down to eyelashes, lips and head hair. Apparently you acquired the strengths of the dead person if you killed him and the practice has only been illegal for about 60 years. (Some areas are still unexplored – I bet its pretty hard to enforce the rules there!)

Panama hat factory

That museum tour took a long time as we had lots of questions on each section. We didn’t realize that there was an extensive Inca gardens right outside. They have been planted as exactly as possible as the Inca would have done and included a small pond, herbs, shrubs, flowers and trees. There a small Inca ruin in the grounds but the remains of the main Inca sites nearby have been overbuilt by modern housing and other construction.

We found several other interesting small museums and visited a Panama hat factory where we saw the reeds that are used for weaving and the presses that shape and finish the various hats.

Our continued explorations of the city took us through an open food market. The fruit and vegetables looked scrumptious and the stalls were clean and well stocked.

We discovered a popular South American delicacy for sale – barbecued cuy. (Guinea pig).

We had been told that in the old days guinea pigs were bred inside the houses and crofts and provided an invaluable source of meat.

Our accommodation in Cuenca was a much improved – still no heating in the building – a fact we encountered throughout our trip – but we had comfortable beds, great showers, a TV and were even given a decent breakfast. We continued to find the high altitudes a bit uncomfortable and were subject to mild headaches, so when we left for the border crossing into Peru we were pleased that we would be traveling downhill.

Loja provided a us with an overnight break before crossing into Peru. The town is recorded as being one of the oldest towns in Ecuadorian history (as well as the earliest to have electricity as a result of a hydroelectric dam constructed in the previous century providing up to 34 kilowatts).


It has been extensively rebuilt after an earthquake in 1880’s.There are two universities, a law school and a music facility and an area of colonial houses currently being renovated. We visited the rather neglected botanical gardens where it was very peaceful, but we were disappointed to find that the once beautiful grounds and gardens were not very interesting.

Next day our bus stopped at the border, conveniently situated on a river. We had our passports stamped by the immigration official and were soon on our way to Peiru a small town in the north of Peru founded by the conquistadores left behind by Pizarro. We stayed overnight as we wanted to get to Chiclayo in the Sechura desert, a large area of shifting sands.

Border crossing

Here we were had an unexpected and absolutely amazing experience. We went to Lambayeque and at first we thought we were being shown a collection of large sand hills that blended perfectly with the arid landscape of the region. We soon discovered that these sand hills were in fact numerous pyramids spread over 30 hectares of desert, some over 30 meters high, many of which were subject to grave robbers – we could see the little tunnel openings in the sides of the “hills”.

The pyramids are constructed of adobe bricks (mud and straw) – we could see that the bricks at the base of the structure were the shape of a bread loaf and were initialed by the maker. Further up the walls they were a more even shape. I imagine everyone in the community had to ‘donate’ bricks to the buildings. Each adobe construction was equipped with a long ramp so that the Lord Saipan could be carried everywhere as he never walked.

The tomb of the Lord of Sipan is located a short distance away from Chiclayo, in the town of Lambayeque.

A total of two pyramids and one platform has been excavated, and one of the most famous pre-Columbian tombs unearthed, completely untouched. The Lord of Sipan was a warrior priest (a Moche descendent) who died around 250 AD. One tomb has recently been professionally excavated and all the contents were found to be in perfect condition. Beside the king in the grave they found 2 guards in full armor, 3 women (possibly his wife and 2 concubines) a priest and a hairless dog.

There were dozens of artefacts made of gold, silver, copper, turquoise, and lapis lazuli, spondylus shells together and1200 pots to hold food and water for the journey into the next life. Impressive pieces were necklaces, one with huge replicas of peanuts, one side gold, the other silver; figures made of turquoise. Popular mythological symbols were the spider, owl, snake and puma. Gold represented the sun, Silver the moon. Beaded necklaces, armor (in gold and silver,) belts, a ceremonial silver scepter and an inverted gold pyramid were found in the kings hands. An impressive gold diadem in a half moon shape and measuring 24 inches wide and 16 inches high was also buried with him.

Mike with a friendly hairless dog

The coffin was made of cane wood tied with vegetable fibres and copper braces, only the copper is left. There were layers of fabric and mats on top of the coffin and beams of locust tree wood covered the tomb. The tomb itself was filled in to prevent its collapse in the event of an earthquake – not infrequent in the area. The body of a guard was found outside the tomb - poor guy had no feet – apparently amputated to stop him from leaving his post!

This civilization built a city in one of the most arid places on the planet, constructing canals to carry water from the rivers flowing down from the Andes and to extensive farmlands not seen today. They had advanced skills in the art of metallurgy and were advanced enough to make fine jewelry and complicated armour. All the artifacts from the excavated tombs in the pyramid are kept in a climate controlled environment in a beautiful world class museum a few miles away. We visited the pyramid shaped building and could only marvel at the amazing array of beautiful gold garments, shields, headwear and jewelry, all in pristine condition.

At the other end of the spectrum, we stopped briefly in the local market. We heard that the local witch doctors regularly buy and sell their herbs and potions here, and there were several interesting looking stalls. It was a great pity we couldn't really talk to anyone. We browsed amongst the numerous hand crafted baskets, wall hangings, wood carving and pottery articles produced for the benefit of tourists like ourselves and Mike bought a machete.

Peru's oldest city, Trujillo rejoices in the name of "The City of Eternal Spring" because of its mild and temperate climate.

This city was originally founded in 1534 - before Lima, and quickly grew prosperous as a result of the fertility of the surrounding countryside. The Moche valley, in which Trujillo is situated, has been continuously inhabited for over 12,000 years.

We stayed for a night and caught another bus the next day to a beach resort in a little town called Huanchaco. The locals here use a quaint reed fishing boat and we saw several of these stacked up with their nets on the sea wall. The reeds are grown nearby, harvested, dried and then bound together with cords in the shape of a small boat with a high prow. There is hardly enough space to keel in the body of the boat and the whole construction lasts only a month before it has to be discarded and a new one made.

Fishing boats made from reeds

That evening we were in our hotel room when we were startled to suddenly find the building shaking! Somewhat concerned we made haste to dress and go downstairs – only to find that everyone else seemed quite unfazed. It was an earthquake, 7.5 at the epicenter about 200 miles away. Mike and I found it quite unnerving!

We had a long journey up to the Andes mountains so we got tickets on a luxury “semi cama” bus for the overnight ride. The bus was equipped with fewer seats than normal and we were able to relax in a full reclining position with comfortable leg rests. After a meal (guess what – rice and chicken) we made ourselves comfortable with pillows and blankets and slept through to the next morning.

We arrived in Huaraz at about 6 am and were greeted with cool, bracing air, and the sight of the mountain ranges of the Cordillera Blanco and Cordillera Negra stretching as far as the eye could see. We were 10,000 ft above sea level and looking at snow for the first time since we left Canada!

Local woman posing with her llama and her lamb.

A day trip involved a 3 hour bus ride through the Huascaran National Park, over the steep snow capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca and past a beautiful glacier lake. We went over a scenic 15,000-foot pass and through a mountain tunnel that was still under construction. We were to visit the ancient ruins of Chavín de Huántar in the region of Ancash. There is only one road into the area, past a terraced fields, bogs and deserted mountain sides. Women spinning yarn or knitting sitting on the steps of their modest houses and washing laundry in the rivers. Small, lonely crofts cowered on the sides of steep hills, surrounded by the low stone walls of corrals.

The Chavin culture of 1000 BC to 300 BC greatly influenced later civilizations in Peru. The city of Chavin controlled the important trade routes which crossed from coast to interior and from north-to-south along the mountain range. People living nearby have the same names as were in use all those years ago.

The temple grounds consisted of an open area used for meetings, surrounded on four sides by tiers of stone seats, and constructed facing the points of the equinox. There was a sacrificial altar with a stone carved with shallow indentations which held water and reflected the stars, used as a celestial calendar (similar to the one we saw at Ingapirca). A few of the 106 headsw ornamenting the buildings

Steep serpentine road leading downthrough the mountains.

The main stone building was built 3000 years ago on high ground against the backdrop of a dark and forbidding mountain. It was about three stories high and was constructed with the same trapezoid shapes that we saw in the Canaris and later Inca buildings. Various stone was used, including white granite, cut and filled, some polished underwater. Earth and cactus juice formed mortar which was impervious to water. An ornamental portal of polished and intricately carved pillars decorated at the main entrance.

The Lanzon, the supreme deity of Chavin de Huantar, intertwines the head of the feline deity of Chavin de Huantar and the human body of the shaman of the pre-Chavin period It is a 13-foot-high carved white granite statue placed at the meeting point of four underground tunnels in the castle.

There were specially constructed underground tunnels complete with baffles, spreading beneath the building and several hundred yards of terracing. The priests ran water through the system creating a scary thunderous noise, presumably as part of ceremonial rites. The cellars of the main building were a labyrinth of passageways where the priests lived and slept. In one place we were shown where prisoners were tied, their hands above their heads, against the cold stone walls. Vampire bats were allowed to feast on their bodies. Yuk!!


Our semi cama bus down through the mountains to Lima passed pitifully poor crofts with cattle and sheep corals and as we drew nearer to the coast green agricultural land. The road was narrow and steep, with heart stopping corners. We were made quite dizzy from the spiraling road winding with tight ubends up and down the mountainsides. Crosses marked almost every corner - I counted nine on one particular u-bend. Nearing Lima we again found ourselves passing shanty towns - commjunities with houses made of reeds or plywood shacks.

Lima road – 2 lanes carved out from the side of a giant sandhill, barriers if any, were a maximum of 2 ft high. Frequently the delinating lines on the road were covered with blowing sand - and men with brushes could occasionally be seen slowly brushing the sand away. Sometimes barriers were only a few sandbags laid beside the road. Occasionally some barriers were set in asphalt but you could see air underneath, suspended over the edge of the road. Far below was the water. A scary ride!

Main expressway out of Lima- this section well marked.

Lima was a big city full of noise, hustle and bustle, imposing buildings, attractive avenues, open squares and colonial buildings side by side with modern constructions. Large areas were very poor and dangerous for us to be in.We stayed in a pleasant suburb Baranco, enjoyed a really interesting open air Sunday lunch with groups of local people out enjoying the beautiful day, and strolled around the quiet streets.

usan and Chuy went on and enjoyed several more weeks travelling in Peru. We found a bus that would take us all the way to Guyaquil - a 25 hour ride costing about 50 dollars each. A relatively safe and inexpensive way to travel.

Tumbes border crossing – narrow, busy streets jammed with people and market stall crammed with colourful bric a brac. Our passports were inspected and stamped and we were soon back in Ecuador driving along roads lines with banana plantations Ffyes, Dore signs easily recognizable. Blue bags on the bananas just as we saw in Guadeloupe.