Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 25 – SOUTHERN ECUADOR TO NORTHERN PERU

Riobamba

The name Riobamba comes from the Spanish word for ‘river’ joined with the Kichwa word for ‘valley.’ It was a province of the Puruhá people before the Incas invaded in the 15th century. The Puruhá put up such a fierce united front that the Incas created an alliance with them. That wasn’t the only drama as the city was destroyed by a landslide in 1797. It is also in the shadow of the currently inactive volcano Chimborazo which is the highest mountain in Ecuador. 

The top of Chimborazo is covered with glaciers which are a vital water source for the areas below. Unfortunately, this ice has decreased due to global warming, El Nino and the ash from the newly active Tungurahua. It is also believed that the peak of Chimb is the highest point away from the centre of the Earth. 

I felt excited when I arrived as it was the first stop in my proper solo trip and it was a test of my skills. I don’t know what I was worried about as I organised pretty much everything when I travelled with Steph and I still regularly travel alone. RB is famous for its train ride known as El Nariz del Diablo or the Devil’s Nose which starts at Alausi and goes to Sibambe. 

This was Ecuador’s first train and to make it work they carved zig-zags into the rocks and it is this element of danger that keeps the backpackers coming. The way that the train climbs the vertical rockface is with various switchbacks along the tracks to gain elevation. The tracks were one of the many things ruined by El Nino in 1997. People used to travel on the roof but that has been largely curtailed due to some quite horrible accidents. Millions of pounds are being spent on restoring the railway back to its former self.

I didn’t want to wait around for the train as it only went twice a week at that time and I headed South to Loja.

Loja

There is very little to say about Loja, it is a jumping off point for Vilcabamba but I eschewed that in order to head to Peru which was a shame as I heard it is a lovely place.

I went to Peru via a different border crossing to the one we entered through and this route is a medium for me, it wasn’t difficult but it wasn’t the easiest either. I got the bus to Macara and then crossed the border on foot. Luckily the borders were close together which made this fairly straightforward. It was boiling hot and I had no coins left but an Australian guy gave me some change so that I could get a drink.

We got stamped in and then got on the bus on Piura. A woman from Piura called Victoria Vigo recently spoke out about how she was sterilised without her consent. Frighteningly this happened to 300,000 women in Peru and it happened from 1996 to 2000. Ex-president Alberto Fujimori created a family planning programme called Voluntary Surgical Contraception as an anti-poverty drive. She fought her case and won £2,000. None of the other victims have been compensated.

On this bus journey I was quizzed by an old Peruvian man as to why I wasn’t married and after I’d shook him off a guy selling sweets came on to me. He grabbed my lip ring with his fingers whilst I was trying to ignore him and then he gave me a free sweet which of course I did not eat. The Australian guy thought this was hilarious but needless to say that I was not amused.

This is not the first weird experience I’ve had with being hit on during a bus journey as I had an unfortunate experience in Thailand. I visited Thailand when I was 18 and it was a catalogue of errors. In short, my travelling buddy fell into a drug-induced psychosis and we got on a boat/bus from Koh Samui to Phuket. I didn’t realise he was in a psychosis because he’d been fucked off his head the whole time I’d known him.

Luke was a friend of a friend and I met him in Koh Samui, my other friends were flying home so I got stuck with him. We got the bus to Phuket together and it soon became apparent that something was very wrong. Firstly he kept saying the police were after us and talking about bodies being buried on the beach. He then spotted someone with a guitar on the bus and asked if he could play it. The bus was full of Thai people who were keen to see a farang play the guitar so they all turned around and looked at us. Even though I didn’t know him well I felt sure in that moment that he couldn’t play the guitar. And it turns out I was right.

The whole thing was so cringemaking that when I made eye contact with the guy in front of me I rolled my eyes. He took this as a come-on and clearly thought I was easy as he threw a condom at me and pointed at the toilet next to our seats. I threw the condom back at him and then he wrote me a note that said ‘I MISS YOU’ in English writing. I threw that back as well and I aggressively looked out of the window avoiding all eye contact with him for the rest of the way. When we arrived at Phuket we were supposed to be staying with his cousin who wasn’t there, we spoke to his neighbour and Luke was telling her not to panic. She said she wasn’t panicking and shut the door.

We sorted out a beach cottage and went to bed. Luke grabbed my bra strap and said he wanted me and I wrestled myself away from him and wedged myself between the bed and the wall so that he couldn’t sexually assault me in his crazed state. The next day I moved into a different cottage for my own safety and left him to his own devices.

I went on a diving trip and I had all these missed calls. I didn’t know what they were until I started getting text messages from Luke’s cousin and I totally panicked because I was afraid that I hadn’t done the right thing in leaving him. I was only 18 at the time so I was scared.

Anyway, it turned out that it was me they were worried about as he had told them that I was dead and they had reported me as missing to the British embassy. They even tried calling my parents but got the answerphone, luckily I’d filled them in on some things but they probably would have panicked anyway as my mum was convinced someone would put drugs in my bag and I’d go to prison.

I agreed to go to the hospital where he was having treatment to tell him that I was alive. As soon as I walked in he threw a bag of crisps as my head. He also wouldn’t drink anything that had been open for more than a few minutes in case it had been contaminated. It turned out that he was in a drug-induced psychosis caused by a Thai drug known as ‘mira’ that they use to torture people as it keeps you awake for 10 days straight. His family were looking for answers from me but I didn’t have any, he had so many delusions that it was impossible to get to the truth. I phoned our mutual friend Paul up afterwards to tell him about it and he asked me if it was true that Luke’s dad looked like Saddam Hussein and I said yes, it was.

After that trip down memory lane, we’re now over the border and back in the North of Peru.

Peru Otro Vez – Northern Peru

I’m very glad I went back to Peru as I’d missed some very significant places the first time around. The North of Peru has some great historical sites so I knew that I’d made the right decision. My first stop was Chiclayo, a jumping off point for world-class museums.

Chiclayo

When I was in Chiclayo I couldn’t get my act together to see the sights after I got a taxi to the wrong place. In the end, I gave up and opted to go on a tour instead which was much more informative.

On this tour, I visited the Huaca Rajada museum, the Museo de las Tumbas Reales de Sipan, and Bruning museum. These sites are historically important as they contain relics of both the Moche and Sicán cultures. The Sipan and Bruning museums are in Lambayeque and HR is near Sipan confusingly.

Huaca Rajada, the Lord of Sipan was lucky to escape looters who were heavily active in Northern Peru and even took mechanical diggers to potential treasure sites. The site includes two fairly non-descript mud pyramids and a burial platform. The museum is a rich red pyramid with gold writing and decoration, it is a rare thing for museums in Latin America to be so high class but there are some absolute cracking ones. Of course, many areas are essentially living museums which speak more to people than things behind glass, at least to me.

His tomb is considered ‘the richest tomb of the New World’ as he was buried with gold, silver, copper, ceramics, fabrics, shells, jewellery, knives, food, sacrificed animals, and 6 other people. I was glad I came to see such important history and I continued down to Trujillo to see more things that I’d missed.

Trujillo

From Trujillo, I visited Chan Chan. This is an important UNESCO site as you can see the agricultural, industrial and water systems that the city relied upon. It was built by Chimu society, who were a complex people in terms of politics, economics and technology as well as other indicators. When we think of Peru we think of the Incas and there really is so much more than I couldn’t possibly cover in this book when there are important drinking stories to include. Chan Chan looks like an elaborate mud maze and some of the etching have been restored using fibreglass. I had a very irritating guide as I thought it would improve my Spanish but it was actually just a pain.

As if it wasn’t amazing enough that Trujillo is so close to Chan Chan, there is another incredible site here. There are the pyramids of the Sun and Moon. They are pre-Columbian structures and they were built by the Moche people. Huaca del Sol was made with 140 million bricks. It is believed that it is a ceremonial site as it contains graves.

Nowadays the pyramids have been eroded away and covered in sand, if you were wondering why you hadn’t heard of them before. However, they do contain animal imagery which can still be seen. I liked them as they reminded me of something from Indiana Jones, I still had the same guide who I was bored of listening to at this point.

In Trujillo, I stayed in a place that was described in the LP as ‘like Alcatraz’, it was the grottiest place I’d stayed in during the whole trip as most accommodation was of a good standard. It was really cheap though so it had that going for it. I was happy to leave and get to Chachapoyas, but I had no idea how much hassle was in store for me for the rest of my Peruvian journey.

Chachapoyas

Whilst on the bus to Chachapoyas Helen rang me to tell me that Diego had died from a virus. I was devastated. I’d dreamt that one day I’d return to the centre when Diego was grown up and he would recognise me. That dream was now over.

Chachapoyas is a thoroughly nice place with a great main plaza. It was the place where the Spanish launched their rampage in the Amazon region. There are lots of sights to see in the surrounds although it is a place often missed by travellers. I booked a trip to Kuelap Fortaleza for the next day.

The ‘fortress’ is actually a walled city. It was of course built by the Chachapoyas culture and it is very high, 3,000 metres above sea level. I saw two backpackers trying to hike to it when we were on the bus and they looked like they were dying. It housed 3,000 people and is one of our largest stone monuments, using 10 times the volume of slabs used in the Giza pyramids. It was abandoned in the 16th century after the Spanish invaded it. The Peruvian government have now built a cable car to reach it in order to develop tourism in the area.

I made friends on the tour with an Australian couple, a British/Peruvian couple and an old man so we all went drinking together when we got back and we decided to get a collectivo taxi together in the morning to the La Catarata Gocta.

The Gocta falls were sold to me as being the third highest falls in the world but they are not really.  They are actually the fourth highest falls after Salto Angel (Venezuela), Browne Falls (New Zealand) and Ramnefjellfossen (Norway). We were all slightly hungover and once we got there they told us that we needed a guide which we didn’t really as its pretty self-explanatory. The existence of these falls to the wider world was only revealed in 2005 when it was found by German explorers. Of course, the Peruvians knew it was there but didn’t speak of its existence because they were concerned about the curse of a mermaid with blonde hair.

It is about a 2-hour walk each way as I recall, but as we were hungover it couldn’t have been that difficult. We actually saw an Andean cock-of-the-rock on our way to the falls, which is an amazing bird with a bright orange crest. They eat fruit so they are valuable seed spreaders in high-altitude from Venezuela to Bolivia. It is the national bird of Peru and rightly so.

As my time in Chachapoyas came to an end, I had to worry about the next step of my journey as the buses weren’t running because of the farmer’s barricades which were blocking the roads and not letting any vehicles past.

My aim was to do the whole trip without flying so I needed to travel by road in order to get a boat to the Amazon river to get to Venezuela.

I needed to get a bus to Tarapoto but there were no direct buses as they couldn’t get through. I’d also broken my phone as well as my watch. So I bought a new watch so at least I knew what time it was. I would need to get local buses and do the journey in small chunks…

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