Journey into Peru’s wild and ancient north where misty mountains plunge into unexplored jungle, ancient ruins lie empty and the once-powerful Inca empire envelopes you. Around every cobble stone corner there are surprises waiting to be discovered.
Our bus from Lima climbed high over the Andes to the Huánuco, once a key Inca settlement on the road between Cusco to Cajamarca. The city is known for the nearby Temple of Kotosh, one of Peru’s oldest Andean archaeological sites and La Danza de los Negritos, a celebration in remembrance of the slaves that were brought to work in the surrounding mines.
After dipping into the jungle, we emerged in the laid back town of Chachapoyas. For centuries it was the base from which the Spanish explored and exploited the Amazon. It is nestled in ethereal cloud forest and filled uncharted ruins. From Chachas it is a two hour drive to the famous ruin of Kuélap. This grand citadel is perched on a limestone mountain. Only twenty or so years before the Spanish arrived (and burned it down,) it was conquered by the Incas.
The next part of the journey was a real test of nerves. From Chachapoyas we climbed high up a narrow, foggy road and over Black Mud Pass (12066 ft / 3678m). There were no guard rails just a sheer three kilometer drop to the Rio Marañon below.
Happy that we survived the journey we settled into the colonial metropolis of Cajamarca. Little remains of the Inca city, except for the massive room the Spanish forced the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa to fill with gold before they killed him and melted it down. The havoc the Spanish wreaked on the region is on prominent display in Cajamarca. It was always on the back of my mind during the jubilant carnival festivities that overwhelmed the city in the following days. The crazy carnival in Cajamarca turns into a giant water fight. We warmed ourselves by soaking in the city’s thermal baths, the same natural baths where Atahualpa was relaxing when the Spanish arrived in Cajamarca.
The Northern Highlands are a paradise for anyone seeking Peru’s beauty, unique culture and history without all the crowds. Cloud forests, waterfalls, jungle covered ruins, bustling markets and the Peru’s fascinating past all await those who aren’t afraid to head off the beaten path.
Recommended listening – LA DANZA by NACIÓN EKEKO
We crossed high over the Andes to reach Huánuco.
Climbing the valley walls that surround Huánuco.
Every January in Huánuco dancers wear decorative black masks to remember the slaves that were brought to work in the surrounding mines.
The central market of Huánuco.
We ate and drank fresh fruit smoothies in the market every morning.
As we climbed out of the jungle we arrived at Chachapoyas. Home to Gocta waterfal, one of the tallest in the world. It was only made known to the world in 2005 by a German and Peruvian explorers. There are various measurements, but the most common is 771 metres (2,530 ft)
Taking it all in at the base of Gocta Falls.
Entering the cloud forest that surrounds Chachapoyas.
Chachapoyas is a sleepy, white town surrounded by high altitude cloud forest.
The Spanish used it as a base to explore the Amazon.
The main street in Chachapoyas.
Chachapoya translates to People of the Clouds. Upon climbing to the top of the fortress it felt like a very apt name.
Chachapoya structures were round with pointed, thatched roofs. There are a couple of square Inca buildings on the mountaintop as well.
Villager wearing a typical hat.
We switched vans halfway through the journey over the mountains. Each van only drove half way and back.
We stopped in a small town to get some fruit and snacks.
The colonial metropolis of Cajamarca was once home to the Inca emperor, but nearly all of the structures were destroyed. The stones were used to build the churches.
Vast Amazonian jungle is not always the first thing that comes to mind when people imagine Peru. However, the Peruvian Amazon covers 60% of the country and a remarkable 96% of its fresh water eventually drains into the Amazon basin.
This time I had a Peruvian friend, Marissé, who was willing to accompany me on a jungle adventure. She has family in Lamas, a enchanting town in the hills near Tarapoto. So we decided to head there and make a few stops along the way.
The sweltering jungle rainforest metropolis of Tarapoto lies at the edge of the Andean foothills and the boundless jungle. The muggy streets are packed with mototaxis, three wheeled motorcycles, and stalls piled high with fresh fruit. The locals almost sing when they speak Spanish and are exceedingly friendly.
Tarapoto is popular vacation destination for Peruvians, usually the gringos head to Iquitos. During the 80’s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorized the Amazon jungle and the central highlands. Years of coca cultivation and trafficking followed in these regions. Thus for many years large areas in Peru were off limits to travelers, but now it is mostly safe and the burgeoning Peruvian middle class is taking advantage of the their country’s natural wealth.
The jungle is worlds away from the chaos of dusty Lima and the breathless colonial, Andean cities. It is a land of plenty. Seemingly every plant can be eaten or used in some way. There will always be dinner. What they lack in modern amenities they more than make up for in spirit. No trip to Peru is complete with out a journey into the jungles of Peru.
We descended through conical, forested hills into the lush and sticky market town of Tingo Maria.
Resting adjacent to the town in a hill that the locals refer to as La Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty). They say she was princess of one of two tribes who was secretly in love with the other tribe’s prince. When the elders found out she was turned into stone.
Mototaxis dominate the jungle streets. They can tackle anything from flooded streets to bumpy dirt roads.
We could have wander the market all day eating unknown fruits and drinking the freshes juices. Like all markets in Peru it was chaotic, raw and full of life, but the market in Tingo was the craziest. We were lured to the mountains of salted river fish by the pungent smell.
Armadillo was just one of the many animals, alive and dead, that were on sale in the market.
After a bumpy 8 hour journey through former narco country we arrived in Juanjui. We rode with a cop who explained that this inaccessible region was a hotbed of coca, but since the creation of a new police force in Juanjui that activity has decreased. In remote regions coca is preferable because of its accessibility compared to other heavier crops.
As we sat alongside the surging Rio Huallaga a girl brought her pig for a drink.
From Juanjui we took a combi (shared van) to Tarapoto, the department’s largest city and economic hub. The family seated in front of us was bringing what appeared to be a juvenile jaguar pelt to sell in the market.
Tarapoto and the surrounding area have been inhabited for hundreds of year. In many places the jungle has been tamed for the cultivation of numerous crops and cattle grazing.
While searching for a waterfall we discovered a clandestine aguardiente still. The friendly family running it were using a rudimentary machine to mash the juice out of the sugar cane. They fed what was left over to the cows.
One of the children looks on while his brother mashes the suger cane.
A bottle of Aguardiente cost around .50 cents.
The hills around Tarapoto are often shrouded in clouds and flush with waterfalls.
Majas soup is a speciality in the region. It was very tasty.
Napoleon sells masks near the main plaza in Tarapoto.
The best place to start in any city or town is the market. A group of colorful, young men wandered the market singing and dancing, trying to make an extra buck.
They danced their way through the market.
Cars are rare in the jungle. Motorcyles and scooters are common.
We were wondering why there were pictures of this man all over Tarapoto. Turns out he is a homeless man who spends his days cleaning the streets of the city. He is a local hero.
By far one my favorite meals in Peru. The Upscale restaurant served typical food from the jungle with a little extra flare. We tried chonta salad made from buttery heart of palm and avacados and sampled four types of Juane. Juane is one of the main dishes in the jungle. It is rice, olives, hard boiled eggs and meat, wrapped in a bijao leaf and boiled. We tried river shrimp, fish, pork and chicken (the most common.)
In the hills above Tarapoto where the temperature is noticably cooler lies the enchanting town of Lamas. My friend has a chacra (small farm) on the outskirts of the town. We decided to brave the mosquitos and spiders to sleep there.
As the night engulfed us on the chacra an array of bright stars illuminated the night.
The next morning we discovered Virginia, the neighbor and caretaker, preparing aji, a salsa made from spicy, native peppers
This was her father Jose.
Her mother was happy to host us for breakfast.
Boiled pijuayo (peach palm) and coffee for breakfast.
A typical home in the jungle. The houses usually have a second level for sleeping.
The father of Jean, the little boy, asked me to be his godfather. I said I would think about it, but soon he was telling everyone that I was his godfather. So its pretty much official.
HIs energetic sister wanted me to try all the different fruits she could find.
Ciruela (similar to a plum) was one of my favorite new fruit discoveries. Fruit is free in the jungle because it is growing everywhere. I found a tree and was eating these all day long.
We walked to a community deeper in the jungle where people were gathering to play football. While the men played the women made white clay pots.
She was tending to the fire while the pots baked.
A typical jungle lunch of rice, beans, a little bit of pork and of course bananas. Bananas are used in what seems like every dish in the jungle.
Resting in the shade.
The winding road through the Cordillera Azul, the Blue Mountains, was stunning.
A last glimpse of the jungle before we crossed up and over into the Andes.
Lima is a city of contrast and food. The Peruvian capital features an alluring mix of people and food from the Amazon, the Andes and the Pacific coast. Follow Walker as he explores Lima’s diverse neighborhoods in search of the tastiest food Lima has to offer.
Over 60,000 people are working in toxic, informal gold mines in the Peruvian city of La Rinconada. We braved the extreme elevation and the subzero temperatures to investigate what life is like in the highest inhabited place on earth.
Lima is intimidating at first glance. It’s gigantic, noisy, and crowded; understandably most travelers want to leave the second they arrive. But if you know where to go and what to see, Lima can be one of South America’s best kept secrets. Let Breaking Borders take you through our top 5 favorite neighborhoods of Lima.
#5 Pueblo Libre
Pueblo Libre is an up and coming middle class neighborhood located a few miles west of downtown. The neighborhood is centered around Plaza Bolivar, with numerous lively bars and restaurants around it. A Limeño classic is Antigua Taberna Queirolo, a 135 year old bar that’s famous for it’s pisco sour with ginger ale and it’s old world charms. This is a great neighborhood for a night out on the town with Peru’s bohemian middle class. The famous Museo Larco and the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, both featuring pre-Columbian art and artifacts, are located in the neighborhood as well.
#4 La Victoria
At first glance, La Victoria seems sketchy and run down, but give it a chance and you can find some truly authentic Limeño experiences here. La Victoria is one of the easiest places in Lima to get inexpensive ceviche. In the blocks surrounding the massive Polvos Azules market, street stands serve up some of the most delicious ceviche for as little as $3 USD. A man named Jose has upgraded his street cart to a restaurant, turning a rough corner of La Victoria into a foodie mecca. Barra Cevichera Jose y Juanita offers some of the freshest and spiciest food at bargain prices, it’s a must. Also located in La Victoria is Gamarra, a giant section of the city that has been turned into an open air market. Play it safe in La Victoria and you might find yourself returning again and again.
Miraflores is the most touristy neighborhood in Lima. It’s a nondescript, upscale shopping district. With that being said there are some great things to see and do. No lunch in Miraflores is complete until you’ve eaten at El Enano, a Miami style outdoor sandwich shop which serves up incredible toasted Chicharrón sandwiches with a jar of fresh juice. Chicharrón sandwiches are made with chunks of fried pork shoulder, red onions, and slices of sweet potato with a Peruvian salsa on a crispy french roll. La Lucha Sanguicheria right next to Plaza Kennedy also serves up a mean Chicharrón sandwich. The sweet chicha morada drink is a great compliment. Chicha morada is a traditional Peruvian drink made from blue corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar. Monolo’s is a Miraflores classic, where old men discuss life and politics over espressos and warm, dulce de leche filled churros. A few blocks away is El Virrey, a modern bookstore that would be right at home on Rodeo Drive, where you could easily spend an afternoon browsing over books. Ultimately, Miraflores is about the Pacific Ocean. Spend some time strolling along the cliff banks at sunset and you might begin to consider moving to Lima.
#2 Centro/Barrio Chino
Centro is the beating heart of old Lima. While many of the big businesses fled to Miraflores decades ago, Centro has an energy unmatched anywhere in the city. Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin anchor Centro, with the former containing government buildings, beautiful architecture and plenty of history. Be sure to poke your head inside Galería Municipal de Arte Pancho Fierro for cutting edge contemporary art and photography exhibitions highlighting local Limeño artists, great stuff. Following Lima’s main pedestrian street, Jiron de la Union, you end up in Plaza San Martin, a Parisian style plaza where political rallies usually taking place. Many say the famous pisco sour was invented at El Bolivarcito, it would be a shame to miss it.
However, the most interesting area of Centro is Quilca, a long street with old school bars, graffiti covered walls, underground punk venues and character-filled record shops and more radical bookstores than you can count. Start off your Quilca adventure with a drink and some food at Bar Queirolo, a place where college students and political activists rub shoulders and discuss the worlds problems. In a somewhat conservative city, Quillca shows Lima’s more radical and underground side. Another part of Centro worth visiting is Barrio Chino, Lima’s 170 year old Chinatown.
Ah, Barrnaco! This is one of the coolest neighborhoods not only in Peru, but in all of South America. Once home to the famous Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, Barranco is a wonderful neighborhood full of cobblestoned streets, beautiful ocean views, and sophisticated restaurants experimenting with Peru’s new gastronomic boom. Barranco is a little slice of the Mediterranean in the heart of Lima, No trip to Peru would be complete without spending a day and night here. Start off the morning at Bisettis, a cool cafe that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mission District or Williamsburg. Have lunch at El Chinito, quite possibly the best Chicharrón sandwich shop in Lima. For dinner try Burrito Bar, a British owned Mexican restaurant which serves up tasty tacos and burritos; it’s surprisingly delicious. However, if you’ve come to Peru to spend some money on food, your money would be very well spent in one of the more upscale restaurants. To finish the night off head to Ayahuasca Bar, which was once a Barranco mansion and now has been turned into a labyrinth of different bars and lounges, with each room out-styling the next. This is where Lima’s rich and fabulous come to play, and a night out here is guaranteed to be a good time. Try one of the Ayahusca sours, which contain mashed coca leaves from the high Andes mixed with tropical fruits from the Amazon.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Walker then majored in International Relations and Chinese at the New School University in NYC. He began traveling during a high school exchange to Argentina, and hasn’t stopped since. Walker has always sought out the more unusual and off the beaten path locations and is combining his love for photography and travel to kickstart a career as a journalist, striving to redefine the profession in rapidly changing world.