Ellie Švrlanská: 6 nights on a bus through northern Peru
21. 11. 2022
Starting from Cuenca, Ecuador, I have a week to get to Cusco and travel as much of northern Peru as I can. It dawns on me pretty quickly that the only way to get this done in a week is by night buses. The cities and locations I want to see are about 10 hours apart each time, a distance I'd rather sleep at night than spend all day on a bus. I'm trying to take it positively, and I'm glad I won't have to deal with or pay for accommodation for a week. I'd rather not think about the fact that after a week I'll be facing a sore back, circles under my eyes and quite possibly a sleep deficit. Not to mention that a week without accommodation = a week without a shower.
I get to the border crossing between Ecuador and Peru by bus around 1am. Everyone is slowly getting off the bus. It's bitterly cold outside, no one is anywhere but our bus, everything looks deserted. Although it is obviously busy during the day, only one counter is open at night. Perhaps it is the reason we all get through the necessary checks and crawl back on the bus without any problems and surprisingly quickly. Sleepy, I snuggle into my sleeping bag and go back to sleep.
When I wake up I convince myself that I am not tired or broken. This is my first night on the bus and I have five more to go.
We drive through the desert areas and slowly approach the city. Since I'm planning and figuring everything out at the last minute, I don't really know where I'm going or what to expect. I gathered only one information about Chiclayo: 'pre-Inca pyramid complex' is the only thing I wrote into my journal (which functions as a planner, a collector of random Spanish sentences and words, and occasionally a notebook of random notes). I should probably find out more information.
Luckily there's a young lady on the bus with whom we're taking a taxi into town together. I am trying to figure out where to exchange dollars for Peruvian currency: soles. According to the lady, it's possible almost everywhere. However, they all charge us an absolutely terrible exchange rate. Could it be the blonde hair again? I think so. Not many travelers are in northern Peru. So we went straight to the bank. After a while, I found out it didn't make any difference, because the bank decided to give me a terrible rate as well. We both look at the receipt in disbelief and the lady suggests that next time I send someone who looks more like from South America instead.
Since I have no idea what interesting things there are in the city and where I should go, the morning proceeds in a rather confused manner. At one of the local travel agencies I try to at least find out where to go and what to do in one day. But they say that the agency doesn't offer any bus connection to the pyramids because they are not that popular and therefore I have no way to get to them. Nooo! (luckily, I find out a few hours later that this is not true) I found a cafe with internet (it gave me quite a hard time), had my breakfast and finally I can find out what's going on with Chiclayo. The town and surrounding area is full of pre-Inca history and there are many archaeological sites. From the city center I try to get to the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán, which contains most of the important artifacts from the Huaca Rajada area, where the intact remains of the Lord of Sipán, one of the most powerful men in ancient Peru, were found.
On my way out, I don't give up and ask one of the employees if I really can't get to the pyramids somehow. Of course I can! There are city buses every 5 minutes in that direction and then I just hitch a ride and I'm right there! Although it is a breathtaking complex, I am almost alone.
Arriving in Chiclayo, I didn't realize I had moved into a dry desert climate and as I climbed the pyramids I regretted it a lot for not wearing shorts or at least three-quarter pants instead of long leggings. All the way there, I cursed whoever thought up the idea of climbing stairs in the desert. Luckily, I at least chose the LISMAIN-W shirt which, thanks to its breathable and quick-drying material, meant I didn't sweat as much. I would definitely recommend everyone to never forget sunglasses, sunscreen, and headgear not only in Chiclayo, but in all of Northwest Peru.
From the desert, I'm getting into the Amazon region overnight. The town of Chachapoyas and the surrounding area was perhaps what I was most looking forward to. Aside from the archaeological and historical sites, there are also lakes, lagoons, waterfalls and caves. The only problem is that I only have time for one day. Recommendation for anyone who would like to visit northern Peru: stay in Chachapoyas for at least two or three days.
I walk towards the bus station where local tour companies offer buses to nearby sights and tourist locations. The very first gentleman offered me a bus to the Kuelap area, one of the greatest ancient monuments in the Americas and nicknamed the Machu Picchu of the North. This is where I made the huge mistake of agreeing. Why the mistake? On the way, a couple warned me that one of the monuments in Chachapoyas was closed, so I immediately asked the gentleman if it is Kuelap they warned me about. No, it's not, you can get there just fine.
So I take a two hour bus ride to change to the next bus, buy a ticket for the cable car, then hike from there for an hour to see a WALL! A wall? Well you can't go in, we've closed it because of the danger of collapse. A local guard informs me and other confused visitors (and there are a lot of them). Why the hell didn't they tell anyone on the way? Why doesn't anyone know? Well, they don't say it anywhere on the website or on the information, the guard informs us. Several other travelers around me began to speculate that if people knew, no one would pay the tour companies, buses and cable cars. So another travel tip: always ask people you meet what they've visited and if it's worth it! Because I successfully managed to waste a whole day to see a wall and back again.
Perhaps the worst bus ride is just from Chachapoyas to the town of Cajamarca. It's crossing the Andes! The road is rutted and full of curves, so sleep is basically impossible. In the morning I finish my coffee and get on the bus to Cumbemayo. I'm not going to miss anything this time! Cumbemayo is a rocky area full of ancient petroglyphs and ruins. Plus, it's also a great two to three hour trek through beautiful countryside.
This time the climate was perfect for leggins, so I pulled my LIGANO-W leggings out of my backpack again, a quick-drying LISMAIN-W t-shirt as well, and a JUNIE-W sweatshirt just in case it gets cold or windy.
In the afternoon, I take the city bus to Ventanillas de Otuzco, which is a complex with tombs carved out of a large rock that look like little windows. Well, not to just go to the archaeological sites again, I head to the town of Baños del Inca which, as the name suggests, is home to the Inca Baths. For a few soles, they offer saunas, massages, swimming pools or thermal springs. Since I haven't seen a shower in a few days, I immediately ran to try the thermal springs. Awesome! Towards the evening I also have time to walk around the town centre and climb up to the Santa Apolonia viewpoint.
The bus this time arrives in town at maybe 5am. It's cold, dark and no one is around. Nevermind, at least I have a chance to walk around the city and take pictures when no one is around.
After coffee and breakfast, I set off again to visit another archaeological site. What can I say?
In Northern Peru I decided to focus a little more on the history. Not far from Trujillo is Chan Chan, a pre-Columbian desert city, and at its heyday, Chan Chan was also the largest city in the Americas and the largest brick city in the world.
Since Trujillo is by the sea, I decided to spend the afternoon a little more relaxing and headed to the beach where I tried for the first time the traditional drink Chicha Morada whose main ingredient is culli corn, a Peruvian variety of corn (also known as purple corn).
From Trujillo, I have one last overnight bus to Lima and a flight from Lima to Cusco, where I will be staying much longer.
Within six days I had developed a daily routine that worked surprisingly well. Every morning I found a café with working wifi where I had breakfast, bought bus tickets for the next night and quickly planned what I would do during the day. If anyone is the same fool and decides to travel by bus for a while, here are a few tricks I picked up that made the trip easier:
The buses get awfully cold overnight. Never forget a blanket (or in my case a sleeping bag).
If you are a student, don't forget your student card! Most of the entrances are pretty much discounted for students. Sometimes I was able to get half price fares on buses as well (it didn't always work out because sometimes people argued that student fares were only for Peruvian students).
If you have two backpacks, keep one of them stored somewhere and only carry a few essentials during the day. I always left my big 70 liter BIGGY backpack most often right in the bus terminal storage and only had my smaller ROLLER40-U backpack with me during the day.
Ask the locals for the best way to go somewhere. Quite often local tour companies are not needed at all and it's cheaper and faster to take public transport. On the other hand, some places are so far away that you can't get there except with a tour guide (or your own car).