On our way out of Ecuador we had to make a choice. Take the road through the mountains that may take us an extra day of driving or take the road “more traveled” which involved a little backtracking and head for the better highway that would pop us out near the beach. I think before either of us made the decision out loud, the truck was pointed towards the mountains. After staying put in Cuenca for two weeks we were ready to put some miles on the truck!
We made a quick stop before hitting the border for a couple days of good WiFi and good beer in Vilcabamba, a mostly expat town in probably the last jungle setting we would see for a while! A couple good pizzas and an awesome bbq with a great view later, and we were ready to hit the border. Along the way we met a “Dutchie” names Charles traveling by bike stopped for a drink of water. Knowing that the road was just going to keep climbing, dropping, and then climbing again, we asked if he wanted a ride which he gladly accepted! So we stuffed his bike in the camper and the three of us in the cab, and spent the next two days driving as the mountains of Ecuador became the mountains of Peru. We crossed our simplest and quickest border to date in less than 45 minutes and made our way further into the country. Charles joined us the first night for dinner and our first Pisco Sours in Peru (more on those later). We dropped him off the next day in a town where he could go back to the bike on slightly flatter ground and we both headed further on.
As the landscape changed, we realized Peru would be some of the most extreme driving we have done of the trip. Yellow lines marked as highways on the map, quickly turned from two lane roads to one lane tracks of dirt and broken, pot-holed concrete. We quickly adjusted our expectations for the driving from “getting places,” to “seeing beautiful landscapes while we crawled our way through the country.”
We stopped that night at a small town next to Gocta Falls, the world’s 5th largest waterfall at 2,530ft, and camped in the town square within full view of the falls careening off the mountain. Further googling told us that this waterfall was known only to the locals of the town until 2002 when a German explorer happened upon it and convinced the Peruvian government to map and measure it. It was then that they made it to the ranking of third largest, later being pushed to fifth by two remote waterfalls in Norway. We admired the waterfall in the morning from the nearby trails while being passed by locals carrying their firewood and donkeys carrying tourists and then decided to head to our next tourist stop of the day: Kuélap!
We had never heard of these remote Peruvian ruins until reading through our Lonely Planet Peru guide book. There they are described as “Lacking the marketing budget, Unesco branding, and CROWDS of Machu Picchu, the extraordinary stone fortress at Kuélap is second to Peru’s most famous ruins in little else.” They had us at “lacking crowds!” So we headed to the base of the road leading to Kuélap, where instead of crawling the hour and a half of dirt road to the ruins, you can now pay 20 soles (about $6) to board a bus that takes you to the brand new teleferico (basically what we would call a Gondola, funicular, or lift) for one of the most harrowing rides we’ve ever taken! Crossing giant thousand-foot deep canyons, and climbing over 4,000’ feet to the base of the village, all in rain and wind, is enough to make anyone clench a bit in their seat… especially knowing to get back to your truck you need to do the whole 22-minute trip again heading down! It’s definitely best not to think about all of the landslides you passed on the drive to get to this place, while you go by the giant pylons built on the side of this mountain.
When you get off the Teleferico and walk the 2 kilometers up the switchbacks on the side of the mountain to get to Kuelap you are greeted by an incredible sight. Now at well over 9,000 feet, a limestone block wall reaching heights of 60 feet in places emerges in front of you, leaving you to marvel at the ingenuity and hard work of these people who lived well over 1,000 years ago. The settlement contained 550 structures ranging from circular houses complete with small retaining walls to contain the guinea pigs that would be bred for food (Cuy a traditional dish to this day in Peru), to cone-shaped temples in which were found llama bones and other items believed to be used in religious rituals. We have seen some incredible ruins around the world Pompeii, Kusadasi, and Teotihuacan to name a few, and now I would definitely add Kuelap to this amazing list! This walled city with its spectacular setting in the clouds, and of course, llamas, was a really special place to visit!
The amazing pictures, and hopefully some amazing videos, will continue next week. And I know I promised more on Pisco Sours and don’t worry there will be more on that as well! Until then, Cheers!