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Two Months Backpacking in Peru: A World Away from Cusco

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When anyone ever asks me which are my favourite countries that I’ve lived in during my three years in South America, my response has always been the same: Bolivia and Chile.

backpacking in northern Peru

The former for its seeming limitless wells of indigenous culture, coupled with a certain bat-shit craziness that just really appeals. The latter for its practically incomparable diversity of landscapes, the friendliness of its people and, quite simply, THEY HAVE PENGUINS. Enough said.

But Peru? Meh.

The funny thing is, I don’t know why I’ve always been so unenthusiastic about a country that I called home for seven months. Looking back, however, there were certainly a few things that niggled on a daily basis.

Maybe it was the frustration of always feeling like I was perceived as a tourist, even though I was living there.

It was being pestered to buy a massage or a painting or pose for a photo with the “Inca” (a man dressed in a faux gold-plated Inca costume) by the same people day in, day out as I walked down Huantunrumiyoc, past the 12-sided stone and the Plaza de Armas on my way to the gym.

But it was also the fact that I never really felt like I got to know local people outside of the small group of volunteers with whom I worked as part of LAFF.

And finally, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of tourists with whom I shared the streets (selfish, I know – they had as much right to be there as I did, but it still bugged me).

backpacking in northern Peru
Ancient stone ruins near Tarma in the Central Sierra.

Even when I got offered the chance to go back to Peru to work for Rough Guides on the 2018 editions of the Rough Guide to Peru and the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget, my sense of excitement was lukewarm at best.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that all I’d heard about the north of Peru was from a girl I’d met when I’d lived in Sucre, who’d shared an awful story about her and her boyfriend being robbed of all their valuables in a taxi somewhere around Trujillo.

As I researched my itinerary, it also seemed that a lot of the travel information for the Central Sierra region (the stretch of Andes east of Lima that rumbles along to Cusco further south) was riddled with warnings about the risks of being robbed at gunpoint.

I packed my rucksack – leaving everything but the absolute essential valuables at home – and genuinely prepared for whatever might pass.

Ancient cultures and temples in the north of Peru

And you know what? The north of Peru, out of all those I’ve yet visited in South America, is genuinely the place that surprised me the most.

It didn’t take long. Arriving in Trujillo after a long, bumpy bus journey from Lima, I was struck by how unexpectedly pretty the central streets of the city are.

Recently repainted in preparation for the Pope’s visit in January, the mustard-yellow cathedral rose dramatically out of the Plaza de Armas, sat across from rows of colonial houses with their intricately-carved, original wooden balconies spilling out onto the square.

On one of my first nights, I dined on delicious lomo saltado (a very popular Peruvian dish of juicy beef) at the spectacular Celler de Cler, with its views across the Iglesia San Francisco, which was lit up in warm, yellow light.

But even greater surprises lay outside the city, in the ruins of the adobe-brick temples of the Moche or Mochica, a culture that reigned supreme along the Peruvian northern coast between 50 and 700 AD.

I wandered around the Huaca de la Luna, admiring the relief murals that line the outer walls of the temple, five floors high and narrating the grizzly sacrificial rituals that were an integral part of the religious and social structure of this culture.

backpacking in northern Peru
The colourful friezes of Huaca de la Luna near Trujillo.

North of the city, the El Brujo archeological complex (aka “the Wizard”) was where they made the dramatic discovery of the body of a female Mochica leader, whose mummified body had preserved the snakes and spiders that had been tattooed onto her arms.

From the top of the Huaca El Brujo, our guide pointed out the dozens of other seemingly melted mounds of earth – other unexcavated temples – stretching away from us at all angles.

Next stop was Chiclayo, a modern, somewhat ugly city but one that still brought even more marvels at the Museo Tumbas Reales del Señor de Sipán.

This museum packed with dazzling displays of gold crowns, staffs and narigueras (ornaments worn hooked to the nose by warriors). All were discovered in the tombs of El Señor de Sipán, a Mochica ruler believed to have been buried between 240 and 310 AD, El Viejo de Sipán, another former Mochica ruler, and a high-ranking priest.

Nearby, deep within the Bosque de Pomac, a forest of Algarrobo trees, the pyramids known as Batán Grande rise out of the surrounding landscape, most riddled with cavities by the grave robbers who’ve long-since plundered most of their contents.

Standing at the top of one of the temples granted a real sense of the vast scale of the archeological remains that still punctuate huge swathes of Peruvian terrain.

Striking stone fortresses and carnival parades

What followed from here was a whirlwind of idyllic beaches along the far northern coast of Peru, and terrifying yet beautiful bus and plane journeys as I headed east towards the mountains and the jungle.

At Cajamarca, I stood in muted awe at the mosaic walls of the Santuario de Pollac, a church that has been patiently and tirelessly covered with colourful shards of stone and glass depicting magnificent religious scenes and is found not within the grand centre of this  important colonial city, but in a village an hour’s drive away.

East towards Chachapoyas, I arrived at a site that has long been on my list of places to visit in Pery: the mountain-top citadel of Kuélap.

Buried within cloud forest in the Utcubamba Valley, it was built by the Chachapoyas, a culture about which little is known (the ruins themselves are believed to have been built anywhere between 500 and 1493 AD).

It is a striking stone fortress with dramatic views of the surrounding mountains covered in thick, impregnable tracts of cloud forest.

Further down the valley, behind protective glass, the grinning mummies of the Museo de Leymebamba peered at me through their fingers.

backpacking in northern Peru
The archeological ruins of Kuélap near Chachapoyas.

A couple of hours north, I watched a red-hued sunset across the magnificent Cataratas Gocta (Gocta Falls) and the next day attempted – and failed – to photograph the taller Catarata Yumbilla (Yumbilla Falls), after a sticky walk through the forest.

From there, I travelled south along the jagged, unforgiving backbone of the continent, the Andes Mountains. Passing tiny, high-altitude towns, 3000m above sea level became a normal altitude and 4040m – when I climbed to the ruins of Yancamata near Tarma – a possibility.

backpacking in northern Peru
The magnificent Gocta Falls near Chachapoyas.

After a week forced to halt all travel plans in Huancayo following violent protests by local farmers against potato prices (and thankful for the five-day buffer I’d added to the end of my itinerary for moments such as these), I reached Ayacucho, a city so similar in architectural flair to Cusco, but with a complete lack of tourists.

I’d been a novelty for several weeks by this point, as few international travellers take this route, but it came to a head when I found myself invited to join a pre-carnival dance around the Plaza de Armas in the company of dozens of dance troupes dressed in sumptuously stitched outfits, singing, shouting and wiggling along to the rhythms of their wooden flutes, guitars and drums.

Returning home… to Cusco

I finished my two months in Cusco, travelling the final twelve hours in a series of cars and minibuses and feeling a little like I was coming home.

backpacking in northern Peru
My new friend in Ayacucho.

Cusco hadn’t changed one bit: indigenous women fitted out in colourful “traditional” dress encouraged me to take photos with their llamas or lambs, both dressed equally splendidly for the occasion; hardly a minute would pass when someone wasn’t offering me their goods to buy.

But having seen so much more of Peru, the towering, ornately friezed temples of the arid coast, the colonial charm of the cities of the Central Sierra so neglected by tourism and the friendliness and interest of the Peruvians I had met in each and every town, I was able to see Cusco for what it is: not a representation of the real Peru, but something that has developed to fit what they believe the tourists want.

What my travels through Peru taught me this time was how short-sighted the obsession with Cusco, the Inca and Machu Picchu has become.

There is so much beyond this: cultures that pre-date the Inca by hundreds, even thousands of years, colonial cities that are equal in grandeur and elegance as Cusco and archeological sites that are equal in magnificence to Machu Picchu – if not more so, because they are not swarming with thousands of tourists.

backpacking in northern Peru
The breathtaking mosaic Santuario de Polloc near Cajamarca.

I’ll be posting extensively on my trip to Peru, expanding on many of the places that I’ve only been able to touch upon briefly in this article.

My two months backpacking in Peru have left me really geared up to inspire future visitors to go beyond the tiny, now so familiar corner of the country and instead see a side to Peru that I promise you, you won’t be expecting.

Peru Reading List

If you’re planning a trip to Peru, I strongly recommend you start out by reading some of these books, which allow you to get to grips with some of the lesser-known sides of the country.

If you’re looking to read more widely about the continent in general, make sure you check this guide to the best books to read before backpacking in South America.

What I read during my Peru trip:

Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru – Hugh Thomson

I’m a huge fan of Thompson’s previous book, The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland, where the British travel writer turned explorer narrated his journey discovering the secrets of the Sacred Valley and beyond.

In Cochineal Red, he returns to Llactapata, an Inca site near to Machu Picchu, before broadening his focus to the dawn of Peruvian civilisation at Caral in 3000 BC, via the relatively unknown cultures of the Moche, Nasca and Chavin, before ending in modern-day Peru.

Written in a lively travelogue style, but with clearly substantial historical research and knowledge woven through each chapter, I strongly recommend it for those wanting to learn about the cradle of South American civilisation.

Buy it on Amazon here.

Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels with a Mule in Unknown Peru – Dervla Murphy

I actually stumbled upon this book by accident, but wasn’t disappointed. Dervla Murphy is the acclaimed Irish travel writer who has done everything from cycling from Ireland to India, to trekking through Ethiopia. In this book, she presents Peru in the early 80s as she and her daughter Rachel take on the incredible challenge of following in the footsteps of the conquistadores by walking from Cajamarca to Cusco, with only a beautiful mule that they call Juana to help them along the way.

Her descriptions of the route, most of which is above 3,000m of altitude, gave me a wonderful introduction to a part of Peru that I also traversed and while some of her writing hasn’t aged well (her references to the local indgenous people as “Indians” is one example of termiology that is certainly not appropriate to use today).

However, it remains an absorbing read – and one that’ll leave you thankful of the relative comfort of a creaky old bus as you sail over the mountain passes that they crossed on foot.

Buy it on Amazon here.

The Last Days of the Incas – Kim MacQuarrie

Having dedicated a lot of my reading time to learning about those Peruvian cultures that receive little to no attention by most visitors to the country, I returned at the end of my trip to that which continues to fascinate us the most: the Inca.

Charting the final desperate decades following the arrival of the Spanish in Inca-controlled Peru, this book presents key moments in the conquest of the native forces and their subsequent rebellion, infusing energetic prose with letters written by the Spanish chroniclers and ending on the modern search for Vilcabamba, the final capital of the Inca.

Buy it on Amazon here.

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