Back to Peru, my favourite destination. Home to Machu Picchu, the world’s No 1 Bucket-list destination, also the most crowded. You will be familiar with Peru from the startlingly accurate depiction in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’; it is all man-eating ants, quick sands, elongate skulls and extra-terrestrial-influenced archaeology. This time I was determined to finally see Chavín de Huantar. This site, much less-visited, lies on the East flank of the Cordillera Blanca. During 15 years of Peruvian visits, I have caught far-off, snowy glimpses from various copper and gold prospects. A work window finally gave me a chance to visit, in the company of two close friends, one a Scot, the other Australian. (Cue ‘yoghurt versus Australia’ and ‘Australian Ballet’ jokes.)The plan was for 5 days of road trip through the Cordillera, with frequent stops for roast pig sandwiches (chicharron), micro-brewery beer, and visits to dingy night clubs. It didn’t quite turn out that way; head colds and mild altitude sickness stymied plans for late nights and, like angelitos, we were tucked up and snoring before 10 pm. The closest we got was a couple of beers after a dreadful curry in Huaraz. (Tip. Never eat ‘authentic’ Thai or Indian cuisine outside the UK or Southeast Asia.) Never mind, the scenery and sights more than made up for the lack of nightlife.
The Cordillera Blanca is remarkable because it is one of the world’s highest tropical mountain chains. Most mountains in this neck of the woods are symmetrical young volcanoes, the kind that children draw; think of El Misti in Arequipa and snow-capped Cotopaxi in Ecuador. The Blanca is different. It is a continuous spine of unfeasibly beautiful, almost Tolkien-esque mountains formed by muscovite granite. The glaciars are retreating, leaving the kind of landforms that make geography teachers go weak at the knees. Terminal, median and lateral moraines cloak the valley sides. Waterfalls spill over precipices. U-shaped valleys are flanked by towering granite cliffs. The scenery is breath-taking, even for a hardened and cynical geologist like myself. Peru always surprises.
My burly Caledonian colleague, who you may remember from a geological Highland Tour in 2014, proclaims, between sighs, that the scenery doesn’t really ‘do it’ for him. His expectations are clearly sky-high. I exclaim constantly at every new vista. He grunts. Neither does the temple at Chavín de Huantar impress him much. In my opinion, it is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world; in his, it is ‘OK’. At the confluence of two rivers, between towering mountains, it is otherworldly and has somehow survived centuries of avalanches, floods and mud-flows.
The Chavín culture was active about 3400 years ago, nearly 3000 years before Machu Picchu was constructed. The temple comprises a couple of plazas, one round, the other rectangular, beneath a single tall flat-topped pyramid of dressed and polished granite and black limestone. In Ying-Yang fashion, the temple is divided into perfect black and white halves. Zoomorphic images abound and the crowning glory is a bladed carved monolithic creature buried deep in a network of tunnels. Very creepy. Carved heads comprising hybrid mythical beings jut out at regular intervals from the high walls.There are none of the rich tombs, dripping with gold artefacts and gemstones, found in later Peruvian cultures. Neither is the pottery exciting. For example, there is nothing like the photo-realistic figures of the pornography-obsessed Moche, along the Peruvian coast. Instead, the crowning glory is the quality of the stonework. Inca stonework, with its 16-angled stones, is impressive, but I have never seen technical skills like Chavín outside Egypt. The rectangular plaza is lined by banks of steps formed by rectangular granite blocks up to 8 metres long. There are hundreds of these domino-like pieces, all with perfect dimensions. The work involved is unimaginable. And with only stone tools.
The joy of visiting sites like this is normally the compulsory guide. With profound confidence, our new friend Esteban announces, in practiced drone, that such-and-such a room was ‘used by the priest to consume San Pedro cactus’, the local hallucinogenic. He talks about mystic energy fields and crystals. Woe betide if you interrupt his flow with a piercing question, like, ‘how do you know that?’ Several times he fixes me with a baleful gaze and replies ‘no, space aliens did not build the pyramid.’ Of course, I was only kidding, but my questions clearly just piss him off and force him to deviate from his well-trodden script. He is relieved when, after the inevitable visit to the souvenir stand, coincidentally run by his wife, to buy imitation heads carved in soft sandstone, we finally bugger off for lunch and he can pocket his 40 soles.
The other joy of Chavín is the lack of people. Apart from us, there may have been only two or three visitors. You don’t get that at Machu Picchu; a crush injury is more likely. Chavín is an oasis of peace, with empty hotels, peaceful streets and no nightlife whatsoever.
Archaeological needs sated, we move to Huaraz, on the west flank of the Cordillera Blanca. The city is devoid of colonial buildings because it is regularly devastated by powerful earthquakes. It has one of those grotesquely ugly concrete-and-glass churches considered fashionable in the 1970s. (It resembles Liverpool Catholic cathedral, but Huaraz can at least point to hasty rebuilding after natural disaster as an excuse.) We visit Yungay, where, in 1970, part of Huascarán detached, rocketed down the hillside at several hundred kilometres per hour, and buried several villages in many metres of mud and rock. Over 20,000 people were entombed within seconds. Today there is an eerie memorial park, complete with toothless and decrepit guides who tout for business; they cry ‘I survived Yungay’. The focal point is the ruined church that emerges from the fan of debris. A bus also remains, crumpled into a rusty heap. Ironically, the cemetery, raised on a hill, survived unscathed. Interestingly, the glossiest memorials, financed by their respective patrons, are tributes to the crews of Russian and Argentinian aircraft that crashed on their way to aid Peru in its darkest hour. Gene Savoy, an American treasure-hunter and notorious self-publicist, was nearby when it happened. He recounts, in his book ‘Vilcabamba, Last City of the Incas’, how his child dies, not from the avalanche, but from subsequent waterborne disease. His description is remarkably cold.
Our final day is spent on a backside-numbing trip in our Volkswagen Amarok, a wannabe Hi-Lux with over-inflated, rock-hard tyres, to a pass at 4700 metres elevation. We pass the turquoise lakes at Llanganuco, stopping to argue over the flaky-barked Polylepis tree, which I insist is the source of anti-malarial quinine. (Later research shows that our knowledgeable Ozzie compañero is instead right; quinine is derived from a tropical Peruvian tree called Cinchona. Plumbing his bottomless fact pit, he also he tells us the tree appears on the Peruvian coat of arms. Who would have thunk it?). The views were again breath-taking; the kind of stuff you see in National Geographic, between the glossy, and ever-increasing, adverts for Breitling watches and American Airlines. My Scottish colleague, under the weather from the cold he alleges he caught from me, is even mildly impressed, an improvement. Like children, we use the outstanding mountainscape to take some humorous selfies which I hope will remain buried for a long time.
Only the long slog along the Pan American highway remained. As always, this was a white-knuckle ride, worsened by the heavy footed nature of our Ozzie driver, who belongs to the one-handed school and looks at his cellphone every minute or so. Unlike my other trips on this road, we saw no dead bodies, fatal crashes or remnant oil slicks. I gripped the handles firmly as we weaved in and out of vehicles that, despite their chassis being oblique to the travel direction, seem to attain lunatic speeds. My prayers for salvation were answered and we survived the Peruvian equivalent of Death Race 2000, arriving in Lima in time to see our driver’s son in a cricket match. There followed a very, very enjoyable evening beginning with a get-to-know you drinks event at a Lima bar and finishing in a sweaty Miraflores disco dancing to Cumbia and Regaton with unfeasibly attractive people.
Now I sit on my Aeromexico flight, watching The Rock ‘acting’ in ‘San Andreas’, trying to avoid a visit to the pestilent toilets. I have over 30 hours to ruminate on my trip, but my conclusion will not change. Visit Chavín before it gets washed away in the next avalanche and mudflow. Get to Huaraz before it suffers the fate of San Francisco, so well depicted in ‘San Andreas’. With the worst El Niño for 50 years predicted, you need to get there quickly. Peru is going to have an interesting and potentially very difficult year. Fingers crossed I am wrong.