Crossing into Northern Peru, and the Kuelap fortress
Andrea: Packed lunch in hand, we walked out to the side of the road to wait for a bus at 6:00 in the morning. The entire scenario seemed doomed to fail: wake up at an ungodly hour, wait on the side of a road, hail down a bus that you have to make in order to make 5 connecting buses to get where you want to go. Great. Well, it worked out relatively smoothly as we caught the first bus--6 hours to Zumba, a border town with a great name and little else. We arrived in Zumba and had to wait 2 and a half hours for the next bus to the actual border, La Balsa. The 'bus' was the demented love child of a bus and a truck (and possibly a carnival ride thrown in for good measure). It had a front carriage like a semi-truck, a flat top and bench seating with both sides open to the elements. We sat on the benches in the tiniest quarters, moving in to the middle to avoid the possibility of getting pelted with rain, and bounced around for 2 hours to the border.
At La Balsa, we were told by fellow tourists that the Ecuadorian immigration official was unavailable at the moment because he was off playing volleyball. We looked at each other and wondered if this person had gotten the phrase 'playing volleyball' confused with 'filing important immigration documentation' until a shirtless, sweaty man stumbled through the door and perched himself behind the desk, wiping the dripping sweat away with other people's paperwork. We shrugged and walked up to the desk, throwing our passports at him from a distance to avoid the perspiration bath this guy was offering. He seemed to be most concerned about our professions and wouldn't accept our usual answers of 'turistas' as acceptable so he grilled us until we complied with 'marketing' and 'analyst.' This was particularly odd since we were now leaving Ecuador, so I couldn't imagine why our professions would matter to him (unless of course he was expecting us to say 'professional volleyball players' and would in turn assassinate us for being suitable competition for his favorite past time or convince us to stay and play on his team). No way of knowing.
We made it past the Peruvian authorities easily and took a cab (no buses) to our next connecting city, San Ignacio. We stayed the night in a basic hotel in San Ignacio and set off early the next day for the final leg(s) of our journey. We took a combi to the first connecting town and were delayed because of fallen rocks on the road, right behind a falling rocks sign! We waited patiently while the rocks were cleared by a bulldozer and dumped over the side of the mountain into a creek below. We were back on our way! Three hours later we were at the terminal, which inconveniently was on the other side of town from where we needed to be so got a 'moto taxi' (a motorcycle with a carriage in the back for passengers, like a tuk-tuk) to another combi parking lot. Two combis later, we were finally in Chachapoyas. So, two travel days to go probably about 500 miles. Whew! We checked into the first hotel we saw and then set out to find a tour to Kuelap, the ruins nearby.
The next day we set off early for Kuelap in a minivan with 7 other tourists and a guide. One carsick passenger (not us!) and a really upset driver later, we arrived at the ruins of the fortress Kuelap. I should also say here that we went with a Spanish-only tour to save a few extra dollars so we were getting information in about every fourth word. But, we did learn (verified by Wikipedia) that the fortress was built by the Chachapoyas people and used for military purposes, and dates back to the 6th century AD. The Chachapoyas occupied it for hundreds of years until the Incas took it over and used it as a town. The Incas lived there for another few hundred years until the Spanish came along and used it as a burial place. It was interesting because it was full of holes they used for stores and the guide said the Chachapoyas used the holes to store weapons, the Incas used them to store foodstuffs and the Spanish used the holes to bury people. Since the Spanish didn't use it to live, they buried people who were born in the surrounding areas since you have to be buried by where you were from. Luckily, the dead bodies were stored there after these were used as food pantries and not the other way around. The ruins are called the 'second best ruins in Peru after Machu Picchu' and they did not disappoint. The place was immense and a lot of the structures still intact (although we did notice a lot had been filled in with cement so there was a question of authenticity at a few places) and there were some reconstructions dotted throughout to give visitors an idea of what it looked like originally. It was really fun to see and we found it so interesting that it was used for the 3 completely different reasons.
The tour guide stopped at a large structure with 4 doorways and asked us what we thought the building was used for. He looked at us optimistically as he said, maybe a communal house? Maybe a store? Maybe a school? We all mumbled our answers and looked back at him in anticipation of the right answer as we gazed at the building in question. With a shrug he kept walking to the next attraction thinking, 'Well, it was worth a shot to see if they knew.' We looked at each other in a very confused manner and made a mental note to email him the Wikipedia page when we got home.
We all fell asleep in the car on the way back after eating lunch. We walked around the town a little more and eventually ate dinner by sampling a number of street vendors that dotted the streets of Chachapoyas. We sat on stools in front of their stands and ate kebabs, cheese empanadas and sampled a local speciality, quinoa. Quinoa can be used as a rice substitute, but this was a hot, sweet drink that we loved! It tasted like apple cinnamon oatmeal that you could drink! It was a great dessert to end the day.
The next day we treated ourselves to coffee and cake in the late afternoon. The bakeries in Peru leave something to be desired, but are very popular. The most popular dish on the menu is Jello! There is Jello everywhere--cups of it at street vendor stalls, on top of cakes, in a plastic bag for drinking, everywhere! We ordered a cake that naturally had a layer of Jello on top and sat and drank our coffee. I guess Lemon Meringue, Tiramisu and even sherbet are still on Peru's culinary horizon, so for now they're still head over heels over the simplest of sweet treats. We walked the rest of the town waiting for our night bus to Chiclayo as the cake bounced around in our stomachs as we sang the jingle 'J-E-L-L-O!'