Roadside view taken during road work traffic halt
This entry will be out of chronological order. Will describe the journey from Chachpoays to Pucallpa while events are still fresh in my mind.
A lady in the Chachapoyas mercado central shows off her extraordinary butchering skills. Each of the cuy’s organs are completely clean and open to view. She was very proud to have me take a photo of her work.
Huge calabash Chachapoyas market
More delights of the Chachapoyas mercado
Spent two nights on the road from Chachapoyas to Pucallpa. First night in Moyobamba. Second night in Tocache. Arrived Pucallpa on the third night.
It is probably a good thing that I am slightly off my rocker. I am a tough old codger, and this jaunt kicked my butt. Make no mistake. A full on charge from Chacha to Pucallpa is not for the faint of heart. Spent three nights in Pucallpa to recover.
There are a few special things to see using Chachapoyas as a base. The main ones are: Kuleap, Karajia, Gocta Falls, Revash, and Leymebamba. There are others. Wanted to enter my Chacha tours in order. However, have now actually departed Chachapoyas. Pushed hard to arrive in Pucallpa on the third night.
Promise to self… If I ever return to Chachapoyas area, I will immediately proceed to Pedro Ruiz and on to Cuispes. Will hike the Yumbilla waterfall route: http://wikitravel.org/en/Yumbilla
(I am now in… and posting this entry from Iquitos… admit to experiencing a weird kind of time warp sensation these past few weeks… how the heck did it get to be here and now? I have full memories and photo/video/Spot device records of the days and nights but time seems to have sped up or something… or maybe I’m slowing down… or maybe when you’re traveling alone you don’t have others to help ‘anchor’ your sense of time. Note to astronauts: never travel alone… are you listening Hal?)
Departed Chachpoyas on Monday March 10th. Rode with the collectivo service called ‘Turismo Selva’. My ticket was from Chachapoyas to Moyobamba, usually a 3 to 4 hour ride. Not bumpy, but constant curves. You will be tossed from side to side in your seat the entire way.
It is possible to get from point A to point B in these parts. The routes between the larger towns nearly always run parallel to a river. The road is carved into the side of a mountain with one natural rift after another…meaning constant curves. Sometimes the road is nearer to the bottom of the narrow valley.
On the morning after my night in Moyobamba I breakfasted on coffee and eggs in the market directly across the street from the hostel. Nice to not have to struggle to locate a hostel nor have to learn the layout of a town from scratch once in a while.
After breakfast, got a mototaxi ride to the local Turismo Selva office. Learned that I could book a ride directly to Tocache from the Moyobamba office. This was good news as I was expecting to have to get out in Tarapoto and find another van heading South. The ‘Turismo Selva’ collectivo service dominates this area.
If you want to be assured of a seat you’ve got to get your ticket early. This service actually assigns a specific seat to each passenger. It eliminates arguments, and they make sure the van is full before they depart. Turismo Selva requires and keeps a record of all passengers aboard, complete with name, passport number, destination, age, etc. The smaller (competition) services just tell you how much you will pay upon arrival at your destination. You take your chances with those kinds of services because they don’t have the kind of support that the larger services have.
Had to rush because the van to Tocache was departing one hour later. Bought my ticket with assigned seat and was reminded that it would depart in one hour. Got another mototaxi back to my hostel. Very quickly showered, hurriedly packed everything and prepared for the long journey. 9 or 10 hours depending on the road, the weather, the van, other passengers, etc.
Any ground or water transportation travel in Peru is going to be an adventure. It is a given. All you can do is resign yourself to the discomfort and get used to the many unknowns ahead.
Arrived back at the terminal with eight minutes to spare. The driver has to pack whatever large items you have on the roof rack of the van and then covers the items with a tarp and over that is a sturdy fishing net. The drivers are truly experts. They know the processes very well. It is sometimes disconcerting to the newbie because the drivers and support people are so proficient that they may appear careless.
All humans are prone to error and quotidian routines often lead to laxity. My personal experience is that the transport people in this neck of the woods are above par in their attention to detail and in their ability to perform their tasks. It helps that nearly everyone relies on them to get around. Few people have personal transport. People are aware that there are competing services. Word of mouth is the very best advertising, good or bad. Services here understand this very well.
I have traveled thousands of kilometers and have been on numerous buses and vans and cars and mototaxis. My two very heavy cases are still with me. I am careful to observe that they are properly packed in or on the vehicle in which I am going to ride. Use common sense. You must rely upon your own judgement. But, don’t allow your (possible) ‘Western’ attitudes or expectations to dampen your trust of legitimate service businesses in these places.
Enroute; the van drops some passengers off in what may seem to be unlikely places. Most passengers exit at one of the many ‘Turismo Selva’ substations that exist in smaller towns along the route. The drivers are always trying to keep the van full. Simple economics.
The bigger the ‘terminal terrestre’ (station), the longer the stop. We stopped for about 20 minutes in Tarapoto before heading South. The next sizable town was Juanjui.
The roads themselves, even if they are asphalt, are challenging. They continuously zig zag, back and forth, from left to right. Negotiating the thousands of curves requires a passenger to buckle up, hang onto something and to get used to leaning into the passengers that flank you. In addition to the curves, the road is either ascending or descending much of the time.
The drivers sometimes give out small plastic bags to passengers as they get on. Some people, even the locals who travel this way regularly, are prone to motion sickness.
Imagine you are continuously being thrown side to side as the van negotiates the curves. The van is packed… usually a minimum of 12 passengers, sometimes more than there are seats… 18 or so. The van does not use air conditioning. It is hot. Often above 90 degrees F. The van does not have roll down windows. Some passengers like to sleep with their heads resting against the one or two windows that do slide open a few inches. The road is often very bumpy in addition to all the other motions and movements.
On the way between Tarapoto and Juanjui a young man sitting to my left began to empty the contents of his stomach on the van floor. (Juanjui is pronounced: Whuan Hooey… mmmm… sounds like someone blowing lunch) He did not have a bag. One was quickly offered from a lady behind us but it was too late. He wiped his face and put his forehead on the back of the seat in front of him. Hard not to notice him drooling. I hoped for the best. He must’ve been on empty. Thankfully, the odor was not all that offensive for some reason. Passengers took it all in stride. The driver never slowed, nor was he perturbed in the slightest… just another typical day on the road for him.
The ‘terminal terrestre’ of the thriving metropolis of Juanjui
Upon arrival in Juanjui the van had five or six vacant seats. In Juanjui the driver gets lunch and takes a well deserved break for himself. Everyone was informed that we would be there for at least 45 minutes. Time to use the bathroom facilities. While riding in the van for 3 hours or more someone will invariably request a side of the road pee stop.
I invite you to read for yourself the few internet sites about these routes: Juanjui to Tocahchi and Tocache to Tingo Maria. Most cite reasons to avoid this route. Bad road conditions, past reports of daylight armed robberies. Some of these entries are a few years old. Some cited that this route was once the known territory of the ‘Sendero Luminoso’ … the revolutionary (leftist) group known in English as ‘Shining Path’.
There has been a strong effort by the official Peruvian government to get those guys to behave better. How that actually occurs is open to speculation. I can only report what I personally witness and experience.
This not a lemonade stand, nor is it where Lucy offers cheap psychiatric advice. This is a typical roadside shack of your friendly local militia, uniformed, gun bearing folks who stop vehicles and panhandle for donations.
I witnessed many places on this route where men and women in various forms of ‘uniform’ who carry rifles or shotguns and the wave down passing traffic to stop. Some, cleverly situate their shacks near where road crews are actively improving the road or clearing the frequent rock slides. Traffic is halted in both directions when the road crews are working. Sporadically the road crew will allow traffic to pass, first from one direction, then the other.
The armed uniformed people first talk to the drivers. They usually work in teams of two or three, sometimes more. They proceed to opening the doors. They explain to the passengers that they are the local ‘security’ service and they are requesting financial support so that they can continue their efforts. When in Rome… I watch what the driver and the other passengers do. If they fish around in their pockets, then I do too. Not all passengers kick in. The polite booty jackers seem to be satisfied with a peso each from the ones who fork it over.
Traffic is halted for regular road work. The ‘militia’ guys ply these stops for donations, notice the guy talking to the driver of the green bus. He is not a Peruvian policeman nor soldier. See what’s slung over his shoulder? Local entrepreneurs also take advange of the road work. They offer popcorn, slices of papaya, cold gelatin in plastic bags, etc. to passers by.
I have been in vehicles that have been stopped by as many as five different self-appointed ‘security guard’ groups in the course of a hundred kilometers or so. Some have professionally made billboards; colored ink on vinyl, with insignias, giving the impression of being ‘official’. Who knows? Maybe these groups think of themselves as a kind of militia who intend to monitor and control their piece of earth. I suspect that in times past these same folks or some of their relatives were associated with the ‘path’.
I noticed that I did not see any coca leaves offered for sale in the markets in Moyobamba, Chachapoyas, or Pedro Ruiz. Did not visit the market in Juanjui.
The route between Juanjui and Tocache is 50% asphalt more or less as of March 2014. Other internet reports inaccurately report otherwise. The other 50% is several layers of graded rock in various states of preparation for asphalt. The old hard top has lots of divots. This area goes through some spectacular mountain scenery and overlooks a wide river valley. The Huallaga river gets flat and slow between Juanjui and Tocache.
Arrived Tocache about 7:30 PM. Ride started in Moyobamba at 8:30AM. Time spent in actual transit: 9 and a half hours more or less. The rest of the time was due to stops of one kind or another. It is a jarring, bone rattling, hot, ride. Your innards get a rigorous free massage from being tossed from side to side. “Buckle up, Dorothy, Kansas has gone, bye bye”, to paraphrase the Matrix character, Cypher.
Immediately upon exiting the van in Tocache and getting my gear next to me there were two or three young men who wanted to put my stuff in another car and whisk me off to Tingo Maria. They had little interest in my day nor in my obvious condition. I was tired and had had enough.
They had cars they wanted to fill. They do not travel if their car is not full. I had to insist that I was going to spend the night in Tocache. They continued to harangue and explained that Tocache was much smaller and not as modern and that I would really like Tingo Maria much better. I thanked them for their information and stood my ground. I would not be getting in another vehicle until the following day… period. They frowned and I got a mototaxi to take me to a hospedaje.
This is NOT gringo territory. Have not seen more than ten ‘Anglo/European’ looking faces in over a month. Hard to tell whether or not the people here have any prejudice one way or another to gringos. Usually, in places where many ‘Anlgos’ have either settled or travel the locals assume that all whiter folks have lots of money. I often have to describe to them that I have been a ‘trabajando’ (worker) all my life, just like them. They then usually begin seeing me as an equal. I always ask for the ‘barato precio’ hostels. Then, they really believe me.
View of a Tocache side street and signage of my hostel
The hostel in Tocache did not have internet service. It was late and I was tired and in desperate need of a shower. Funny, how after a long hard bone rattling, teeth crunching, day that a cold water shower seems wonderful. Just to wash the sweat and grime off becomes a luxurious experience. Ah!!! Cool and clean!!! Refreshment from heaven coming out of an overhead industrial faucet!!!
Next morning arose at 7AM. Walked down the three flights, exited the front door and hailed a passing mototaxi. Asked him to take me to the central market. In every town in Central or South America there is a ‘mercado central’. These places are where locals both buy and sell every day.A walk through a mercado will tell you all you need to know about the local economy.
The market in Tocache was the first market in Peru (on this journey) where I saw large plastic bags filled with coca leaves. Coca is not illegal in Peru. Cocaine most definitely is.
Local, indigenous farmers still cultivate the plant in the highlands of Peru, Bolivia, and parts of Colombia as they have for thousands of years. The local tribal peoples have an authentic spiritual reverence for coca. This is not a recently invented bit of hypocricy. They most ernestly deem coca to be an integral part of their cultural traditions.
Leaves of a Natural plant called coca in large plastic bags Tocache mercado
It is a touchy topic in these parts. Everyone now knows that it is possible to turn the leaves into a drug that reaps incredibly huge profits for those involved in the illegal manufacture, transport, and distribution of the refined product.
The locals also know that coca is a Naturally occurring plant and the leaves are Natural medicine for upset stomachs and for altitude sickness. They know all too well that the farmers who grow and tend the plant and who harvest the leaves are the ones who make the least from the illegal trade if they are involved at all. It is a touchy topic for many people.
The other interesting thing I noticed in the Tocache market was the fish. If you look at a map of the area you will notice it is well inland and it is bordered just to the West by low mountains. There were a variety of beautiful, large, fresh fish in the market. All these fish are caught fresh and come from their part of the Huallaga river. Wonderful and noteworthy, I think.
Local freshly caught river fish on sale Tocache mercado
After breakfast in the mercado, went back to my room and prepared for the next leg of the jouney: Tingo Maria and onward to Pucallpa. Gathered up my gear and descended the three floors of the hostel
A few men on the other side of the street saw me wrestling with my gear. As I passed, one of them asked where I wanted to go. Upon my reply he immediatelygot on his cell phone. I heard him tell the listener that someone was wanting to go to Tingo Maria. A minute later a late model Toyota Yaris appeared. There were two people in the back seat and one in the front, and the driver of course.
Painted on the outside of the car was: ‘Tocache Express’. These guys are in competition with the larger van ‘collectivo’ services. How they compete is by not needing to fill a vehicle with 15 people. They only need 4. They do not issue written tickets. They do not require forms to be filled out. Simple, straightforward business transaction.
The part where there is no record of you being in the vehicle could be troubling to some. Think about it. You are getting into a car with strangers. You are going to be traveling on a previously (to you) unknown route. You do not have friends or family who are expecting you to arrive. You do not have friends or family who know you are getting in this vehicle with these strangers. There is no record of your having gotten in the car or where you asked them to take you. That is a lot of trust to place… in the people who live in an area that was not so long ago known to be a trouble spot.
I have an advantage. I was not required to come here as a conquistador, nor did I arrive as a missionary zealot. I am an observer. I am a voracious and genuinely interested tourist. I am a wise traveler; equipped with an inner radar to which I owe much and to which I pay attention.
I engage in life with the sure knowledge that I mean no person any harm. I believe that there are ‘Universal Laws’ that govern Life. And I believe that those ‘Universal Laws’ serve and protect fellows like me. I attract like minded and like spirited people. Have had many, many experiences that tend to confirm those beliefs.
The driver said the fare would be 30 soles upon arrival in Tingo Maria while he was putting my two cases in the trunk. I then allowed myself to be stuffed in the middle of the back seat of the Tocache Express, Toyota Prius. (actually, I got in quite voluntarily) My right shoulder was in contact with a young native looking woman and my left shoulder was in contact with a young Peruvian man. Both appeared to be in their 20’s.
My view from the middle rear seat moving 90kph or better
I may be intrepid, but I am not stupid. I immediately began to engage my fellow passengers in conversation. I determined (and intuited) that everyone was a stranger. They did not know each other. They were legitimate travelers who had chosen this service to meet their travel requirements.
The young man in shorts who was the passenger in the front seat did not talk much; not even to the driver. There were no sideways glances nor was there any body language that might have set off any of my internal alarms. The driver was all business from first meeting… putting my gear in the trunk… to clearly and immediately stating the fare. He had been ‘dispatched’ there by the phone call of the men who had seen me. There was a brightly painted logo on both sides of the car.
The driver operated the vehicle as though he was in competition at Le Mans. We zipped over the excellent, all asphalt paved road, barely slowing as we passed through one small village after another. The road between Tocache and Tingo Maria is excellent. It has a balanced amount of straits and curves. It does not pass through high mountain areas. About 75 minutes into the 2 hour journey we were flagged to slow down and stop by the Peruvian national police.
Sometimes drivers will just zip past the local ‘security guard’ militia checkpoints without stopping. The Peruvian national police do not take no for an answer. They are more than equipped to chase and nab offenders. They did require to be shown everyone’s ID’s… driver and all passengers. I took photos and a short vid.
We were given the once over by the seven or eight of them. The ID’s were taken to a car several feet away and shown to an officer who examined them carefully. About ten minutes later, the ID’s were returned. The armed, helmeted, sunglassed, gloved policeman in a flack jacket who returned mine smiled and extended his hand for a handshake afterwards. Maybe he was just trying to convey to the old Anglo (me) that this was a safe place these days. Unknown. It did strangely please me that someone else knew that I was in this car.
We stopped at a small restaurant very close to Tingo Maria. The proprietors carried a clear 5 gallon can with gasoline in it and a large funnel to our gas tank. (just like a road race) Maybe the Tocache Express guys don’t trust the gas stations in Tingo or Tocache fearing gasoline sabotage issues from their much larger competition… only a speculation.
Tocache Express pit crew enroute to Tingo Maria
In Tingo Maria, at the Tocache Express ‘station’ (a doorway with a sign over it on a side street) the same phenomenon happened that had happened the previous night. No sooner than I exited the vehicle with my gear than I was asked if I were going to Pucallpa. Upon a nod from me my gear was instantly being whisked off to another car.
As is happened, the young man and young woman who flanked me on either side during the ride from Tocache were also going to Pucallpa. This time I demanded a seat near the door. We went to another location where we picked up the 4th passenger; an older man with a large carton that had to be stuffed in the trunk with my two pieces. I held my ground. I got the door, he got squashed in the middle rear seat.
I had rear shotgun so only my left shoulder was in contact with the guy the entire ride from Tingo Maria to Pucallpa. Well… almost the entire ride.
Adventure is just around the corner around here. We were about an hour into our expected 4 hour ride when, at the bottom of a long steep gorge, it occurred that all traffic had come to a halt. A continuous line of semis, cargo trucks, vans and cars, could be seen along the side of the road for as far as the eye could see.
It is the rainy season. A huge rock slide had closed the way ahead. We were near a tourist spot that features the waterfall ‘Velo de la Novia’ and a natural pool area called ‘Banos del diablo’ which is at the very bottom of the canyon. This area is spectacular. It is about a half hour on the Tingo side of Aguaytia.
Our driver determined that this was the end of the line for him and turned the vehicle around. We were free to go or stay. If we stayed, we owed him 15 of the 45 sole fee to Pucallpa. The four of us opted to stay. We would walk past the obstruction and attempt to catch a ride with vehicles who were probably turning back in the direction of Aguaytia on the other side of the obstruction.
All traffic stopped due to rock slide obstruction ahead. The semi driver ahead might have been a jerk or he might have been signalling people that it is pointless to go around.
I grappled my two cases and started off in the direction of the unseen rock slide/obstruction. We did not know exactly how far the line of vehicles extended to get to the obstruction. My gear is heavy. The road surface was very wet, rocky gravel.
The young man who was also headed to Pucallpa offered to carry one of my bags. I was grateful for the help. He hoisted it on his back with ease and soon was way ahead of me and the young woman who stayed back with me. After about ten minutes of walking, the young man was out of sight, so was my bag. I experienced a slight bit of apprehension. Slight.
I asked the young woman if she could see man with my bag. No. She couldn’t see him either. We continued to hoof it past the stopped tractor trailers, cargo trucks, vans and cars. I broke into a full on exertion sweat and picked up my pace.
I humped my forty pound case on my shoulder a mile or so down the road past the parked vehicles and the obstruction
Suddenly, there are cars headed in our direction. No trucks, but cars and vans. Maybe they cleared the road ahead enough to allow small vehicles to pass? I could only keep moving onward toward and past the obstruction… and to my bag. The young woman stayed with me.
Finally, I did spot the young man with my bag a quarter of a mile ahead. The young lady and I caught up to him. He was standing next to my bag that he had placed on the ground next to him. There were cars and vans now going in OUR direction, beyond the narrow gap cleared by a front end loader near the rock slide.
We got busy sticking out our thumbs and other body language indicating that we were looking for a ride. I don’t know what happened to the older man with the large bundle. He did not stick with us. Maybe he had already gotten a lift with someone.
The cleared area was only one lane wide. The traffic took voluntary turns which lane was to move. Within five minutes of the very slow moving traffic passing us we got a ride in a 15 passenger van heading to Aguaytia.We piled in tossing all gear inside… no time to tie it on top.
View from the van we entered on the other side of the obstruction. Notice the oncoming line of traffic ahead
We picked up two more passengers and soon we were traveling at normal speeds on a gravel surface that passed the scenic/tourist area… and then on to asphalt. We arrived at the Aguaytia terminal terrestre about 45 minutes from entering the van. Our van was not going further. I paid for the three of us and thanked both fellow travelers for their help and companionship.
Now we had to exit this van and find a different ride to Pucallpa. Same deal. The van had to wait until it was full. We departed Aguaytia around 4PM. Was told to expect a 3 hour journey before reaching Pucallpa.
Did finally arrive Pucallpa around 7PM. Same issue… new place… new station… but in Pucallpa. Negotiated a mototaxi to take me to a previously unknown hospedaje.
Parted company with my most excellent traveling companions. We had shared an adventure together all the way from Tocache to Tingo and Tingo to Pucallpa. I thanked them both once again and admitted that I would probably be taking a shower and then go immediately to sleep after arriving at my hostel. They chuckled and nodded. I am privileged to have met many wonderful strangers. I hope I added value to their lives in some way.
Negotiated for suitable lodgings in Pucallpa. Alone in my room I peeled my sweaty togs from my weary frame, stood under a glorious cold water shower for ten minutes, dried myself and hit the sack.
Was up early next morning. Hailed a mototaxi to take me to the (new to me) port of Pucallpa and located the Henry cargo vessel area. Spoke with a captain of a vessel that was departing at 6PM.
Was worn out from the mad dash from Chachapoyas to Pucallpa and all of the ‘adventuring’ in between. Did not get aboard the vessel leaving at 6PM that day. I was wiped out. Stayed a few more days in Pucallpa which was new to me. Much, much larger than the other Amazon basin ports I now know. Larger than Ecuador’s Francisco de Orellana (Coca to the locals) and much larger than Peru’s Yurimaguas.
As vessels arrive Pucallpa from Iquitos… they have to unload all cargo and then reload cargo destined for Iquitos. That process takes three days. Did get aboard one of those vessels on Saturday, the 15th of March.
Stay tuned for the next exciting entry.