Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 11. Peru: jewel of the Andes

peru_map_outline_titleOver the past few days, I have exchanged some messages on Facebook with the son of a former PhD student of mine from Peru, Dr  Carlos Arbizu. The son, also named Carlos, is currently a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin.

The Arbizu family hails from the fair city of Ayacucho, in the central Andes, almost 600 miles by road southeast of Lima. And it was a photo that Carlos Jr had posted on Facebook recently that made me think about the various travels Steph and I enjoyed around Peru during the two and a half years we lived and worked in Peru. And then I realized that I hadn’t blogged very much about our travels around Peru, although I have posted several stories about our time and work there.

Abra Apacheta

Carlos’ photo was taken at a location known as Abra Apacheta and, as you can see, it’s rather high (map). He confirmed that this place is on the road between Pisco on the coast, and Ayacucho, capital of the Department of the same name further east. But the condition of the road looks significantly better today than in 1974 when Steph and I took our 1600 cc VW Variant on the same trip. I also remember rather a lot of mud somewhere near the top, and great relief when we eventually ploughed through it and reached a slightly firmer road surface on the long descent towards Ayacucho.

I purchased the VW in the UK in September 1972 (for about £1200 tax free), used it for three months, and then it was shipped from Liverpool to Callao. And it served us well for the three years we lived in Peru.

Just a few days after Steph arrived in Peru in early July 1973, we took a day trip up the Santa Eulalia valley near Chosica. This would become one of our favorite short trip destinations.

Steph and I made these long road trips:

  1. Lima-Pisco-Ayacucho-Huancayo-Lima (September 1973)
  2. Lima-Huaraz-Trujillo-Cajamarca-Lima (in June 1974, with our friends John and Marion Vessey)
  3. Lima-San Ramon-Lima (with a day trip by air to Puerto Bermudez, September 1974)
  4. Lima-Arequipa-Puno-Arequipa-Lima (November 1974)

Lima-Pisco-Ayacucho-Huancayo-Lima (map)
to tell the truth, I don’t remember too many details. It seemed like a long climb to the top, and even longer down to Ayacucho. Carlos Arbizu Jr mentioned a duration of 17 hours for the journey. I guess I must have told his father about it once upon a time. Of course Ayacucho became an extremely unsafe place to travel after about 1975 as it was a center of terrorist Sendero Luminoso activity. In 1973 it was a lovely city, with a beautiful Plaza de Armas. The continuation of our journey took us north to Huancayo (location of CIP’s mountain research station) along the valley of the Rio Mantaro. The road was so narrow, with many steep drops into the river below that, in 1973 at least, traffic was only permitted in each direction on alternate days.

Steph was a keen aficionado of cacti, so we had to stop frequently especially on the road north from Ayacucho before we reached the Rio Mantaro valley.

Lima-Huaraz-Trujillo-Cajamarca-Lima (map)
In May 1973 (just a few months after I’d joined CIP), my colleague Zosimo Huaman and I made a month-long collecting trip to the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad. The scenery is stunning, so I had to take Steph there.


Marion, Steph, and John on 13 October 1973 – the day Steph and I were married in Miraflores town hall. John and Marion were our witnesses, and we celebrated afterwards at La Granja Azul near Chosica.

And we were joined by our friends John and Marion Vessey (John was a plant pathologist at CIP).

We stayed in Huaraz in the Callejón de Huaylas, and traveled north from there to view the destruction of the earthquake from May 1970 in the former towns of Ranrahirca and Yungay just below Peru’s tallest mountain, Huascarán. We also visited the famous archaeological site at Chavín de Huantar east of Huaraz. It was on that part of the journey that I slammed into a small boulder in the road. I couldn’t see any damage so we continued. The following day as we climbed out of the Callejón de Huaylas towards the coast, i could hear creaking from the rear of the car, and I discovered that one of the shock absorber mountings had been damaged. In fact there was a split, so we limped back into Huaraz to see if it could be repaired. I didn’t have much hope of finding a replacement. Well, as soon as the mechanic had jacked the car up, the mounting split and the wheel almost fell off. With some judicious welding, we were on our way again after a little over an hour. I soon had all the shock absorbers replaced with heavy duty ones.

On the coast, near Casma we visited the archaeological site of Cerro Sechín that has a collection of the most extraordinary carved stones depicting severed heads and the like, obviously the site of a battle.

Peru 027

Battle carvings at Cerro Sechin.

And from the coast, we climbed back up into the Andes to Cajamarca, probably my favorite city in the mountains. It’s not so high, around 2700 m, and has a very pleasant climate. I had visited just a month earlier as part of a three week collecting trip that I made throughout the Department.

Two memories stand out. First, the leche asada (or crème caramel) for which Cajamarca is famous. And the Inca hot baths where we spent a relaxing couple of hours. Cajamarca had in the 1970s a thriving dairy industry. Cajamarca cheese was justly renowned. The British overseas aid had a veterinary team based in Cajamarca, and their offices were located in a renovated ranch house (or finca). The cathedral in the Plaza de Armas was never completed, but the carving of the stonework is exquisite.

Lima-San Ramón-Lima (map)
CIP had a field station on San Ramón (just 770 m altitude), where germplasm was tested for adaptation to warm climates, as well as resistance to various diseases. My work didn’t take me there, so Steph and I decided to go and see for ourselves. The first part of the journey was the same as traveling to Huancayo, but turning north towards Tarma before reaching Huancayo. Tarma is famous for its flower production. The drop down to San Ramón from there is quite spectacular, and it’s quite a sensation to feel the air getting much warmer and more humid as you descend. On one day we drove on to La Merced along the Rio Chanchamayo. On another day we took a light aircraft from San Ramón to the hamlet of Puerto Bermudez on the Rio Pichis, which is apparently the geographical center of Peru. We hired a dugout canoe for a trip upriver, from which there is a great view west towards the escarpment of the east side of the Andes. We faced our return flight with some trepidation. The weather en route was a little stormy, and San Ramón was rained in. There were no seats for us passengers, so we sat on upturned empty beer crates. And our travel companions were several pig carcasses. We lived to tell the tale.

Lima-Arequipa-Puno-Arequipa-Lima (map)
It’s a long drive to Puno, although I’d made the same trip in January that year to carry out field studies at Cuyo-Cuyo. We drove only as far as Arequipa, and then decided to take a communal taxi (or colectivo) for the rest of the trip over the mountains to Puno, which lies at over 4000 m above sea level.

Arequipa is a lovely city and its Plaza de Armas is framed with the  El Misti volcano in the background. The cathedral dates back to the late 17th century. Another site we visited was the Santa Catalina monastery, built almost like a small Spanish village with painted ochre walls.

In Puno we took a trip to the floating islands on Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world), inhabited by the Uru people. The beautiful boats made from the totora reeds are used for everyday activities, including school classes, and even growing potatoes. On another day we headed north from Puno to see the Aymara stone towers or chullpas of the Colla people at Sillustani on the shore of Lake Umayo. The chullpas were family tombs, and the stonework is fantastic.

We traveled back to Arequipa to pick up our car, and return to Lima, a journey of two days.

I was lucky to visit Machu Picchu within a week of arriving to Lima in January 1973, and although Steph and I were married in Lima in October that year, we didn’t go away on honeymoon until December, when we visited Cuzco (and Machu Picchu) by air. In Cuzco we visited the famous fortress of Sacsayhuaman.

On the Sunday we went by taxi to the market at Pisac in the Urubamba valley, about 30 km northeast of Cuzco.

Of course I made other trips in the course of my work, and Steph and I regularly traveled to Huancayo for field work, that involved crossing Ticlio, one of the highest passes in the Andes.

Peru 037


One thought on “Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 11. Peru: jewel of the Andes

  1. lovely memories!!, you would not recognize a) Ticlio, Misty or any snow mountians because they are practically melted away!wiith global warming especially severe at high altitude in the ecuator. ! the cities have grown enormously, Lima is 9 million and the traffic is “halting all way” the roads are improved but carry 10 times the traffic. .. However, there is less poverty… as far as native potatoes goes there is a great controversy as to how much genetic erosion there has been, not as much as Jack Hawkes predicted. but the area is much reduced!! however there are at least 16,000 subsistance farmers who grwo native varietie on less then 1 ha (2012 ag census) and still in the lovely mixtures which you so masterfully registered!! great to know that Arbizus son is in wisconsin!!


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