We were excited to reach Peru, to finally visit the tremendous archeological site of Machu Picchu. But before heading to the heart of the Inca civilization we were advised by fellow travelers: “You should not miss Laguna Parón. It's a must do in Peru!”. The lake located at 4,185m height in Cordillera Blanca stands out for its turquoise glacier waters and the surrounding majestic mountains that some say inspired the Paramount’s film studio logo. We were thrilled for the proposition, so we departed from the northern border of Peru on the coast line on a 1000 km journey to the heights of the Peruvian Andes. On iOverlander application there were various safety warnings of gun point robberies on the seashore. Excitement and anxiety became again our road partners. We were wondering: “How can we avoid getting into trouble and still see these amazing places?”.
What we thought to be a mission, became one of our most surprising and pleasant overlanding experiences. It was more than its epic nature and prehistoric culture, it was about overcoming fears, memorable encounters and building lifetime friendships when we least expected.
Crossing the border from Ecuador into Peru
In order to reach Laguna Parón we had to cross first the border of Ecuador with Peru and continue for more than 800 kilometers on the coastline until we would head east towards the Andean town of Caraz, the departure base to Laguna Parón.
Exiting Ecuador was fairly easy but entering Peru was an awkward experience. What we thought to be an easy vehicle inspection process turned into something else. About five custom officers inspected our truck very thoroughly, and for a long time. Whilst they were inspecting they were asking us weird questions, such as: “How much does it cost a truck like this?” They were searching inside doors, sounding tanks and all talking in the same time. It was a mess. If they were looking for drugs, it would have been much more logical to have a dog. At some point we were worried they could be onto something. JP and I were vigilant, trying to keep an eye on all of them. After some time of continuous scrutiny, they have let us go. I guess they were just curious of our green alien Brutus and what were we doing in Peru. “Who are these weird people?” they might have thought.
TIP papers stamped and we were out of there! Pfew! Peru here we come!
We had 75km to reach Swiss Wasi campground, a well rated beach spot with all the infrastructure and security needed to overnight in a safe place. The road unveiled a dusty desert with few houses scattered on the side lane. It was full of topes and rubbish everywhere. It seemed that people were abandoning all sorts of waste on the side road. We were in shock. What a desolating entrance, we thought.
Concerned about the crime warnings on Peru’s coastline and with that gloomy image emerging in front of us, we have deflated: "Is it going to be like this? Are we going to be safe?”
Driving in this environment, out of nowhere, there is this kid, hitchhiking on the byway. We definitely reckoned he was not a local. “Look at this guy! What is he doing here?" we were talking to each other. It was a contrasting image we couldn’t pass by without stopping. Fynn was a typical German looking like guy, blond hair, blue eyed, probably he was 2m height and in his early 20s. We stopped, opened the window and asked him straight away: “What are you doing here? Isn’t it too dangerous for you?”. He welcomed us with a big smile, relaxed and a very friendly attitude. “No. People are very friendly and nice here. I am just a backpacker, I am not a target”. We found that sense of freedom and adventure a bit naive, but Fynn found it normal. He explained that he was traveling in South America for a while and that day he left Cuenca, Ecuador to reach Cajamarca in Peru. He mentioned: “I found a Pre-Inca archeological site where I want to volunteer.” We were more afraid for his safety than he was. In my eyes he looked like the perfect target for a desperate thief: a vulnerable young foreigner in the middle of nowhere with all his belongings attached to him. Considering that we were only 7km away from our campsite we tried to convince Fynn to overnight there. So we took him on board.
When we got to the camping spot, Fynn realized the camping fees were too high for his backpacker budget. Then we asked: “What is your budget for the night Fynn”? He said: “0” :-).
The Swiss couple who owned the place didn’t want to make any concession. We found that not very considerate bearing in mind that Fynn was just a young traveller wanderlust in South America. But the boy managed his way! The property next door allowed him to camp his tent for free! We were so happy to see him safe, playing with the owner’s dog by the beach. We joined him for a while and enjoyed for the first time a beautiful calm sunset by the Pacific shores forgetting about all the supposing dangers. Fynn positiveness, free spirit and courage inspired us.
The following day we departed towards Trujillo. Half an hour as we were driving south we found Fynn again trying to get a ride on the side road. JP was laughing: “Look who’s on the side road hitchhiking!”. It was such a funny coincidence to see him again. We felt it was a bit too much to give him a ride all the way to Piura. It is not legal to drive anybody in the living cell and it’s dangerous as well. If anything happens he can’t communicate with the driving cabin and we could all get into serious trouble. But we felt pity for Fynn and were afraid of anything worse happening to him. So with all the risks involved we decided to take him on board.
Funny enough soon after we left we were stopped by the police for customs checks. They checked our importation documents, the title and wanted to see inside the living cell too. Acting normal and with a smile on my face I opened the door of the back of the truck and presented Fynn to the officer: “This is a hitchhiker we are taking with us”. To my surprise he didn’t say anything, didn’t even question it. The officer was: “All right… ok then” :). He saw the boy and said nothing. I closed the door and moved on. Pffeew!! What a relief!
After only 20km police stopped us again. It couldn’t be true. We were barely pulled over by any law enforcement officers from Alaska south the continent. When we were hiding for the first time something they would stop us too often. As always they ask us where are we going. We answered calmly that we are going to Piura, treated the situation normally and with no concern. Fortunately he let us go without further checks of the inside of the truck. We were lucky and Fynn even luckier. We all got away with it!
When we reached Piura we camped in a place a bit outskirts, called Porta Verde. Fynn decided to stay with us for the night since he was heading in the same direction the following day, towards Trujillo.
Because we had to do some grocery shopping and needed to get a pre paid sim card with internet we headed towards downtown on foot. Fynn took us on a bit of adventure. He convinced us to hitchhike for a 3km ride to the city center. Apparently in Peru is very normal to wave at regular cars for short distances and offer drivers some small change for the trip. We would probably never do that if it was not for Fynn. We felt a bit more adventurous than usual but somehow that made us feel closer to the people and Peru. Fynn was baptizing us into the country and helped us to release more of our preconceptions and fear of the unknown. Maybe we didn’t meet him by chance. Maybe we were there to take care of him and he was there to make us relax a little bit more about Peru.
The following day of course we couldn’t leave Fynn behind and with all the risks we were undertaking we took him on his way to Cajamarca. We woke up early to prepare the truck for the road trip, while Fynn as a true teenager woke up just 10 minutes before departure. He dressed up and packed his tent literally in 10 minutes. Fynn was back on board!
Without any road events, but the regular deserted landscape full of garbage we got him on his way to Cajamarca. When he left our truck it was hard to say goodbye, but we had to let go, wished Fynn good luck and to keep safe. We were sure his wanderlust in South America will help him find his true “North”.
Couple of kilometers from Trujillo city we found a safe camping spot to overnight, located in Huanchaco beach resort. As we entered the resort a misty atmosphere was unfolding: the streets were almost empty, the weather was chilly, cloudy and rainy. “What an uninviting view!” I thought. We were surprised to see instead some crazy surfers catching the huge cold waves in the drizzly background.
As we entered the gates of the camping property we thought it will be just us there. We were just hoping for a safe overnight sleep. But surprise! We found a group of cheerful surfers from California, Florida and Germany having a great time chatting and drinking beer. They approached us with a welcoming smile on their face and said: “ We love your truck!” Soon we were in the middle of a buzzy atmosphere with adventurous people in a place we thought it’s offseason, deserted and possibly dangerous. We definitely didn’t anticipate that encounter. Little did we know that Huanchaco is approved as a World Surfing Reserve, famous for its “ceviche” (delicious Peruvian food made of raw fish and spices) and “caballitos de totora”, reed watercraft used by fisherman for more than 3000 years. Actually quite an exciting place!
Jaime and David, a couple from San Francisco were the ones we connected right away. Jaime looked like a typical blond American in her early 30s, beautiful and with a warm smile on her face. While David was a typical Californian surfer, very friendly, long blond hair, tall and his body definitely trained for surfing. They were over-landing the Pan-American highway just like us. They started in California and ended up in Peru following the Pacific shores in a pick-up track and an attached living cell. Unlike us their route was focused on the coastline to find the perfect surfing waves rather than the interior of the countries. Fair enough. David was constantly in the search for the right sways. We discovered as well that we had been through the same drama in Santa Marta, Colombia. We both found out that thieves broke into our trucks while they were shipped from Panama to Colombia and stole items of material, but most importantly of emotional value. The conversations flew and we lost the track of time. We ended up going out for drinks and dinner, enjoying a casual night out and discovering that Huanchaco was not that sad as we first thought. It had a vibrant night scene with excellent street food and plenty of restaurants with ceviche and pisco sours, a typical Peruvian cocktail. Who would have thought? Pity I could not try the raw fish, nor the pisco sour. But JP had a blast.
Worried about the stories with the gun point robberies on the coastline I was still suspicious about our safety. But Jaime encouraged me to get out there in the morning for a run and check out the place by myself. Great advice! Jogging on the seafront gave me the chance to observe that police was patrolling everywhere, normal people were going to work and kids were playing in the school yards. It was the view of a normal community with its daily life. Somehow it helped me to connect, to understand that not everybody and everything represents a threat, to be less judgmental and embrace diversity. It was the moment to temper out about Peru.
Then I started to think about Fynn and I understood why he didn’t feel unsafe hitchhiking. He sort of connects with the people and the situations and is able to identify which circumstances are dangerous and which ones are just normal. Reminded me of my days in Nigeria where normally people feel unsafe, but once I understood the culture and connected with the people, I felt perfectly fine.
Getting to Caraz
Peru is a sizable country and getting to Caraz village took us four days from the border. The Andean town was in our tour plan due to its neighboring glacier lake with staggering turquoise waters located at 4,185m altitude, Laguna Parón. At the tail of the lake one can spot the snowcapped Artesonraju mountain peak. Some say it inspired the creation of the Paramount movie production logo. Plus there are plenty of hiking opportunities in the nearby Huascaran National Park.
The road from the surfing heaven Huanchaco to Caraz couldn’t have been more unpredictable. From a plain field with desert land at sea level we were ascending Cordillera Blanca getting through an arid terrain with dry summits and an apparent lifeless landscape. Somehow we felt on the moon although we had never been there 🙂
We decided to take a shortcut through the arid mountains. It turned out to be actually the long way :)) We got on 1N from Trujillo and then just before Chimbote we took the 123 road. We continued on 12 and then 3N up to Caraz. Because the roadway was unpaved and curvy we took forever to get to Caraz. Some areas had very narrow strips of land suspended on the rocky mountains with huge gaps below us. We passed through lots of tunnels built through the stones of the cordilleras. Scary how it was it proved to be absolutely spectacular. From a moon like environment, the scenery got greener and greener up to the point when we spotted farming in the mountain valleys. Simply enchanting and uncommon.
We arrived late afternoon in Caraz and chose to stay at Guadalupe campground. The town located at 2,250m height welcomed us with a fresh mountain air. The streets were narrow and the houses connected one to another. Most of them seemed unfinished with no coating and often no roof, overall they seemed to be in a poor condition. People were short, had more of an indigenous look, while the majority of women stood out wearing traditional hats and their Andean colorful dresses.
Guadalupe campground was located at the outskirts of Caraz. It had a flat grassy area in a generous property with all the infrastructure needed for overlanders: water, electricity, wifi and a social place to meet other travelers. Its ample location at the base of Cordillera Blanca brought a feeling of tranquility the moment we arrived.
Tensions between me and JP escalated that afternoon. I can not even remember why, but being on the road together 24/7 it was a reason enough. We always found things to debate and argue about.
While JP was trying to figure out where to park and to pay the camping fees, he found some acquaintances from his hometown Porto Alegre, Brazil. He returned to the truck presenting me Caína and Luciano, a very nice couple who were surfing the waves of the Americas in a 4x4 and a tent for more than a year. Luciano, just like David was a seasoned surfer. Positiveness and calm was what Luciano inspired. While Caína was a Brazilian brunette beauty, with a constant warm smile on her face transmitting a serenity I rarely seen. They spent some time on the Pacific coast enjoying the renown surf beaches of Peru, before heading to Caraz. Here they planned to stay put for a while in the fresh valleys of the Andes. Zen, peace and love type of people. Meeting Caína and Luciano helped us to release a bit of that tension giving each other some space.
I was in the mood to cook some Romanian traditional dishes that evening, so we invited them for dinner. We had snitzel, mashed potatoes and cucumber salad in the menu.
Luciano and Caína were sharing their traveling experiences in their 4X4 and a tent. “We loved Canada and we were impressed with the kindness and hospitality of the people in North America. They offered us so many times their houses to overnight, even for longer periods”, they said. Their adventure was less comfortable without a sleeping cabin, but that didn’t seem to bother neither Caína nor Luciano. “We enjoy tenting” Caína said. “I felt more connected with the land and with the environment we come across”. The only disadvantage is the winter announcing south the continent. “We won’t be able to travel too much south without accommodation. It’s going to get too cold. And our traveling budget is heading to an end” she added. They were kind of sad having to return to Brazil. “We have no idea what we are going to do next. How it will be back to “normal” life. We don’t want that, but we have no choice. We need to make some money again”. That wonderlust lifestyle seemed to fit them perfectly.
They gave us plenty of advise on how to avoid the dangers of the coastline and where to overnight on our way to Machu Picchu.
To please me they told me the food was great, but in fact the night was magical because of their pleasant company, absolute composed mountain atmosphere and a sky full of stars at the base of the Andes.
By midnight I left them talking endlessly in their fluent Portuguese. Brazilians really love to talk :)) I was exhausted at the end of a long day and went to rest.
On our 5th year wedding anniversary, 1st of June 2018, we decided to scale up to Paron Lake or Laguna Parón how is it called by the locals. We were expecting a 32km ascent on a gravel road to 4,185m heigh starting from 2,250m, the altitude of Caraz.
We left early morning and reached the lake after 3 hours of slow and cautious driving. The road was tough, curvy, often rocky and one way. JP was thrilled by this off-road adventure. The topography was fascinating. We passed through mountain villages scattered in abrupt valleys, observing the traditional Andean life. Agriculture and cattle farming were at the core of the locals’ daily activities. We were surprised to see as well series of flowers cultivations.
And we finally reached the top! The famous Laguna Parón! We were blown away with that image: a crystal clear blue sizable water surrounded by a chain of sharp and majestic snow powdered mountain peaks. The expectations did not disappoint. The air was fresh and powerful. So powerful that I felt instantly tired. I couldn’t go for a walk, I needed to rest before doing anything. The abrupt difference in altitude took a toll on us. I slept for 3 hours and when I woke up I felt short on breathing. What was I supposed to do? We could not rush back down. JP said: “Let’s walk around a bit, breath-in, breath-out. Let’s discover the area and forget about the air issue”. “Easier said than done”, I thought. Air was everywhere, I couldn’t see how walking could ease my breathing. But the landscape was too inviting, so we departed on a short hike on the side lake.
JP couldn’t stop taking pictures. He couldn’t get enough of that view. We were fascinated by the calm and turquoise color of the laguna, the glacial peaks rising in front of us, the colorful flowers around the lake. It was a landscape that filled our hearts.
As we got to the tail of the lake absorbed by the scenery, I forgot about the breathing issue. I was feeling better. I guess he was right.
On our way back a small dog was approaching barking at us. The barking sounded familiar. “Who can be?” I was looking at JP. For a second it crossed my mind that these might be the nice and friendly Austrians, Anna Maria and Gerald, with whom we spent a great time few days back in Cuenca, Ecuador. They were the only ones with these type of dogs very typical Austrian, small, playful and always barking 🙂 Who else could had been? They knew we were there, so they caught us from behind.
“Heeelllooo” Anna Maria and Gerald appeared in front of us with a big smile on their faces. “How did you make it up here so fast?” we asked them. “We drove in one day from Trujillo to Laguna Parón” they answered. “What?” we were astounded by their endurance and very happy to realize we got the chance to see them again! Especially in this wonderful setup.
Our 5 years marriage anniversary was celebrated in the pleasant company of Anna Maria and Gerald over a platter of cheese, snacks and wine in one of the most beautiful landscapes of Peru forgetting about the breathing issue. Somehow I felt safer together. Even if we would plan for it, it wouldn’t come out that well!
When the night approached neither me nor JP could sleep well. The air was too heavy, we were breathing hard again. Our bodies were not yet acclimatized with the altitude. I had as well some tough contractions and I was really afraid for the baby. All I wanted was for the morning to come and to descent as soon as possible back to the base.
When the sun was up I felt somehow relieved, it gave me the impression that I was even breathing better. I am sure it was all in my mind. So, we could not miss going for a last walk around the lake, breathing-in, breathing-out and enjoying the radiant morning with Anna Maria and Gerald. Luckily we felt better at the end of the small hike. We arranged a picnic table afterwards and we brought our best cheeses, salamis, sausages, eggs, fruits and veggies. We had a blast over a delicious brunch admiring the pristine scenery. Anna Maria couldn’t get enough of it. She was thinking at the times when she would have to go back to work: “I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to go back to work”. Nobody wanted this trip to be over, nobody wanted this “normality” to end.
About 12pm the buses with tourists arrived and soon the enjoyment of a gorgeous place reserved only for us became crowded and noisy. It was the right time to descent back to Caraz.
I was counting every kilometer, every curve, we would advance downwards anxious to get to lower altitudes where we could breath normally and where the baby was safer. After less than three hours we were back in breathable conditions at Guadalupe secure and calm camp base.
As we returned the Brazilian couple were waiting for us. We all agreed to prepare a joint dinner over some bolognese pasta cooked by JP, lentil soup prepared by Luciano paired with red wine brought by Anna Maria and Gerald and lots of good mood.
That dinner was our good bye party. The following day we had to descend back to sea level towards Lima. We were getting ready for our next milestone in Peru, Machu Picchu.
Gerald and Anna Maria gave me a winter jacket for the cold temperatures we would encounter south, while everybody tried to comfort me offering me the best seat at the table and constantly checking on my health condition after the altitude experience. The first moments when I felt the special treatment of a pregnant lady. We were fortunate to come across with such great people when we least expected.
The next day we woke up early and prepared for a long descend towards the capital of Peru. We planned to reach in few days the former Inca capital, Cusco and the gateway to Machu Picchu. We needed couple of serious driving days back to the law-lying desert, then south the coast to Nazca city and then back up in the Andes. Not only we were about to encounter one of the most important South American attractions, but it was time for the 20 weeks pregnancy scan, a very crucial step in the development of the fetus. Anxiousness and excitement were popping up again in my heart in equal dozes!