“I came all the way in a lifeboat, and ate marmalade. Bears like marmalade.” [Paddington Bear, 13 October 1958]
This wasn’t marmalade. Far from it. In front of us was stretched the baked crispy skin of a Guinea Pig, known locally as Cuy and all my childhood perceived opinions of Peruvian food had been thrown out the window. We ate the Guinea Pig, of course, and apart from being a bit bony, they were actually pretty darn tasty, as were the Alpaca Steaks and the Anticuchos (Skewered Cow Hearts) we had tried. We’d had Ceviche too, drunk local brews and supped on the feety goodness of Coca Tea as well. So while we hadn’t yet found any of the marmalade that Peru’s most famous export had been so fond of, we’d certainly found an impressively varied selection of local delicacies to have a taste of.
And variety is indeed the beauty of South America; in all things. You can be surfing in warm Pacific waters on one day, and plunging into icy glacial lagoons surrounded by mountain tops the next. It’s quite a transformation, and I don’t just mean in my shocked nether regions, but more so in just how easy it is to flit between ecosystems and landscapes here, and then unavoidably it’s cuisine. This is the case for much of the north western part of the continent, where the towering spine of The Andes divides the Pacific Ocean and some of the worlds richest waters, fed by the Humbolt Current, and the Amazon basin to the east, where begins the largest rainforest on earth. In amongst all this, if we weren’t spoilt enough for choice already, hundreds of ancient tribes and civilisations have kindly left a collection of treasures, mysteries and clues into the past that are still being discovered today. It really is quite a place.
While the majority of countries in these parts have their fair share of the above, it’s probably fair to say that Peru has a bigger haul than most. This is a land steeped in history and tradition, a land of remote jungle tribes and high Andean plains, where little has changed for centuries, civilisations have risen and been conquered, and where dreadlocked Rastafarian wannabes charge around on quad bikes selling massages and sunglasses. Hang on a second….what? Rastafarians? In Peru? That can’t be right can it? We certainly didn’t think so, but then all of a sudden, we somehow found ourselves in Mancora.
We hadn’t ever really planned to go there to be honest, it just kind of happened. Having spent our last few days in Ecuador in Baños and Cuenca, we then set about finding our way down into Peru. There’s several options available for this, none of them appealing mind you, but when the Lonely Planet described the Huaquillas – Tumbes overland crossing as ‘the most dangerous in South America’, well what other way was there to go? We comfortably survived the crossing, despite some confusion from the authorities on both sides on what was actually required to cross a border, and then Mancora was just there, luring us in. Sunny, seductive and scarily laid back, we found ourselves in one of those seaside spots where the only sound aside from the waves and the chatter of scraggy haired surfer types, was the roar of those bloody quad bikes and a dozen sound systems competing against one another. Luckily enough for us however, we had an escape. A recently emigrated friend and her Peruvian other half were holidaying in nearby Punta Sol, who aside from giving us a welcome chance for a catch up and to see some friendly faces, also generously gave us our first taste of some of the aforementioned national delicacies. We ate unbelievably good Ceviche with fish freshly caught from the ocean, enjoyed an extensive introduction to Pisco (a Peruvian brandy), and were sunburnt on a wonderfully deserted beach. It was best we left before we got too settled. Huanchaco was our next port of call, another small town on Peru’s northern coast. It had surf – filthy surf with enragingly uncatchable waves I might add – but we were now coming into the Peru we had been expecting. Away from the coast, where the local fisherman still take to sea in their reed constructed Caballitos, it was here that we found our first set of ruins. After a wander through the mind bogglingly big leftovers of pre-Columbian Chan Chan, once home to 60’000 inhabitants but now only to a few Peruvian Hairless Dogs and several more aggressive Peruvian Hairless Tour Guides, we took a combi bus to Las Huacas del Sol y de Luna. Here we found a work in progress, where several layers of sand covered temples are still being peeled back for archeologists eyes and for tourist cameras. Due to the nature of how these temples were buried before being built over and over again by the Moche people, the quality of the original walls is astounding – deep, rich colours and ornate artwork from around 1300-1400 AD were still looking far better than any paint job I could do at home. It’s thought that the Moche used Huaca de la Luna as a site for human sacrificial offerings each time El Niño swung by and sent their weather a bit wonky, where defeated warriors were stripped naked, bled to death and thrown to the gods (and the vultures). Probably worth thinking about next time you grumble about some light drizzle. For days now we’d had dazzling sunshine, and if the weather hadn’t changed much the next morning, the scenery certainly had. From the barren, dusty surroundings of Huanchaco we had made our way by overnight bus to Huaraz, a small bustling city high up in the Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas. All around us were craggy peaks and mountainous valleys just waiting to be explored, and we got a stuck straight in with an acclimatisation walk up to Laguna Wilcacocha where the dramatic vistas left us as breathless as the thin, mountain air. I’d never really given much thought to the effects of altitude, certainly not at any level I’d be going to, but as 10 year old school girls and an elderly man with a gammy leg carrying a selection of car parts strolled up past us with ease, we could only look on – doubled over and wheezing – and realise that actually, maybe it does make a difference after all. Not to be deterred however, we went even higher the next day with a walk to nearby Laguna 69. This was the kind of walk that makes all the effort worthwhile; a long, lung busting clamber up to 4600 metres and then a spot of lunch in some driving sleet. Perfect. We’d found Huaraz to be a special place, as mountain towns often are. Besides the incredible surroundings, there was a vibrancy and energy to the town that was infectious. Streets bustled with rosy cheeked Andeans offering their wares, where small markets clung to street corners and a bewildering array of goods were traded. Guinea Pigs and Alapcas changed hands, as did Chickens, Ducks and Quail, sacks of unknown grains and a whole host of other fare, bought and sold amongst a babble of activity. Try as we might however, amongst all the foods and goods on offer, we found no Marmalade, and so alas, there were no bears from darkest Peru.