4. Cold Tropics

Saint Ignatius Loyola Jesuit College in Sechura invites
you to a beauty pageant for the title of "Miss Christian Love."
Participants should sign up in the Chapel of Saint Mary of Egypt.
Poster on a bus stop in Sechura

Panamerican Highway goes along the entire length of the coast of Peru, mostly following Inca roads. In the northern part called Sechura Desert, rains fall every El Ninyo year, but further south they are much more rare. One of the geological attractions of Sechura are perritos, or structured dunes. They look like hills of sand up to fifty meters high, covered with a regular fractal pattern of ordinary dunes. They are said to exist only in Sechura, but I've seen some in Gashun Gobi, too.

At the northern edge of Sechura there is a large Nature reserve called Cerros de Amotape. It is heavily overgrazed by cattle, so the only vegetation left are large cacti and African-style acacia trees. It is a good place for desert birds, small mammals, and rare "Sechura crocodiles" (large Teyovaranus sechurae lizards).

Coastal cities of Peru look very depressing: chaotic flocks of dilapidated barracks, cardboard sheds, tents, and oil rigs in the middle of garbage-covered gray stone desert. Wind carries dust, plastic bags, and cold fog over this post-nuclear war landscape.

I didn't see any rains in Sechura, but I got a glimpse of what it might look like in El Ninyo years. At a sharp curve of the road an overturned tanker truck was lying on its side. The water had apparently spilled into the sand, because the truck was surrounded by a circle of blooming flowers. A sand toad was walking around in search of rain-filled ponds. The only other places with something green were coastal hills. Tiny Tillandsia plants grow there. They use their roots only for anchoring themselves, and get al moisture from garrua fog. Further inland there's no life at all, except for gray-headed gulls, who nest in the desert but fly to the sea for food.

South from Sechura is a chain of oases rich with archaeological sites, mostly centered around the ancient adobe city of Chan Chan. Among many interesting artifacts in the city museum are two clay whistles made in the shape of tinamou birds. They look identical, but one produces male bird's call, and the other one female's. Most of local cultures had a cult of Spondilys clams (their shells are red with long spikes, and resemble setting sun). The mollusks are still common along the shore; I found some just off the beach. In a small town called Huanchaco you can try surfing on caballitos, reed boats used by local fishermen. They are so small that you sit on top of them, not inside.

Peru had the most boring roadside graffiti of all countries I've been to. There were only three slogans "Elect so-and-so president", "elect so-and-so deputy", "so-and-so is Fujimori's friend." If the names of recommended deputies change, it means you've just crossed a provincial border.

The most impressive archeological site is Sechin, a mysterious city in a canyon a few miles from the seashore. It is a huge burial complex with hundreds of skeletons, all mutilated. The city wall is made of large rock slabs decorated with scenes of torture and sadistic executions. The best time to visit is at sunset: the shadows make images more visible, and the rocks turn blood-red. Black slopes above the city are dotted with caves, a dark labyrinth with mummies and more torture scenes painted on the walls. Nobody knows who built Sechin, and why.

It probably takes some nerve to pick up a hitchhiker near Sechin after dark, but I got on a passing truck within five minutes. When I woke up, it was dawn. We had just crossed the barren mountains of Cordillera Negra, and the icy peaks of Cordillera Blanca were rising ahead. Between us and the peaks was a dark narrow canyon, with a tiny church on the bottom, its windows lit by candlelight from inside. It was a strikingly beautiful view, but it only lasted a second. One more turn, and we were in a broad valley, rolling toward Huascaran peak.

Cordillera Blanca is famous for alluvias, flash floods caused by avalanches or rock slides falling into glacial lakes. The area capital Huaraz has been wiped off the face of the Earth twice. After each disaster the city was rebuilt at the same place, and a statue of Christ was put on a hill nearby to commemorate the event. The statue and the city gets bigger every time. Although popular with tourists and mountaineers, it is a quiet and relatively cheap place. Just above Huaraz are Llaganuco lakes, blue ovals in a black rocky canyon right at the base of Huascaran. Lake shores are lined with forests, and the entire canyon is full of birds. The most spectacular ones are large white Andean geese.

A very bumpy jeep road goes from the lakes to a high pass across the Cordillera. I didn't expect any rides, but was picked up by a police car. The policemen were very nervous and held tight to their machine guns. We were entering traditional Sendero Luminoso territory. I got off the car at the pass to hike down the other side. It was a cold and beautiful place. Blue icefalls of Huascaran were just above the road. Sharp-pointed pyramid of Nevada Alpamayo, said to be the most beautiful peak in the Americas, could be seen further north. A caracara landed on a frozen puddle of water nearby, and started pecking on the ice. I came close and saw a tiny black Atelopus toad swimming under the ice. Its black color apparently allowed it to catch enough sun to remain active in almost-frozen water.

These mountains look very different from the ones we are used to at higher latitudes, because there is no winter here. The broad belt with little or no vegetation between subalpine meadows and snow-covered peaks is missing; grass is so lush near the snow line that cattle can graze there. Herds of cows and sheep around tiny huts made it all look like Switzerland. There were lots of beautiful flowers in the meadows, such as funny-looking puias, tiny cacti, and splendid "rhododendrons of the Andes" (Bejaria). Large flocks of finches and buntings, some of them bright-blue, were feeding in the grass.

When Julia left for home, she gave me her sleeping bag. But both our sleeping bags were very light, so nights at high altitudes weren't very comfortable. At dawn I hiked to the first village, then passed a dozen more. Even in the Caucasus, people were less hospitable than in this area. As soon as they saw me, the entire village would run out to meet me, shake my hand, and give me some bread for the road. And it wasn't a particularly remote place: tourists passed through every year. Eventually I descended into a deep dry valley. The same police Jeep showed up, and took me to the next junction.

I hiked southward for an hour, then got a ride in an open trunk. I was the second passenger there. The first one was a poorly dressed guy about twenty years old. He remained silent for a few hours, then suddenly showed me a pocket knife about half the size of a pencil, and said:

"Listen here! I am from Sendero! Give me all your money!"

I got out my pocket knife, which was two centimeters longer, and told him I was a professional communist killer. He shut up for three more hours, then said:

"Would you give me some money, please? I have to get to Lima, and I can't buy a ticket!"

I was sure he was lying about Sendero, and would've probably helped him. But when we stopped at a gas station, the driver told me quietly:

"Be careful with this guy! He is from Sendero! They are very bad people! They kill everybody!"

I still was skeptical, and decided to wait. It was dark already. Fluffy mountain foxes could be seen crossing the road every hour or two. Lines of grassland fires were creeping up the slopes in the distance. We were both very cold. When we got to San Luis, the guy followed me around the town, still begging for money. Finally I gave him five cents, and told him that he could buy a bus ticket to the first stop, but go all the way to Lima. I don't know if he made it. It was so late that it didn't make sense to look for a hotel, so I walked to Laguna Puruay, a lake not far from the town. Dwarf forest around the lake was a living museum of ferns, small orchids, mosses, and hummingbirds. At dawn, rare mountain tapirs and Andean deer could be seen at the forest edge.

I hitchhiked over another mountain pass, almost completing the full circle around Huascaran, got to Pachabamba village, and hiked along a dirt road leading uphill. The sun set, and it was so cold that I could hear water puddles cracking as they froze over. In many hours of climb I saw only one living thing, a skunk. Its fur was so long that the animal looked like a rolling black-and-white ball. I got to a ranger station of Huascaran National Park, and spent the night there. I had to wake up the rangers in the middle of the night, but they were very happy to see me.

The small valley above the station is known to locals and map publishers as Puya Raimondii, after a rare plant that grows there, the largest member of bromeliad family. A few small groves of giant puias are scattered in remote parts of Peru and Bolivia, but only in this valley there are more than a hundred of them. Puya raimondii grows at 5,000 m, among sparse grass and tiny cacti covered with dense white hair. It looks like a huge ball of pointed narrow leaves on top of a short trunk. It blooms only once in its lifetime, producing a green pillar up to ten meters tall, covered with hundreds of thousands of flowers. These strange prickly spheres provide food and shelter for an impressive variety of wildlife. Birds nest between the leaves or in woodpecker holes in flowering pillars. Hummingbirds, finches, and insects feed on nectar. Weasels and rodents live at the base of the trunks, while hawks use puia tops as observation posts.

Then I got on a bus to the coast. It was packed tight with coca-chewing locals. Chatting and laughing, we rolled down, watching the mountains become more and more dry and barren. At a gas station I went out to stretch my legs and saw an old native man standing nearby, with two large burlap bags at his feet. Something was moving inside the bags.

"What's in there?" I asked.

"Chinchilla," he smiled.

"Wow," I thought, "that's something rare." Chinchillas are extinct almost everywhere in the Andes, and I didn't expect to see any in Peru. I asked him to show me the chinchillas, and he got one animal out of a bag. It was a Guinea pig.

"And here?" I pointed to the second bag.

"Legerro," he put two fingers to his head, as if showing me that the animal had horns.

"What's that? May I have a look?"

"No. They are too fast, they will escape."

It took me a few minutes to convince him, while the bus was waiting. Finally he agreed, and carefully untied the bag. Inside was a domestic rabbit.

We descended further and crossed a very thin layer of fog. The area of its influence was only about a hundred meters wide, forming a narrow belt of cacti and tillandsias on mountain slopes. Below was absolute desert, gray and lifeless. In this part of the coast, rains only fall two-three times per century, in the years of exceptionally strong El Ninyos. It is too long for most seeds to wait, so even after rains there isn't much green. There is some life in the desert, but it is very localized.

It was already dark when I got off the bus at a turnoff with “Loma de Lachay 5 km” sign. I left the Panamerican Highway and hiked up a narrow paved road for three hours. There was still nothing around except for sand and stones. Finally a pair of headlights appeared from behind, and I waved down a huge truck with a dozen people in the open trunk. "Are you crazy?" they shouted, "you shouldn't be here! There are bandits all around! Get up in the trunk, quickly! How did you get here?"

They told me that the sign was at a wrong junction, and the road to Loma de Lachay was a few miles to the north. They were carrying a truckful of tangerines to a town up in the hills, but promised to get me to Loma road on their way back.

"What do you need Loma for?" one of the guys asked me.

"I'm a zoologist."

"What a coincidence! I also want to be a zoologist! Science is our future! But my father is an illiterate peasant. He doesn't understand me. He can only think about money and oranges. He says he will only pay for my university if I study for an agronomist. He just isn't cultured enough. He and his stupid oranges make me sick!"

I wanted to ask him if his father's money made him sick, too, but couldn't stop consuming the tangerines. They were the best I've ever tasted.

A couple hours before dawn I finally got to the right turnoff, and started climbing across low sand dunes. From time to time I turned on my flashlight and looked around, but there was nothing to see except for gray rippled sand. Suddenly I felt a strange aroma in the air: fresh smell of young grass and opening buds. "That's how you go crazy," I thought. But the smell was not a hallucination. I turned on the flashlight, kneeled, and saw that the sand was covered with rounded green leaves the size of a cent, distributed evenly over its surface. They were green and tender, and looked absolutely alien in the middle of endless desert. The higher climbed the road, the larger they were. Soon the dunes were all green, grass appeared, and then trees. I was in a loma meadow, a bizarre world brought to life by winter fogs.

The word loma means a low hill. These meadows exist in a few locations in Peru and northern Chile, on hillslopes facing the ocean. Most of the year there is only sand and dry snags there. But in late winter tiny leaves of Hymenocallus amaucoes appear, followed with yellow flowers, grasses, ferns, and sand algae. One snag out of ten is alive, and it gets covered with foliage. This wonder exists for two or three months before disappearing without a trace.

The central area of the loma was inhabited by millions of snails. I saw a few deer there, and wondered how they managed to survive the dry season. There were lots of hummingbirds around. They feed on nectar during the foggy months, and on cacti sap for the rest of the year. Cacti look more like snakes in these hills, they mostly hide in rock crevasses. Other residents were flocks of seedsnipes, finches, and tiny lizards. The lizards were so fast that they were able to fly from one dune to another by gaining speed, then flattening their body and gliding in the air for about a second.

I hitchhiked to Lima, visited one more museum, and went to the bus station. A large cage with a toucan was hanging in the waiting hall. "Look what a nice pelican!" said mothers, showing it to their kids.

South from Lima is Pisco, famous for nearby "guano islands". The guano has mostly been mined, but the seabirds colonies are still very impressive, with millions of pelicans, cormorants, and boobies. Other species became rare because they used to nest in burrows dug into guano layers, but they still can be seen. One would expect such an enormous concentration of birds to be consuming all fish around the islands, but the productivity of these waters is so high that there is plenty of anchovies left. Lots of birds in the ocean are not local residents, but visitors from other places, sometimes very remote. The most striking inhabitants of the islands are huge Southern sea lions and weird-looking Inca terns.

Interestingly, pelagic fauna of these waters is mostly of polar origin, while bottom animals are mostly from the tropics. Tropical mollusks such as Murex, Oliva, Voluta, and Conus live there, but have very dull-colored and heavy shells. All of them occur as far south as Tierra del Fuego. I later found the same observation in Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, but he also couldn't come up with any explanation.

The coast south from Pisco is the driest desert in the world. It has been raining there only two-three times since La Conquista, and some valleys apparently have had no rains since the Ice Age. Coastal fogs are relatively week there. River valleys are very far apart. Somehow the Incas managed to build a road along the coast, and maintained regular connection between the oases using professional long-distance runners. The road was mostly paved over during the construction of Panamerican Highway, but the ruins of roadside rest stations can still be seen.

Not far from a town of Ico is Chauchilla, a large open-air cemetery with tousands of sitting mummies. Further south is the famous Nazca Plateau. It is not as lifeless as some other parts of the desert. There are dry creek beds in the area, and dead bushes. Closer to Nazca Oasis there is some grass, finches and mice. Ground water is probably close to surface there. Then you have to travel for a few more hundred miles with no living things at all. Only if the road is very close to coast, you can see a chain of gulls, sandpipers, and oystercatchers, lining the shore as they wait for low tide.

In Arequipa I turned inland, and got off the bus at Cruz del Condores, a famous observation point at the rim of Colca Canyon, the deepest in South America. Hundreds of tourists arrive there every morning to see condors, but most see nothing at all (guides usually point to small eagles or hawks and say they are condors). Condors nest in rock niches below the point, but they leave very early, using an uplift created by morning breeze at dawn. Tourist and regular buses arrive well after sunrise, so the only way to get good views is to spend a freezing night there. But it won't be boring. I counted 25 species of rodents and 7 species of hummingbirds. Even tiny green parrots lived among the rocks.

Morning flight of the condors is one of the most impressive things to see in South America. They enjoy the uplift so much that they start playing, sometimes making loops, rolls, and other aerobatic maneuvers. Young birds are very inquisitive and often fly so close to you that you can look them in the eyes.

Native people of Peru and Bolivia have very beautiful folk music, but the only place to hear it is in tourist centers. Locals mostly listen to abominable pop hits. A bus trip from Arequipa to Cuzco may seem very long if you are sensitive to such things, especially if you can understand words. But getting to Cuzco is worth the torture.

Back to Contents