Peru – Trujillo

The city of Trujillo is an eight-hour bus ride North of the capital. It took its name from a Spanish city in Extremadura, the birthplace of conqueror Francisco Pizarro. It is nicknamed “City of the eternal spring”, due to its mild climate, as I told you about Medellin.

As almost every city in Peru, the centre is occupied by the Plaza de Armas, that hosts colonial buildings and the cathedral.

Plaza de Armas in Trujillo

Typists working in Trujillo’s streets

Trujillo is a pleasant city, with an air of tradition due to its colonial architecture and the large number of old churches found here. Adding to this atmosphere are the typists who still sit in the streets working with their typewriters in the age of computers. I asked what they were typing and they replied: “a rental contract” ?? 😐

The surroundings of Trujillo house from a surfers beach to two of the most visited pre-Incan ruins: Chan Chan and Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. All that makes Trujillo an unavoidable stop for the minority of travellers who make it to the North of Peru, and don’t limit themselves to the aptly named “gringo trail” in the South.

I stayed in the nice coastal village of Huanchaco, that has a beach and where the coastal breeze makes the heat more bearable. Getting to or from the city centre is easy: there are many “combis” going back and forth and you can hear the conductor crying: <<¡¡Huanchaco!!! ¡¡Anchaco!! ¡¡Chaco!!…¡¡¡Huanchaco!!!>>.

In the middle of the way between Trujillo and Huanchaco lies Chan Chan, the ruins of the capital of the Chimu culture. This huge city is made of adobe brick, and it is the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and the largest adobe city in the world.

Chan Chan

Representations in the walls of Chan Chan

Built around 1300 AD, Chan Chan was conquered by the Incas, who came from Cusco, around 1470 AD. In the century that followed, the Spanish conquerors also came here and looted the city. Efforts to preserve the city have run into difficulties due to the climate pattern of El Niño, that have eroded this adobe brick city. Therefore, what we can see today is only a small part of this once great city.

Centuries before the emergence of the Chimu and the construction of Chan Chan, the Moche culture developed in the same area of Northern Peru, between the years 100 and 700 AD. This culture excelled in pottery making. A major city of this civilisation was constructed between the landmarks of Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna. It is worth going there. It is a bit farther than Chan Chan, but as usual there is also a combi going.

Huaca del Sol seen from Huaca de la Luna

The Huaca del Sol, bigger, is an enormous adobe pyramid which might have had an administrative function. The Huaca de la Luna, smaller but perhaps more important, had a religious purpose, and the main priests and rulers lived inside. The city sprawled between both landmarks, in what is now a deserted space.

Image of deity Ai Apaec

The Huaca del Sol was closed to visitors, as archeological works are underway. The visit to Huaca de la Luna is guided, which is good for learning about what happened inside. Here, human sacrificies were carried out. Two warriors fought, and the loser was jailed and sacrificed. When there were droughts, human sacrifices multiplied, in order to soothe the wrath of the gods. Just looking at the representation of these gods is pretty scary. The most important and feared was Ai Apaec, also known as ‘the beheader’. Others came in the shapes of arachnids, serpents, felines, etc.

Mural in Huaca de la Luna

The end of the Moche civilisation came around the seventh century. There was a long drought and a major El Niño. Despite the increasing sacrifices, priests and rules failed to soothe the god’s wrath and cease flooding. It is possible that the population left were fed up with making so many sacrifices and lost faith on the rulers and the system. Finally, the cities were abandoned.

Although the Incas take all the glory, Peru has seen the development of other equally important civilisations, like the Moche or the Chimu. The Incas only achieved domination of most of the territory in the century prior to the arrival of the Spanish.


Chile – The scenery in Atacama

The region of the Atacama desert is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever been to.

The bus journey from Salta (Argentina) to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) is an attraction in itself. From the road you spot snow-capped mountains, desert landscapes, high plateau lakes and even this immense salt lake, which all the passengers were gazing at:

Salt lake in Northwest Argentina

High plateau lake on the road to San Pedro

The village of San Pedro de Atacama is small and very touristy. Nearby, there are mountains, geysers, lakes, salt lakes, hot springs, dunes good for sandboarding and an endless number of other attractions. The small village is packed with hotels and tour operators.

Arid desert

The Atacama desert is the most arid in the planet. In the middle of it, some points have not registered any rain for up to 4 years. In town, there are plenty of posters prompting visitors to use water resources responsibly.

Cycling through the a road in the desert

Unfortunately, I was in a rush and I left without having seen many of the highlights of the region. What I did, however, was renting a bicycle and cycling towards one of the most impressive: the Moon Valley. This desert landscape is protected as part of a Natural Reserve.

In the National Park there is a circuit going through the salt lake, a canyon, mountains and rock formations.

Rock and salt formation

Perhaps the star of this National Park is this huge dune:

Great Dune

On the road, I could also spot some amazing landscapes with snow-capped mountains in the distance:

Snow-capped mountains in the horizon

And so I ended my cycling day through the desert with a couple of kilos less I guess, from how sweaty it was to pedal in the heat!! But naturally it was worth it. I don’t want to overload this with photos but the landscape was really spectacular.

I left San Pedro so quickly because I had to reach Santiago to take the first flight of my round-the-world ticket, to Easter Island… more to come in the next post.

Paraguay/Argentina – Iesus Hominum Salvator

Between 1609 and 1818, territories now belonging to Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil witnessed one of the most ambitious social experiments ever undertaken: the attempt to civilise indigenous guaranis through the establishment of the Jesuit Guarani Missions.

Emblem of the Jesuit order

There were 30 villages organised by the Jesuits adding up 141,182 inhabitants in 1732. All those settlements had their own school where guaranis learned art, culture and professional trades. Music, sculpture, dance and other arts flourished in the Missions. The historical assessment of this project is very controversial: some highlight the benefits that Missions brought to guaranis such as protection from slave traders, the diffusion of culture, arts and advanced agriculture techniques; others see this undertaking as an annihilation of traditional guarani lifestyle and part of the exploitative system of colonialism.

The truth is that guarani culture didn’t go extinct by any means, and guaranis kept their traditional religious practices, despite the efforts of Jesuits to convert them to Christianity. Why? The guide in San Ignacio (a guarani) put it this way: in that village population reached up to 5,000 inhabitants, and there were never more that 2 Jesuits. Today, there are still guaranis living isolated like centuries ago, and guarani language is an official language in Paraguay, spoken as much as Spanish.

In 1767, King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all the Spanish territories. The Missions decayed short after, under the bad administration of the new secular directors, and were finally abandoned altogether.

Today, we can appreciate the remains of some of these villages, although most of them are not preserved. The Argentinian province of Misiones and the South of Paraguay host the best-preserved ruins. It is worth going there to visit them and imagine how life must have been like in the Missions.

From Iguazú I travelled to Posadas, capital of the region of Misiones, and to San Ignacio, that host the most visited mission: San Ignacio Miní. It was established in 1610 in territories now belonging to Brazil, but had to be relocated twice after attacks by bandeirantes (slave and gold traffickers). A guide explains all the details of life in the Mission, which is really interesting. There was one big main square. To one side, the church, the residence of the Jesuits, the school and a cemetery; to the other, the houses of guaranis.

Facade of the church in San Ignacio Miní

After visiting San Ignacio and Posadas I crossed the frontier with Paraguay and reached Encarnación. The following day, I jumped on a bus and got to the ruins of Trinidad, equally well preserved.

Ruins of Trinidad

The visit was very different to the one in San Ignacio. There was no guide or tour around, and almost no other visitors. However, as it has a very similar layout to the one in San Ignacio, more explanations were unnecessary.

So there I was, all by my own in the whole complex, in a very quiet environment. I stayed reading for a while up in the bell tower. I thought I was having visions when I saw a married couple and their 7 small children going up the stairs. They were dressed like 19th century (kind of like Amish but leaner), with their wicker basket and speaking American English.

Mennonite family from Massachusetts

‘How the hell did they arrive to such a place?’, I wondered. When they were getting down, the father asked me if I could speak English and we started talking. I told him a bit about the history of the Missions. He said they were from Massachusetts, they belonged to a religious group called Mennonites and had come to Paraguay for a few months as part of an exchange with Paraguayan families of their church. Really weird to find this family there, they were like utterly out of place.

We continued to explore the ruins separately. I enjoyed my visit to the Missions. It is somewhat original and you can imagine how life would be in that time, and think about that kind of undertaking. Visiting those two missions seemed enough to me. There is a whole circuit, but as I mentioned, they were pretty much alike at the time, and those two are probably the best preserved.

Another feature of Paraguay is the unbearable heat. To overcome that, I went for the national drink, a good tereré (iced mate).


Brazil/Argentina – The Iguaçu Falls

After a few weeks in the big cities of Sao Paulo and Rio, I took a U-turn towards a setting of an incredible natural beauty: the Iguazú Falls.

The waterfalls are just in the frontier between Brazil and Argentina. Parts of it belong to Brazil and others (most) to Argentina. Thus, to see the whole thing you need to visit both National Parks, managed by two different countries. It is difficult to take sides on which side is better, and actually it is quite a controversial issue. In Argentina, you can wander really close to the falls along several paths. The Brazilian Park offers a great panoramic view of the falls that are actually on the Argentinian side. So you have to visit both to get a full impression of this amazing scenery.

As I was coming from Sao Paulo, I stayed in Foz do Iguacu and visited the Brazilian side first. I shouldn’t make any comments since the photos speak by themselves:

Iguacu waterfalls

Iguacu waterfalls

Hydroelectric plant at ITAIPU

Another interesting visit in Foz do Iguacu (at least for an engineer like me) is the huge dam and hydroelectric power station of Itaipu, in the frontier between Brazil and Paraguay. Its 14,000 MW of installed capacity made it the largest in the world, until the completion of the Three Gorges dam in China. In Itaipu they insist that, measuring by electricity generated (not by capacity) it still ranks as the first in the world.

Each generating unit has a power equivalent to a nuclear plant

Each generating unit has a power equivalent to a nuclear plant

This massive plant supplies 17% of the energy consumed in Brazil and 80% of Paraguay’s. Both countries hold the rights to 50% of the electricity generated, although Paraguay (a small country) resells a large part of its share to Brazil.

The following day I crossed the frontier, changed currencies and left Brazil after 1,5 months in the country. I stayed in the Argentinian village of Puerto Iguazu. This town, just as its Brazilian neighbour, lives out of the inflow of tourists that come to see the Iguazu Falls.

I spent the next day in the National Park with more and better views of the Falls:

View from below one of the waterfalls

View from above one of the waterfalls

Brazil – Gold fever, church fever

After the craziness of Carnival in Rio, I escaped for a few days to a more relaxed setting: Ouro Preto (“black gold”) and Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais, which are two of the best-preserved colonial villages in Latin America.

Main square in Ouro Preto

Villa Rica de Ouro Preto is the quintessential gold fever boom town. In the 18th century, gold production in Minas Gerais reached memorable proportions, surpassing that of all the Spanish colonies in the two centuries before. Fortune-seekers rushed to Ouro Preto, alongside thousands of slaves to provide labour in the mines. While making a fortune from gold, the rich enjoyed luxurious and ostentatious living standards. The economic centre of Brazil shifted from the North (sugar barons) to the South, and so remains until today.

From the second half of the 18th century gold production in Ouro Preto declined, and fortune-seekers moved elsewhere. Today, Ouro Preto and Mariana are two small, laid-back towns, preserved as if frozen in time.

Bridge in Ouro Preto

The main tourist drag in Ouro Preto are the 23 churches spread along the village, also owing to the gold fever. It is quite impressive that in such a small village there are that many churches, and all of them are architecturally beautiful. There was certain competition between religious orders that made them strive to build more and better churches. Blacks weren’t allowed to attend mass with whites, so they built their own temple with what they could pilfer from the mines. The style is known as Barroco Mineiro, a variation of the European style whose most acclaimed representative is Aleijadinho, an Ouro Preto native.

Two of the churches in Mariana

Ouro Preto and Mariana are both small laid-back towns, good for wandering about and admire colonial architecture or try traditional food from Minas Gerais. After that, there’s not much else to do, and after a couple of days, I headed back to Rio.