1700km of Peru’s Pacific coast by bus, Arequipa, and a detour to the Cordillera Blanca

A desert runs along virtually the whole length of Peru’s 3000km Pacific coastline, the western limit of the country. The Andes run down the centre, and to the east the terrain drops away into the Amazon basin. Although we wished to travel from the northern highlands to the central mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, it was easier to return to the coast and to travel along the Pan-American highway, than to navigate remote roads and steep mountain passes in the rainy season. So, we retraced our steps from Jaen to Chiclayo, where after a short stopover we boarded our first 12 hour night bus south to Lima.

We chose Oltursa out of the myriad bus companies plying the major routes. At the top end of the scale, this is one of the most comfortable, and most safe and secure, of all the companies. The seats are large and recline a long way and there is plenty of legroom. A hot meal is served before you retire for the night, with your blanket and pillow provided. You can choose your seats when you buy tickets, and we unashamedly picked the front seats on the top deck whenever we could, to get amazing panoramic views.

Peru (99)Peru (100)Peru (101)

We woke about 6am as we trundled through the northern suburbs of Lima, the Peruvian capital. We had a few hours to kill before our next 8 hour bus to Huaraz, and took the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite Miraflores haunts where I had spent time before and after PhD field seasons. It was a luxury to wander the streets without thoughts of data collection, fieldwork, and permits for research and for exporting samples. We took advantage of the capital city’s abundant and varied food options (visiting the closest equivalent of an M&S food court south of the equator) and then we were back on the bus to climb away from the desert coast, inland and uphill to Huaraz at 3000m.

We arrived after dark and found a bright orange hostel. In the morning we were greeted by incredible views from the roof terrace, of glistening snow-covered peaks.

Huaraz breakfast terraceHuaraz view Cordillera Blanca

We set about exploring the town, and planning our excursions, but unfortunately they were not to be. Illness struck, and by the time I was well enough to explore a week later all we wanted to do was leave. So, the mountains we came to see were only ever enjoyed from our hostel, along with sunsets and thunderstorms, and we will have to return to explore some more.Huaraz sunset

After a few days recuperating in Lima, we continued south, with another long overnight journey along the coast. Travelling hour after hour and still having similar landscapes all around gives a real sense of scale. Peru is big. At last we turned inland again, this time towards Arequipa, a colonial city with a grand central plaza, a colourful convent, and a view of the volcano El Misti.

El Misti view from hostel in ArequipaArequipa is a beautiful city. We wandered the pretty streets, and spent hours in the peace and tranquility of the Santa Catalina convent, a self contained city painted vivid blues and oranges, where you can explore the rather fancy living quarters of the nuns who used to live there.

Arequipa’s main plaza is one of the grandest in Peru, with the cathedral making up the whole of one side, and the centre filled with palms and fountains. Santa Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaArequipaArequipa cathedral

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Journey to the jungle

After days of chasing paperwork around smoggy, hectic Lima, with fool’s errand after wild goose chase, it was exciting to take a final taxi to the airport. Getting a permit to carry out any kind of biological research in Peru is getting increasingly difficult, as the authorities are rightly keen to make sure that Peru gets the benefit of any lucrative discoveries. Numerous forms must be filled in, with the exact requirements changing – ever so slightly – between you filling them in and submitting them for scrutiny. They are then returned with their deficiencies to be corrected and resubmitted, and meanwhile the shopping list of last-minute field kit takes up the rest of your time. My field assistant and I spent ages tracking down people who could make some bespoke cables for our speakers, and a leather holster to hold a specialist microphone – for recording bird song – that would clip onto my belt. It proceeded to smell, go mouldy and fall off my belt for the next 4 months. Finally, once the ethanol for storing blood samples had been decanted into hundreds of tiny eppendorf tubes on the floor of my hotel room, and we’d bought all the batteries and chargers we were going to need, we were off.

The field station we were heading for, Los Amigos Biological Station (known by its Spanish acronym CICRA) is in the south east of Peru, in the Madre de Dios (Mother of God) region (on the banks of the river of the same name). To get there we took a short flight that encapsulated the extreme diversity of Peruvian landscapes. Lima, the sprawling capital, sits on a cliff above the Pacific and is surrounded by desert. Puerto Maldonado, the closest we could get to CICRA by plane, is not much more above sea level, in the lowland Amazon rainforest. In between are the high Andes, with the beautiful city of Cusco (at 3400m) a short stop mid-flight. Even remaining on the plane for the time it took to exchange old passengers for new ones, I could feel the effects of the cool thin air at the high altitude. It was also a tantalising glimpse of the city as we landed and took off again over the mountains, before the final peaks dropped away and a vast expanse of green stretched as far as I could see.

I think there are few things more exciting than descending into the rainforest. The canopy looked placid, calm, from above, but I was itching to know what was going on underneath. Arriving into Puerto Maldonado felt a world away from Lima; a tiny airport, hot and humid. We buzzed to our hotel on a mototaxi (like a tuk tuk, or a motorbike with a bench seat and awning on the back), for final preparations, final luxuries (ice cream, menus, cold drinks) and a final night in civilisation.

Puerto Maldonado is at the hub of a gold-mining boom that has attracted hundreds of people searching for their fortune, leading to a slightly wild west feel amongst the ecotours and jungle trips that make up the other part of local income. We left early the following morning, towards Laberinto, a town that makes Puerto feel quite grandiose. We bumped along in a taxi, hot air buffeting in through the windows, along paved and unpaved sections of what is now the Interoceanic highway, linking the Pacific with the Atlantic via river ports deep inland in Brazil. It struck me how lucky I was that such an adventure, speeding towards a boat up an Amazonian river, to a world class research station deep in the jungle, counted as a day at the office for me.

From the river bank in Laberinto, lined with gold merchants, we scrambled down the bank and onto the boat for the journey upriver. A few other researchers were also taking their seats, with everyone’s kit, and food for the station for a week, carefully stowed. We set off heading up the Madre de Dios river for the 5 hour journey, watching the forest, and gold miners, as we passed. At last we arrived, and were faced with a monumental flight of stairs to climb.

Once everything had been carted up to the main buildings high on the terra firme, which took so many trips up those stairs, I began to take in my surroundings. A scattering of thatched buildings, in a clearing dotted with palms, made up the dining room, laboratory, library, dormitory and cabins of the station. The clearing extended to the cliff’s edge, high above the river. The view was breathtaking.