Peru 1: The wretched coastal desert

A note to the Faithful: During late summer and early fall of 2018 the Weazel and Dr. Ann spent seven arduous but glorious weeks exploring various remote and interesting parts of Peru. This is the first installment. In future posts we will visit the towering Andes, gigantic waterfalls, and cloud forests overlooking the Amazon, “lost cities” some of which we discovered ourselves, then finish up in a karst wonderland carved by glaciers. Better bundle up, for Peru, though tropical, is the coldest place I have ever been!

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Herman Melville said it best in his longest and dreariest novel Moby Dick. His description of Lima, the capital of Peru, actually issues from the mouth of Ishmael, the narrator, who in Chapter 42 The Whiteness of the Whale, says that the city of Lima is the “the strangest, saddest city thou can’st see.” He was right for many reasons, for the coast of Peru is one of the most wretched places on earth, though it is rather more gray than white.

Melville was apparently obsessed with whiteness, not just the whale, but all things white including himself and the Conquistadors who raped and pillaged the entire country. The Weazel can relate, for the worst Psilocybin induced freakout I ever experienced started when I gazed too long at the white tile walls of a cheap diner. My companion noticed the ever increasing look of horror on my face and asked what was wrong? I could only reply, “Can’t you see the terrible whiteness? There is neither life nor death in whiteness, just nothingness. I’m not ready to see the white light at the end of the tunnel, the gleaming nothingness is all too much, much too much! Get me the Hell out of here now!”

Along the coast of Peru there is no escape from the Garúa, a cold penetrating whitish gray pall of fog, mist, and drizzle that hangs about the coast for most of the year like a soggy widow’s veil, or perhaps an Incan curse. It makes London look like a sunny vacation spot.

A promenade atop the sea cliff in Miraflores, the ‘garden district’ of Lima. Without irrigation there would be no plants whatsoever. Tall skyscrapers in the background are invisible.

Lima is located in the tropics at 12 degrees south latitude. That is the same general latitude as blistering Bangkok and the palm fringed beaches of the Caribbean, but don’t plan to do any swimming.

The Humboldt current transports inconceivable amounts of icy water from the wastes of Antarctica to the entire Pacific coast of South America. That is why there are penguins living in the Galapagos islands which straddle the equator. As Peruvian college students on break so often say, Let’s NOT go to the beach!”

The beautiful Pacific coast of Peru. Notice the lack of vacation homes.

The relative humidity of the garúa is nearly 100%, but those few life forms which dwell in the fog are dying of thirst for it rarely if ever rains along the Peruvian coast. As a result the Sahara and the Gobi are lush by comparison.

There are some few exceptions to the otherwise complete absence of rain along the coast. Every 25 years or so the current oscillates in what is known as an El Niño event. When that happens the ocean water suddenly turns warm and torrential rains pummel the slopes of the Andes. Because there is no vegetation the mountains simply collapse and whole towns are swept into the sea.

The really bad new is that warm water is oxygen poor so the fisheries collapse, the entire country starves, and the price of sardines skyrockets. No more ceviche suckers, guess you’ll have to wait till next year!

(Delicious ceviche is the national dish of Peru!)

Ceviche is made from fresh raw seafood marinated in lime juice. Yum!

So how and why do nine million people live in Lima, the capital of Peru?

The how is easy to explain. Numerous little ice cold rivers sluice down from the glaciers of the high Andes, so every coastal Peruvian town is located on a river. Many of these small rivers are sucked dry by irrigation long before they reach the sea because the only arable land in the entire country lies in the alluvium filled valleys that are shocking green in contrast to the desolate brown hills.

A typical small river spilling down from the high Andes.

The why is more interesting. The city of Lima was founded on January 18, 1535 by the Spanish pig farmer Francisco Pizarro, an ignorant and brutal man who was arguably the worst badass in all of human history.

I keep a facsimile of his skull on my mantle at home. You can still see the wounds made by the numerous sword chops and pike thrusts that were required to kill him. Thereafter, his compatriots killed him several more times for fear that he might wake up mad.

We will never know how many millions died because of him, but we do know that with a handful of brave and desperate men motivated by greed and religion he somehow managed to defeat the Incas, the rulers of the mightiest empire to have ever arisen in the Americas. It is worthy of note that this happened shortly after the discovery of the ‘new world’ by Columbus in 1492, and Peru is a very long ways even from Cuba and the Bahamas. If a movie were to be made of Pizarro’s exploits no one would believe it. Needless to say he came in search of gold.

Dr. Ann and the Weazel arrived in Lima on August 20, 2018 in search of adventure. There are vast treasures of both gold and adventure to be found in Peru, so Pizarro was not disappointed and neither were we!

The suburbs of Lima are wretched beyond belief, endless tiny adobe shacks marching up barren mountains, but the old colonial city center is not without its charms. The architecture is magnificent!

A rare sunny view of colonial architecture in the old city center of Lima. All it takes to build a great city is lots of slaves and tons of gold!

Tourists flock to Peru from all corners of the earth to enjoy the magnificent mountain scenery, and the spectacular archeological ruins that quite literally cover the country. Most Gringos have only heard of the Incas, for it was they who were conquered by Pizarro, but there were numerous other civilizations that preceded them. We will further discuss these ‘lost’ civilizations and their numerous ruins in future posts.

Tourism is the fastest growing sector of the economy, right after fisheries and mining. Most tourists head south like migrating lemmings to visit well known over priced destinations like Cuzco and Machu Picchu; so, needless to say, we headed north!

I should mention that travel in Peru is quite inexpensive, on par with Thailand and other such low budget destinations. Because of tourism the south is much more expensive that the north, and travel in the jungle east of the Andes is highly controlled and a complete ripoff!

There is no way in Hell the Weazel is going to pay $90 per night to sleep in a hut while taking an “eco-tour” during which some  townie Indian “guide” points at tame monkeys. Ann and I don’t need no stinking guides! For that reason, despite the fact that the Weazel loves the jungle, we decided not to visit the Amazonian parts of Peru.

The interior of Peru has few roads because of the immense Andes, and the eastern jungles have no roads whatsoever, but the coastal desert has a major north/south highway with excellent bus service.

I was astonished to discover that top end double decker busses are not only comfortable but also highly organized and safe. All passengers are required to provide proper identification, and are videotaped as they enter to take their assigned seats. Express busses will not stop to pick up or discharge passengers except at secure terminals.

All of this organization and security struck me as very un-Latin American. That is because Peru seems to have made the rational decision to reject the chaos, crime, and terrorism that have beset so many other countries. With examples like Colombia and Venezuela it wasn’t a hard decision to make.

Not many years ago crime was rampant, the communist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas were terrorizing the jungles, the Tupac Amaru were bombing the cities, and drug cartels from Colombia and Mexico had infiltrated every sector of the economy.

The Peruvian people had enough, so they elected Alberto Fujimori, a hard line Japanese Peruvian who swore to crush the resistance. He did a great job, using death squads and the military to kill some 80,000 people (a guess at best), but he later fell from power due to corruption.

As you may have gathered, the Weazel is politically incorrect. I have little or no regard for human or political rights, so if it is necessary to kill 80,000 people by extralegal means to protect the remaining 32 million that is OK with me. As a result, women and children can now walk the streets at night, and nine tenths of the country is safe to visit.

Most importantly, the Peruvian people have embraced the change, and democracy is thriving. This very interesting subject will be further explored in future posts. Meanwhile, let’s head north along the wretched coastal highway.

The first problem is how to escape from the center of the city. Because of the crowded streets it took almost an hour in a taxi just to get to the terminal. Thereafter it took two hours just to get to the edge of town. I have already mentioned the suburban slums that ring the city where one sees glitzy shopping malls in juxtaposition with dire poverty. Get me the Hell out of here now!

As the city thinned out the grim reality of living in the desert became apparent. No more adobe shacks, just an occasional squalid hut made of reed mats imported from somewhere else. The roof mats are for shade only, for it never rains and there is not a drop to drink. It is impossible to grow food, and there were no domestic animals whatsoever, not even a mangy dog, for even a dog must eat. These few unfortunate people were the lowest of the low, indigenous refugees from the war with the Sendero Luminoso who spend their lives shivering in the cold fog. Many do not even speak Spanish, they have no skills, and how they survive is a mystery to me.

Panoramic windows on the upper deck of the bus provided expansive views of the gloaming garúa, along with occasional glimpses of brown rocks and the slate gray sea. Therefore, most passengers just sleep. At no point could I see the  mountains through the fog.

I was surprised and dismayed that there was no vegetation whatsoever, not even a cactus. On other cold fog dominated desert coastlines such as in Namibia there are communities of plants and animals that have evolved the ability to directly utilize fog as a source of water, but north of Lima there was nothing other than an occasional small patch of Salicornia like succulents that grow about an inch tall. These fog dependant ‘oases’ are known as Lomas (little hills). It is a puzzle that there are not more of them, for there certainly is plenty of fog. I suppose that this is due to the irregularity of oscillating El Niño currents which prevent the establishment of a permanent ecosystem.

It is only 350 miles from Lima to Trujillo, but the journey took over twelve hours. As we progressed north the weather and landscape improved ever so slightly. There were even a few subsistence farms in shallow pans by the sea where a tiny lens of freshwater floated atop the salt. Shortly before dark the fog actually lifted!

We were delighted to discover that Trujillo is a gracious old colonial city replete with plazas, cathedrals, and pedestrian promenades.

The Plaza de Armas, Trujillo, Peru

We checked into a swank hotel, enjoyed a sumptuous repast, then slept for twelve hours to recover from a week of hard travel. There is nothing like flying halfway across the world crammed into a seat the size of a sardine can, taking taxis and busses, and staying in cheap noisy hostels in a crowded megalopolis to tire a fellow out.

In the morning the sun was shining (sort of) and a parade was marching by our door! I ordered the house special pork chop breakfast and was astounded to be presented with an entire transverse section through a juicy pig. It would barely fit on a large serving platter, so the eggs, piles of grilled onions, etc., were served separately.

Peru is currently experiencing a gastronomic revolution in which rich folks pay extra for fancy food, but this was old school fare suitable for a hungry Conquistador who had just slaughtered a few thousand Indians!

The Peruvian people are proudly patriotic, so any excuse will do for a parade!

I mentioned pedestrian promenades. Why is it that so called ‘backwards’ countries like Romania and Peru are civilized enough to ban automobiles from the city center but we aren’t? Allow me to add that the streets were spotlessly clean!

A pedestrian promenade in Trujillo. No need to dodge death by taxi!

My only complaint was that Peruvians don’t take drinking seriously enough. Alcohol is freely available everywhere, but Peruvians rarely get drunk, and don’t normally visit taverns for that purpose. I was jonesing for a drink in a suitably down market establishment when I discovered another plaza at the far end of the promenade shown above. Raucous music blared from sagging wooden swing doors like you might see in a spaghetti western. I had found a real Mexican style cantina full of jolly campesinos! (Allow me to mention that Peru and Mexico have little in common other than a tragic history and the fact that both countries speak Spanish.)

We were eager to head for the hills into the ‘real’ Peru, but first we had to visit the nearby ruins of Huaca de la Luna and the even larger but unexcavated Huaca del Sol (The Temples of the Moon and Sun).

These vast heaps of mud brick were constructed by the Moche people over a six hundred year period ending long before the Incas were even a twinkle in the Sun God’s eye. They were constructed in the manner of many early pyramids by simply adding another layer every time there was a new king, a disaster, or some reason to celebrate. Millions of bricks times 600 years equals more bricks than I can count. After a couple of thousand years of erosion the ruins very much resemble dirt mountains.

Cerro Blanco and Huaca de la Luna. Image stolen from Wiki

What? You’re not impressed? Well, you should be, for countless slaves died building it, and let’s not forget the numerous sacrificial victims who had to die to appease the gods every time El Niño screwed up the weather.

Whatever you do don’t make God mad! The interior is covered in frescos depicting just how angry he is.

Give me your virgins, NOW!

But over time, as with Christianity, the Gods became more mellow and eventually metamorphosed into Muppets.

But enough of squalid slums, freezing currents, fog, and piles of blood stained mud bricks. We came to Peru to find beauty and adventure, so stay tuned for the next installment as the Weazel and Dr. Ann leave the wretched coastal desert and head for the hills!