Back before the Omicron variant had infected so many of our friends and neighbors, we invited my sister Paula and her partner, Wayne, to come to Peru for a visit. Paula has been here twice before, but this would be Wayne’s first visit. Peru is a good place for a mid-winter visit, and they would exchange a couple of weeks of wet winter weather in Portland, Oregon for summer sun and beach days in Barranca.
As Omicron began to ravage the world, we kept our plans in place, hoping all would be well. Carlos, our driver, went into Lima and stayed overnight, then collected Paula and Wayne from the airport at dawn and brought them straight to Barranca. Their flight via Atlanta, was long, but went relatively smoothly, with a wait of about a half hour for Immigration, and their luggage arriving relatively promptly after that. Carlos found them exiting the terminal, without even having to hold up the sign I made.
By ten a.m. they’d arrived in Barranca, and we took a walk on the beach, with plans to visit archaeological sites that Wayne would enjoy. Our plan lasted one single day. Paula and Wayne arrived on Friday, and by Saturday afternoon our housekeeper was feeling unwell. We sent her home early, but she was obviously sick. On Monday, we sent the caretaker, housekeeper, and our driver Carlos, for Covid tests. All three came back positive. We sent them home until the following Monday. That meant that there would be no one making the beds, sweeping the floors, and mopping the kitchen every day, nor would there be anyone to take us to see the sights. We are a bit reticent to go out on our own (though we do) because foreigners are sometimes a target for holdups.
Recalibrating our activities, the daily walk on the beach became our big event of the day, sometimes combined with a brief swim or body boarding in the afternoon. The water is very cold, and while a dip is refreshing, a long swim is bone-chilling.
We ventured to the top of the nearby hill, where an enormous statue of Christ the Redeemer looks over the bay, and various railings and balconies provide views of the sea and the beach. On the far side of the hill is a beach that is much emptier than the one in front of our house. Called Playa Colorado, the area is mostly undeveloped. The beach is lovely, but the cross-currents create rip tides, and the land behind the beach floods regularly. There are food kiosks, and a stall that rents umbrellas and beach chairs beside the stream that drains into the ocean, but no other services. The road between the beach and the land is unpaved, and many Barranquinos learn to drive on it.
Fortunately for us, our back yard is spacious, filled with trees and flowers. It’s a bit like staying at a resort with no other guests. At six pm, we have beverages and play five hands of gin rummy, sometimes watching the sun set from the front porch, and in the garden when the music from the neighboring restaurant is too loud. At seven pm, Jonathan goes into the kitchen to cook, and the rest of us play sapo (Toad), a game that involves hurling heavy metal tokens at a tabletop full of holes, that also holds a brass toad. Getting a token in the toad’s mouth is virtually impossible, but tossing the markers into the slots is a lot of fun. We kept up a lively competition.
On Sunday, we decided to venture out to an archaeological site despite not having Carlos, and we set out for Porvenir, a large Late Archaic (3500-1800 BC) site just inland from the Fortress of Paramonga, a Chimu monument along the Panamerican Highway near the town of the same name.
The road was dusty, with tire tracks passing right by the archaeological portion of the site to end at some small rocky overhangs that have become shrines to “black magic”. This shrine was present in 2003, when we first visited to conduct archaeological research, and has grown to the extent that candle wax now covers a larger section of rocky outcrop, and a statue that I mistook as the Virgin Mary from a distance, turns out to be the Grim Reaper. We were disappointed to find that pilgrims are also slobs, and empty boxes of candles and bottles of love and vengeance potions litter the entire area. Hell hath no housekeeper.
The archaeological site of Porvenir is a large village and ceremonial center that dates to 3000-2000 BC. We conducted excavations at Porvenir in 2003, and the site is still there, not yet subsumed by farm fields or chicken farms like some of the others we’ve tested. There has been additional looting of the much, much later cemetery that made use of the sunken circular plaza. The plaza area has largely disappeared under mounds of dirt from illicit diggers, though the looters don’t seem to get any actual loot. We saw fragments of broken pottery, sticks wrapped with string and a few shreds of textiles, but nothing that indicated the presence of substantial tombs or metal artifacts that would give the diggers whatever payday you get at the bottom of the illegal antiquities food chain.
Visiting archaeological sites is dusty work, so when we visited Caral, the best known Late Archaic (3500-2000 BC) site in this region, we again went with long pants, long sleeves, and big hats. Work at Caral focuses on excavation and restoration, so there is a lot of architecture to look at. During the summer months (Christmas through Easter), the Supe River, that borders the site of Caral, is almost dry, allowing visitors to drive up to the Visitors Center parking area. Summer temperatures are in the 80s (F), and the trail around the site is long and unshaded, so parking right by the Visitors Center is a plus. (During the winter when the river is high, parking is about a half mile from the site. Unless you are visiting with young people you are trying to wear out, my advice is to pay for a ride to the Visitors Center. If you’ve never ridden in a mototaxi, or standing in the back of a tiny truck, it will be an adventure.)
We made our way to the ticket booth and site entrance, stopping to look at some of the interesting graphics, and taking advantage of the “photo op” setup of a tiny circular plaza headed by twin thrones. Admission was s./11 per person, with an additional s./20 for the mandatory guide for the group. For three of us the total was s./53, about US $14 at the current exchange rate. Our guide, Reber, has worked at Caral for six years giving tours.
At the start of our walk, I explained that I had actually done a bit of work at Caral way back in 2000, collecting radiocarbon samples for the famous article that put the site on the map. The man at the ticket desk heard me and looked up. “Do you know Jonathan Haas?” he asked rather breathlessly. “He’s my husband,” I replied. He and the guide oh-ed and looked at me with admiration. (I know a famous person.) Paula and Wayne were greatly entertained.
The tall bamboo and thatch ramadas (shade covers) that were put up to protect Caral’s architecture from the El Nino a few years ago have been removed, making it easier to take photos. We walked from one huge pyramid to the next, as each pyramid has something interesting about it, either a special find that is associated, or a sunken circular plaza. There is only one place that allows you to sit down along the way, a ramada and benches overlooking the Supe River. By the time we got that far, Paula and I were happy to sit in the shade for a while. Wayne could have kept going all day. We took just over two hours to cover the route. By the end, we were tired and dehydrated, despite our water bottles.
After a brief stop to check out the souvenir selection, we headed for home. We were glad to have brought sandwiches along. There isn’t any food service at Caral, though I believe you can buy water. We ate in the car, happy to be in the shade and air conditioning as we drove back down the Supe Valley. We got back to Barranca in about 40 minutes, and all decided that an afternoon nap, followed by a dip in the ocean, was in order.
The rest of our week was quiet. We walked on the beach, ate lunch in the garden, watched the sunset, played cards and Yahtzee, ate Jonathan’s wonderful dinners, while Paula and Wayne enjoyed being on vacation. Jonathan’s birthday dinner started the week, though the highlight was Rufo (our blue tick hound) stealing and eating two pounds of beautiful beef tenderloin about to go on the grill. We had an instant replay of the beef a couple of nights later, but it was a very funny moment. “Wait, where’s the meat?” “Is this a joke?” “Wayne??!!!!”
We had tacu-tacu, the local specialty of rice, beans, and ground orange chili peppers. We ate guinea pigs cooked to perfection so that Wayne could try them. The guinea pigs were raised by Dalmira, and though they look strange with their heads on, they taste very good when prepared by Jonathan, who also made his annual dish of duck fries, french fries cooked once in sunflower oil, then in duck fat until they are crispy and delicious. There are never any left over, and as a rule, we never eat them more than once a year, what with duck fat not really being a health food.
Paula and Wayne decided they’d spend a day in Lima at the end of their trip, so we all went in to Lima on Saturday. After some shopping at the tourist market and a nap, we ended their visit with Wayne’s birthday dinner at the Restaurant La Huaca that overlooks the archaeological site of Huaca Pucllana. The restaurant is located on the side of an archaeological site, where a vast pyramid made of mud bricks that dates to about 1400 AD is illuminated after dark, and makes a spectacular setting for dinner on their outdoor patio. The food is excellent, too. We ate ceviche, crab cakes, squid ink rice, baked charela (fish), and seco de res (beef stew with cilantro sauce. Dessert was mango/passionfruit ice cream, zapallo (squash) waffles with panela (raw sugar) sauce, and chocolate volcano cake with ice cream. (urp!) We had a white Viognier from Argentina, and a Carmenere from the Maipo Valley in Chile. We all went home happy.
We parted ways the next morning, Paula and Wayne to get Covid tests for their return to the US on Monday morning, Jonathan and I to shop and return to Barranca. The visit seems to have been a success. We all had fun, (and no one got sick.) Our guests were very accommodating to our schedule and did not require a great deal of entertaining. They were content to go to the market or the shops, walk along our beach, and sit on our front porch or out in the garden. We went on a couple of field trips, but we spent many days at home, and I wonder whether other visitors would be anxious to “go out and do stuff.” We could have visited a couple of other beaches, and another archaeological site or two, but that is hot work at this time of year, and I think most people are not into long, hot hikes on their vacation. Having visitors during Covid times means you have to have the right visitors, and we did.