Category Archives: Peru

Chachapoyas – a hidden gem in Northern Peru!

I know tons of people who go to Peru every year. With one of the world’s top most attractions to see in Southern Peru (Macchu Picchu, I am looking at you!) northern Peru doesnt get much of a chance. Especially when its way out in the middle of nowhere. We discovered that Northern Peru is our favorite part of Peru, thanks to a gem called Chachapoyas. To get to Chacha from Ecuador or elsewhere in Peru is no easy task. Check out my previous post  about how to get here.

Chacha is located amidst some beautiful natural scenery. Its the base if you want to visit Kuelap ruins and Gocta falls. We stayed at the kind and friendly Hotel Amazonas on the main plaza (just walk around it once and you’ll find it) @ 40 soles/night (private room + bathroom).

Highlights of Chachapoyas:

Market scene

Gotca Falls

Purple corn – maiz morada

Fruit bounty in the market

spotted! soya milk

Plaza de armas – Chachapoyas

A ubiquitous juice shop in the market –  The quinoa drink here is very good

  •  Super laid back main square with really friendly people. We would get stopped every now and then by a curious local wanting to know more about us. By the end of our stay there, we were greeting people with holas every time we went to the square.
  • We met Diana, the bollywood fan. She was helping her friend sell some jewelry and she jumped with delight when she saw us. She was eager to tell us that she loved Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukerjee and Kajol.
  • We met a school teacher, who likes to visit the plaza every day in the evening. We even got interviewed for the local paper by his reporter friend.
  • 2 vegetarian restaurants and a superb market selling the freshest of produce. See my blog post here.
  • Finding vegan cookies at the mini mart on the plaza and other goodies. See the map in the link above for more info. What a delightful mini mart!
  • We got lost in Chacha’s market. There is a spice vendor there who will sell various spice mixes, freshly mixed.
  • The Peru Tourism Office on the main plaza is a great find. They are a nation wide tourism chain and have fantastic maps. They speak very good english and will call other offices to find specific information for you.
  • The spicy sauce in Las Rocas restaurant on the main plaza. Very friendly owner!
  • Totally safe and muy tranquillo.
  • Base for the wonderful Kuelap ruins, which is a beautiful ruin.
Cost Facts:
  • Day trips to Kuelap cost 50 soles/person and includes lunch and a guide. Book at Turismo Explorer on the main plaza.
  • Day trips to Gocta falls cost 60 soles/person, incl. lunch and guide. (vegetarian options available). In fact, lunch was really tasty!

Ecuador-Peru Border Crossing at Zumba/San Ignacio/La Balsa

Of all the border crossings to enter Peru from Ecuador, this is probably the least traveled route. It is also the longest and quite tricky and requires a good deal of patience. Plus point though is that it is very scenic, no one fleeced us and it was like an adventure.
Highlights:
  • (all costs are for two people)
  • Overnight bus from Vilcabamba to Zumba in 6 hours – $13
  • Collectivo or taxi to La Balsa (border village) $18
  • Cross the border to Peru
  • Take a collectivo to San Ignacio 28 soles
  • Take a moto taxi in San Ignacio to the terminal for a mini bus to Jaen
  • Mini bus to Jaen costs 24 soles
  • Stay at Hotel Jaen – 40 soles for a private room with bathroom
  • Next day morning – collective to Bagua Grande – 12 soles
  • Another collective to Chachapoyas – 42 soles
  • Pack plenty of snacks. There is no food in any of the stops along the way, especially vegetarian. I recommend bread, cookies and the likes.
Vilcabamba to La Balsa, Ecuador
This border crossing was the nearest to Vilcabamba and its valley of longevity. After a really relaxing meal of locally produced Tofu at Vilcabamba, we walked to the bus stop to board our 10.30 PM overnight bus to Zumba. The trip ended up taking over 10 hours instead of the usual 6 hours because there was a road block due to landslide along the way. Since the bus couldn’t go anywhere and no one would clear the remote mountain road in the middle of the night, the driver turned off the engine and went to sleep! There were only a handful of people in the bus.
Waiting for the road block to be cleared:

Because of this delay, we reached Zumba at 8 AM and missed an earlier collective that goes to the border, La Balsa. We were tired and hungry when we got off. Finally we brokered a deal with the taxi driver to take us to a place for breakfast and then on to the border. The bus terminal at Zumba was so spanking new that restrooms were not yet open to the public. There was one restaurant, but they didn’t have any usual breakfast items. But they did have a tourist booth, where we were handed tourist maps and ostensibly made to sign the tourist register.

The new terminal at Zumba:
Enroute from Zumba to La Balsa:
The taxi driver took us to a spotless little restaurant with an equally clean bathroom, where we got a chance to freshen up and eat. Zumba is very scenic and so untouched. The taxi ride to the border was fun and roads weren’t great, but the driver chatted with us the entire way and played his favorite music from a little pen drive. We passed a checkpoint where a cop checked out our passports and then we arrived at ‘La Balsa’. La Balsa is a street with a few shops and the immigration building. Just beyond is a bridge that goes to the Peruvian side. There are a few exchange shops, a couple of stalls to buy snacks. The immigration building is like a small store and was locked when we walked up to it. Yes, locked! After a few minutes, a guy with full army gear slowly walked up to us and gave us a cheerful grin. He said hello and proceeded to open the locked door to the office. He stamped us out and we were on our way in less than a minute. When we walked to the border-bridge, it was quite empty with no tourist in sight.
Immigration officer fully decked out in army gear:
Spotted: in the Peruvian immigration police checkpoint – Taj Mahal on the calendar
Onwards to the Peruvian Side and Jaen
The Peruvian side seemed even more relaxed. A group of people were standing and chatting. We blithely walked up to them and asked for the way to the immigration office. One guy seperated from the group and nodded his head towards a small building. We then noticed the text on his jacket “migracion”. He stamped us in and sent us to the police booth across the street about 100 meters away. This immigration guy even helped us get a cab to San Ignacio.
I had to hold this cute Peruvian baby in the collectivo while the mom sorted out her things. She just got in, placed the baby on my lap with a smile and started settling herself and then took the baby back.
Collectivo to Jaen:
  • After two collectivo rides, we finally reached Jaen. Be careful about prices you pay everywhere. Make sure you agree on a price before hand.
  • In Jaen, try Hotel Jaen or Hotel Cesar on the main road close to the bus stand. Bargain for hotel rooms.
  • Jaen has a chifa where we got vegetarian food. We also noticed a vegetarian restaurant, but it was closed.
  • After dinner, we walked to the plaza de armas in Jaen. It is very pleasantly crowded and fun to people watch.
Jaen to Chachapoyas, Peru
We needed a break from the non stop monotony of collectivos. The night stay at Jaen did the trick. After breakfast at a coffee shop in the morning, we took a collectivo from near the bus stand to Bagua Grande (6 soles per person, ~ 3 hrs). Bagua Grande was hot and dusty with nothing to eat. We found a collectivo to Chachapoyas, but had to wait for it to fill up before we could leave. 21 soles per person, ~ 2 hours. Pack food and drinks in Jaen.
Finally in Chachapoyas:

Peru Tourist Visa for Indian Citizens (From San Francisco Consulate)

I knew six friends who recently obtained Peru tourist visas. So armed with the knowledge of their experiences, we went to the Peru consulate around 9.45 AM. You pick a number as soon as you enter, but the number doesn’t seem to bear any significance. Someone from the closed office area will walk to the waiting room and talk to you randomly.

It seems like we caught them on a busy morning, so after waiting for a while, they asked us to leave our documents and passports and come back at 1. I asked them if I could give them the passports later as I wanted to make color copies of all pages to drop off at the Chile consulate next door (more here) and the young guy who took our papers agreed.

We returned at 1 pm after lunch and had to wait for some more time. If the door to the office area opens, immediately stand up and walk towards it, and try to attract someone’s attention. Eventually we were noticed and our application was picked up by an older lady who seemed senior. She also took a lot of help from Swami during our visit in the morning to fix her computer troubles (that didn’t seem to win us any favor though).

The next hour and a half was like living in a slow motion picture on a very laid back island. The lady re-typed our application form on the computer and had a fit when we told her that we plan to stay in Peru for a month without any air tickets (in or out).

“You’re going by bus? From Bolivia?” (with shocked expression)

“Yes, but from Ecuador”, I said with resignation. Swami has trouble with Ecuador and Bolivia and interchanges them again and again and I just give up.

“Where are your tickets?”

“We dont have bus tickets yet. We plan to get them as we go. But look, we have air tickets in and out South America.”

“But what about Peru?”

“Not for Peru. In to Bogota and out of Buenos Aires.” Sigh! This was getting really tiring.

“This is Bogota, not Peru. What will you do in Peru for one month?”

“We’ll hike the huayhuash circuit and the inca trail”. Twice, I almost said.

“Dont you have a job? How will you afford four months?”

This is when we show our bank statement. She looks at a random figure on my salary statement which says $323.50 and goes “Thats all?” How on earth am I supposed to travel with $323.50? I show her the bank statement. Arent they supposed to be reading bank statements all the time?

Finally, after showing the money, she says “$60”. I am just thrilled that its over.

Now we get finger printed, thumb impression-ed and photographed and finally step out of the consulate with our visas at 2.30 PM.

Documents to take for EACH applicant:

  • Original passport
  • Application Form
  • Bank Statement
  • (dont give unless asked) Pay statement . It might be mistaken for a bank statement and someone might think your 15 day salary is your bank balance. Or horror, they might think your 401K contribution is your bank balance. Keep it away.
  • $30 per visa in cash
  • copy of US visa
  • hostel reservation (we booked for one day in Cuzco)
  • airline reservation
  • (not asked) photograph

Consulate is at 870 Market Street. Fedex is at 726 Market street for last minute tech/copy needs. Bank of America ATM is at the corner of Market and 4th street.  Form and visa requirements. 

Tourist Visas To Travel In South America For Indian Citizens

Every Indian citizen who has traveled abroad is familiar with the travails of obtaining a visa to visit most countries in the world. This is true for South America too. When Swami and I first planned our trip, we were caught in the spirit of wanderlust inspired by scores of other travel bloggers. But of course, most of these travel bloggers came from ‘western’ countries, or countries whose citizens enjoy the freedom to travel to most places in the world without a visa. The reality came crashing down upon us in the last few weeks and I’ve been prowling the net for accounts by fellow Indians.

The deluge of paperwork, formalities, consular interviews that are more befitting a court of law, the time, money and effort spent in going to consulates can drive anyone insane. And to make things worse, the internet doesnt have a whole lot of information about other people’s experiences. Its surely something to bemoan about, but we must consider ourselves fortunate to be able to travel this way in the first place, so we try to take it in stride and do the best we can.

As our date of travel approaches (Dec 4th, 2011), the need for prompt and efficient action is imminent where visas are concerned. Overnight, our living room starts to look like the command central of a records office.  Timing is key. If you get your visas too early, there may be a rule requiring that we enter within 90 days. If you get it too late, then you risk not getting the visa at all. How is one to plan an independent backpacking trip then? Can such a trip still be considered to be in the “its-all-up-in-the-air” variety?

The good news is, my searches on the internet for accounts by similar people have not been futile. There is a great thread on the lonely planet thorntree forums that sees active participation from highly spirited, perseverant and inspiring folks who dont give up in the face of absurd visa rules and regulations that require you to use up the trees! I have also come across some Indian travel bloggers.

So now, I will be adding to that pool of information. I went to SF today and visited the Peru, Chile and Colombian consulate in San Francisco (all blessedly within 5 blocks of each other – 2 in the same building on the same floor) and will publish detailed posts about my experiences at each consulate.