Wednesday, January 2, 2013


In the morning I leave my overnight bag at the hotel and catch a collectivo to Supe.
4 soles for 30-40 minutes in a rusty car with four other passengers. At first I ask for Vichama, a village not far from Huacho on the map on the wall of the hotel, where Michel recommended some interesting ruins, but the driver misunderstands and tries to drop me off in the middle of nowhere, just a blip on the road with a gas station and some scattered shacks and a more or less similar name. 
Oh, no! Don't leave me here, please. Supe! Supe will be fine.
The Caral ruins are quite well known, and in Supe it's easy to find a ride there.
The site is the new 'thing' for visitors to the country. Private tours can be had for $250 from Lima, and they quote me $80 in Supe.
Yeah, right!
I'll just take a collectivo and see it on my own. Collectivo, no problem. We take three other passengers and drop them off at their farms along the green river valley before ending at a vast, empty, parking lot a mile or so beyond a cluster of houses. This is the pedestrian entrance to the site of the oldest known city in the Americas. 3000 bc. Pre-pottery people, way before the Incas.

From the parking lot it's over a mile to the visitors center. There's an even vaster parking area here, ready for busses chock full of tourists. Caral isn't in the books yet, but it very soon will be! That's for next year- this morning I have the place to myself. Or nearly – one car pulls in as I descend from the lookout hill to the complex. There are two souvenir sellers open in the row of a dozen permanent booths. The dining area has plenty of tables and spaces for a dozen vendors, but nobody is there yet.  The ticket area has the official souvenirs – the t-shirts, mugs, postcards, books and stuff. I would like the less expensive soft-cover book in english, mostly as a guide to my visit, but the cashier doesn't have enough change. I promise to come back for it once other people have arrived and paid their admissions.
The morning haze is burning off now, and I hope I don't regret my lack of sunscreen or a hat, but there's nothing to be done for that now. No Caral hats at the shop. A good look at the map, and off I go.
And I'm called back.
All tours are guided. Wait here.
The sign, now that I read it, says that groups must be composed of a minimum of 20 people, with a maximum of 20. We are to pay the guide 20 soles, in addition to the entrance ticket. In the exceptional case of fewer than 20 people, we still have to come up with 20 soles.
A family of 6 has arrived, but there are no signs of anyone else heading up the dirt road. We do set off with 7, and there's no mention of the further fees. Ok, whatever.

Our guide certainly has the archeological training and guiding experience promised by the sign. He sounds like a young professor, and answers the myriad questions from the family patriarch patiently.
The Caral site was discovered less than 20 years ago, perhaps less than 10 I can't be sure. It's just at that stage when they know it well enough to know where they can put the parking lots, and they've made a good start on the infrastructure that will soon be necessary. On the other hand, it isn't overrun yet.
The perfect time for a visit.
And the visiting is something they're starting off doing right. You're not allowed to just wander anywhere, trampling the delicate desert plants and erasing whatever artifacts are lying just at the surface, spreading gum wrappers and empty water bottles among the ancient building stones. The prices too are geared to different walks of life: tourists pay a premium, nationals pay something more in line with the country's wages, and locals visit their own heritage for free. There are lots of marked paths, so if you take the longest tour you get most of the photographs you want.
Yes, there are birds here.

The Caral people didn't make pottery or work metals, so they didn't leave a lot of durable stuff behind. They did organize their lives with agriculture in the fertile valley and the city up higher on this perfectly barren flat between the hills (at least, it is barren now; perhaps then there was rain along this coast). The city has neighborhoods and pyramidal structures for bith residential and ceremonial use. Two perfectly round ampitheaters occupy the middle of town, and the place is overlaid with many significant alignments having to do with the positions of the sun or the moon. The whole place may have been a gigantic calender, continuously elaborated as the town grew.

We're done with our short-version tour at noon, and by now two busloads and a couple of vans have made the parking lot look not so hugely oversized. The place is alive with people taking in a bit of history, walking the dusty paths among the ancient ruins, and perusing the wares of todays vendors.
The food vendors are set up. There's a woman selling boiled corn, and another with some kind of chicken-potato stew, and a vat of chincha-morada, a thick beverage based on purple corn. I take just a giant ear of corn, with a smear of extremely hot peppers down one side, and a chincha morada, and that's a great lunch.

The walk back to the modern village of Caral under the leaden sun convinces me I really need a hat. I was the only person in my tour group not to have one. The ladies selling things at the far parking lot have some for 8 soles, a deal for a ball cap. But I have just 10 soles in coins, plus a bill of 100 they'll never be able to break. Getting back to Supe is going to take more than 2 soles, so I do without a hat. At this point I'm down at the level of the nearly-dry stream, and the tamarisk trees, then eucalyptus, provide some shade.

The corn in the fields is gigantic. Not that the stalks are taller; they're fatter. There are way more leaves, and more fat and delicious ears, than I have ever seen on corn. Passing a field ready for harvest, I filch a few grains from ears just bursting out of their leaves. Perhaps it will grow in my garden at home.
Approaching the village, a car in the middle of the lone intersection starts honking, so I wave and it comes to get me. I'm getting the hang of this. Cars honk lightly just to announce they're there. They honk if they're looking for passengers, too, and on the way up the valley we honked at every farm, in case anyone needed a ride. Guy in the middle of nowhere honking? Must be asking if you want a lift.
In Lima I would never have taken a ride from a rusted-out beater like this one, but here it's just what there is. If it were 5 km to Supe instead of 23, I  would have taken the hat and walked for the exercise. 23 is too far in this sun, so I hop in and off we go.

In Supe, I consider wandering around for a while, maybe down to the beach. But it looks like the town beyond the area where the collectivos gather, where there are a couple of shops and places to get a beer or a snack, is just dirt roads and shacks and people minding their own business. I feel out of place, like I would be intruding if I went any further, so I don't. The looks I get, with my gringa face and my big camera, aren't inviting.

In Huacho I discover that however tasty even a giant ear of corn can be, it doesn't last very long in the tummy. With all those fishing boats in the harbor, there must be some excellent ceviche in town. Time to go find it.
All the way down the main street, past my hotel and almost to the beachfront mall, I find Tia Mauro's. There are six tables, five of which are occupied with families having their Sunday meal. The sixth is a little table right on the sidewalk, and it's for me.
Such heavenly fish!
Chunks of the catch of the morning, onions, cilantro, lime, vinegar, what can go wrong? more do you need? A nice cold beer, certainly, and they have that waiting for you.
The bus back to Lima shows two more boxing movies. It's a boxing sort of bus company, I guess. Z-Buss.

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