Friday, 8 August 2014

Accidental Encounters with History

Abandoned village of Cocabal.
My trip off the beaten track up central Peru from Huaraz not only introduced me to some of the friendliest people around in Cabana, and a huge festival (see "Mountains alive with music & dance", but also had me feeling I stepped back in history. When the bus goes the wrong way”) I also photographed an abandoned town and coal mine. 
Eastern end of Cocabal.
The village of Tauca with its c.300 year old and colonial style buildings, which I also found in Cabana, was quite an experience. Along the route there (see “
Coal mine seen from the west.

A Peruvian friend (thanks a lot Elmer) on Facebook identified this as the old town of Cocabal which housed the people working on the nearby (literally down the street) coal mine. This had all been abandoned when the railroad was severely damaged (60% of it) during the 1970 earthquake and subsequently went into disuse. Finding reference to Cocabal online is limited to mere mention of the name in the area, although another the name of another place (assuming nearby) La Galgada pops up as well. I did manage to find the spot on Google Earth, albeit sans name.

The railway line served to transport amongst other things, coal to Chimbote where much of it was supplied to SiderPeru (steel company) for their furnaces. The project for railway lines to the interior from Chimbote was approved 1871 in agreement with Henry Meiggs to supervise the construction. The particular section to Galgada, and it appears Cocabal, was inaugurated in 1921 without Meiggs seeing it - he passed away in 1877 in Lima, Peru.
Coal mine viewed from the east.

The dark triangle in the left of the picture is the abandoned coal mine with the village
strung out from the centre to the right of the picture. (Google Earth)

Zoom into abandoned village of Cocabal (Google Earth)


(1)  Brief Historical Summary of the Railroads in Peru     By Elio Galessio 
   -E-mail address: 


Monday, 4 August 2014

Mountains Alive with Music and Dance

Band following in a procession through the village
with the mountains as a backdrop
Adopting the words from the famous musical “Sound of Music”, “…the hills are alive with the sound of music…” rings true for the mountain village of Cabana (and capital of Pallasca provincia) in the Ancash region of Peru. For 8-9 days the festival in honour of the Patron Santiago ensures at least 18 hours of music a day. You could just sit and enjoy the music or join in the many daily processions, each with a band, and dance your way around the village making friends and enjoying the culture and tradition that makes Cabana such a special place.

Situated in the mountains at c.3200m altitude, any view of the surrounding area includes ranges of mountains. Calling it breathtaking
A view over the southern part of Cabana village.
might be a bit of an understatement actually. Naturally for those coming from sea level, you might need a day to adjust to the altitude but the music and festivities make that much easier - and quicker. From the moment you arrive, you’ll be overwhelmed by how friendly people are and everybody greets and some want to chat of course; it’s impossible to walk 50m without being greeted and/or chatted with. During my visit I was also the only non-Peruvian in the village even though there were many people from abroad, they were originally and at least by descent, Peruvian.

Night music
Even though considered off the beaten track, it’s quite accessible with a 3-hour bus ride from the coastal city of Chimbote for c.$8. Slightly more expensive trips can be done by cars/colectivo’s. Fair warning here, have your camera ready even during the bus ride - the whole route and then the area around Cabana is like being on a 24-hour photoshoot. Then of course, once you’re in Cabana it will be impossible not to want to take photos all the time - that’s when you get a chance between chatting with the extremely friendly Cabanistas.

The festival commences on 17 July with the host family/families responsible for co-ordinating the

whole event attending a dedication service in the church and a walk around the Plaza del Armas (town square) with the band. This year the hosts were the family and relatives of ex-President Toledo who hails from here. There is a slightly more “formal” (using this word loosely) ceremony of introduction with the Mayor of Cabana. The afternoon is dedicated to a huge party for all the kids, and I mean All of them. Families bring the children to come and participate in music and games with the obligatory sweet snacks and drinks. 

The first donated bull is then paraded through the village and around the Plaza. It was during the parading of this bull I was working at getting some closer photos of it when it charged and hooked my leg and helped me on to 2m further. Luckily the horns did not penetrate my leg but I had a very decent bruise and graze to remind me of my 1st day at the festival. During the slaughter of this I was then given some of the first blood to drink - all good and ready for the rest of the fiesta! All food and drinks are freely available for the duration of the festival with everything coming from donations of bulls, sheep, vegetables & fruit which is prepared by cooking and kitchen staff who are also volunteering. Drinks like the Chicha (corn/maize beer) and beers etc are also donated for the festivities. 

Cooking happens on a grand scale during the festival with cooks & bakers
commencing their work at 3am every day.
Hosts (with sashes) Guillermo Toledo & his wife
receive a donated bull for the festivities.
Each donation/gift to the festivities is greeted by the members of the host family/families and a band where the donation is officially made and then received on behalf of the village and the festival. Followed by some dancing at that spot, there is then the procession from there, sometimes the home of the donor, which “collects” more people along the way resulting in a long, happy procession of people dancing to the music and enjoying their drinks. All the processions will at some stage go around and past the Plaza, the centre for everything during the festivities. Some of the donations are received in the Plaza on the steps of the lovely blue painted church.

Late afternoon with music, fireworks and dancing.
As the festival progresses, more and more bands join and it’s very possible to find 5-6 bands at different locations - or you could find 3-4 at the same time in the Plaza. From about 9-10pm, there will be 2-3 bands on the Plaza alternately providing the music for dancing till 1am, the official time anyway. It did happen that a couple of guys with guitars started making music when the bands finished and continued till around 4am.

Some of the events this year included horses with young riders going around the Plaza throwing out sweets, fruit and drinks to spectators which results in some entertaining scrambles. Something similar happens on the 2nd last day (24 July) when adult benefactors ride their horses, at greater speed, around the Plaza throwing out a huge variety of snacks, fruit, drinks and other items.
Horserider throwing out sweets for the crowds.

On the 24th this continues from the balconies around the Plaza after the riders have dismounted.
Toro loco (mad bull) being carried through the crowds
Midnight on the 23rd and 24th also brings massive fireworks displays on reed-towers (referred to as castillo) and accompanied by the the toro loco (mad bull), a crafted bull spewing fire (fireworks) as the holder runs around with it. As on the first night, a boat carried by 4 people is also carried around going crazy as the music picks up - duck and dive to stay out of the way and have heaps of fun.
Sunset music and dancing.

One morning the schools will also display some of their crafts and skills their pupils have attained as part of capacity building; this display/expo is visited by the Mayor and senior officials. There will also be more (more than usual) food stalls selling a mix of local food ranging from fried chicken and fries, soup, beef and pork dishes, to ceviche (fish dish) although the latter seems to be more commonly sold late mornings/lunchtime.

The 24th is also when there is dedication again to the Apostle Santiago as the Patron of Cabana and then the introduction of the host families for the following year.
Castillo fireworks display in full swing.
I was told that the festival will be massive in 2015 as there will be 5 host families so even more locations where food and drink is served and that serve as festival hubs.  The last day (25th) there are also more dedications and devotions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the last day as I had to head off north to the Ecuadorean border.

The accidental visit and subsequent stay in Cabana ranks in the top of my list of best travel experiences. I was immediately included in all activities and drawn in as if I were a Cabanista - by the middle of the week Cabana already felt like home to me. This little village has since become like my new home and I will return more than once, and not only for festivals, to enjoy the tranquility, friendliness and amazing panoramas that make this a dream location. Thanks again to all the Cabanistas and other Peruvians who contributed, knowingly or otherwise, to an amazing 9 days immersed in your culture and tradition.

All photos of Cabana (Pallasca) and the festivities can be found on my Flickr page. 
Click link  Cabana (Pallasca)

(See previous post on how I got to Cabana and the amazing scenery)


Saturday, 2 August 2014

When the Bus Goes the Wrong Way

Start of the road through Cañon del Pato
Planning to go off the beaten track can be a bit tricky sometimes if you have to rely on public and local transport. The road less travelled is always interesting but what happens when you leave the road less travelled as well?

Mid-July I was planning on going north in Peru from Huaraz to the Ecuador border to renew my visa via a central route used very seldom by tourists and even by Peruvians; unless travelling specifically to a little village. Information on most of the little villages and towns were limited to a mere reference on the internet or an intrepid traveller bemoaning their fate at having to use various modes of local transport between them.  The route north usually entails following the PanAmerican Highway along the coast of Peru to the north.  This was fine for me as I wanted to spend time in the less touristy Peru. 
Village of Yuracmarca

North of Huaraz the route passes through Yungay, Caraz then the hydro-electric project village of
Camping at Huarochiri
Huallanca and on to the tiny village of Yuracmarca, all of this through the incredible, yet sometimes nerve-racking 
Cañón del Pato. Although still on a fairly main route as far as local travel goes, this was very clearly not a very busy route. The road then starts curving through the mountains to the west and Chimbote. This is where it gets interesting as I spent my night in a tent next to some truckers at a snack/food stop called Huarochiri. This was about 40km from Chuquicara where I had to get off the main route and head north to the village of Pallasca. The policeman at Chuquicara asked me why I was going that route and not via Chimbote - he just couldn’t comprehend why I didn’t want to use a main route that everybody used. Anyway, he mentioned that the route went via a village/town called Cabana so when a bus turned up going to Cabana, I hopped on.
Junction of road: straight to Pallasca and up to Anso

After 30 minutes of more grand panoramic and mountain views, the bus turned up the mountain and I saw the road sign showing Pallasca straight ahead and Anso to the right, the direction we were going. I was thinking of stopping the bus and getting off when I realised that out here in the desert mountains that would be rather stupid and that the route might just curl around back to Pallasca and we were going the long way. 

Granted, the scenery was spectacular and the road winding back and forth through the mountains
c.300 year old church in village of Tauca
was brand new tar-seal as well. After about two hours we pulled into a village called Tauca (I had to ask the name of the village) and my jaw dropped! I was speechless - we seemed to have travelled back in time at least 100 years with old mud-plastered buildings and red clay tiles. On the Plaza del Armas, the main square, there was a church with incredible artwork. Still trying to work out where I was in relation to my planned route, I was just flabbergasted at what how I seemed to be back in time somewhere in colonial Peru.

Road from Tauca to Cabana
The road from Tauca then became dirt road although continued its winding and twisting way down the mountain (Tauca was at 3,000m+ altitude) and then after about 30 minutes, we started ascending again. Eventually I caught sight of another village that seemed bigger than Tauca and certainly a more grand “official” entrance. Into the village the road still twisted and turned upwards and through some narrow streets we ended up on the Plaza del Armas. It was certainly a bigger place with a large municipal building and a lovely blue church next to that. This was Cabana.

View from a street in Cabana
Getting my backpacks off the bus, I asked where I could wait for/get the next transport to Pallasca. People looked confused/flustered at that and all asked why I wanted to go there. It was 3pm and there was no more transport there for the day, apparently the next vehicle would likely only be the next morning at 7am. Ah, so now I had to stay in Cabana for the night; might as well find a room and explore this lovely village. I was still not sure where exactly I was in relation to my planned route and only remember
Another incredible view down a street
and a house (left) incorporating the rock.
seeing the name of the village on the map but it wasn’t referred to anywhere online when I researched the “route”.

One of the guys at the little shop where the bus had stopped, showed me into the reception of the adjacent hotel when I asked where i could find a room for the night. The rooms were reasonably priced at 15 Soles for a room with a shared bathroom and then prices up from there for en-suite rooms. I then headed off to explore and find something to eat. All the people I passed were just incredibly friendly and even chatting a bit, this was like another world! This was over and above the zillions of photo opportunities with the colonial buildings and streets against the steep slope of the mountain which made for stunning backdrops for virtually any shot. 

I eventually decided on a tiny little restaurant opposite the Comisario (Police). My Spanish at this stage was still fairly limited but I managed to order a meal. It was a large bowl of soup with a chunk of meat
Restaurant at the door in the blue building
(beef) and then followed by another large plate of rice, fried chicken, potato and some piquant onions. Oh yes, and a huge glass of juice. This totalled 6 Soles (so just over $2) and I wasn’t eating again in the next few hours, that’s for sure!

During the meal, the lady told me that a very large festival commences the next day and asked whether I’d be staying for that. Sadly not, I replied - only one night and then on further north. Mario at the Imperial (hotel where I was staying, also asked whether I’d be staying and asked what I did etc etc. I asked and we chatted about the apparent lack of tourists in such a stunning area during which he took me to the roof terrace to show me the views. 

Mario could speak pretty good english so this made my introduction to Cabana a bit easier. He explained about the festival in honour of the Patron Santiago which is one of the biggest festivals Cabana has. It commences on 17 July and ends on 25 July. The hosts/coordinators would be the family and relatives of the ex-President Toledo and food and drinks would be freely available to all during the festival; this in addition to a variety of bands and lots of dancing. He was trying to convince me to stay for the duration of the festival and then take the “quick” coastal route to the Ecuador border. Eventually I relented and said I’d stay for maybe 3-4 days. 
View of the Plaza del Armas
(photo taken later during festival)
Standing on the roof with a 360 degree view of mountains and a beautiful village steeped in culture, tradition and history, it was difficult to imagine that this was a bad place to be “stuck”. I was already falling in love with the place. 
As the festival commenced the next day I was drawn into it and meeting loads of new people all the time and the tranquility and friendliness here was just overwhelming - I ended up departing on the 25th with a long journey to rush through to get to the Ecuadorean border.

(Next post: Exploring & the Festival in Cabana)