Huancayo to the central Selva alta

Huancayo to the central Selva alta

This route passes through the pretty town of Tarma to the high jungle - selva alta - of Chanchamayo, and then through this to the lowland dry jungle of Atalaya. Chanchamayo is Perú's premier coffee growing district, and has extremely beautiful landscape.

This route - including the ascent from Lima - is one of the fastest ways to see the general range of the environment that Perú has to offer: from desert to snow peak, from peak to puno, from high cool dairy pastures to the heat of the wet jungle. These extremes can be met in only two days of driving. For all its convenience, proximity to Lima and charm, very few travellers come this way.

From Huancayo to Tarma

The road to Jauja (described elsewhere) is tarred. At Jauja, one can either continue on to La Oroya, and then turn right to Tarma on a rather good road, or follow the direct route from Jauja - called the Lomo Largo - which is not at all in a good state. It will take four hours to cover the 110 km to Tarma by this road. The issue is a sore one for both populations, who tend to take irregular direct action in order to draw the Government's attention to this problem. As such action involves blocking the highway, this may be drawn to your attention as well. However, public transport plies the route regularly, and it presents no obstacle to a solid 4x4 vehicle.

A view from space covering this region. Lake Junín is at the lower left, and the Chanchamayo valley curls right in the upper centre of the picture. Oxapampa is the green valley running left from the main slate-green curl of the Río Perene valley. The Mantaro valley and Huancayo or on the lower right of the image, and the Cordillera Concepción lies between these and the end of the Perene valley.

The alternative route is much better, but is longer and entails changes at La Oroya if you are going by public transport. However, its approach to the Tarma valley, coming over a pass at around 4200m and then winding down through flower fields and little villages, red fields and green ones, to Tarma at 3050m is extremely attractive. It is a good bicyclers' route. Please note that there is a third route from Huancayo into this region, described here. It absolutely requires a 4x4, but is great fun.

Tarma styles itself the 'pearl of the Andes', and the valley is, indeed, still extremely pretty. It is a centre of floriculture, and you will see fields of stock, gladioli and carnations and roses growing in little red fields, separated by Eucalyptus. The whole upper valley is dotted with little red-roofed settlements and the town itself is one of these grown large. In Spring, the fields are yellow with wild Oxalis or purple with a plant of the nettle family, called rima rima and lima lima in Quechua. There are many hotels in the town, one - Los Portales - of more than moderately good standard. The best hotel in the valley is found 6 km beyond Tarma, in the converted Hacienda la Florida, a 250-year old farm house that has been skillfully altered to a hotel full of antiques, located in sylvan countryside.

Click here to see a series of images Tarma's name comes from the wild Arum lily, or tara, which abounds locally, following every watercourse. The town is an aggregation of red-tile roofed low buildings around a central Plaza de Armas, that owes as much to Andean tradition as it does to the Spanish style. Unhappily, it has been subject to rapid and unplanned growth, notable during the Sendero Luminoso period, and the lower periphery has become an industrial wasteland. Close your eyes for the five minutes that it takes to transit this blot.

Tarma may have been one of the first sites of settled habitation in the Peruvian Andes. The valley was probably settled 7-8 thousand years ago, and the people of the time left their mark in local caves, which we discuss below. Local rule was ended by the Inca under Pachacutec.

Spanish influence was muted until the latter part of the Nineteenth century, when it became policy to facilitate the settlement of European immigrants in the Andes. Tarma, being relatively close, received a disproportionate number of these people, and a monument - the Arco de Ingreso, arching over the road - remains to tell the tale. The next major change was brought about by the dictatorial President Odría, who born in Tarma. The 1946-56 period saw a large hotel, hospital, town hall and indoor market showered on the town. The town rewarded him by laying his remains to rest in the Cathedral, and by celebrating his birth every November.

Tarma's two major festivals are Easter and its patronal or Saint's Day. It was founded in 1538 on the day of Santa Ana, July 26th. This is a major event in the town's calendar. The most important is, however, Semana Santa, Easter, for which the town is known all over Perú. PIctures of Semana Santa are included in the series above. It can also be accessed by clicking here.

The Semana Santa festivities began in around 1650 and have developed since then. The original event was confined to the wealthy immigrants, and it was felt that the resident population should be more included. As a first step, villages were invited to create decorative images on the pavement of the main square. These have since transformed into huge tapestries of flower petals, covering the entire roadway of the square and of surrounding alleyways. People descend from their villages with tonnes of petals, notionally collected from he wild but now increasingly bought from local flower farms. They spend the evening of Good Friday (actually, a day more dedicated to institutions such as the town council and the police; and, due to the nature of the day in the Christian calendar, celebrated without recourse to alcohol) and Easter Saturday (firmly in the hands of the campesinos, and very far from dry.)

The Plaza de Armas is decorated with floral arches, and beneath these, the flower petaLs are used to make their extraordinarily complex images. Despite this being a Christian festival, the images seldom reflect Biblical themes, but rather scenes from rural life, Inca deities, coats of arms and ayahuasca-inspired patterns that defy description. The object of the displays is to provide a carpet for the various devotional processions which make up the calendar of the festival.

Start Please click on the forward arrow to hear a street recording of the Easter Thursday procession, the music transmitting desolation and loss.

There are, in fact, three separate processions. The first, on Thursday, represents the farewell between Christ and the Virgin Mary. Three flower-decked, candle- and light-festooned images are carried around the square, surrounded by the purple-robed hermandad of the order. Each Brother wears a white rope around his neck. A brass band plays solemn music, a considerable crowd gathers holding candles and singing hymns, but there are no flowers on show. The second procession, also without flowers and equally conducted with much solemnity, represents the Passion on the cross, and occurs on Friday night. An empty cross, followed by the figure of Christ on a flower- and candle-bedecked catafalque, is processed over the 'official' carpets of flowers on Good Friday, bombarded with petals and followed by a crowd of devotees. Both of the above processions take place around 20.00-21.00, unlike the procession on Saturday night, which officially begins around 03.00 on Sunday morning and often occurs -and certainly ends - nearer to dawn.

The 'popular' ceremony of the flowers, fireworks and much alcohol begins, therefore, on Saturday and runs into Sunday morning. This event has a distinct supporter group, drawn from the hills around Tarma rather than from the town and its institutions, and can be mildly rowdy and is certainly percolated with alcohol. However, it has the feel of authenticity to it and the tone is one of extrovert amiability. (I write this on Sunday morning in Tarma after a long night, during which tens of individuals introduced themselves and asked me to join their group for a while.) It is advisable to sleep to around 02.00, and then venture forth. The night begins with individual parties and congregates into a crowd around this time. The start of the main event is signaled by the first of two of Peru's unique displays of paper-and-bamboo fireworks, in which wheels very much rotate within wheels, not infrequently into the crowd. Astounding. A second and usually larger display follows somewhat later, just before the procession sets out. The flower carpets are as described, but with sometimes extremely exotic themes - pre-Inca deities, or Disney characters who sow seeds of gold coins and human babies into the soil - and the procession itself shows Christ triumphant, followed by the Virgin and others.

There are numerous permanent restaurants in the town, but the festival also has a range of stalls offering foods such as pachamanca (meat of the day, cooked in an oven made of hot rocks buried underground), served with beans and potatoes. Roast guinea pig, served in a peanut-and-chili sauce is piquante de cuy. Cabbage, red chili, dried meat and potatoes is puchero, and mondongo is a soup made from - usually - chicken, sweet corn and chili. One less likely to attract the foreigner is caldo de cordero, which sounds fine - "veal soup" - but is in fact the head of a calf, boiled in rue with potatoes and onions and served whole, usually in a capacious plastic container resembling a washing-up bowl.

The Cathedral is a relatively new building, built by President Odría and now his tomb. It does, however, have an extremely ancient clock in its bell-tower. The old streets of Tarma - uphill from the Plaza de Armas - retain its former charm, and the market - downhill - is extremely busy and picturesque in the morning. The wholesale market, five minute below the town by car, in hideous industrial surroundings - is striking if you enjoy agricultural too-ing and fro-ing. The best thing about Tarma is, however, the ambience of tranquility in the surrounding villages, the clean air and the general friendliness of the people. There are lots of things to visit around the town, although practically anywhere is pretty and makes a pleasant walk. The villages of Chuchopampa, Huasqui and Cochas are particularly picturesque and have pleasing countryside around them. The tourist agency in the main square can arrange two-to five days treks, for example following the main Inca road through the area.

Click here to see a series of images There are archaeological ruins at Tarmatambo, 6 km from the town on the Jauja road. These are the remains of an Incan tambo or barracks-come-inn. There is a part of the Inca road that once connected to the Royal Road in the Huancayo valley. There are also rock paintings at Huaricolca, around 14 km out, Ask for the Mamahuari pinturas rupestres, but be prepared to walk a further 40 minutes when you have arrived at Huaricolca. There is a road, but it is pleasant to take a path which travels through the surrounding Santuario Rupestre Pintash Machay, crossing rocky outcrops and areas covered in cactus.

The cave itself is located in a cañón which local people say is dry because the local apu Mama Huari became irritated by the people who lived there, and who broke the great pot from which the waters once flowed. The paintings have been vandalised by people trying to flake off the rock on which they are painted, but their antiquity is unquestioned. Public transport goes to both sites from Ave. Pacheco de Tarma.

Tarma-La Merced

The Tarma valley begins with a pretty but precipitous drop from around 4500m. It is, however, is much flatter below the town, offering green willow-clad landscape between tall, often arid cliffs. A number of villages line the road, as well as numerous earth roads up which it is easy to drive in a 4x4. The views across the valley are remarkable, offering huge vistas of terracing. Potato culture becomes important, with families tilling the land and moving produce on their burros. Harvesters often cook potatoes over a little fire, and then eat them with chili and some vegetable oil.

Around 9 km from Tarma is Acobamba, which has both the Inca ruins of Yanamarca and the religious centre of the Señor de Muruhuay, a church with a much-venerated and copiously-miraculous natural image of the face of Christ. (You will often see invocations to this icon painted on trucks.) The main festival is in May, when two days of dancing, fireworks and processions bring the area to a halt. The first day has a Mass in Quechua, after which people deposit a "carta a Dios", a letter to God, setting out their failings and wishes. A dancing procession leads off, followed by luncheon of fried guinea pig and beans.

Muruhuay means "smallpox house". The cult began when hundreds of infected people were driven out from their towns and abandoned by the Spanish authorities. The victims claim to have been cured by the huge image of Christ carved - or naturally developed, as you wish - into the Shalacato cerro near Acobamba.

Also close to Acobamba is Palcamayo, 24 km from Tarma. The Huagapo caverns, 3570m, are the rather dramatic mouth of the Palcamayo river. These are said to be the deepest in South America - 2800m have been explored - and are full of bats, limestone formations and some rock paintings. The name means the "crying cave", a name given on account of the river which flows out of them. The site has been subject to 'informal' development and is best avoided on public holidays, as it resembles a cross between a traffic jam and a car boot sale.

Thirteen kilometres further on this road one finds de San Pedro de Cajas, a pretty village famous for its textile work. All but a handful of the inhabitants work on cotton, wool and alpaca to make things like carpets, ponchos and cloaks. They use entirely natural dyes. There are also people who do woodworking. It is not advisable to photograph the artisans or their produce, as they believe that photographers are out to steal their designs. The landscape above San Pedro is a delight. A high and extremely attractive 4x4 route connects San Pedro to Huasa Huasi, about which more below.

Palca is 20 km from Tarma, beyond Acobamba. This, too, has many side tracks on which you can drive or walk. You can, in particular, walk up to the los Cóndores lake, or simply wander through the very pretty country. High up, one gets a view of some of the snow peaks in the area.

Click here to see a series of images The Carretera Central has been descending gently throughout this route but suddenly, it encounters a great gash in the landscape. It is worth stopping if you can, to walk to the edge of this and look down: far below, a silver vein shows the river to which you will descend as you drop to the jungle. If you have a robust 4x4, there is a bridge across the river about 1 Km above their point, which allows you to wind up into the hills to gain spectacular views. It loops back on itself, but has stretches that resemble off-road vehicle test tracks, so beware.

A road to the left leads to Huasa Huasi, through a tight cañón called the Paso Yolanda, flanked with terraces. Tropical bromeliads and the odd orchid spot the gorge. Huasi Huasi itself is, unhappily, frankly hideous but the near-vertical terraced land around it is charming. The pretty villages are the source of seed potatoes for the rest of Perú, a much contested and rather fierce business which involves getting trucks to where they are needed in a great hurry. Exercise caution on these narrow roads, therefore, if you are driving. The main town is at 2800m, 48 km from Tarma.

Click here to see a series of images To complete the three hour circuit to San Pedro de Cajas, as mentioned above, continue to drive on the main road that passes through the town. This rises steeply, often through mud, and requires a 4x4. After a period in cultivation, it emerges into pure puna. The first major sight is the Mamancocha lagoon, which is surrounded both by wild limestone landscape and by the unexcavated archaeological sites of Chupash, Pardomicuna and Purunmarca, all likely to have been dedicated to the Earth goddess Pachamama cult. The road then winds through wilder and wilder limestone landscape, permeated by caves and dotted with lakes.

The land is full of wildlife, including spectacular black and white geese. The initially rather closed surroundings open onto an open area with phenomenal views around a series of larger lakes, the fringes of which are usually dotted with alpacas and llamas. The drive eventually reaches a set of modern farm buildings. To continue ahead is to reach Junín in three hours. However, the road to San Pedro de Cajas is a (currently) well-made earth road which branches sharp left near these buildings, and the pretty town itself is reached in around 12 Km. The road passes fine waterfalls, toy-like farmsteads and stark limestone terraces. The town is set in an open limestone landscape, surrounded by a multicoloured patchwork of fields. As has already been noted, the main road from San Pedro drops down to the highway near Palca.

To Chanchamayo: We diverted off the main road to Huasa Huasi. The main road to San Ramon continues to the right, beginning a steep descent. This is a very exciting drive. The road is now much improved, having been a thin dusty ribbon on which one contested passage with fruit lorries, beside an ill-defined precipice. It is now a wide highway, and I have to say that some of the romance has gone. It does, however, descends an orchid-laden sheer cliff face for much of its length. There are two or three roadside settlements but no towns on the descent. As one drops, so tropical flora and birds make their appearance. The paucar makes nests that look like basket balls stuffed in an oversized sock, which dangle from tree branches. The pretty feathery-leafed trees which they favour are used as shade plants in the extensive coffee plantations in Chanchamayo. The birds themselves have flamboyant iridescent blue tails and a distinctive whooping call that once heard is never forgotten. The river joins the road around half an hour before the end of the descent. One is now in tropical conditions, and only eight hundred metres above sea level. Rather suddenly, the valley opens up to a plethora of mango trees and the mountains become rolling hills. You have arrived at the outskirts of San Ramón.

A glance around - at the buildings, at the people - tell you that you are in a different world. The buttoned-down primness of the sierra is completely absent. Women wear tight short shiny dresses, the men wear hats, shorts and flip-flops. Gaits are different, voices are louder, music is staccato: it feels like tropical Latin America because it is topical Latin America. The town was founded in 1847 as a fort, but is now a fast-growing market (and therefore rather rough-looking) town with a clean hotel and an excellent chifa restaurant. It has grown from two streets and a Plaza de Armas to its present size in two decades, and the results have yet to settle. There is, however, a new high quality hotel - the Presidente Selva - in a pretty river bank location around 3 Km beyond the town.

San Ramón is the source of many of the fruit lorries that you will have encountered on the trip down, as it is a major centre for citrus of all kinds, papaya and other tropical fruits. It also has a substantial market at which these are traded retail and wholesale. The union of the Tarma and Tulumayo rivers also makes this a fishery, and the local food is excellent. As an ecological aside, this area was once densely forested; but is now all but bald in the pursuit of coffee growing areas. Where this fails, erosion follows and the region is now palpably hotter and drier than it was 20 years ago.

La Merced is connected to San Ramón by the same wide road that runs to Satipo. Five kilometres down this - and 30 minutes walk - is the fine El Tirol waterfall, ideal for a bracing shower bath in the company of yet more orchids, lianas and other tropical exotica.There are a number of fine old haciendas around San Ramon, many abandoned during the disastrous agricultural reforms of the 1970s. El Naranjal is one of the first colonial structures built in the region and, 7 km from the town, the Fundo Santa Clara is also a historical monument. The extremely scenic area called Pampa Hermosa is 24 km away, a place of forest and waterfalls. It has a remarkable flora and fauna, including the Peruvian national bird Rupícola peruviana, the cock of the rock. Orchids include Sobralias rondoni and altissima, Psychopsis papillio and the rare Huntleya vargasii. A newly-established nature reserve is intended to hold back the worst of the ravages from land clearance, hunting and plant removal. May it succeed.

La Merced is the capital of Chanchamayo province. It, too, was established as a military centre in the mid-Nineteenth century. The cocaine trade did the district a lot of damage in the 1970-90 period (someone was knifed outside my hotel bedroom in 1981) and the atmosphere was, to say the least, prickly. There were also difficulties over the issue of land reform in the coffee plantations. All of this is now settled and the air is a tranquil one, if frenzied commerce can be said to be 'tranquil'. It is a centre for coffee and, like San Ramón, for fruit. There is an expanding area of cacao (chocolate.) Oddly, it is almost impossible to buy a cup of coffee in the town that is not made from esencia, a frankly vile concentrate that is mixed with tepid water to make 'coffee'.

Click here to see a series of images La Merced has a range of hotels and restaurants. The Plaza de Armas cannot be called 'pretty' but has character, and there are a solid range of facilities, from money-changing to vehicle repair. The local food focuses on the river and the fruit trade. The doncella and dorado are two tasty but bony river fish, and the restaurants always offer carne de monte, which is a generic term for whatever the hunters have killed in the wild: peccary to parrot. Most meals come with roast plantain (non-sweet banana) and yuca, yam. You quickly tire of bananas (platanos) which are to be seen on sale in huge heaps at every roadside.

The Cruz de Chanchamayo is a lookout point about a kilometre from the city. The Puente Kimiri is an old suspension bridge put in by the first colonial settlers, named after the site of the Franciscan mission. The Chanchamayo river has a wide range of little boats on it and, whilst it is unchallenging for kayak enthusiasts, this does offer a fine way to see some remarkable landscape. Be careful of the denizens of the river, however, as above.

The botanical gardens are found 15 km down the road to Oxapampa, about which district please see below. It is a little run down, but has the main trees of the region well-organised and a fine display of gingers and Heliconias - the plants that look like red and yellow fire crackers. The guide will point out many medicinal plants, including Banisteropsis, the chief ingredient in the ayahuasca drug. There is a small lake with a cayman and a variety of turtles. It has a restaurant offers cebiche de caracoles, lime-picked water snails, which may or may not tempt you, and a range of herbal preparations.

The Chanchamayo river flows between low - but still impressive - hills. Many of these are forested, but the forest conceals extensive coffee plantations. If you visit these - and it is worth doing, if only for the early morning view of tropical mist over the valleys - then be sure to wear a long sleeved shirt. There is a midge that bites painful if small chunks out of the unprotected upper arm. The rough roads that go through these plantations in turn lead to grazing land, forestry and assorted dead-ends, which is where butterfly enthusiasts, botanists and bird-watchers bloom. Be careful of your security in the more obscure areas, however, and do not travel alone if your Spanish is poor. Apart from anything else, you could get lost or stuck. (I took my boss here on his first trip to anywhere outside of Switzerland in 1980. Our petrol pump failed, and we walked in the dark to a coffee co-operative where stone drunk, machete-wielding campesinos looked us over. Eventually, we got a lift in a truck on a heap of bananas to the river, crossed that on an inadequately powered, motor driven platform that just kissed the waves in the middle, and spent the rest of the night in the hotel, which turned out to be a brothel. We got home by sitting on the engine cover and manually dripping gasoline into the carburetor, all the way to Lima. His first trip, and his last.)

La Merced-Oxapampa

This side trip takes a day each way, plus whatever time you want to spend in the perpetual spring of the Oxapampa region. This is, for those who love wildlife - and in particular, butterflies, plants and orchids, very close to paradise. I counted fourteen orchids species on one randomly-chose tree, and the butterflies appear to wish to emulate the flower carpets of Tarma on the road. It is, however, fair to say that this is not the best road in the world. It begins in a bumpy fashion with room for two vehicles, but quickly degrades to a narrow earth track that swoops dramatically through the forest. But is that not why you came, after all? However, do take care as the road verges are indefinite, the drops are extensive and the curves very sharp. This is how Chanchamayo was a couple of decades ago. That said, the roads have improved greatly in the last few years.

The trip to Oxapampa takes around four hours, or more if you sightsee, which you should. There are several villages, the largest of which is Paucartambo. This has a bridge which crosses to Villa Rica and thence to Puerto Bermudez in the deep selva. (The original bridge was presented by Kaiser Wilhelm in 1901.) The town has peculiar houses welded onto the rock of the river, over which they creak alarmingly. Villa Rica is an hour uphill on a bumpy road, and justifiably claims the best coffee in Perú. The town is thrown together and has limited charm. It was the site of the first mass settlement by foreigners, who thereby agreed with the the Peruvian government to convert to Catholicism. This did not, however, prevent the mass expulsion of the indigenous population of the Yanesha people, and the Francisco Schaferer museum tells something of their tale.

The road parts here, the main section heading for the lowland 'port' of Puerto Bermudez, with the seemingly limitless Gran Pajonal forest extending from it. This is a hot, malarial area. You can catch a boat to Atalaya - see below - or Pucallpa from here, but do please take precautions against insect-born diseases.

The road beyond Puerto Bermudez (notionally) extends to join an established highway near Pucallpa, but you should attempt this only if you have a very strong 4x4, knowledge of how to repair it and the requisite spares and tools, a great deal fo slack time and if you have made appropriate provision for the lack of security in the area.

Sketch map: not to scale.

In other words, it is best not to do this unless you are quite prepared, and then only in the dry season. Backpackers should never attempt this road on public transport, as the level of assaltos faced by public vehicles is such as to present significant risk.

We indicate that the road forked beyonf Villa Rica. The left-hand branch of this heads to Iscozacin, which has modest hotels and which is centrally placed for access into the land reserves for the Yanesha people. These pursue their original style of life and, with the aid of a local guide, you can meet them and see something of how they live. This area, in turn, abuts on the large national park, about which more below.

However, let us now return to the Oxapampa road. Beyond Paucartambo, this climbs relentlessly through increasing wet forest. Stop to listen to the insect life, and peer at any tree to see a massive load of ferns, orchids and bromeliads. The climb levels off rather abruptly and dairy cattle and pasture appear. Oxapampa (1800m) is the capital of its district. The region is geographically diverse, but even more so socially. Large numbers of German immigrants settled in the Nineteenth century and, somewhat later, there came a wave of Japanese settlers. Peruvian settlers have now diluted the immigrant population, but at least some of the people have light skins and narrow noses, curly hair and other European features. The houses conserve a European clapboard style, and some shops and farms display German names. The immigrants are, however, now entirely Spanish speakers. The local economy revolves around livestock and forestry. There are adequate hotels and restaurants, the latter making good use of local produce such as a range of cheese not found elsewhere in the country. There are also many stills in which aguardiente is distilled, and much-consumed.

The town itself is spacious and uncluttered, with limited traffic and both children and dogs play in the middle of the main streets. It is built on the edge of the Chontabamba river, which rises in this area and flows North. (The river that you followed uphill, the Santa Cruz, goes South to Chanchamayo.) The name means "reed field" in Quechua. The general tone is open and friendly, the air sparkling clean and the climate fixed in a perpetual spring. I have always felt that this would make an ideal artist's colony, or like backdrop for intellectual endeavour.

Click here to see a series of images

People visit Oxapampa chiefly because it is in the middle of the ceja de selva belt, wetter that Chanchamayo and therefore extraordinarily endowed with wildlife. The orchids are remarkable - Oncidiums, Epidendrums, Maxillerias, Pleurothallids - the butterflies at least as rich and the birds changing with every glance.

One can drive along a wide range of what are, in effect, farm tracks, exploring the ever-changing ecology of the region. A myriad of clean little streams wind through forest and pasture.

The Parque Nacional Yanacha-Chemillén extends over 122 square kilometres, ranging from 4800m to 300m in altitude. It has 59 mammal species, including the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and the dwarf deer (Pudu mephistophiles.) There are 47 species of birds, including the cock of the rock, mentioned above, and the Harpy Eagle, (Harpia harpija.) The real wealth is in the plant life and the smaller organisms, from insects to fungi. Ferns and cycads, orchids and mosses, bromeliads and shrubs are crept, flown and hopped over, eaten and fertilised by an unnumbered and unlisted host of organisms. In the order of 1200 plant species have been formally described, but well-based estimates suggest a total of around 9000 in the park. Many of these will be new to science.

The park has, as yet developed no facilities for access. save three roads to the boundary of it. In order to proceed, one needs permit which, like those of other National Parks, has to be procured in Lima. It cannot be acquired locally. or not without considerable delay. The substance of the park can, however, be sensed by making the three hour trip North towards Pozuso, where the road climbs into dense, pure ceja de selva (and in the afternoons, into rain.) The mountains crowd around the river to make a tight, vegetation-clad cañón. One can stop and cross the river on a number of foot bridges, but there is anyway an enormous amount to see simply from the roadside. You will note that access to this dripping, dense virgin forest is not a matter to be taken lightly, as much of it is made up of tangled underbrush aligned at 80° on an unstable slope. The interior of the park - that is, the highest altitudes - are less challenging, and contain weird circular limestone sink-holes, and doubtless caves. An area as wild as anyone could wish for.

Pozuso is a pretty village - lacking formal accommodation - that is found two hours beyond, and significantly lower than - the journey through the national park. The trip there and back in a day on a dreadful road is demanding, to say the least, but the village is emblematic of all remote settlements.

La Merced to satipo

Let us return to Chanchamayo and head on deeper into the selva. The road follows and crosses the 100-200m wide Chanchamayo river, and there are many fine places to stop and look around. The solid, low hills on either side of the river thin away, togehter with their coffee crop, and the view becomes one of rolling slopes and wide river views. There is, however, a fine brick red canon at Km 35, which winds on for around 10 Km. After a drop of some hours of driving through tropical scenery, the road begins to rise gently. Satipo is higher than La Merced, and the ecology changes accordingly. The wet, green landscape is dotted with settlements and, at least close the road, is heavily cultivated.

The local people are the Asháninkas, now much assimilated by the mestizo settler population. The area was first contacted by Franciscans, who established a mission in Chanchamayo in 1635. This was not a great success, not least as the Asháninkas lived in small mobile groups scattered through the forest. There are still around 225 such communities, speaking their original language and maintaining distant relations with the outside world. They are focused on the valleys of the Apurímac, Ene, Perené, Tambo and Urubamba rivers, collectively making up the largest group of jungle-living Peruvians.

The word Asháninka means "everyone's brother", reflecting the strong sense of collective identity and community shared by these groups. One's self is not limited to one's body, but exists suspended in a network of relationships - of food and the natural world, of companionship and procreation, of health and sickness - that transcends this. The mind lives in this network, not in the body. The world was created by Tasorentsi, and people can be guided into unity with His various aspects and emanations through the help of shamans. (See here.)

The outside world has not been kind to the Asháninka and they are suspicious of strangers. The Sendero Luminoso exploited their passive nature by enslaving them - all in the name of socialist fellowship, of course. It is advisable to visit them in as small a group as possible, in the company of someone they know, and to keep a low profile: dress in dull colours, move slowly and talk quietly; show respect. Brusqueness - or beetle wing blue sunglasses worn over a fluorescent pink ski suit - will cause them to drift into the forest, and your trip will have been wasted. The least assimilated Asháninka almost always wear beige garments, woven largely from cotton and finished by being boiled with walnut leaves to give them their colour. They wear elaborate woven head-dresses, often decorated with coloured birds' feathers. They enjoy music and ritual dancing, much of which is a part of their religious ritual.

There are many Asháninka settlements along the way to Satipo, although these are necessarily heavily influenced by the outside world. Perené is 22km from La Merced, but down at 635m. It is a Franciscan mission town, inhabited by settled Asháninka. The 1742 revolt of Juan Santos Atahualpa - who claimed descent from the Inca defeated by Pizarro - began here and ran for 13 years until the instigator was killed by accident, by a stone thrown by one of his followers. The area Perené around has 35 much less settled groups, who nonetheless involve themselves in the cash economy, trading handicrafts, items such as seeds that they have gathered in the forest and hunting.

The village of Yurinaki, 5 km from Perené, has the 60m Bayoz waterfall. One has to walk 300m through the forest to get to this fall. A higher fall, el Velo de la Novia - 'the bridal veil' - requires a further trip along the road, followed by a twenty minute walk on an extremely irregular track, and a crossing of a hanging bridge. One really feels that one has got somewhere special on arrival at the 120m fall. (Recall, the sea to which all the water in it is going is the Atlantic, 5000km away in Brazil.)

Pichanaki is a village 80km from La Merced and 825m above sea level, sitting on the Río Perene. The storms generated by the last el Niño have carved a beach, which the locals call the playa de Pichanaki, and from which you can get a boat to mess about on the river, or cross it to see the fine waterfall at Zatarari, some 5 km from the village. The town has no hotels, and if you choose to stay here, recall that - in common with the rest of this trip - (a) this is a malarial area and that (b) the sand flies that carry Leishmaniasis come out at dusk on places like the sandy beach. And (c), there are vampire bats. This is the humid tropics, and one has to be careful of these unfamiliar risks.

Click here to see a series of images Río Negro is capital of the district of the same name, Km 5 from Satipo. It is hot, humid and on the whole more densely forested than anything so far encountered. The town is a modern construction, with a statue of an Asháninka surrounded by four jaguares in the central square. The square also has a very odd blue church, and in fact seems to altogether lack a supporting town. Once again, there are native communities all around, who come in to trade and see the sights.

Satipo (850m) is a far larger town than any encountered on the trip from La Merced. It is also set on a river. It is the provincial capital, founded in 1965 and constructed without an eye for tradition. It is coolest in the rains, which fall between November and May, but normally maintains a temperature of around 30C at midday. It has around 20,000 people, and lives by administrative services and farming. It has basic services and adequate accommodation. Towns on these huge Amazonian rivers are customarily said to have their ports, in this case called the Puerto Ipoki. One can hire little boats - canoas - to spend time of the river, fish or do whatever you choose. The port area has many restaurants that sell fresh fish and local food.

The area around Satipo was and is inhabited by Asháninkas, but also smaller groups called the Piro, Amuisha, Nomatsiguenga, Simirinche, Amewuacas and Cakintis. You can arrange to visit the villages in which some of the closer of these live, but please do be guided by someone who is familiar with them. It is not wise to "just turn up", and you should be briefed on how to behave before you arrive. Comunidad Nativa de Río Berta is a village that has opened itself up to the tourist trade, such as it is, and offer folklore - dancing and drumming - as well as handicrafts. It is ten minutes from the city centre. The Museo Callegari has displays of Asháninka handicrafts and the flora and fauna of the jungle.

These indigenous groups can be warlike, and banded together and were able to to see off Inca aggression. They were, however, unable to resist the missionaries who arrived in 1911. These have since consolidated their hold, so as to able to serve as the primary conduit by which these people deal with the outside world. This area is a Franciscan stronghold, and the church is dedicated to San Francisco de Asís.

One of these communities, 25 km from the town of Río Negro, lies on the Tsomontonari rapids. These form where the Ríos Chari and Perené come together, and there are cataracts of all shapes and sizes. Getting there is a two hour trip to Villa Capiri and then on a much worse road, to Río Cari. From there, one has to scramble down to the river itself. The Manto de la Virgen ('Virgin's mantle') is a 100m fall which is around 20m wide. You can only get to it by rope, or - fearfully - by creeping down on one's rear. The Reina de los Vientos ('queen of the winds') falls only 80m but is much more accessible. It has a natural adjacent pool, in which you can swim.

There are petroglyphs around 15 minutes by car from the city, on the Estabridis farm at a location known as paratushiali. These are thought to be 3,500 years old. They are carved on three large stones, and show human-focused and geometrical designs. Rather more impressive figures are found on rock at Huanacaure, found 13 km from Satipo on the Comas road. One has to walk 500m from the road to reach the stones, which show abstract designs such as concentric circles, as well as plants, beings with four arms and similar oddities. Von Daniken was looking at the wrong site, perhaps. Satipo is connected by road on a dramatic trip to Huancayo, following the Pampa Hermosa valley. [More here.]

Satipo to Atalaya

Atalaya is a port on the wide Ucayali, and as such a major part of the local transport system. It is also the district capital, and most people who visit Satipo do so because they are on their way to or from Atalaya. Between the two lies Puerto Ocopa. This is not a place to linger, and most see it as a means to shift from road to water transport.

The road to Puerto Ocopa is earth surfaced, and extremely testing if it has not been graded recently. The distance of 48 km takes a typical 2-3 hours by bus. Collectivos leave Satipo from Calle Francisco Irazola, close to the Plaza de Armas. Puerto Ocopa has some basic accommodation, but launches leave daily for Atalaya and an early start is likely to secure a place on one of these. They leave when they are full, and make one trip a day.

Click here to see a series of images Launches seat around 20 people, plus any number of chickens and goats. The trip starts on the Perené and debouches onto the Ene after half an hour. The boats stop for lunch at Poyeni. The Cordillera Vilcambamba, in which Machu Picchu is located, tend to spray rain onto the boat in the afternoon. The forest around the river is dense and tall: everyone's idea of the Amazon rainforest. One could organise trips ashore, but nothing is set up to cater for this at the port. However, there are one or two nascent travel companies - one doubling as a night club - Satipo, and these do offer multi-day river trips of this sort.

One can stop off on the trip, at perhaps Betania. (You must have a mosquito net with you to even think of doing this. This area has both dengue and malaria.) The launch passes this at around 4 in the afternoon, allowing two hours to sort out lodgings before the abrupt tropical night falls. Betania is a small Asháninka community with only a radio telephone connection to the outside world. One must present oneself to the community chief and ask his permission to stay, paying a small sum. He will direct you to a suitable lodging. It is best to bring uncooked food and let them prepare it, as they are often short of food for their own needs. Local people live by dry season agriculture, hunting and fishing, and they make handicrafts. They are very friendly but, if one is to be accepted, one must be passive and quiescent and immediately accept any invitation or suggestion that they make. To put this in its context, you will certainly be offered masato to drink, which is seen as a symbol of amity. It is also made by chewing up yuca yams and spitting the result into a gourd to ferment. (The amylase in the saliva breaks down the starch and allows yeasts to ferment the resulting sugars, but by no means is that all that is going on in the brew.) Not to accept this - for whatever reason - is a breach of friendship and trust, and will not be forgiven.

There is a walk that you can make through the jungle which leads to a local swimming pool. A Spanish-speaking guide - or many, many guides if you have made friends - will fill you in on all the details of the jungle that you pass. One can go on to Atalaya by waiting for the next launch to stop, or by hiring a peque peque - dugout with a motor on the back - to get there in three hours. Go in the morning as the afternoon is usually wet. You could also hire such a boat and crew to fish for several days - provided you brought in the necessary supplies - perhaps camping on the river-side. A peque peque is safe with up to four (local sized) people, and rolls over if overloaded. The cost of two is preferable to having one which is unstable.

Atalaya is a relatively pleasant river town that connects to Pucallpa in the North and can be reached (one way, due to the current in a narrow gorge) from Cusco in the South. Details of this latter trip are given here, and a description of Atalaya is found here.