North to Piura and Tumbes.

North to Piura and Tumbes.

The Panamericana runs North from Lima to Trujillo and Chiclayo. Here, the major highways branch. One branch goes East, to join the Piura-Moyobamba highway into the Northern selva. The Panamericana itself heads North-West to Piura and, eventually, Tumbes before entering Ecuador. The Moyobamba branch is discussed here. This section is concerned with the interesting things to be seen and done in the North of Perú.

To Piura

The division of the roads that is referred to above occurs just after Lambayeque. It is also possible to get to Piura off the right had road, via Olmos. This passes Túcume archaeological site and reaches Olmos in 95 Km. Here, the Piura-Moyobamba road joins, and as mentioned above, we discuss this elsewhere. Taking the left fork, the true Panamericana, the road plunges into deep Sechura desert, always accompanied by the sea. This is a run of about 200 Km in which there are no significant habitations and no facilities. It is as well to make the trip in the morning, as the off-shore wind of the afternoon raises large amounts of dust. The trip normally takes 2-3 hours.

One sight to lessen the monotony is the 300 square kilometre Palo Grueso salt flats, created by the successive Niño floods which badly affect the area. The road divides without much ceremony at Km 105 from the Lambayeque turn-off. The right branch leads to Piura directly. The left goes via the pretty port of Bayovar on the Illescas peninsula. There can be access difficulties on this road, due to it shaving been built by the oil company PetroPeru for its own ends, and if you are unsure, take the right fork. Bayovar and its good undersea life can also be accessed from Piura. (The area around Talara and south to Bayovar either produce oil or thought to hold it.)


A scattering of settlements mark the approach to Piura (30m) and the Grau bridge announces it. This is a town now built around cotton, but once a Moche and later Chimú settlement of some importance. The area was previously held by the Vicús culture (500BC-500AD), which has left some fine gold work. It was conquered by the Incas and then by the Spanish, who dated the founding of their own city to 1532. (The settlement of San Miguel was the first Spanish structure in Peru, left by Pizarro on his way to meet Atahualpa in Cajamarca.) It was yet another place from which independence was proclaimed in 1821.

Click here to see a series of images Piura has a hot dry climate that does not vary much with the seasons, being only a few degrees off the Equator. Around 365,000 people live in the town, and many more in the cotton villages around. The town has been moved three times, due to the floods that come with the El Niño current. It has a quiet atmosphere, open streets and a large Plaza de Armas full of tamarind and algarroba trees. The decline in cotton prices has seen is chief source of revenue taper away, and there is little sign of dynamism. Regional poverty has produced some street crime, and it is as well to be sensible after dark or when asked for lifts.

The Cathedral dates to the early Seventeenth century, although many of its contents are earlier, consequent on urban moves. It is elaborately twin-towered, with a complex white painted colonial façade. It is unhappily overshadowed by a hideous multi-story modern office block, but the interior is fine. The altar piece and other furniture are elaborately carved and dressed in gold leaf. The San Francisco church is the oldest in town and dates from the Spanish settlement. A number of colonial mansions in the city centre are open to the public: the Casa Eguiguren, Temple and Sojo are interesting. The Peruvian hero of the War of the Pacific, Miguel Grau, was born in Piura and his house is now a museum.

Piura celebrated the marinera dance form with a festival in January. March 16 is the anniversary of near-by Talara. June 9th is the Fiesta de la Virgen del Perpetuo Socorro, and the town has its patronal in favour of the Virgen de Carmen in June (date varies.) August 15th celebrates the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Asunción, and September 24th Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de la Mercedes de Paita. October 1st is the beginning of week-long anniversary celebrations.

The food of the region is very much focused on the sea, with the addition of tropical fish, molluscs such as the concha negra and lobsters. Some other specialities are:

Seco de cabrito con tamales verdes which is made from kid, seethed in maize beer and served with tamales made from immature corn, cilantro and other herbs.

Caldo de siete carnes which is a soup made from bull's hooves, beef and veal, air-dried beef, chicken and roast pork skin. It also contains something called mondonguito which nobody can explain but which I am sure is both delicious and healthy.

Copús is prepared by pickling a calf's head in vinegar - a surprise in the larder, my dear - and cooking the result slowly over an open fire. Separately, and earthenware pot is placed in the ground and filled with burning algarroba wood. The heads are wrapped in banana leaves and covered with earth for a slow cooking and smoking.

Seco de chavelo used quick-fried green bananas and grilled beef strips, reduced together in maize beer.

Around Piura

Colán and Paita are ports to which Piura tends to go at weekends. Colán has a fine beach and many old wooden houses. Its restaurants specialise in seafood, and its waters are both clear and warm. In nearby Esmeralda is the oldest church in Perú, San Lucas, completed in 1536 by the Dominicans and begun almost as soon as Pizarro had landed. It still stands, looking its age, made of rough blocks of beach stones. Four barley-sugar columns flank the door, a style to be endlessly repeated in ornamentation across Perú,

Paita was once an important port - "the temptation of pirates" - but is now a settled little fishing village with an eye on the local tourist market. There are many colonial houses built by wealthy Piuran families. The many surfing beaches, such as Playa Mancora, are reviewed here. The image series above has pictures of Paita and Mancora.

The sierra of Piura

Ayabaca is about 210 Km North of Piura, and an area quite unlike the coastal desert. Here, the Andes have their last fling before heading into Ecuador and the climate is cool and moist, but with enormous variations over quite small distances. It is home to both arid scrub and orchids such as Miltonias and Cattleyas, not known for their drought tolerance. The route goes through Sullana (see below) and then towards La Palma, where the tarred road ceases. The region has been inhabited for a very long period, with prehistoric evidence of hunter-gatherers, and then the Cupinesque, Vícus, Moche, Chavín and Amazonas cultures having their impact. Petroglyphs at Samango are though to date to around 2500BC.

Click here to see a series of images Ayabaca (2820m) as a remote town on the Ecuador border. It has one good hotel and a range of simple accommodation and restaurants. The trip is spectacular, as the road lungs up from sea level to 3000m without the usual closing-in of the mountains around you. Early morning cloudscapes, seen from above, are extremely beautiful. There is a 2700m pass to cross, followed by a dip into a wet valley at 1500m - much to explore here, for those traveling in their own car - and then a further ascent. The whole trip takes around five hours.

Aside from the remarkable wildlife in the area, the town is an old and pretty colonial settlement with a fine church. The patron effigy is known as El Señor Cautivo de Ayabaca (the 'captive lord') and the reason for this is a typical tale of the Eighteenth century. In 1751, the village priest sent one of his congregation to Ecuador to have a figure carved for the church. On his way, he encountered a band of men dressing in white who claimed to be sculptors. He mentioned his quest, and they asked if they could be permitted to carry out the work. Returning to the village, they retired inside a shack with a huge lump of wood and worked night and day, eating only what was placed outside at dawn and speaking to nobody until the task was done. The eventual carving was released from its prison on October 13th, and all were struck by its excellence. It now resides in the church, and its patronal is on the 12th and 13th October, attracting people from all over the province. Other festivals are Santísima Cruz on May 3rd and that of Santa Ana on 26th July.

There are a number of short walks around the town which acclimatise the traveler and offer insight into the local ecology. An example is a perhaps arbitrary but pretty trail goes through Suyupampa to Cujaca is 8 Km. This may take around two hours if you bird watch each way.

Aypate (2900m) is 50 Km from Ayabaca, and its Inca archaeological complex dates to the Fifteenth century. It has a central square and a series of buildings around this. Local people still work Incan terraces and there is the remains of an Incan road that would have penetrated into Ecuador. A sacred pool and a fortified watchtower are also a part of the site, which is located in virgin mist forest full of bromeliads and ferns, orchids and other plants, and a wealth of birds.

The Samanga petroglyphs are 65 Km from Ayabaca, at the village of Samanga (2300m). The names means "where the sacred things are". The figures are very old, and are thought to have astronomical significance. It is a good idea to get yourself a guide as the carvings are widely scattered in wild country.

A Cupinesque site exists at Olleros, 20 Km from Ayabaca. A King called Local was buried here around 350 BC, and the site has ceramics and other craft work from the tomb. Chocan, 12 Km from Ayabaca, has clear hot springs which gush from the rock, giving off plumes of steam in the early morning.

Huancabamba (1900m) is a town 215 Km to the South-East of Piura. It is located on the Huancabamba river, in the Huamani sierra. It is a pleasing spot, but is close to the sacred Huaringas lagoons. These are much favoured by shamans and the town is a centre for mysticism and divination. The town is a typical early colonial construction, essentially frozen in time. The Plaza de Armas is full of flowers and surrounded by little winding streets. The Matríz church and municipal place are both colonial in style, but actually constructed in the Nineteenth century. The museum has a good display of artefacts from the surrounding sites.

Huancabamba is close to a set of 20m waterfalls in the Curlata gully, rather less than an hour from the town. An hour further delivers the Valle de los Infiernillos, where wind and water have eroded the rock into tortured forms. These are supposed to represent the dance of the Devil, and people come out to mark the festival of the Virgen de Carmen (July 16th to 18th) with dancing and a special drink called Rompope, rum and cane sugar juice and lime, or one called Diamantina, which adds milk. And the Devil with the hangover.

The area has a long history of settlement. The jaguar temple at Mitupampa (2800m) is contemporary with Chavín (1200-200BC). It is an hour's journey from Huancabamba. The site called El Paredón is two hours from the town, and located at Huancacarpa (3400m). The cemetery at Maraypampa and the city of Huarmichina are only recently discovered, but seem to relate to a very early Amazonian culture rather than anything coastal. The Inca conquered the region, but their extensive buildings were, as usually, dismantled to build the Spanish colonial town.

The Huaringas (3500m) lagoons are fourteen bodies of water of every shape and size. The Peruvian curanderos and shamans are drawn to them from all over the country. The lakes called Shimbe and Laguna Negra are regarded as particularly potent. They are 20 Km North of Huancabamba and are reached by traveling to Salalá. (It is also possible to walk across country with a guide, but it is a hard day to a cold, high night.) You are expected to accept the services of a male witch (brujo) or shaman to accompany you to your destination, although you can also hire an animal to carry your baggage if you intend to stay overnight. You will be expected to explain your needs - revelatory, curative or purely recreational - before you leave, so that they can stock whatever they need for the task. There are a further seven lagoons called the Palanganas which are more remote and yet more potent.

Travel in the area is not controlled, but you are required to make yourself known when you arrive, and to ask the advice of municipal officials if you intend to employ the services of a shaman. They will recommend reliable people, as there have been "accidents" with people from out of the area who experiment with drugs in an uncontrolled manner. These individuals will make themselves known if you come by bus, but you should go to the municipal palace if you come by car. There are direct buses from Piura which leave daily at 20.00 and arrive at 04.00. It takes much less time - and uses more reasonable hours, allowing you to see the view - if you travel in a 4x4. The road from Huancabamba via Chulucanas can be made into a loop back to Piura if you have your own vehicle.

North of Piura

Sullana (50m) is a place where many roads meet, and it has a large number of hotels and restaurants to meet this demand. It is surrounded by farming land, chiefly dedicated to rice but also coconut palms. The ton is known for its pipas heladas or coconut ice cream, and its guayaberas, or short jackets, worn against the heat.

Beyond Sullana, the road rises out of the valley of the Chira river and enters dune-covered desert. At Km 48 from Piura, a road leads East to the hunting preserve El Angulo. This is little used, and getting a permit and acquiring fire arms is so difficult for a foreign visitor that it is strongly suggested that you make contact with a specialised travel agency before entering the country. There are several that a short search on the internet can uncover: they change frequently, so we do not list them here.

The next major point on the road is Talara, an oil town with all that that entails. Hurry past, as it is a dusty, industrial place with a major military base. You will note that the road markings change as you pass - this is because the road is an alternative landing strip to Talara in the event of Northern military emergencies.

Lobitos, signed to the left, is an abandoned British, US and then Peruvian base, now largely deserted and without much merit. Passing this, the road rises to El Alto and its attendant beach Cabo Blanco. It then drops to the coast itself, passing El Ñuro beach and arriving in Los Órganos and Mancora. This area is well-developed for local tourism, and the beaches have many facilities. The beaches called Vichayito and Las Pocitas are amongst the finest in the country, with clean sand, clear warm water and a tropical sun. Another famous beach, Punta Sal comes a few kilometres further along the coast, followed by lesser developments. The turnoff to the Cerros de Amotape national park follows at Km 250 from Piura, near the turnoff to the hot springs of Hervidos.

There is a separate photoseries which steps off from the arid area North of Sullana and crosses the frontier into Ecuador, and then covers much fo that country.

Cerros de Amotape national park

This is an extent of low-lying dryland scrub and forest, extending over a large area and abutting the hunting reserve El Angulo on one side and the Tumbes reserve on the other. The inland reaches receive as much as 80 cm of rain a year, those near the coast much less or none. It presses directly on the border with Ecuador. It has a rich fauna, including the puma (Felis concolor) and the jaguar (Pantera onca); birds such as the highland condor (Sarcoramphus papa) and the red-headed parrot (Aratinga erithrogenys). The lagoons have the Tumbes alligator, (Crocodilos acutus). Reptiles and insects abound, in a flora that is regarded as one of the major sources of biodiversity. Many endemic or restricted cactuses are found in the scrub, for example.

The drier parts of the park fall into two forms. In the North, scrub and cactus tangle together, In the South, particularly on rises, they open up to allow ephemeral flowering plants and grasses. Algarrobal trees (Prosopsis juliflora) dominate the drier areas and Bombax sp. Where it is wetter. The latter tend to be covered with the dangling mist-fed "moss" Bromeliad Tillsandsia usneoides. Land above 450m tends to be covered with much more complex range of broad-leafed species. Each of these areas has its own birds, insects, large animals and other life, and the frequent changes in the terrain create a myriad of niches. There are, for example, at least 60 species of bird recorded from the park, many highly endemic within it. Look for the Tumbes Turkey, Penelope albipennis, which is found only here and only in specific locations.

Click here to see a series of images One can drive into the park with a 4x4 vehicle, arriving at the village of Barrancos. From here, one must drive to the Madre de Agua gully, where there is a police check point. This also has an information point. There are no organised facilities and you must walk and camp. You must bring in everything that you are going to need. However, subject to the availability of water, there are no restrictions on where you do this, although it is important to have a guide as it is easy to get lost. It can get hot - to 40 C - at midday in Summer, and an early start and stop is advisable.

There are a number of locations to which you can set out, but despite their names - Quebrada Honda, Cruce la Jobita, Quebrada Ucumares, Quebrada León Muerto, Pampa de los Ceibos - the one is much like the other. The focus is on the Río Tumbes, which provides water that you or an animal would otherwise have to carry, and good scenery. It has rapids to grade II and IV in different sections if you enjoy kayaking, although you will have to use an off-site travel company - in Tumbes or Piura - to set up the equipment. The park has many archaeological sites, none of great weight but all pointing to long and complex occupancy. There is even the remains of the Inca road that connected Quito with Cuzco.

North to Tumbes

The coast is dotted with holiday hotels, and these concentrate around Zorritos. This likeable port has jetty and a lighthouse, although the bulk of the houses were built in the 1950s. It is the favoured get-away for the people of Tumbes.

A short section of desert leads into a wide fertile plain, in which irrigated maize and rice, bananas and horticulture press up to the city. The town is the conduit to Ecuador, and besides farming is much concerned with administration of trade. The climate is hot an humid, with an average daily temperature of 26 C. The town is reached over a lengthy metal bridge, crossing the meanders of the river as it discharges through mangrove swamps into the sea.

Click here to see a series of images The town itself is not hugely attractive, being chiefly built in the 1950s around an older core of wooden buildings fifty years older. The Plaza de Armas has massive breadfruit trees, with serrated glossy leaves and fruits like bombs ready to fall and smash in a car roof. The Nineteenth century Cathedral has twin domed towers and a white and terracotta painted simple facade.

Tumbes has many hotels of good or adequate quality, and a huge number of fish restaurants. Seafood here is as good as anywhere in the world, with a strong focus on mariscos, shellfish and crustaceans. A local speciality are the conchas negras, large black shellfish (Anadara tuberculosa) of a distinctive flavour, shrimp and lobster. The conchas are at their best in a ceviche, over which afficionados swoon. The local drink is called a chinguirito, and is made of many ingredients with names in no Spanish dictionary.

Around Tumbes

The mangrove swamps (manglares) are part of a national park and can be visited simply by hiring a boat and heading off up or down the Río Tumbes. You will see a wide range of birds, from parrots to egrets, and tree climbing iguanas. The following are the local and binomial names birds commonly seen:

Fishing is also good and you can choose to go for fresh or salt water species by navigating a few kilometres. The sanctuary itself covers around 3000 hectares, and received 1 to 3 metres of rain each year. The mangroves are of four species, but predominantly Rhizophora mangle.

The border with Ecuador is a few kilometres North of Tumbes, at Aguas Verdes. One can visit as far as the International Bridge which marks the frontier. The road runs close the mangroves and you can visit by foot rather than by boat if you so choose.

The Tumbes national park runs with the Cerro de Amotape. It is in many ways very similar to it, although the rainfall is higher and the scrub much denser, but the distinction is surely historical. Access is by river or by land from Tumbes. The city has no formal infrastructure to handle this and one has to ask around in order to find guides and the means of access. This is worth doing if you enjoy the natural world, however, because the park it is far less visited than the Cerro de Amotape, itself hardly a tourist landmark, and the higher rainfall increases the biodiversity still more.