Riding with Elvis ... to Three Forests
Peru is well known for its diversity, with the much-quoted triumvirate of Coast (Pacific), Mountains (Andes) and Jungle (Amazon) only providing a hint at the number of distinct eco-systems within her borders. To get an intense feel for this diversity, Miles from Rainforest Cruises can recommend making the drive from Tarapoto in the department of San Martin, to Chiclayo in Lambayeque, on Peru's northern coast. And who better to have at the wheel for a journey as intensely spectacular as this, in the company of one's parents, than a driver called 'Elvis'. (This was not a nickname.)
I certainly can't give a comprehensive list of all the biological zones covered in the five days of travel, such is the complexity, but here is a brief overview. The accommodation near Tarapoto was at Pumarinri (meaning 'puma's ear' in Quechua) Lodge, which stands next to the Huallaga River that flows into the Amazon, in the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes. The elevation of over 300m (980ft) above sea level means that the jungle here is Lower Montane Rainforest, or more simply, 'High Jungle'. It is a Mecca for birders.
The next nightstop was at Gocta Lodge, overlooking the Falls of the same name, that have a total drop of some 700m (2,300ft), in two segments. The altitude here is 1,800m (5,900ft), and the vegetation is High Montane Rainforest, including Cloud Forest. As the name suggests, these forests are often cooler than lowland rainforests, and are almost constantly dripping with moisture from the swirling clouds which often engulf them. The trees grow shorter on account of the cooler temperatures, and there are more ferns and epiphytes (a plant that grows on top of another). Epiphytic orchids abound in the region, and the city of Moyobamba, which lies between Taropoto and Chachapoyas, has an annual Orchid Festival in November to celebrate their 400 species.
To get to the coast from here requires crossing the Andes at Porcuya Pass, which at 2,137m (7,011ft) above sea level, is the lowest crossing point through the Andes over the entire length of the mountain chain from Colombia to Chile. Nonetheless, the day we were there, it was entirely shrouded in low cloud, with visibility of no more than a few meters. This did not discourage taxi drivers from overtaking!
The countryside soon gave way to coastal desert as we descended into Lambayeque. This area is an agricultural heartland, but it is heavily reliant on the occasional rainfall that falls on the Western side of the Andes mountains and is then canalised to the farms on these plains. Trees here need to have deep roots to find artesian water, and this produces a very different - and now rare - type of Dry Forest. We visited this fascinating, arid landscape, by horseback, in the Pomac Forest Historical Sanctuary.
With all this bio-diversity, it would be easy to overlook the remarkable archeological richness encountered along the way. The Chachapoya culture found its greatest expression in the huge, mountain fortress of Kuelap, which is a must-see, not only for its cultural significance, but also for the stunning location on the crest of a 3,000m-high ridge.
The area around Chiclayo also boasts remarkable pyramids, such as at Sipan and Tucume, that are hugely impressive, but still not fully understood.
It is then, a superb area for so many reasons. And despite this, it is still relatively undiscovered by overseas tourists, which adds to its charm. The infrastructure is still in development, with roads having only recently been paved, and regularly blocked by landslides. Accommodation is in family-run properties, which have their quirks: for example, the village where Gocta Lodge is located is almost entirely 7th Day Adventist, meaning it is very hard to find anyone to work on Saturdays!
There is not much in the way of international cuisine; and the guides - though very well-meaning and friendly - are not entirely used to the demands of international tourists.
If you come here expecting a slick, five-star experience you will be disappointed. If, like my 70-something parents, you are young at heart, you are sure to have a wonderful time.