Coquimbo, Chile: Escaping to the Tranquil Cove of Guanaqueros

Growing up with all four seasons, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by how much winter in the Valle de Elqui would affect me. After all, I fled the brutal, snowy winters of New England for the desert climates of northern Chile.

In Boston, you are able to escape inside to central heating and (mostly) insulated walls and windows; not so much in the Valle de Elqui. When winter’s chill sets in, it creeps into your bones.

Just like a dog, I would sit out on a warm rock by the river to absorb the few warm rays of sunshine before the sun dipped behind the mountains of the valleys and the cold came back full force.

Unlike in the US, where you can sprint from heated building to heated building and keep a decent level of productivity, the cold of northern Chile made me want to hide under the covers all day. When I had to get work done, I parked myself next to the space heater, wrapped in a blanket, alpaca shawl, and wool handwarmers, drinking mate.

These dramatic day and nighttime temperatures jarred me into living by the seasons again, recognizing that each moment is temporary, noticing how my energy ebbed and flowed between seasons.

By midwinter in July, I was exhausted, mentally, physically, and spiritually. I was ready to escape to Guanaqueros.

Traveling to Guanaqueros

At this halfway point in my year living and working in the Valle de Elqui, the old was dying out in order to make room for the new. The eagerness and anticipation of a new job and new style of life had faded as things got real.

Like so many international teaching programs, there was lack of clarity between the two organizations I worked with. Like so many families, my host family faced a medical challenge that dominated our home life. Like so many city dwellers, I was shocked by the inconsistent internet connectivity in the mountains. Boy, did I learn to adjust expectations.

So when I planned our mid-year retreat to check-in, evaluate, and set goals for the second half of the year, I knew we had to head to the beach. The open ocean and gorgeous seaside scenery was going to serve us well.

En route to Guanaqueros from Coquimbo, we started appreciating the long coastline with its sharply descending cliffs and sparsely populated beach resort villages. The Pacific beckoned to us with blue waters and clear blue skies.

Tranquil Guanaqueros

Arriving in Guanaqueros, we were thrilled with how tranquil the village is. During high season in the South American summer (December to February), the beach would be packed. But midwinter we were nearly the only people strolling along the sand.

Leaving the desert mountains for a bit, we needed to just listen to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and feel the sun starting to melt away our stress from so many recent changes. After living in San Diego and Lima, I know how important the ocean is to restoring my peace of mind and I seek it out whenever possible when I need to settle my thoughts (exhibits A, B, C, and D!).

Our visit happened to coincide with the 2015 Copa América championships, which meant that people were mostly glued to their TV, rooting for Chile’s selección to win.

(And win they did! These hills were resounding with cheering, honking, and loud celebrating a little later on that night! It was fun to see the glory of a win in such a small town.)

Because Guanaqueros is so small, the services for travelers are all situated along the main road. Restaurants, small convenience stores, and lodging are all within walking distance of the beach.

Because Guanaqueros is a town geared towards Chilean travelers, most of the lodging options are “apart hotels,” small apartments with kitchens and bunk beds. Most Chileans travel with their extended family or with their friends and their families and cook many of their own meals.

For the fish-lovers, Guanaqueros has a number of restaurants dedicated to serving up the freshest food, but as a vegetarian, I opted for this amazing fresh salad (with the ever-present papas con mayo) and a giant empanada.

Although we came to Guanaqueros to get work done, we decided to hold several of our sessions while walking and talking on the beach. You can’t miss the opportunity to see a beautiful sunset over the ocean when you get it!

The skyline turned pink as the sun disappeared behind the hills, creating a beautiful glow that reminded me of the amazing sunsets I experienced in Tortugas in northern Peru and on Easter Island.

What we needed most at this mid-winter moment was to connect – to connect with the country beyond our tiny towns in the Valle de Elqui, to connect with each other outside of our normal routines, to connect with the moment through our experience of nature’s beauty.

I mean, what’s better about being in a town where all there is to do is walk along the beach and watch the sunset. That’s serious relaxation – when there is literally nothing else to do, you appreciate the views so much more.

I mean, really. Can you believe that no one else was there? I suppose it helps that the homes are built into the hills with these great views each and every day! 🙂

Although I’ve managed to capture many moments of my year in Chile, this one happened to slip by me. But I think it serves as a nice metaphor for what I’m feeling right now, waiting for spring to finally arrive after a long, snowy winter in New England.

It’s normal to get quiet, go within, disappear for a bit as the days get shorter and the cold gets deeper. But there comes a moment when you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you start feeling that stir within, setting new goals, moving forward.

It’s taken me several stints living abroad to understand that I need lots of time to process my experience, to appreciate everything I went through, and especially how much I learned from creating new routines, perspectives, and relationships while living in another culture.

Back when I used to shoot film, the process of developing the photos took some time and required patience. No instant gratification like today; instead, I found myself reliving my trip when I received my prints, organized them in my photo album, and finally shared them with friends.

Maybe that’s why I like revisiting my photos a year or two later, when I’ve had time to integrate the memories, and I can appreciate the emotion coming through.

For us, Guanaqueros marked the halfway point of a crazy year, and we left with renewed energy and optimism for what lay ahead. And what do you know? Things got significantly better as we moved into a new season, taking with us all the lessons we learned, and leaving behind anything that was weighing us down.

Maybe you’re not looking for a transformative beach experience (but let’s be honest – beach escapes are always about transformation!). You should still make an effort to get to Guanaqueros if you’re spending any time in La Serena during your trip around northern Chile – the seaside views and low-key vibes are worth it.

Recommendations for Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile:

  • If you’re looking to truly experience the seaside vibe of this part of the Chilean coast, skip the urban beaches of La Serena and Coquimbo and head to Guanaqueros. To get to Guanaqueros, head to the bus station in Coquimbo and then look for the buses to Tongoy and Guanaqueros or get a colectivo (shared taxi) to Guanaqueros. The shared taxi should cost about CLP$2500 per person.
  • Guanaqueros is a fishing cove located down the cliffs to the beach, so en route you’ll experience amazing views of the ocean – have your camera ready!
  • Guanaqueros has several small stores where you can buy snacks, wine, and other supplies, but if you anticipate cooking a lot, you probably want to go shopping in La Serena or Coquimbo.
  • For food, there are several restaurants, but the best option is probably the market with several food stands, where food is fresh and inexpensive.
  • I recommend staying in Hostal Akitespero, which has a very friendly owner and comfortable mini apartments with kitchens.
[Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile: July 3-5, 2015]

Junín, Peru: Experiencing the High Jungle on the Valle de Chanchamayo Tour from Tarma

Views from Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

Even though Tarma is a pleasant enough city, filled with blooming flowers during much of the year, most visitors actually use Tarma as a base to explore different parts of the Junín region. I was no different; I wanted to make the most of my brief stay. Despite all the travel I’d already done in Peru, I had yet to visit the Amazon, not even the high jungle only a few hours away from Cuzco or Huánuco. For this reason, I opted to take the tour of the central jungle and get a sense for the cultural and climatic differences just a few hours away.

Crazy Wind in Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

As it turns out, this was an excellent choice and one that helped mold my decision making as I moved onto northern Peru and Ecuador later in my travels. For one, heading into the jungle meant getting out of the cool, dry winter weather in the central Andes, even just for a couple of hours. Beyond that, descending into the Valle de Chanchamayo gave me a glimpse into yet another facet of Peru.

Views from Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

Our first stop on the tour was this crossroads you see in the photos above. Because of the way the mountain ridges curve and cross in the landscape, there is a surprisingly strong, powerful wind that rolls off the hills and is said to cleanse you. Naturally, this is an ideal time to take some pictures, but I have to admit I was more fascinated by the way the mountains had started to tower above us.

Nearby, there is a small stand selling artisan treats, including small batches of manjar blanco (milk caramel, otherwise known as dulce de leche) and preserves, which were delicious.

Waterfall (Velo de la Novia/Ducha de Diablo?) in Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, PeruYou know that you are starting to get into the more tropical climate as you begin to spot the waterfalls cascading off the hills all around you.

In quick succession, we saw the Cabello del Angel (Angel’s Hair) followed by the Ducha de Diablo (The Devil’s Shower), two waterfalls named for their appearance as well as their danger.

Old Highway, Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

Views from Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, PeruSoon, we had the opportunity to get out of the tour van and appreciate what used to be the highway in these parts, a narrow road carved along the rock walls of this particularly canyon, closely following the rushing river below.

(Apparently it’s possible to go mountain biking along this old road but it’s pretty narrow.)

This also gives you the opportunity to appreciate how modern construction has made life a little easier and transportation between the two regions much more efficient as well as safer!

San Ramón

Views from San Ramón, Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

Arriving in San Ramón, the landscape clearly demonstrates why the Valle de Chanchamayo is a perfect climate for growing so many of the products the high Amazon is known for. Check out those green peaks – quite different than the toasted mountains of Huancayo I’d been hiking around just a week before!

Catarata Las Mellizas, San Ramón, Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

Catarata de Tirol, San Ramón, Chanchamayo, Junín, PeruNow it was time to really appreciate the humid, verdant climate and head into the jungle in search of the Catarata de Tirol, the powerful waterfall you see to the right.

It takes about 30 minutes to walk to the waterfall and you have the chance to go swimming under its incredibly powerful water. While it is a fun experience, being surrounded by 30 other people makes it a bit challenging to really appreciate the natural wonder. (Luckily for me, I would see a LOT of peaceful waterfalls during the rest of my trip!)

Butterfly near San Ramón, Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

PFresh Coconut near San Ramón, Chanchamayo, Junín, Peruersonally, I enjoyed watching all of the butterflies flying around us. I befriended a cheerful child who was accompanying us on the tour, and he went out of his way to spot butterflies so that I could try to capture a shot of them.

At the end of the walk, I couldn’t resist buying a fresh coconut. One of the things I most miss about Peru when I’m somewhere else is how readily accessible (and economical) all of the fruit from the jungle is.

La Merced

Views from Kimiri, near La Merced, Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

From there, we headed towards La Merced, stopping at the small tourist village that’s sprung up alongside Puente Colgante Kimiri. Although there wasn’t much to see, I appreciated this cheerful pedestrian bridge and wandering around looking at the stores before heading to lunch.

Lunch in Kimiri, near La Merced, Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

As with most tours popular among local tourists, a traditional meal of regional delicacies was in order, but as a vegetarian, my options were limited to arroz a la cubana, a common dish consisting of eggs, rice, and fried plantains, with the regional twist of fried yuca. Not bad for S/.5!

Puente Colgante Kimiri, near La Merced, Chanchamauyo, Junín, Peru

Puente Colgante Kimiri (Quimiri), near La Merced, Chanchamayo, Junín, PeruAfter lunch, we crossed the Puente Colgante Kimiri, an old wooden suspension bridge (built in 1901!) which connects the communities on both sides of the Chanchamayo River. Believe it or not, cars cross over this rickety bridge, but I was too scared to do so myself!

Views from Puente Colgante Kimiri, near La Merced, Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

Instead, I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the views alongside the Río Chanchamayo as the sun began to dip down behind the mountains. I was fascinated by the cool trees.

Nativo Dormido

(Nativo Dormido) Sleeping Beauty in Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru
Continuing on, we passed the Nativo Dormido, or the Sleeping Native. According to legend, a young indigenous man saved a Spanish woman when she was wandering lost through the jungle and brought her to his community to help her. Naturally, they fell in love and promised the jungle god that they would get married before the full moon. The woman returned to her family, who punished her for wanting to marry a local and kept her from leaving. When she finally escaped, it was too late, and the jungle god turned the young man into the sleeping mountain you see here, and the woman into the Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty) which can be seen near Tingo María, near Huánuco.

Sunset over Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru

At this point, the sunset grew quite lovely, but we still had quite a few stops before returning to Tarma. Be prepared: it’s a very long day and many hours in a van!

Insight into the Asháninka People

Monkey at Ashaninka Performance, Junín, Peru

The second to last stop is at one of the communities of the Asháninka tribe, who live in this area and have started to earn a significant income from sharing their traditional songs and dances with the many tourists who visit from Lima and around Peru. While my young friend assured me that community enjoys performing and sharing their culture, it felt a bit exploitative as we dressed up in traditional costumes and were invited to participate in the dances. Afterwards, you’re led by the children to purchase jewelry, the same jewelry you see everywhere throughout Peru. I chose just to share this photo of the monkey because I was uncomfortable with the experience. What can I say?

Chanchamayo Highland Coffee

Ice Cream at Chanchamayo Highland Coffee, Junín, Peru

Last but not least, you stop to try the regional products at huge warehouse filled with samples, Chanchamayo Highland Coffee. Tourists are funneled through the explanation of all of the regional specialities in a long, crowded line. The bright side is that the coffee and products sold her are organic and/or fair trade and support the local growers, which is something I can get behind. It was pretty cool to have the opportunity to try juices and liquors made from jungle fruits, but of course, I opted for ice cream.

After our last stop at a small café, we hit the road for the drive back to Tarma. This ended up being a fun experience, as our tour guide explained more of the legends of the area. Someday I’d love to compile the legends of the Andes into English… a project to keep in mind for my next visit!

The tour of the Valle de Chanchamayo was my last stop in Junín as well as central Peru, but it certainly piqued my interest in the unique culture and climate of the jungle. As I continued on to northern Peru and eventually Ecuador, I decided to spend more time in the high jungle and I still plan to head deeper into the Amazon within the next year or so. I’d say the tour was well worth it!

For the latest photos from my travels in South America and in the US, be sure to follow me @blueskylimit on Instagram.

Recommendations for the Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru:

  • The high jungle tour leaves from Tarma and on weekends there are usually several different agencies looking for tourists around the Plaza de Armas and trying to fill up their vans. This also means that they will leave whenever they have enough passengers, so the departure time they tell you should be regarded as just an estimate!
  • The tour cost S/.50 in September 2013. You also have to pay a fee to enter the park at the Catarata del Tirol and are encouraged to tip the Asháninka community after their performance. I spent a total of S/.58 on this tour.
  • You have several opportunities to purchase artisan food products, fair trade coffee, and jewelry and other souvenirs on the tour, so be sure to bring small change. The big coffee warehouse accepts credit cards.
  • Be sure to bring your walking or hiking shoes and a swimsuit so that you can get drenched by the Catarata de Tirol. I suggest wearing layers as you will pass through several climates in only a matter of hours.
[Valle de Chanchamayo, Junín, Peru: September 1, 2013]

Junín, Peru: Descending into the Picturesque Town of Tarma, the Pearl of the Andes

Views En Route to Tarma, Junín, Peru

Views En Route to Tarma, Peru

Under normal circumstances, getting to Tarma is fairly straightforward. There are regular buses and colectivos (shared taxis/vans) to Tarma from Lima, which makes the five hour journey a perfect weekend escape. It’s also only a few hours from Huancayo, making it a logical stop before heading back to the capital.

But me? I wanted to make things a little more complicated, and, let’s face it, a little more interesting. After leaving Huancayo, I headed to Huánuco to see the ruins of Kotosh. I’d been considering two potential routes onwards: heading into the jungle and making my way to Pucallpa, or heading back to the Cordillera Blanca to Huaraz. In the end, I did neither; I backtracked to Tarma!

The thing about public transportation in Peru is that you can get just about anywhere. And if you travel short distances, there’s usually an easy and quick way around, as long as you’re willing to travel like the locals. And so it was.

To get to Tarma, I ended up taking a colectivo from Huánuco to Cerro de Pasco. One of my biggest photographer regrets is that I did not have my camera easily accessible during this trip. Cerro de Pasco is one of the highest inhabited cities in the world; as a mining city, its buildings are purely functional and are toned in somber shades of grey and darker grey. I can still picture the houses clinging to the hillside as we headed into the city.

The Route to Tarma

Views of Distant Lakes between Cerro de Pasco and Tarma, Junín, Peru

Heading to Tarma from Cerro de Pasco was incredibly easy; I got out of one colectivo and directly into another. In the colectivo lot, drivers shout out their destinations and rush to fill their cars and get back on the roads. This part of the journey was even better.

I was lucky to share the car with several friendly passengers, who were eager to talk to me about what the heck I was doing over here and share aspects of their culture with me. They pointed out the series of blue lakes that we whizzed past – there are some natural reserves over here and it definitely seemed worth exploring at a more leisurely pace.

Monumento a la Maca, Huayre, Junín, Peru

But my favorite part? As we drove past the town of Huayre, we slowed so that I could take a picture of this amazing monument. This statue honors maca, that Andean radish-like root vegetable that is known for its medicinal properties. It’s supposed to enhance your energy, athletic performance, and memory, as well as your, ahem, stamina, if you know what I mean.

As you drive along the highway in Huayre, you have the opportunity to buy homebrewed drinks with maca. One of the passengers encouraged me to drink it, but it was way too chalk-like for me – so I gave the bottle of maca to him. I’ll stick to quinua, thank you very much!

Views En Route to Tarma, Junín, Peru

After coasting along the highway for a couple of hours, we ascended back into the beautiful hills of the Andes. In this section, we passed an out-of-the-way mine and saw very little besides this toasted landscape.

Views En Route to Tarma, Junín, Peru

And, well, these clouds. As an avid cloudspotter, I still can’t bellieve the way the clouds looked at this altitude. Dreamlike and gorgeous.

Descending to Tarma, Junín, Peru

From there, we descended toward Tarma. Three years ago, the roads were under construction which made travel less-than-pleasant, but I’m sure the roads are much better now! Good thing we were descending into my ever-loved foothills. This route reminded me of visiting Matucana and Callahuanca, which is no surprise if you consider that they’re located more or less along the same stretch of the Andes.

Tarma

Views from Tarma, Junín, Peru

Views from Tarma, Junín, PeruFinally, we arrived to Tarma, otherwise known as La Perla de los Andes, or the Pearl of the Andes. Tarma is known for its lovely climate, ideal for growing beautiful flowers. It’s one of the top destinations for Semana Santa (Easter Week) due to the beautiful carpets of flower arrangements that you can observe throughout the celebrations.

Unfortunately for me, I arrived at the end of winter, which meant the flowers weren’t really in bloom yet. So I decided to make the most of my visit by getting to know the town as much as I could and venturing outside Tarma to other nearby destinations.

Cathedral in Tarma, Junín, Peru

Views from Tarma, Junín, PeruTarma is an adorable little town because of its colonial architecture, including the church located on its main plaza. The city is easily accessible by foot, so you can wander through the streets, admiring the colonial balconies and the brightly painted walls.

 

Views from Tarma, Junín, Peru

Views from Tarma, Junín, PeruTarma’s charm also lies in its views, which I found hard to capture with my photos. As you walk through the streets of town, you are surrounded on all sides by the foothills of the Andes. You can see the houses perched up above.

As you can see, Tarma is a good place to get away and relax. Tarma is pretty quiet outside of long weekends and Semana Santa. If I had it to do all over again, I would have visited Tarma when I was living in Lima rather than as part of a more extended backpacking journey. I felt it was more of a place for a peaceful getaway, and after two lonely days in Huánuco, I was anxious to be in the company of other travelers again.

The good news is that Tarma provides access to some very interesting journeys around the region – and after considering my options, I signed up for a tour of the high jungle the next day.

Recommendations for Tarma, Junín, Peru:

  • Tarma is located about 5-6 hours from Lima, and you can take a public bus or shared taxi/van (colectivo). Tarma is about three hours from Huancayo. From other parts of the region (like Huánuco), you’ll want to take a bus or colectivo to Cerro de Pasco or La Oroya, where you can get another colectivo to Tarma. For locals, these routes are pretty standard and it’s easy to get around.
  • There are a number of hostales in Tarma, and if you’re visiting in off-season, I suggest checking out a few to see which one suits you best. Keep in mind that you’re in the mountains, so nights can be quite chilly. The colonial buildings with their high ceilings might not be your best bet. As far as I know, there aren’t any hostels in Tarma and I didn’t see any other foreigners during my visit.
  • Wikitravel lists several options for exploring the area around Tarma. If you read Spanish, Y Tu Que Planes? has detailed suggestions for what you can do in Tarma. In general, there are three tours. First, there’s the Valle de las Flores tour, which takes you to Acobamba, to see a religious icon, Palcamayo for the Gruta de Huagapo, a giant cave, and San Pedro de Cajas, for textiles. Second, there’s a tour that takes you along the Inca Trail (Camino de Inca) which passes through this region (and you can also visit some ruins, of course!). Third, there’s the tour to the Valle de Chanchamayo, heading into the high jungle within easy reach of Tarma. I opted for the latter for a change of pace.
  • If you have any flexibility in your travel plans, try to visit Tarma during the spring, when the flowers are in bloom. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll see why. 🙂
[Tarma, Junín, Peru: August 31-September 2, 2013]

Junin, Peru: Descending into the Picturesque Town of Tarma, the Pearl of the Andes