V. Cajamarca 4/30 – 5/2


a. from Pacasmayo to Cajamarca 4/30

We awaken to surf sounds in Pacasmayo, a little less in love with the place once we open the door to the balcony and find that the fish-rendering smell has wafted north from Chimbote.

We leave a couple of suitcases with our friends and set off.

Initially the drive is level and easy. Within ten kilometers we turn off the Pan-American Highway, and the road drifts through small villages and farmland.

A timeless farm scene stops us. Vast number of people picking and piling crops, split by a line of waiting bicycles. Pretty white birds mingle with the farm-workers who, but for the bicycles, could be from most any century. I feel mildly uncomfortable photographing so many people working so hard. We’re passing by in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive car, but have passed plenty of folks carrying huge shovels in one hand as they ride their bicycles. But no one seems to mind us much.

 After an hour or so we pass a heavily guarded installation of some sort, then water spilling over a dam. We’ve reached the reservoir, a vast blue lake in the mountains, and the road meanders three-quarters of the way around it. We pause to buy a couple of sodas in a simple restaurant, the sort chickens contentedly wander through.

Then we begin to climb. Cajamarca is 2650 meters [above 8,500 feet].

Cajamarca’s fame arises from the fact that in 1532 Inca Atahualpa was here, at the baths now called Los Banos del Incas, when he met the Spaniards under Francisco Pizarro.

After Huayna Capac’s death in 1525, the empire, which then stretched from somewhere in Chile or Argentina to Quito in Ecuador, had been divided between two of his sons. Atahualpa, who had been given the northern end, prevailed in the eventual civil war, and in November 1532 was on his way to Cuzco to take control, but chose to rest a few days at the baths in Cajamarca.

It is simple to report that Pizarro, informed that Atahualpa was in Cajamarca, made for that city. It is harder, particularly as we drive through these mountains almost half a millennium later, to envision the logistics of it all. With no rapid means of travel or communication, how did someone who’d spotted Atahualpa even get word to Pizarro? How did Pizarro, so far from home, manage to climb up there without starving to death on the way? It seems an impressive logistical accomplishment, if nothing else.

Atahualpa had a force of perhaps 50,000 men with him, and Pizarro had 160. Atahualpa unwisely dismissed most of his troops to meet with Pizarro. Pizarro quickly kidnaped him. Although the Inca forces vastly outnumbered the Spanish, they could not risk the death of Atahualpa. Atahualpa refused to convert to Christianity, and supposedly tossed a proffered Bible to the ground.

Atahualpa did offer a substantial ransom to Pizarro: he would have his people fill a room [22 by 17 feet] with gold up to a white line half the height of the room, then with silver in twice that amount. Pizarro promised that when that was done, he would free Atahualpa. It took nearly a year, but it was done. [Historians calculate that this amounted to 4,500 kg. of gold and 128,500 of silver, probably worth well above U.S. $ 50 million today.] Pizarro, however, did not free Atahualpa. Instead, he executed him. He planned to burn the Inca at the stake, but when Atahualpa “converted” at the last moment, the sentence was commuted to strangulation.

We stop in a village, Llallan, with a nice view and a lot more burros than automobiles. Ragna gets out the video-camera and tripod. I photograph an elderly gentleman with his burro, then wander across the street to buy a soda from an old woman in an extraordinarily dark little store, then sit on a bench with some of the locals. We discuss such weighty matters as the town’s name, the distance to Cajamarca, and where Ragna and I are from. I take Ragna a cold Sprite, then return to the wooden bench.

portrait of viejo - Llallan

portrait of viejo - Llallan

viejo con burro - Llallan

viejo con burro - Llallan






I’m guessing they don’t talk to many foreigners. Few drive here, and tour buses undoubtedly blow through this hamlet without stopping. I do not know how Cajamarca will be; but I thoroughly enjoy sitting on a bench by the main street of this village. It is one more lesson that the journey is often far more important than the destination.

Soon we pass through a larger town, Magdalena. We pause near the market to ask directions.  A large young man tells us the way to Cajamarca, then hollers after us to ask if we might take him along there. It’s fine with me, even though it’s exactly what anyone would tell us not to do. Ragna agrees, and we spend a few minutes adjusting our possessions so that we can pull one seat-back up and accommodate him. He’s wearing a blue baseball cap with the familiar face of Che Guevara on the front instead of some team’s initials.

His presence does not worry me; but at first I do subtly keep an eye on him, glancing back through the opening between our seat-backs to see that his hands are still on his knees, not exploring any of our back-packs beside him. Within a few kilometers we approach an orange bridge, a mini-Golden-Gate in the mountains, and he tells us to turn left and cross it, and I realize that his presence may be useful. We start talking. His name is Orlando. He is in fact a driver of large trucks for a mining company. His wife is a teacher in Trujillo. She will not believe him, he adds, when he tells her he hitched a ride with two foreigners.

At one point Orlando tells me that his wife will not believe foreigners have given him a ride in their car. I laugh. I can well understand how unlikely it seems. Later, when we stop for a moment, he is on his cell-phone, obviously with his wife, stating that he is riding with a foreign couple, and I tell him to give me the phone, and use it long enough to tell her “Es verdad. Nosotros somos extranjeros.”

A light rain is falling, and the air is colder. I am grateful for Orlando’s knowledge of the road, and his quick and correct answers to my questions about the time of the remaining drive.

Further on, as fog and rain deprive us of visibility, his presence is reassuring. After awhile the fog is so thick I can see ten meters in front of me, perhaps less. The rode is full of puddles and pot-holes and wash-outs, and curves radically as it climbs the steep hills toward Cajamarca.

Parts of the road are washed out. Despite the limited visibility, cars and trucks without lights suddenly rush toward us. As we approach the pass, although I’m an experienced driver and used to bad roads, I even consider having Orlando drive.

The fog thickens at the pass, which someone later tells me is 3,500 meters high. Periodically, women with sheep or cows emerge out of the greyness like ghosts. Local ghosts, in local clothing and the tall hats so common here. Each would make a compelling photograph, but it’s too dangerous to stop on the road in these conditions.

We descend into Cajamarca. Tired and totally clueless about the city, we are again grateful for Orlando’s presence. He guides us through narrow streets to the Plaza de Armas. When we reach it, he and I shake hands. He puts on his Che cap again.

Me gusta,” I say, pointing at his cap. “Con Che.”

Immediately he takes it off and offers it to me. I decline. I meant only to say that I shared his respect for Che. He insists, dropping the cap between us. I do not pass it back to him.

Selecting a hotel in Cajamarca is a bit of a chore. Ragna rejects one because it has no balcony and another, a very nice little German-run place with a quiet garden, because the room is so small we’ll be stepping all over each other trying to do anything. I reject a third because it’s too expensive, a fourth has no rooms available, and a fifth is dark and unappealing and involves such a lengthy and circuitous walk through unlit hallways that I fear someone of my advanced age might get lost on the way back from supper after a couple of Pisco sours.

We stay in the Hostal Santa Apolonia, on the Plaza de Armas.

The cochera is blocks away. It is a large, walled area operated by a somewhat surly woman . . .

We sup at Salas, a cavernous local favorite. It’s busy. The soup is watery; but after a strong Pisco sour, a passable meal, and a warm shower, I feel good. It was a beautiful drive, then a somewhat dangerous drive. It has taken much longer than it should, at first because we were wandering through a wonderland for photography and later because of the rain and fog and washouts. Now we are in Cajamarca, which for some reason – perhaps the Pisco sour? -seems a good place to be.

b. from Cajamarca 5/1-2 

The next morning we are awakened early by loud and extensive conversations in the hotel lobby. We move to the Casones del Inca, on another side of the Plaza.

Later we walk up a hill toward the chapel. Handicraft stores line the walk. The view is interesting. The handicrafts are not.

In the afternoon we take a ride to where we’d seen some ceramics studios.

Ragna videotapes the potters at work, and I photograph them.

young potter - Cajamarca

young potter - Cajamarca

potter - Cajamarca

potter - Cajamarca

young potter

young potter

I also contemplate the building they are constructing behind one of the shops. It is rammed earth. I have admired adobe since my days in New Mexico, even participated very briefly when my cousin was building an adobe home in Santa Fe, and, dreaming of building my own, have read fairly widely about adobe and rammed earth buildings. I’ve seen rammed-earth buildings, old ones, and rammed-earth walls, but I’ve never before watched anyone building one. Watching six foot sections of a level being created, the steps quite like the descriptions or diagrams I looked at years ago, it’s as if the workers had stepped directly from the pages of those books to the land in front of me. It must be cheap, building that way; and I envy the fine view of the valley they will have from that house when they finish.

There are a fair number of beggars in Cajamarca. Many are middle-aged women in traditional dress, sometimes with bags of alfalfa on their backs, who crisscross the Plaza or likely streets in search of affluent tourists. Others, older or with children, sit silently imploring, as we saw so often in Oaxaca. Another is a man who for some reason reminds me of a character in Children of Paradise. He has a strong face: intelligent, almost noble, but not quite trustworthy, and he sits silently – but with his head up, alertly scanning the sidewalks – always at the same spot along one side of the Iglesia de San Francisco. Always dressed in a blue jacket. With more time, or in another mood, I might try to talk with him. However, I do not even take his photograph.

That first morning, Ragna crosses the street to give some money to a woman who sits silently on the street, not far from the man in blue. The woman has a weathered, wrinkled face and a classically forlorn expression on her face. After Ragna rejoins me, I see another woman rush over to see how much the older woman got from the blonde foreigner. She races to catch up with us, and Ragna offers her a small amount of money in exchange for a photo-op. The woman complies, posing, but is disappointed with the pay, and aggressively solicits more.

Our second night we eat in a very cold restaurant, then sleep fitfully because of the noise outside. At some point I look out the window. There are a half-dozen young drunks gathered along the wall of our hotel, near where it meets the wall that faces on the Plaza. They are taking turns kicking the wall, taking a couple of steps then leaping at it and making as big a noise as possible with one foot, perhaps competing to see who can strike the wall with his foot highest.


Our drive back down from Cajamarca to Pacasmayo starts later than it should. We have a few errands to run, and would like to see the room where Atahualpa was imprisoned nearly half a millennium ago.

First we do the errands.  As we walk the narrow streets to a pharmacy and an electronics store, and as I wait in the Plaza de Armas for Ragna, I manage to shoot a few photographs.






We had several times passed an old-looking doorway in an old-looking building, with “Cuarto del Rescate,” a few doors down from our window in the second hotel.  Thinking that maybe rescate meant rescue, and the place was for rescuing alcoholics from their addiction, I’d initially thought of AA.

But “rescate” means “ransom.” This was the door to the path to the room Atahualpa’s followers filled with treasure, foolishly believing that the Spaniards would release Atahualpa as promised.

Tickets to the Cuarto del Rescate are actually sold around the corner, at the Institute of Culture. We wander through the Belen, an old complex of church, hospital and school. Impressive buildings, with a small boy playing with his ball beside their huge columns. In the old hospital, we find an exhibit of paintings by A___ Z___. We like them. I photograph one that we particularly like, note that it was painted in 2002, and work out that Z must have been 86 when he did it. The biographical note near his portrait had not mentioned a death. When I ask the guard whether Z__ is still alive or has died, my faulty Spanish leads to a misunderstanding. He answers 1998, four years before one of the paintings. When I repeat the question he shows me to a small door, which he opens to reveal a statue of a hospital patient, who looks as if he’s in his last agony. I photograph that and decide to leave the matter of Z’s status to a later Internet search.

We enter through a hallway decorated with paintings of the principals in the historical drama and quotations from Spanish accounts of the encounter.

The room itself is simple.   If it had a roof, the roof has not survived.  [insert pic]

On the way out, we look at the paintings and I try to work out the full meaning of the writings quoted on plaques.

painting of Atahualpa




Pizarro and Atahualpa

Pizarro and Atahualpa






“As already said, this Ataulpa was an Indian well-made and of good presence; with a strong body, not too stout;  beautiful of face and serious in manner; I retain in my mind his fierce eyes; when they removed from him the stick with which they had strangulated him, his Indians came and dug up the earth where he had lain, and found that his feet each had but four toes, and they carried his body as if it were a relic.”     – Pedro Pizarro 1571

Plaque at Cuarto de Rescate

Plaque at Cuarto del Rescate



In the voices of some of the men who point things out to us, I hear echoes of this reverence. Not for the first time, I wonder how it feels to live in a culture in which one-half of your ancestors subjugated or destroyed the other half.

On the way out of town, we stop again at the ceramics studio. Ragna buys a set of three matched vases, different sizes, with very fine designs based on those of the ancient Cajamarca people. The potter himself shows up, and we compliment him on his work, exchange e-mails, etc.

The climb to the pass is a beautiful, twisting road with extensive vistas of green countryside and distant hills, as well as a closer view of small farms and farm folk. Along one huge, sweeping curve in the road we stop three or four times within less than a kilometer: clouds cloak the tops of all the peaks above us, and the trees look like tired soldiers slogging home through the fog; below, under intermittently bright sunlight, the wide valley stretches away from us, checkered with farms and villages; where we are, women and children and cows and sheep are walking or resting, on the deeply green hill or along the street or in yards, and we shoot dozens of photographs within minutes. However the pictures may turn out, we feel exhilarated. It’s just beautiful here.

The pass itself is like a tamed lion: no more fog and tension, no mystery, just fine sunlight shining on simple and natural lives from a vanished world.





ghostly trees

ghostly trees

ghostly trees







We descend, rushing a bit because of our late start but still pausing occasionally to enjoy the ride.

We drive the last hour and a half in darkness – something we’d planned not to do in Perú, but we feel like getting back to Pacasmayo. When we do, the space and quiet and cleanliness of the downstairs flat at J___ and S___’s seems a haven after the noise and clutter of the places we stayed in Cajamarca.

 Travel Notes

The drive between Cajamarca and Pacasmayo is scenic and interesting. The road is mostly paved, but curvy and sometimes rough.  Start early, particularly if you will be stopping to shoot many pictures or are inexperienced with bad roads and limited visibility.  Fog and rain at the pass are not unusual.


In Cajamarca, both the Hostal Santa Apolonia or the Casones del Inca are acceptable places to stay, although Ragna would disagree. Each has fairly large rooms that look out on the Plaza – but each is vulnerable to the noise of the Plaza at night. If traveling alone, consider the Hospedaje de Jazmines.  This small place, run by Germans, has a lot of good points and looks as if it’d be quiet and peaceful, but two people might be crowded in a double room there, particularly if they have computers and such that they want to work with.  All three of the foregoing are in “budget” category in the Lonely Planet’s guidebook.  There are several more upscale alternatives – and several more budget-oriented ones. We also read about a hacienda out in the country that had been converted into a hotel, the Hostal Hacienda San Antonio.  Further details on it appear later [26-28 May].  It’s more expensive than the places we stayed, but also worth a look, particularly if you want to escape the noise and bustle of the city center – or if you like horseback-riding, which, along with breakfast, is included in the price of the room. At U.S. $55 per night for a couple, it’s not for budget-travelers. For non-budget travelers, it could be one of their more enjoyable and memorable stays in Peru. (It’s about 5 km. out, and driving out from Cajamarca you don’t see a sign for it. Driving there, the trick is to remember that the road to it is just beyond a gas station and either/or: (a) watch closely for a sign for the Restaurante ______ and turn left toward it or, if that fails, (b) drive further toward the Bano del Incas and come back, watching for the sign for the hotel, which is now on your right, just before the gas station.  You turn off for restaurant or hotel on the same dirt road, and, at the T intersection you reach a few minutes later, the restaurant is to the left and the hotel to the right. Turn right and continue until you see very clear signs for the hotel.)


You should probably check out Sala’s, particularly if your budget is limited. There must be good restaurants in town, or in the big hotels, but we didn’t happen on them. We did get good sandwiches at _____ and, on a later occasion, enjoyed lunch and coffee at Don Paco’s, where I was also delighted to hear Billie Holiday as we ate.

The restaurant at the Hostal Hacienda San Antonio is quite good, although pricey.  Anyone not staying there should call first to see whether or not it’s open, or serves non-guests there.

Other Points

Cajamarca is noted for its pottery, and there are a bunch of studios and galleries as you drive in from Pacasmayo or leave Cajamarca for Pacasmayo. We were quite taken with the work of Oscar Huaccha [ oscarhuaccha@hotmail.com – he doesn’t speak English,

Oscar Huaccha

Oscar Huaccha

but will be responsive to e-mails ] at what I guess was the first or second studio on the right as you enter town. We ordered some of his work, and received it in Lima, and like it enough to plug it – and will include a photo.

Prices are low; and shipping to Lima is amazingly cheap; but shipping from Lima to Iceland, or even to the U.S., is a serious consideration. If you can’t take what you buy back with you, keep shipping costs in mind. Pottery ain’t light.


3 responses to “V. Cajamarca 4/30 – 5/2

  1. Very interesting to read and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am off to Peru shortly and reading as much as I can so I can plan my itinerary, hopefully I will find the time to visit such an amazing place.

    Thank you

  2. Dear Sir,

    I would like to know who took the picture of the beggar in Cajamarc (Woman in blue). You are saying that you did not took the picture. Do you know who took it? Do you know how I can reach the photographer?

    Thank you,
    Mauricio Travesí

    • I took the photograph of the woman in blue.
      What is confusing, I now realize, is that immediately before that photograph in the blog, I discuss a male beggar, also in blue, whom I saw but did not photograph.
      The woman in blue, I photographed. So you are in touch with the photographer.

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