Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Visiting Zapotal by way of Jaèn

The trip by bus from Chiclayo to Jaèn (pronounced ‘ha-en’) can take anywhere from 5 ½ to 8 hours or more depending on road conditions encountered in the mountains. Jaèn is located in a valley at an altitude of 740 meters and is surrounded by mountains. Delays caused by mud and rock slides are common and are viewed as minor inconveniences by veteran travelers.

During our recent trip we were delayed for about an hour as work crews were still dealing with the aftermath of a major rock slide that occurred two weeks previously. This particular incident involved the partial collapse of segments of two mountains and is still having serious repercussions for communities many miles away. We’ll talk more about that later.

Jaèn has a population of 52,000 and doesn’t look any different than any other mid-size town we’ve visited. The economy is based on rice, coffee and several other standard crops. The principal park is surprisingly plain and colorless for a town this size. There is no tourist information office, probably because there are no attractions the average tourist would be interested in. It’s been our experience that most every town we’ve visited has something – an unusual building, a waterfall, petro glyphs, historic ruins, a scenic overlook…something the town identifies with and points to with pride. Not so in Jaèn. When asked what there is to see or do, locals simply shrug their shoulders. When pressed for suggestions some will mention a museum at the university (Instituto technologic 4 de junio de 1821), but are quick to add “don’t go there at night; it’s not a good area.”  

We went there on a bright, sun shiny morning and were pleasantly surprised. The museum occupies three large rooms and contains photos and displays of original objects from the Pacamoros culture that flourished in the area at about the same time the Moche culture existed to the west on the coast. Our tour took over an hour and our guide was knowledgeable and patient with our many questions. There is no admission fee and the staff refused our offer of a gratuity, but did point to a box at the entrance labeled “For help the museum.” 

From our hotel in Jaèn it is a 15 minute moto ride to the colectivo (private car) station where it will cost $5.75 to buy a seat for the 1 ½ hour ride to Zapotal. Probably a full chapter in a book could be written about this 90 minute trip. I will be much briefer.

Shortly after leaving town we were stopped by police who apparently do this randomly looking for criminals.   Not 200 meters further was a road block manned by Ronderos. This was my second encounter with these guys, who are supposedly quasi-police maintaining law and order. They have no legal authority and as far as I can tell their approach to maintaining law and order is to demand tribute from every passing vehicle. I noticed that every vehicle from each direction would slow down enough to hand money to a rondero before continuing on. This was a tough looking bunch. They were young and fit, wearing skin-tight black t-shirts, black military pants, black boots and black jungle hats. They were all carrying assault rifles. I didn’t take a photo because frankly, I felt intimated. Our driver slowed down, but no one approached the car so we continued on. 

The road quickly changes from asphalt to gravel to not maintained. We forded many small streams before coming to a swollen river I felt sure the driver would not attempt. He stopped the car; opened the hood to let the engine cool down and then put some material over it to “keep it from getting wet.” At its deepest the water covered the tires and the spray washed completely over the car but did not get inside.  The driver told us conditions can change from minute to minute, and there are days when Zapotal cannot be reached. I saw no difference on our return later that afternoon.

The road stops 30 minutes before reaching the village of Zapotal at the Chinchipe River, where two barges transport trucks, cars, motos and people across for a fee. This is an interesting process. There is no electricity available and the barges do not use engines. Instead they are tethered to a thick steel cable spanning the river.  Two cables are attached to the barge. The cable attached to the rear of the barge is lengthened or shortened depending on which side of the river they want to go to. After everything is secure the barge is pushed from shore and the strong river current does the rest. It takes less than 3 minutes to cross.

Zapotal, though isolated and at the mercy of the whims of nature for contact with the outside world is not as primitive as we’d expected. Many of the houses are constructed of concrete or regular brick instead of adobe, and the school and medical clinic are cleaner and better maintained than many we have seen in villages close to Chiclayo. There are only 9 streets and a population not over 300. The town has electricity only from 6:30pm to 10:30pm, which means no television, radio or refrigeration during daylight hours. Computers in the school are powered by solar panels built by town folks.
We were in Zapotal because a teacher at the school had invited us to attend a celebration. Promesa Peru was happy to furnish prizes for students who won competitions in math, science, and other subjects. We also donated balls, toys and candy.  As always we were afforded a warm welcome and invited to return anytime.

The town has no sewage system but does have water provided by a series of canals and pipes from mountains far distant. The mountain collapse of two weeks ago that delayed our travel to Jaèn also destroyed large segments of the system providing water to Zapotal and other remote villages. Until repairs are completed villagers are using the Chinchipe River for bathing, washing clothes, cooking and irrigating fields. Every farmer we talked with said they didn’t like using the river for irrigation because “the water is too dirty for growing rice.” I wasn’t able to learn what they meant by that comment.  

Although several families offered the use of their homes for sleeping overnight, it is very hot in Zapotal and by mid afternoon we were ready to return to Jaèn and our air conditioned hotel room with shower. 

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