The first stop on my journey was El Carmen, a tiny town in the district of Chincha known as the hotspot for all things Afro-Peruvian. The only way to get to this town is to go to Chincha and take a taxi or a much cheaper combi (also known as colectivos, these are cars or minivans that carry multiple people to a designated area for a very small set fee… aka the human tetris game. I took a combi from the airport and paid 4 soles ($1.50), rather than the taxi fee of 40 to 60 soles ($20), and I shared that ride in a minibus smaller than most SUVs… with 25 other people! That got me some serious “street-cred” with all my Peruvian friends). I got a rather late start to my day on Thursday, so I decided to take an afternoon bus to Chincha and tour El Carmen in the morning. My bus left Lima around 3pm and took about 2.5 hours, getting me there close to sunset. I went with the company Soyuz, which is a middle of the road quality bus, and it cost me 23 soles ($7.50).
About bus travel: I was all about taking the cheapest option and was planning to disregard my friend’s pleading for the contrary until, very unfortunately, shortly before my trip there was a tragic bus crash here in Peru resulting in the loss of 37 lives, apparently it is not an unusual event. The danger is not about the safety of your belongings, it’s about your life… and for that reason it was not worth the risk to go any cheaper on bus fare. That said, buses are absolutely the way to travel through most South American countries, just be wise about the company’s reputation for safety.
Chincha is not much of a “destination” it’s very busy and congested, and no matter what you do to not stick out… you will. I usually try to arrive in a new place well before sundown, especially if I have nothing booked as was the case with this trip (mom don’t freak out!), but I was cutting it pretty close. After a long bus ride I step off the bus to the typical onslaught of aggressive taxi drivers, brushing them off like I actually knew where I was going I continued out the station and onto the main road. I needed to figure out where the “centro” was, the central plaza of the town, usual the place to go if you have no idea where you are going. My “go to” lineup for people I ask to give me directions, in this order, are traffic police (which is absolutely an oxymoron in Peru), fruit vendors with the movable wagon stands, really old men, and women with children… trust me its fool-proof (despite the fact they are known for not liking to ask for directions, men are remarkably good at giving simple directions. Women on the other hand, tend to tell you the color of every house along the way and the name of all the stores on every corner you need to turn at… by the time they’re done I don’t even remember where the hell I wanted to go in the first place!). Also be sure to ask multiple people, if I am really lost I typically ask someone new every block to be safe. For example, someone tells me its 4 blocks away and I walk one block, ask again, and that person tells me its 6 blocks from there… not a huge concern at least the consensus is that it’s straight ahead… somewhere. Now, a crossing guard tells me its 4 blocks ahead and then a vendor tells me its 8 blocks to the left… that’s when I start looking for an old man.
After quite the walk, where miraculously I was almost run over ONLY twice, I reached the central plaza. Peru has the craziest traffic I have ever seen, hands down, it’s like every driver seeks to break every single traffic law known to man at least 30 times… every time they get behind the wheel! Unfortunately for me, the central plaza is under construction so not only are there no vendors or old men hanging around to give me directions but the giant wall of building material makes it impossible to see the other side… so I end up circling this plaza 3 times looking for a hostel before I decide it’s getting too dark and I need to get some help. I break my own rule and just ask the nearest person, who happens to be a young waiter at a restaurant just opening for dinner… apparently everyone working here is under the age of 20. “Do you know where there is a hostel named La Posado?” I ask, in Spanish of course… he stares at me as if I am literally starting to sprout a unicorn horn out of my forehead! “Do you know of any hostels nearby?”…again in Spanish of course, again with the unicorn-horn stare. Ok I am really regretting breaking my own rule at this point, I’m not fluent by any means but my Spanish is not THAT bad, you would think I was asking him where I could find a flying cow! Finally his face begins to look slightly less alarmed, and more pensive. “Si!” He tells me, and I can’t help but roll my eyes. “Aqui” He says as he points out the door. I quickly glance up and down the street not a hostel sign in sight… “aqui where?” I plead. “Aqui”, he reassured me, again with his finger pointing in some arbitrary direction now slightly to the left… “On the corner? On this street? How many blocks?” I ask in Spanish, frantically… his answer to all those questions is a very nonchalant “si” (apparently the teenage tendency toward monosyllabic answers is a global phenomenon…), and I give up, replying with a rather defeated “gracias”… Never again will I ask anyone under the age of 30 for directions… ever!
I finally track down La Posado hostel, after using a stranger’s computer to find that no address is posted online and then trying to follow obscure directions given by the owner after calling from a payphone. I got there and was told it costs 50 soles a night, with an incredulous look on my face I began to haggle it down (not that I really had another place to stay, but I have a really great poker face). I finally get her down to 40 soles ($13), and call it a win. They have wifi and it appears to be reasonably clean, then when she takes me to the room all the craziness becomes worth it. Fellow backpackers will know how hard it is to come by privacy when trying to travel cheaply, I personally have been sleeping on a couch since I arrived in Peru. The room had a glorious full size bed, and a private bathroom… not to mention cable with movies in English! HEAVEN. Needless to say, I slept like a baby!
Bright and early I hauled tail out of Chincha and got a colectivo into El Carmen. It was a short but beautiful ride of about 30 minutes, breaking away from the loud and restless Chincha. The enchanting yellow flowers of cotton plants line both sides of the dusty dirt road, mirroring the Afro-Peruvian culture of this area as it has also blossomed into something of incredible beauty after such painful beginnings. El Carmen is a sleepy little town, apparently slightly more animated on weekends and teaming with life for the Christmas holiday. The people were friendly and curious, everyone wanting to know where I was from. It’s interesting the comfort that comes when looking into faces that resemble yours, even though I someone who loves to explore new cultures and is often the only person who “looks like me” in the room… I still notice the comfort level and familiarity of others when I am around faces that physically resemble mine, even when they belong to a culture so different. It really made me ponder how alike we all are at the core; no matter our differences in language, skin tone, or features I believe we are getting closer to recognizing our global culture. A culture that respects and includes all, one that revels in cultural exchange rather than fearing it.
The people of El Carmen were all shades of brown, most are darker than the typical Peruvian, with the beauty of African genetics written all over their bodies and the familiar sound of Peruvian Spanish on their tongues. I found my way to the one location for information, a “tourist center”, which was really the living room of Guillermo’s house. Guillermo, the keeper of culture in El Carmen, welcomes travelers into his home to share the history, art, and culture of his people. Guillermo and his family were some of the warmest people I have ever met, and I sat for over 3 hours listening to him tell stories in Spanish of the African slaves brought to Peru, their revolutions, their reformations, and their cultural renaissance in the town of El Carmen. There are videos on my Instagram and Tumblr of Guillermo and his son playing the violin and the cajon, a percussion instrument found in Afro-Peruvian music.
I only wish I had been there when the resident zapateo teacher was in town, so that I could learn a few moves from one or two of the traditional dances. The zapateo is a dance reminiscent of tap-dancing, full of life and joy but the meanings of most songs and dances are of somber memories. Most of the dances and songs are written to recall the times of slavery, some even depicting dance moves symbolizing whippings and being shackled. The music, art, and food of El Carmen was all such a treat to experience, and the open hearts and doors that met me upon my arrival were what really made this place special. This was an amazing once in a lifetime experience, I highly recommend taking the time to make the short journey into El Carmen… especially if you are already on your way south.
Next stop Paracas!
Bus: Soyuz Bus
Hostel: La Posado- listed in lonely planet
El Carmen: Tours El Carmen- on Facebook