I like basic accommodations; clean with a bed, a bathroom and hot water as needed but no frills. My favorite birding company promises “the best accommodations available”. Be warned. There may not be many choices. On a recent trip to Peru, one hostel lent new meaning to “basic”. A week into the trip, my group of fourteen was briefed on our next lodging.
Yambrasbamba was near sites where two endemic birds, local specialties, could be found but the hotel used in the past had been leased out to a construction company. We would be staying in an inn unknown to our guides. We prepared to be flexible.
The late afternoon rain still thundered on the roof as our small bus turned off the through road toward our destination. We slowed to a crawl to splash through deep puddles and labored up a steep, muddy hill. The headlights illuminated a cluster of two-story brick buildings but there were no signs of people.
“Well,” mused Richard, one of our guides. “Looks like there’s no electricity tonight. Must be this storm.”
We stopped near the first building. The black night enveloped us like a blanket. The driver flipped on the interior lights. While our guides ventured into the storm to make arrangements for our stay the rest of us dug into our day packs for our raingear and headlamps
On their return, Richard said, “Ten of us will stay here,” pointing to the building next to the bus, “and the rest of you will stay up the hill in a hostel.” I was in the hostel. After a very short drive uphill we stopped. Two doors opened into dimly lit rooms in the closest building. It was hard to tell if it was a house, a commercial building or an inn. In fact, it was all three.
From the bus, I saw Pedro, one of our support crew, through an open door. He was peeling vegetables by the light of a kerosene lantern. Another door revealed a large, unoccupied room filled with tables and chairs.
I followed Jenny, Erika and Martha off the bus. From the door, I noticed two bobbing headlamps making their way past the alley between ours and the next building.
It was unclear where we should go. Which open door or dark alley would lead to my room? I sensed people in motion around me but my attention was on the slippery steps and slick boards set to avoid the worst of the mud. I opted for the dimly lit café, which at least was dry. Inside, a long table was set up for our group. Toward the back, my bags were in a pile with a few others next to an open door.
I was alone. What next?
Pedro spun around the door jam, picked up my bag and motioned for me to follow him. A short corridor with a rough stone floor lead to an unadorned patio surrounded by a second floor balcony. Rain pounding on the roof and splashing onto the patio made it impossible to hear anything else.
As we curled around a post to mount the stairs my headlamp briefly illuminated two deep wash basins against the far wall and a dimly lit room behind them that turned out to be a kitchen. Old towels on the exposed steps affirmed my concern that they might be slippery. Another turn at the top and Pedro led me past three open doors. I saw no sign of my friends. He put my bags on the floor in the fourth bedroom and left.
In the quiet after the chaos of our arrival, I took a deep breath.
My room was small, clean, almost sterile. It had a bed, a bench and a small dresser. Low on the wall next to the bed was a small square with the two little window panels hinged inward. In spite of the gloom and rain, I felt comfortably warm.
We had been told to return to the dining area as soon as possible to review the birds seen that day before dinner. I hurried to wash my hands. Ducking into the bathroom, I left the door ajar to watch for the others. How could they disappear so fast?
A sliver of soap sat on the edge of the sink. Soap was a rare commodity, so that was a good sign. Until, that is, I heard a splashing near my knees and looked under the sink to see the waste water dripping into a half full five-gallon bucket.
Returning to my room, the dark around me felt thick. The beam from my tiny headlamp was strong but confined, like in a tunnel. I had no peripheral vision. What or who was in those shadows? In my imagination, it became an Alfred Hitchcock movie set.
I snapped out of my fantasy when I discovered that the door to my room was locked. I had closed it automatically when I left. I didn’t have a key.
To my right, moving shadows drew my attention. A few candles inside a tiny room revealed pots, preparation tables and spice jars. A thin older woman poked her head around the corner and understood my problem right away. She bobbed around the door frame and handed me a key tied to a ratty string. I smiled and thanked her, but she had already returned to her work.
That was lucky. I could have locked myself in. And who was she? No time to ponder. It was almost 7:30pm. Time to join the others.
The key was needed to open the door from the outside and also from the inside. I made a note to myself to leave it behind when I departed in the morning and carefully placed it in my pocket.
Stepping from the dark passageway into the dining room, my eyes were stung by the brilliant light. A hissing propane pressure lantern warmed the room that was bright as a sports stadium and just as loud. Toasty was nice but the piercing light and the hissing interrupted my eerie scenario. Everyone else had arrived and my mind games from the darkness evaporated. Hitchcock and his mystery melted into the gloom.
While our crew cooked next door, we went over our list of birds, checking off the ones seen that day. The highlight was certainly the Marvelous Spatuletail, a small but spectacular hummingbird that only lives in the Utcubamba Valley. Its name comes from two extraordinary tail feathers. Each naked quill is several times the length of the bird and tipped with feathery discs that wave and bob independent of flight movements. We had long and luscious looks of one male that visited a feeder near the visitor’s center.
Flashes of metallic green, blue and magenta dazzled us that afternoon. We identified seventeen species of hummingbirds as they vied for the choice spots at the feeders. These included four kinds of Woodstars, a Violet-fronted Brilliant, Chestnut-crested Coronet and an Andean Emerald. Of the hummingbirds we’d seen, the Spatuletail was indeed the most stunning.
Once we had completed our bird lists, dinner was served. Pedro stepped through the door, his arms lined with plates loaded with a meat stew on rice, greens to the side. Hungry after the full day, I shoveled it down. The fragrance of the ripe mango slices served for dessert slowed me down to savor their flavor, so rare in my world.
After eating Richard laid out plans for the next day. “We’ll have breakfast here at 5:30 and drive up to nine thousand feet on a new road. We have a hike of another thousand feet of altitude to find where a Pale-billed Antpitta has been spotted. We will see other birds along the way, of course. It could be cold and foggy. The trail is of stone, but it has been raining so there will be mud as well, so be prepared.”
Time for bed. After unpacking the minimum, I decided to use the toilet while it was free. The woman who gave me the key was washing a big pile of dishes in a sink that backed onto the bathroom. That seemed odd, remote from both the downstairs kitchen and the prep room next to mine.
I latched the door and sat down. The bathroom was, well, adequate. I didn’t see any soap scum or unwanted large, hairy insects and the odor was fresh, like the outdoors. In fact, it was the outdoors because there was a foot-tall opening high up on the wall of the shower stall; no glass, no screen and probably no hot water. It was too chilly to consider getting naked for any reason. The shower head dripped into a five-gallon bucket like the one under the sink. The toilet flushed fine, but I didn’t want to know what happened after that. Since I was one of at least four people who were using that bathroom, I decided any further ablutions could take place in my room.
When I turned the door handle to leave, it spun freely. I twisted it back and forth. Nothing. Surprised at being locked in, I checked for anything I could use to pick the lock. No luck. Only then did I realize the inner workings of the lock mechanism were exposed, implying this wasn’t the first time access had been required. As I contemplated that discovery, a slim piece of metal snaked into the space from the other side. It fished around for a while, and finally, the door latch clicked and I was free. The mystery woman stood before me gripping a pair of scissors, the blades fully open. I said, “Gracias”, at a loss for polite Spanish phrases for the situation, but she was unresponsive. How does one translate, “Why didn’t you tell me that lock doesn’t work?” and say it gracefully so as not to offend. Did she speak Spanish, or just a local dialect?
I know how it is when you live in a place. Everyone just copes with little inconveniences because everyone knows the quirks. But guests don’t.
It occurred to me that I should tell the others not to pull that door all the way closed. In my room another solution hit me. Duct tape! Something I carry since a hiking partner lost the sole of her shoe miles from the trail head. Searching for the tape, a question flashed through my mind about manners. Was it polite to be taping the door latch open if you were a guest in someone’s home? What would the mystery woman think when she found it? Offended? Puzzled? Relieved?
Not wanting to unpack everything to find the elusive roll of tape, I gave up. The plan to inform everyone slipped my mind.
I studied the opening in my room, looking for a way to politely spit after brushing my teeth. A grate protruded to the outside from the window frame. My first thought was that it was to deter intruders, but I was on the second floor. Most isolated villages like the one we were in did not need locks or window guards anyway. What did it keep out? Giant bats? Wolves? Or maybe the grate was to prevent falls. Maybe I was in a kid’s room. I liked that answer and moved on.
I went light on the toothpaste so my spit wouldn’t be so obvious on the ground now that the rain had abated. The grate cleared the outside wall by six inches, enough for a clear free fall so there would be no white streaks on the wall either. After a quick wipe-down of my sticky body using a cup of water and my washcloth, I felt refreshed. It did occur to me that if I wrung my wet cloth through the exact same square in the grate, the water might land on the toothpaste.
I took a few moments to jot some notes in my journal, chuckling to myself at the situation so far. It was a story too good to forget and the night was young.
If unwanted visitors were going to climb aboard my belongings, this would be the place but I didn’t bother to pull up the corner of the sheet to check for blood spots as recommended by bed-bug-phobes at home. The sheets looked clean. The pile of heavy blankets would be warm if not suffocating so I shook out my sleeping bag since I had it with me.
This seemed like a good place to try out my brand new mosquito net. It was a small dome of netting that covered my upper body, with a drape to plug any gap around my waist. I’m glad no one was watching the springy tent poles fly about, but I got it set up at last. I hadn’t seen any insects but if there had been any, they would have had a hard time getting to me under my clever net.
Inside my cozy net-cave, I pulled my bag around my shoulders. When I closed my eyes, the clack of plastic cups jarred me. The quiet woman had been washing dishes since I had returned to my room and it dawned on me that the she might be washing our cups. I liked that idea. Another way to spread the money around.
Voices drifted up through the floor from the kitchen below; a high voice and a rumbling one, a child and an old man, chatting amiably. Two women joined them; then they all left. The dishes were done and the house quieted.
About 2 a.m. the village dogs began a noisy bark fest, as Jenny put it later. After it stopped, each dog was on his own, piping up at annoying intervals, accompanied randomly by the roosters, who didn’t care when dawn might arrive.
I dozed between outbursts of rooster crows and barking dogs. At 4:20 a.m., someone below me started banging pots and running water so I gave up trying to sleep. Fortunately, I was up and dressed when Martha discovered she was locked in the bathroom. Through the door I explained the problem but had nothing that would help free her. Downstairs, a boy was watching a large pot in the sink fill with water, and I asked him for help. He yelled back up the stairs. In a moment the mystery woman crept out of a door I hadn’t noticed, scissors in hand, and released Martha. Apparently, the bathroom had no key at all.
The electricity had returned, though there were only a few fixtures with dim bulbs to cast weak shadows on the walls. The air temperature was a pleasant 63 degrees according to my clock. In the clear sky, pinpricks of light faded as the deep black thinned into dawn.
As I packed my bags another dilemma arose. I hadn’t slept in the bed and it was only slightly rumpled. What to do? Should I mess it up as if I had used it? I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or suspicious of the hospitality. Or should I leave it, obviously not used, so they could use it again without washing the sheets? Where was Miss Manners when you needed her? I tugged a few wrinkles out of the bedding and left it to the housekeeper to decide.
On the way to breakfast, the mystery woman was sitting in the yard, warmly dressed and wearing rubber boots, feeding her chickens scraps from a bucket. Later, Erika said she spoke to her, but the woman only smiled a little and nodded her head when Erika thanked her for the hospitality.
Erika loved her room. ”I grew up in an old farm house with a slanted floor, so I felt right at home.”
A Peruvian woman and her son, along with a computer and other items shared Jenny’s suite but it was the tilted floor that vexed her.
“The floor was so slanted that the bed kept dumping me out. I had to tuck myself in all around to be secure.” The image of round Jenny tying herself into that malevolent bed made me chuckle.
Jenny was the first to encounter the quirky bathroom door. “In the muddle of being assigned rooms, I got locked in. The son opened the door with the scissors. It’s apparently a regular event.” Jenny said the woman who helped us did speak Spanish. “She did seem reserved. Definitely friendly, just quiet.” Jenny and Erika referred to the woman as the proprietress. At least that told me who she was.
The night dogs were closest to the people in the inn, and they heard the roosters as well. We all made it through the night and could doze on the bus on our way to our next birds.
For one night, the accommodations were only slightly inconvenient and I always felt safe. I didn’t want to whine because we all want to encourage efforts to develop an economy that can support the local people and preserve native vegetation and wildlife.
Our next several nights were spent at Owlet Lodge, a place we loved for its many birds and pleasant accommodations. Our last night’s lodging in Cajamarca more than made up for Yambrasbamba, with excellent food, luxurious rooms and water from the natural hot spring that gushed from the faucets into the soaking tubs of every bathroom. But, of course, it is the type of adventure we had at Yambrasbamba that gets mentioned when people ask about the trip. It makes a good story. I can only hope our stay helped bring in enough money to fix a few of the problems so that the hostel will appeal to more than the backpacker set.