Located in the extreme north of the country, Tumbes is the smallest of the twenty four departments in Peru. Its size has little to do with the diversity of its natural wealth, as those "in the know" consider it one of the living jewels of tropical America.
History relates that towards the end of 1530 A.D, a large seagoing raft loaded with provisions, large earthen jugs, tropical fruit and a handful of natives was sighted by Spanish caravels carrying the first conquistadors towards Peru. These native travelers, who were possibly headed north towards the shores of the Gulf of Guayaquíl, called themselves tumpis in honor of their peaceful and prolific land. A land of long white-sand beaches and oceans as blue as the sky, known today as Tumbes. After more than four centuries, these coasts that enthralled the first occidentals continue to seduce all those who have the opportunity to visit them.
To speak of this region, blessed by nature, is to speak of thousands of landscapes in one: estuaries of calm waters where great flocks of migratory birds wheel about; dense mangrove swamps that are home to ostentatious frigate birds, shy raccoons and elusive crocodiles; wide, long beaches that seem to never end; rocky outcrops eroded by ocean waves into figures of an almost magical appearance. To speak of Tumbes is to speak of a truly special corner of Peru, a paradise in miniature reserved for those who chance to wander its roads.
A world of two dimensions
Upon entering the Tumbes region on the northern section of the Pan-American highway, the traveler will be immersed into a world of two well-defined dimensions. One that is wide, deep and blue, formed by the ocean that opens westward, and another, mysterious and almost unknown, of hills and gnarled woods spreading east. The first is where visitors usually gather, attracted perhaps by perpetually warm crystalline waters that are home to dolphins and great schools of tropical fish.
The beaches of Tumbes enjoy a well deserved reputation on a national level. Punta Sal, Acapulco, Punta Mero, Zorritos and La Cruz are among those that guarantee brilliant sunshine all year and an abundance of resources -culinary marvels being a tradition- worthy of the attention of the most skeptical of palates. Lobsters, conchas negras (black shellfish), oysters and sea shrimp are only some of the most prized treasures of these waters.
Although the coast offers its peaceful beaches and coral meadows in shallow waters, the deeper blue is prodigious in species that are considered prized trophies by sport fishermen: tuna, swordfish and marlin. Armed with rudimentary hand-thrown harpoons, the fishermen of Tumbes pursue these schools in the hope of a good catch that will put food on the table. There are also those who, early in the morning, venture into the sea in tiny fragile rafts, seeming to almost walk on water as they dab deep spots in search of the great Muriqui groupers or Conger eels, absolute sovereigns of the deep.
Although these beaches may lack the classic tropical palms (these are found near resort complexes), it is the desert -with its symphony of ochres, browns, and beige -that gives the coast its unique appearance. Every so often, strange figures of an intense red color become visible onshore. They sway in the afternoon wind and explode in fleeting reflections of the sunshine bathing them. They are the famous airlines used by shrimp fishermen to capture the larva from crustaceans that hide in the shallow waters near the shore. Also quite common are great tree trunks that wash up on the beach, adorning the Tumbes coastline with their twisted and polished forms reminiscent of modern art sculptures.
Not all of Tumbes faces the ocean, however. A few kilometers inland, a completely different world opens up. Marked by rolling mountains and canyons where winding, sandy riverbeds lie calmly, every once in a while becoming torrents of water satiating the thirst of a desert that can tolerate anything. A land as old as time that has learned to cope with the extremes; profound lack and exaggerated abundance, always succeeding one another, always striking hard.
These dry forests have been compared to natural display cases where creatures have had to adapt to desert conditions that change subtly during a short rainy season in summer. Here the flora has learned to live from scarcity. What better example than the great Ceiba trees, referred to as fat old men who dominate the forest like vigils in the thick, storing water in their great trunks to survive long periods of drought.
This is also land of the Carob, a miraculous tree extremely valuable to man. It offers food for him and his animals, wood for construction, shade to hide from the inclement sun of the desert. Accompanying the Carob are the Hualtaco and Guayacan trees, valuable hardwoods that have been known and used by man for over two thousand years and are in danger of extinction today because of unmeasured overuse.
In the middle of the apparent uniformity of the chaparral, where spiny bushes and tree moss hang from any disposable branch, flowers make their appearance and give a touch of beauty to the austerity of the dry forest: yellow are the flowers of the Overal, red those of the Porotillo, purple belong to the Bougainvillea, and pink from the Borrachera, the latter a plant that seduces and intoxicates livestock before submerging them into mortal sleep.
The dry forest is also a refuge for unique animal species that include the rare White-winged Guan, saved from imminent extinction only two decades ago. Others are more common but no less interesting: anteaters, white-napped squirrels, iguanas, and white-tailed deer.
Hidden from the world for millennia but ironically located only a few kilometers from the city of Tumbes, a small portion of pacific coast tropical forest is perhaps one of the last intact remnants of the exuberant forests that once extended from the south of Mexico to the north of Peru. Today, reduced to only a few dozen square kilometers, it constitutes the last habitat of diverse animal and plant species. It rains here like nowhere else on the Peruvian coast, and the forest glows as densely and brilliantly as the Amazon itself.
The element of surprise
The natural fauna is truly surprising here. Ocelots, flocks of noisy parakeet, deer, collared peccaries and coatis share the dense forest with a species of monkey unique in the country: the Black Howler monkey of Tumbes, named for its habit of announcing its territory with raucous calls, powerful enough to be heard from several kilometers away. Its flora is equally interesting and diverse. Dozens of orchid varieties compete in beauty with bromeliads, malmseys, and begonias. Ferns and epiphytes hang from canyon walls along with clumps of Strangler fig and Caimito plants.
The great Tumbes river flows through here, wide and serene. Its chocolate waters, loaded with sediment, serve not only to mark the frontier between Ecuador and Peru, but also functions as the border for two natural areas protected by the state: the Tumbes Reserve Zone and Cerros de Amotape National Park. Its shores, sometimes inaccessible due to enormous cliffs and erosion-polished gorges, are home to Northwest Peruvian otters and American crocodiles, prehistoric giants growing up to seven meters in length.
The path of this river, plagued by rapids and dreamlike landscapes, makes it an attraction of great interest to those that practice adventure sports. Only recently in 1996 did an expedition of young Peruvian travellers descend the never-explored sections of this river, opening the way for the development of eco-tourism in the region.
Whatever will be, will be
It is impossible to speak of Tumbes without mention of its people. Men and women of copper skin tanned by the powerful sun, carrying in their souls the infinite patience and hospitality of those who know better than to struggle against the rhythms of nature. These people who, aboard their simple sailing rafts or faithful piajenos (burros), find in the sea or on land the daily sustenance for their families.
The people of Tumbes know, perhaps like no one else in Peru, how time and season depend on factors impossible to control, how it is better to simply learn and adapt rather than try to change them.
It is our hope that these pages serve as a homage to these people and their unique
land; a land of a thousand aromas where the sun presents a spectacle of color
afternoon, impossible to view on any other part of the coast. A land of ocean and jungle;
of heat and siesta; of warm air, and utter peace.
By Walter Wust
Volume /Issue 14, Page 34
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