Locating the Original Moyobamba Route


These five web-pages are based on Appendix B from my Following Ghosts in Northern Peru. The primary difference is the addition of direct links to Google maps, satellite imagery, and street view so that the reader can trace the old trail and my travels.

My goal in following the Moyobamba Route had been to stay in or at least visit as many of what had once been the main populated stopping points along the route as possible. I succeeded in doing that by staying in Trujillo, Cascas, Contumazá, Cajamarca, Celendín, Leymebamba, Chachapoyas, Molinopampa, Rioja, Moyobamba, Lamas, Tarapoto, and Yurimaguas; visiting the Chicama Valley, Polloc, Sucre, Chazuta and Pacasmayo; and passing through Sausal, Chilete, Magdalena, and (near) Balsas. Yet I always knew that in traveling from town to town on modern roads I was only rarely taking the exact same route as the old mule trails.

Modern roads and old mule trails were created at different times for different purposes and in different ways. Modern roads are laid out by engineers to make the journey possible for trucks and buses while the old mule trails came about from repeated use. Where the mules went over the mountain the roads might go around it. Mules can go where cars and vans can't, but the flip side of that is that highway engineers have blasted roads into the sides of mountains in places that the old arrieros would never have dreamed of guiding their mules to.

So another goal of mine was to locate where the old trails went by using modern satellite imagery and the details given by the historic travelers. Rural northern Peru is a largely agricultural society and I knew that in most places the old trails would still be used for short-distance travel by foot or on horseback. The problem would be identifying the right trail or trails just using satellite imagery and traveler hints. (In some places there are probably local residents who could identify the old route, but finding them could be time consuming.)

Dervla Murphy's experience in following mule trails on the ground through central Peru in 1977 illustrates the difficulty. In heavily populated areas she would be confronted with multiple criss-crossing trails and several possibilities of how to reach the same destination. The local people knew which route to take for an easier but longer journey and which to take for a shorter but more difficult one, or which to take when it's been rainy and which when the weather has been dry. Only in the most remote and least-traveled places was there a single trail to choose from, and sometimes even then there might be more than one choice. I believe the same situation of multiple possible paths existed in the 1800s. Sometimes one traveler describes following a stream while another takes a higher trail over adjoining ridges. Those differences are more notable in populated areas, such as between Cascas and Contumazá. In unpopulated areas, such as between Balsas and Leymebamba, there is much more similarity of experience by the travelers.

Much of the old route can be traced using satellite imagery on Google Maps and Bing Maps. Which one provides the clearest or highest resolution imagery varies by location, but Google makes it easy to copy links to exact views on the maps and provides two additional useful tools.

The first of these tools is 3D view, which not only lets the user see the topography in three dimensions, but also to seriously study it by tipping and panning the view. With 3D view I was better able to coordinate the satellite imagery with the travelers' descriptions. (Their original works have far more detail than I have excerpted in my book.) The other useful tool is Google Street View, which can be used to virtually 'drive' along a road or through the streets of a town. With the exceptions of Molinopampa and Sauce, every town I went to was recorded in Google Street View in 2013 or 2014. (And maybe have been updated again by the time you read this.)

All the principal towns and villages that I visited can be located by doing a simple online search, although it's sometimes necessary to include the name of the department or province. For example, "San Marcos, Peru" will point to the university in Lima while "San Marcos, Cajamarca, Peru" finds the town. Also, when land reform in the 1970s turned haciendas into villages, they usually shortened their names, e.g. from Hacienda Polloc to Polloc.

Finding the old haciendas and tambos can be a challenge as the online maps usually don't go into that level of detail. I found three different sources to locate those smaller places. The first is the website www.deperu.com, which lists thousands of obscure places in Peru with both geographic coordinates and elevation. The coordinates are in decimal format and can be directly plugged into the search bar in Google or Bing maps to find the spot. Unfortunately it's impossible to search on the deperu website itself, but it can be searched by going to Google and typing "place-name, department-name, deperu.com." The second source is the 1972 publication An Ornithological Gazetteer of Peru by Charles Vaurie, available for download from archive.org. The book is a long list of the names and geographic coordinates of hundreds of haciendas, tambos, and other locations visited by ornithologists in the early and mid-1900s. All of the coordinates in the gazetteer and most on the deperu website were measured before modern satellite mapping, so they can be off by up to a kilometer or two.

Finally there is the resource-rich website of the Peruvian Ministerio de Transportes y Comunicaciones (MTC), which has highly detailed pdf format maps of every department, province, and district available for download. As of November 2018, the maps could be found at the following link. If it doesn't work, try searching for "mapa viales perú ministerio de transportes."

Peruvian Ministerio de Transportes y Comunicaciones

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Copyright 2019 Don Moore