Down to the Majes Valley
Last weekend I had fun in a little town called Corire, about 3 hours down towards the coast from Arequipa in the startling green oasis of the Majes Valley. There's a relatively well-known petroglyphs site at a place called Toro Muerto in the desert near Corire,and I had been told it was also possible to see dinosaur footprints not too far from the town. My real motivation for going there, though, was to get out of Arequipa and have a little adventure on my own - away from the endless rounds of drinking, dancing, being stuffed full of the bewildering array of "typical Arequipeño/Peruvian" dishes and warnings to "never come here alone" in just about every place we visit...
I didn't manage to get off my ass and down to the bus station until about 3:00 pm on Saturday, and so after three hours up and down through the rocky desert accompanied by blaring but breezy salsa, merengue, cumbia and Latin baladas, it was dark by the time we got to Corire. A truly charming little town - extending no more than two or three blocks in any direction from the obligatory leafy plaza with a bustling market of fried food stalls and the usual assortment of goods and trinkets; plus a whole extra block devoted to fruit and vegetables. I checked into a hotel, had dinner and went for a stroll, feeling smug about being the one single gringo in the whole place. Until I arrived back at the hotel to find there were a group of ubiquitous Germans talking loudly outside my room...I asked at the reception about how to get to Toro Muerto and before I knew it was hooked up to get taken there the next morning by a guy called Marco Antonio, whose only qualification seemed to be that he was married to the receptionist.
The next morning he woke me up and said he would take me out in return for the cost of the petrol. After I insisted that I needed breakfast we found a comedor, where the options were adobo or adobo (a huge pork chop floating in a soup rich with onions - try digesting that at 8:00 am). We drove out into the desert until Marco Antonio's car refused to go any further, then got out and walked on, while he pointed out the various petroglyphs on the rocks - engraved drawings of llamas, people, geometrical designs and a disproportionate number of snakes. Marco Antonio certainly didn't have any specific guiding qualifications - he was unable to tell me which culture had done the drawings (I've since read they date from about 900 AD) and was in the dark about their significance. We wandered along looking at the drawings, him saying "What do you think this is then? An eagle? No, a condor you reckon? Ok, we'll go with a condor"
I actually preferred this, though, as it seemed a bit more like an exploration. Especially when we saw that a tourist minibus with the Germans pulled up below us and they got out, walked around and looked at a few rocks for 15 minutes, then got back in and drove away. We had climbed quite a long way further up the hill, and the drawings up there were definitely more impressive. We wondered about the petroglyphs - the most likely explanation for their existence is that the valley was on a trading route and people camping there drew them to entertain themselves. On the other hand, they would have involved painstaking engraving with the tools that were available - and when you're travelling a long and arduous route and stop to camp the night, you're exhausted, hardly in the mood to doodle. As Marco Antonio said, "you don't even have the energy to be with a woman" He said that during Lent local people make a pilgrimmage, wandering over the hills and further into the desert, starving themselves for three of four days.
It also seems that just about every part of Peru has its own buried treasure story, and Corire is no exception. According to Marco Antonio, after the Inca emperor Atahualpa was captured by the Spanish in Trujillo, llama caravans travelled through this part of the desert, laden with some of the massive ransom of gold demanded by the conquistadores in return for his release. A llama can only bear so much weight, and some of them were too heavily burdened and collapsed and died en route. Since loading their cargo onto the other llamas would have only compounded the problem, the Incan minions had to bury the gold there in the desert. A while back, a farmer whose land borders Toro Muerto supposedly uncovered a chest of gold accidentally while ploughing. Now he is said to enjoy unparalleled wealth, with a house in Miami and a new tractor every year.
Some people apparently believe enough in the veracity of this story to make regular nocturnal expeditions to dig up parts of the desert, trying to find the missing treasure. It's probable that some of them are the same "huaqueros" or "grave-robbers" who had been dynamiting the rocks and stealing individual petroglyphs to sell to foreigners. The petroglyph rocks have now been individually numbered to discourage this.
On the way back I took several photos from a hill of the striking contrast between the desolate, dusty desert and the striking green of the cultivated valley, which looked a bit like Holland turned subtropical. Earthen irrigation ditches bring water from the river and directly down from the mountains, and all kinds of crops are grown - including rice in the summer and wheat in the winter. By now I had run out of money, having underestimated what I would get charged for the petrol and stupidly imagining that there might be an ATM in Corire. I had to retain enough for my bus fare back to Arequipa and the taxi from the terminal, so I was going to have to miss out on going to see the dinosaur footprints. I had been told that it was possible to get to the dinosaur footprints by local microbus and walking, but Marco Antonio said I wouldn't have time, and I was inclined to believe him..
For lunch Marco Antonio took me to eat camarones at his sister-in-law's restaurant by the river and tried to marry me to the pretty waitress called Julie who sat with us outside the rustic wooden palings/dirt floor comedor while I scoffed the huge plate of camarones and we shared a (gratis) pitcher of sweet red wine. Excerpts from the conversation went something like this:
Marco Antonio: "Simón speaks good Spanish, doesn't he?"
Julie: "Yes, and he's also bien guapo"
Simon (blushes a little)
Marco Antonion: "What do you like about Simón?"
Julie: "His eyes...and his eyebrows" (for some reason, Latin girls seem to have a thing for my eyebrows...)
Simon (shifts uncomfortably)
Later, and in the context of talking about travelling...
Julie: "If I ever become rich, and have the chance to travel, the place I'd most like to visit is India"
Marco Antonio: "But you're already rica (when referring to a person, this effectively translates as "a babe"). Simón, don't you think that Julie's rica?"
Simon: "Yes, she's already rica" (Well, she was...)
As he drove me back to the hotel, Marco Antonio reminded me again that Julie was single. I made my promises to come back in a couple of weeks so I could get taken to see the dinosaur footprints, the valley of the volcanoes, the wine and pisco growing areas, to swim in the river, marry Julie, etc. etc.
I hopped on the Arequipa-bound bus, keen to sit back with a beer and watch Brazil play Chile, and we climbed up again through the desert to the pumping sound of more salsa and Latin ballads, until the familiar mountainous tryptych with Chachani at its centre appeared round a canyon bend and I knew we were almost home.