Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Adventure in Andagua Day Four: The Real Death Road

Chachas had the feeling of being closer to civilization than the villages on the other side of the mountains. It's on the mining road, and there's a once daily kombi to Andagua, from where the road connects eventually to the Panamericana and to Arequipa.

We stayed in a spacious attic with about ten beds, sharing the room with the two (noisy) little boys of the host family, and ate downstairs in the comedor. Around the table were men who looked as if they had just come in from the fields, probably because they had. Where were we from, one asked. When I said "New Zealand" he nodded sagely and said (as do about 95% of Peruvians when I say where I'm from) "Ah, a lot of cattle, no?" (the actual word is ganaderia, which means any grazing animal). Not a lot of people here have any idea where New Zealand is, but the majority are aware that it has good pasture.

I concurred - my standard response is "yes, it rains a lot, so the animals get to eat pure grass" (In Arequipa, the cows and sheep make do with alfalfa grown on the irrigated terraces). This guy, however, knew a little more. "You know, when the Majes irrigation project got under way, they used bull semen from New Zealand to breed the cows there" he told me. As it happened, I had read something about this in an online NZ farming publication I had come across by accident a couple of weeks ago, so knew what he was talking about. But I was still quite impressed.

I was almost too tired to sleep properly, in addition to being bothered by the sunburn, insect bites and dust-caked respiratory passages. But it was heaven to at least be in a bed. There's something I learnt on this trip - I'm a confirmed camping wimp. Between a slight claustrophobia, inability to sleep on my back, and a preference for two good pillows, I *really* don't like tents. And I'm not much at pitching them, cooking over a campfire or shitting in the wilderness either. So, I'd really rather walk an extra few hours and arrive at a nice little village where I can sleep in a bed. There - I've admitted it.

Next morning we left the exhausted burro in Chachas and set off to walk the five hours to Andagua. Toño had promised it would be "pure highway" all the way, but in the end we spent just as much time cutting across country and scrambling up and down banks. There's "only" a 400-500 metre gain in altitude from Chachas to Andagua, and the five hours march wasn't much compared to previous days. But, donkeyless, we were walking with fully loaded packs, and it was still pretty tough going.

We were now in the Valley of Volcanoes, a geothermal wonder containing about thirty separate volcanoes. The road wound between old lava flows, twisted mounds of porous rock like chewed-up toffee. The volcanoes themselves were hardly more than little conical hillocks in the desert, about thirty metres high. During one of our cross-country shortcuts Toño pointed out a thin line of bare earth about ten centimetres wide cutting a straight path through the sparse vegetation. It has been there for years, he said. It was certainly not a path for people or animals, as it disappeared into a heap of volcanic rock. So, something of a minor mystery.

Andagua, when we eventually arrived, was a strange little town. Toño commented that it was "poor, sad". The surrounding terrain is rough and infertile, and the atmosphere was different from the simple but verdant villages we had passed through on our travels. The most striking feature were the hedges in the small central plaza which had been clipped, Edward Scissorhands fashion,into the shapes of people and animals.

After lunch in a local comedor we said goodbye to Toño who had to return to Chachas, pick up the burro, then head all the way back to Cabanaconde. He had another three days ahead of him.

For us, it was a somnolent afternoon waiting six hours for the bus to arrive from Arequipa. I chatted to some guys in a 4WD who said they had taken three days to come from Arequipa. Their mission was to work their way through the little villages in back-country Arequipa and establish property titles for people who, by common consensus, owned their dwelling but didn't have an official title to it in Peru's property registers. They were doing urban areas while another team was working on rural properties. I said it sounded like difficult but rewarding work - in the liberal world view having formal title to one's property ought to inspire economic confidence and investment. They agreed, and said that the project was actually being sponsored by the World Bank.

The streets were nearly deserted for most of the afternoon, and it was only when the bus was about to arrive that the village girls appeared with their cheeses, for which I later learned Andagua is well-known. But I had run out of money by this point and wasn't able to sample them.

Though it had been a hard four day's walk, I reckon the most gruelling part of the whole journey was the return trip in the bus. It's 10 hours from Andagua-Arequipa, and I knew the road would be rough. It was - passengers being tossed up and down like rag dolls as we crossed the bumpier bits. This is true torture when it's night and you're dead tired but can't sleep.

I wasn't quite prepared for how steep and narrow it would be, though. It was already dark as we headed out of Andagua and I couldn't see a thing. But couldn't help noticing the bus repeatedly stopping, reversing and then heading downhill again. It was clearly negotiating some pretty tight hairpins...I pulled back the curtain and out the window could see the lights of a small town far below. Between the lights and the bus window was...empty space. I closed the curtain and hoped for the best; it's probably the first time I've felt genuinely scared in public transport.

It was a great relief to arrive at the bottom of the descent and a charming little town of stone streets where we had a break. It was still a way to go on the rough trocha before we joined the tarseal at Aplao, and I never really looked like sleeping, having time to chat to a public health nurse who sat in the seat next to me for a stretch.

On arrival in Arequipa at an exhausted 3:30 in the morning I made my pledge - no more Andes! But maybe it's what hurts and exhaust you this most that is, in the end, the most memorable.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Adventure in Andagua cont...

Day Three - Murder of the Lungs

The zip on the tent was broken, meaning we couldn't close the door, and passed a pretty cold night. I think Toño, who slept outside by the remains of the fire under the donkey's saddle blankets, might have been more comfortable than the tourists.

In the morning condors were circling around the valley with their distinctive silent glide; once you've seen a condor on the wing you can generally pick them from other large birds at a distance. We packed up camp and headed uphill. It was always going to be a challenge climbing to 5200 metres after two hard days, and I was already gasping for oxygen a little as we started off. On the way uphill we chewed a lot of coca. I'm not really sure whether it helps, or whether having a wad of leaves stuffed in your cheek restricts the oxygen supply even more. On balance, I think it is beneficial.

The valley narrowed and we were climbing between mineral-rich mountains painted in copper and sulfur-yellow. There is apparently a gold mine high up in those hills, served by an improbably high and winding road. The other two reached a ridge a little ahead of me and ditched backpacks for a rest stop; immediately Toño leapt off the path and raced down towards a little pool in a hollow to the right. I reached the ridge and saw why. More condors than I could count - probably fifteen or sixteen - were gliding and swooping down toward the pool and taking off again. It was an incredible sight - though I was too far away to take photographs, and didn't have the energy to follow Toño down to the pool. When he come back he said that there was a dead cow by the pool - the condors had found themselves a feast.

On our next rest stop even Toño was looking tired, and the donkey was noticeably struggling. Toño had to offer it words of encouragement to keep it moving ("Donkey! What the fuck's wrong with you, you piece of shit?!") plus the odd healthy blow on the backside. We were amongst clumps of yareta, alien-looking bright green moss that grows here on stones at altitudes above about 4500 metres. I had become so used to walking endlessly on this trip that I imagined we were still some way from the summit. It was quite a surprise when, at the next ridge we reached, there appeared the magnificent vista of the twin snow-capped volcanoes, Coropuna and Solimana, raising their heads above the horizon.

We had reached the summit of the pass earlier than expected, and Toño said this meant we could continue all the way downhill to the village of Chachas if we wanted. The plan had been to camp in a natural stone shelter a few hundred metres below the pass, where local people shelter their llamas and alpacas. Instead we had lunch there; on seeing it I didn't fancy spending another night in a broken tent at this altitude, and was keen to keep going to Chachas and the promise of a bed.

We headed uphill again for a while, following and crossing the mining road. High in a desolate part of the puna we came upon a cluster of straw-roofed huts opposite a small stream. In the stream, a woman with a small child was washing what looked like large cuts of meat, and intestines. She called us over and told us she was salvaging parts of two of her llamas, which had been attacked and killed by a puma. Could we please take a message to her sister in the village of Nahuira, on the way to Chachas, and let her know what had happened?

I had previously asked Toño if there were pumas in this part of the sierra, and he had shaken his head definitively. Upon hearing the woman's story he stil looked sceptical. "It will have been a fox that did this, no?" he asked. The woman laughed and pointed at the remains of her llamas - a fox had done that? (The llama is not a weakling - in the western U.S., farmers sometimes include a couple of llamas in their flocks of sheep to help fend off coyotes). Later in Arequipa, Hugo told me that there were indeed pumas in the mountains - but "a sub-species of puma, which is not as big", he said. Nevertheless, whatever had taken apart the llamas was of reasonable size.

From there, a direct path dropped what must have been a good 1200-1500 metres to Nahuira, many tines cutting across the serpentines of the mining road. Once again we traversed climate and vegetation zones, the tussocky paja brava of the puna eventually giving way to cactus and wildflowers and, far below, green agricultural terraces once more, at the foot of a hill beside a small lagoon. It was a long, weary trudge downhill on a path covered in fine dust which, stirred up, infiltrated and caked the nostrils and sinuses. Toño's insults of the donkey grew more vehement and frequent, indicating that it was really struggling.

Finally arriving in Nahuira, Toño went to try and deliver the message to the llama woman's sister (the owner of the llamas), and then we followed the road another 30 minutes to Chachas. After another nine and a half hours on our feet, it was a desperately weary group of persons and animal who gratefully accepted dinner and a night's lodging in Chachas' only inn.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Adventure in Andagua cont....

Day Two: Murder of the Legs

During the night in Choco, mosquitos (finding a niche in the microclimate by the river) feasted on my exposed parts while a rooster bellowed continually from about 1am. It wasn't the best night's sleep, but was nice to be in a bed.

The next morning we left the village behind and headed upstream, following the Choco river. I should explain that the previous day we had turned at right angles to the Colca river and headed north. The Choco is a tributary of the Colca, and has its very own narrow, steep, canyon. As the maize and alfalfa terraces of Choco faded off, the vegetation reverted to brush and cactus. It was a gentle climb over uneven terrain, crossing and re-crossing the river. There was a cool breeze blowing down the canyon and it was a relief to know that water was always close; several times I stopped and refilled my bottle from the stream.

It was over three hours up the canyon before we left the river and swung uphill. If Choco was like a Biblical paradise after nine hours dusty walk, Miña was straight out of fantasy literature. Nestled up against ever-steeper mountains, the collection of straw-roofs was preceded by a broad green swathe of cornfields and grazing cows. A long, winding path of loose rocks framed by tidy stone walls led uphill towards the village. It could easily have been the Shire (albeit mountainous) in Lord of the Rings, or any enchanted village from medieval fantasy.

On the way up the canyon we stopped for a break when we met a Choco native coming back downriver with his mule, and he and Toño spent a while discussing the relative merits of their respective animals. Later we passed a harassed-looking young guy coming the other way; Toño asked him whether he was from Miña or Choco. "No, man, I'm from Lima!" he replied. Turned out he had been up in Miña repairing the town's satellite phone. That's a long way for a maintenance man to go.

For people who had created and maintained the gravity-defying terraces which ascend the hills in sinuous green ribbons, I thought the inhabitants of Miña might have given the path up to the village a somewhat friendlier surface. Back in Arequipa, Mickey Zarate told me that the whole route up form Choco to Miña used to be much prettier; the lower part of the valley was covered with fruit trees, and apples and oranges "fell on your head". A few years ago, says Mickey, a massive huayco devastated the entire catchment; people were killed in Choco, and the fruit trees along the upper Choco river were wiped out. I guess the current path has been put back together from the rubble that must have covered the mountainside.

We followed a stream to a property perched above the village with panoramic views back down the valley, and ate lunch there. The owner, a small and cheerful man, was drying cheeses in the sun and gave Toño a cup of fresh milk.

Miña is about 3300 metres, and we still had to cross a pass at 4200 metres to reach our camping spot. Toño pointed out the bluff high on the slopes above us that we would have to round before the end of the afternoon. The previous day was I think the first time I've ever walked nine hours straight, and today we would travel a vertical 1900 metres from Choco, which I think very few people manage ever (by comparison, the final ascents of Chachani and Misti were 1200 and 1300 metres respectively).

We climbed up out of the corn-growing belt and into high-altitude desert of cactus, brush and wildflowers. I spotted a hummingbird feeding from a cactus flower. As we gained altitude a panorama spread out beneath us; the peaks of Ampato, Sabancaya and Hualca Hualca rose over the horizon, below them could be seen the great rift which is the Colca Canyon on its westward course to the sea, while perched at the foot of Ampato were tiny dots glinting in the sun - the village of Cabanaconde which we had left two days previously.

Nineteen hundred metres of vertical ascent is a killer for legs which have walked nine hours on the previous day, and as we neared the top of the pass the altitude was starting to have an impact on the oxygen supply. My calves were beginning to shake, but we eventually arrived at the top and the familiar cairns of medium-sized stone which always mark high points here. It is believed that one's sorrows and worries are left behind in these stones that are piled on mountaintops.

We dropped into a narrow, shallow valley at whose head Toño pointed out the 5200-metre pass we would have to cross the next day. There were still snowdrifts scattered beneath the rocky peaks. As we descended to our campsite - a flat area next to a stream sheltered by low walls of loose stones - we spotted groups of deer dashing up the hillsides. It was 6:30 in the evening and getting dark - we had walked another 9 1/2 hours. In the fading light we saw large, eagle-like birds circling the hills - called huachera said Toño.

We ate by a small cooking fire and Toño told me that he had served in anti-terrorist unit of the army in Ayacucho during the struggle against the Sendero Luminoso. Had he been scared, I asked. He shrugged - "we had to go where they sent us; we didn't have any choice in the matter" he said. But had he seen actual combat, I wanted to know. Oh yes, he said, there was "all kind of slaughter". He laughed - "they had compact Russian weapons with a range of 1500 metres. We had rifles like this (pretending to cradle a large and unwieldy weapon), accurate over about 500 metres".

In the dark I saw large flashes behind the mountains to the north - bolts of lightning in a clear sky? Yes, said Toño, we were seeing storms in the jungle far to the northeast beyond Cuzco.