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.

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