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.

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