Monday, December 04, 2006

Adventure in Andagua....

OK. I'm trekked out. Done with adventuring. Through with the Andes. In addition to the cracked lips, burnt skin, dust-ravaged sinuses, mosquito bites and blisters, I'm suffering from advanced desert-mountain-canyon fatigue. I think my next trip will be to Peru's north coast. I want seafood and cold beer, soft, humid air, palm trees swaying in the moonlight, modern vehicles roaring along long, straight highways. If I want to get in shape I'm going to the gym. If I've a hankering for spectacular landscape I'll take a scenic train trip or something.

Which is not to say that the Cabanaconde-Andagua trek was not a mind-blowing, unforgettable experience. It flirted with my physical limits, and took me across an entire piece of geography, from subtropical valley, canyon riverbed and terraced hillside to high-altitude desert, mountain basin, mineral-rich peaks and high passes, eventually arriving in an arid valley full of exctinct volcanoes. We visited improbably remote villages and stumbled across a rich variety of plant, animal and bird life without even looking for it. This trek should be mouth-watering for the botanist, anthropologist, historian, geologist, volcanologist and bird-watcher. Forget the Inca Trail - this ought to be one of Peru's, and perhaps the world's, great walks.

You know those movies where are our fugitive or stranded heroes have to walk out of the wilderness to safety/civilisation? We see them marching along looking determined, taking a break by a mountain stream, then cut to a high pass where they're trudging through snow drifts with exhausted looks on their faces, only to arrive at the glorious vista of a fertile valley below. Well, this trek was like that, only without the cinematic cuts.

There's a lot to tell, so I'm going to serialize it more or less in chronological order.

Day One - Murder of the Feet:
After the mandatory sleepless overnight bus ride from Arequipa, we enjoyed Karina's famous banana pancakes at the Valle de Fuego hostel in Cabanaconde and met the guide and donkey acquired for us by Lizbeth's father. From Cabanaconde it's a good 9 hours walk to the village of Choco - and there's no half measures, since there's literally no water on the way. Our guide Toño, a native of Cabanaconde, estimated that it's a distance of 35km. While he sometimes varied and corrected himself on his altitude estimates, his facts and figures were generally trustworthy, and I'll give him this one. Which makes it almost the entire Inca Trail in one day.

After passing through the deceptive green of the irrigated agricultural terraces around Cabanaconde we headed south-west, following the course of a road that's being built to (theoretically) link Cabanaconde with Choco. We cut across the many serpentines of the road, plodding downhill as the vegetation disappeared and the sun beat down with unrelenting fury. The track was through and across scree of shattered rock; this is the hardest surface of all to go downhill on, and only sand is harder uphill. After the first three hours my feet were already burning inside my boots.

By the time we reached the "corte" or where the road ends in a heap of shattered rock above the Colca river the landscape was resembling, if not quite the infierno, then definitely the Land of Nod to the East of Eden. Cecilia is fond of describing her work as "the rockpile", in an oblique reference to the myth of Sisyphus (or is it Prometheus? tell me someone??). You could hardly find a workplace where this more closely approximates a literal description than the tail end of the in-progress Cabanconde-Choco road. Down towards the river, the whole hillside is a rockpile of sharp, chunky scree. The workers are engaged in clearing a path wide enough for a vehicle through this rubble and piling up the rocks to form retaining walls which will theoretically prevent the road from being re-devoured by the mountainside.

Given the penchant of the Andes to unleash huaycos, or large landslides which obliterate everything in their path, and the notoriously uncertain nature of publicly-funded projects in Peru, there's more than a suggestion of the Sisyphean about the rock-piling process. But given that their only company was clouds of choking dust, the road workers we passed seemed inordinately cheerful. "Going to Andagua?" they called, guessing correctly the destination of the two gringos with guide and donkey. We nodded. "Looong way" they laughed. Well, at least they have a job.

I suspect there's also something of a pipe dream about the road. Leaving the corte and heading along the trail towards Choco, I couldn't see where a road could possibly go. Later in Arequipa, several people who knew the area smiled sadly and shared my assessment. We worked our away across a blasted heap of scree to join an excruciatingly narrow trail clinging to the canyon wall above the river, passing a small cross and memorial to two local children who had tragically tumbled off the edge.

Below, on the other side of the river appeared a small, startlingly green oasis of alfalfa plots and fruit trees. To me, with a dry throat relieved only occasionally by my rationed water, it seemed impossibly beautiful; I wanted to fly over there and bury my head in the cool green. In a landscape of such harsh contrast and drama, it's impossible not to think in mythic or Biblical terms, of Gardens, Promised Lands and Wildernesses. Good-fertile, Evil-arid makes perfect sense to a dehydrated brain.

Adding flashes of colour to the cliffs along the trail were huanarpo, small bushes of deadwood-seeming branches terminating in bright scarlet flowers. Apparently tea made from its bark is a powerful aphrodisiac - or so I interpret from Toño's comment that "men shouldn't take too much of it - it makes them very excited"

Another hour and the trail finally dropped to the river and the swing bridge to the other side. This stretch of the canyon is not the deepest - there's not the towering 5,600-metre peaks which face Cabanaconde - but it is one of the steepest. By the bridge, however, there was a cleft with a more gradual gradient and natural irrigation from above. In a wash of green, tuna cactuses, apple trees and palms tumbled down the canyon wall to the river. Toño said he had some land in these parts where he cultivated maize and fruits. Apart from guiding, which he does whenever he can, he's a "professional agriculturalist" At the age of 37 he has his work cut out supporting his six kids - one of whom is now studying systems engineering at an institute in Arequipa.

We crossed the bridge and relaxed for ten glorious minutes in the scant half-shade under the rocks. Toño pointed out a waterfall high up on the canyon side. There, about six hours scrambling climb up from his plots of land, is a pool where condors gather to bathe in the evening.

From the river it was another three hours up and along the pathway etched into the hillside, begging for the sun to drop behind the mountains.

Choco sounds like the Quechua equivalent of Grimsby, but its name doesn't do it justice - after a nine-hour march it seemed like a lost paradise. Tidy terraces following the curves of the opposite hill were the first signs of civilization. Then another curve brought us into a dramatically green valley, hemmed in by improbably steep mountains - think Ash and Anjuli's lost valley in The Far Pavilions. The path ascended through terraces of eagerly sprouting maize, overflowing with fruit trees. At 2,300 metres, Choco has a balmy microclimate, and seems to be blessed with very fertile soil. Here they cultivate avocados, figs, chirimoya, guayaba, apples, peaches, even mangoes!

The promise of unlimited fresh water dragged me up the final twisting path to the village of Choco itself, strategically elevated on a knoll above the river. For an isolated village (contact with the outside world requires the 4-5 hour walk to the corte to catch the kombi to Cabanaconde), it's surprisingly urbane and self-sufficient. They have their own electricity supply, generated by a water-driven turbine upstream and powering the village's streetlights. They also have a small trout farm. There was pure, running water from the tap and an outside toilet in a corral shared with a large white mule. As we crashed in a tidy little room of the village hospedaje the owner practiced the saxophone while his family watched videos next door.

No comments: