Thursday, June 04, 2009

New Inca Trails

If I had got up at 5:00 instead of 6:00 as Gelmond had wanted, we would have had time for breakfast. If we'd had time for breakfast, we would have had something more than three oranges each to sustain ourselves. As it was, when we finally got going on the walk shortly before 6:30, we had to hurry, lest the clouds puffing off the moutainside obscure the views of the snowy peaks and the heat of the day catch up with us in the middle of the trek. To be fair, I hadn't yet figured out that Gelmond's time estimates for "there and back" were more accurate if taken as referring to the outward journey only, so was less worried than I should have been about the lack of breakfast. But once again, the discomfort that intruded on an interesting and spectacular trip was mostly my own fault.

After arriving at Hugo's Lodge, I had been introduced to the local team. Walter, from the village of Ichupampa in the Colca valley, who I already knew from when he worked as a domestic employee at Hugo and Lizbeth's place, was working as a cook. Aquilino, a local guy of indeterminate age but with wiry strength, cleaned, laboured, and helped in the kitchen. Gelmond was Hugo and Lizbeth's favoured guide for their Sudamerica Tour trips. A twenty-eight year old native of Arequipa, he had become a minor expert in architecture, iconography, prehispanic history, Peruvian geography, and cooking. His enthusiasm for guiding had earned him a personal mention in the latest Footprints guide to Peru. He almost never stopped talking.

A week previously, Gelmond had gone with Jaime, a compadre of Hugo who owned the land further up the hill (beyond Hugo's property of five or six hectares, the terrain is communal, until Jaime's land begins above an irrigration canal). Jaime made only occasional visits to his terrain, and most often ascended directly from Santa Teresa. They had taken a mule and worked their way up to the little house inhabited by Santiago, Jaime's caretaker. On the way down they had passed a pretty waterfall and a cave where they found some fragments of ceramic of indeterminate age. Gelmond thought the route would be an attractive one for tourists, given the views, the variety of flora and fauna, and the fact that the pathways were effectively Inca trails. I was keen to do some trekking, so we agreed that the two of us would undertake further reconnaissance.

The first stretch of the trek was on a broad, comfortable path along the side of a quebrada that cut into the mountainside at right angles to the rio Urubamba. We were under shade for most of the way, and the only discomfort came from the rapid pace set by Gelmond. Less than twenty minutes uphill from the lodge, there were striking views of the peak of Nevado Salkantay, its snows reflecting the ealry morning sun.

After a bit less than an hour we arrived at an irrigation canal that was being developed by the local campesinos. From there, the way got steeper, and was complicated by the fact that Gelmond couldn't find the path he had taken with Jaime the previous week. He had marked the entrance as being ten steps from the end of the canal, but in the following week the canal had been extended significantly. So it was that instead of working our way up the zig-zag pathway that we eventually found on our way down, we ended up scrambling across the mountainside through thick grass, thorns tearing at our clothes and skin.

Half an hour or so of this and we eventually came to a flatter, clearer stretch by a grove of avocado trees where the path reappeared. There were further spectacular views of Salkantay and back down the valley, until we were immerse in tangled bush. Here, as we were to later repeat to numerous travel agencies in Cuzco, orchids "grew like weeds". It wasn't really the season for orchids, and most were dry or without flowers, but at the right time this would clearly be a paradise for botanists and flower lovers.

After working our way through the bush for around half an hour, we climbed a short rise to find a tidily cultivated plot of vegetables leading up to a tiny shack of wooden stakes with a roof of thick straw, rather giving lie to Gelmond's promise of a casa at the end of our climb. We negotiated geese, hens, and a rather snappy, nervous dog, before the stooped figure of Santiago appeared around the side of the shack.

On the way up, Gelmond had told me Santiago's story. Santiago was one child of a campesino family of six or seven. In the past, it was common for parents to send the elder children out to work as peones for a landowner, which would then support the youngest one or two to progress with their schooling. Santiago had worked on the land for the same family for twenty-five years. But when the owner died, his children decided that they didn't need Santiago any more, and threw him out.

Jaime said he had found Santiago amid some fields near Santa Teresa, weeping. He had been sleeping in a cave, surviving on the moisture that dripped from the roof. Jaime took pity on him and said he could come and live on his property. Gelmond said he only paid him a few soles a month, but brought him substantial provisions including flour, sugar, rice, coffee and cigarettes, which amounted to quite a bit of money.

As we approached the shack, Gelmond said: "now comes the difficult part -- I have to try to speak Quechua". Santiago spoke almost no Spanish, and was also rather hard of hearing. In fact, Gelmond's Quechua amounted to a few phrases, and Santiago seemed to be nearly deaf, so comunication was mostly limited to smiles and hand waving.

After we said hi to Santiago, we dropped down into a little dip with a stream where we collected water and ate some carrots that were growing alongside the brook. By the time we got back, Santiago had prepared us coffee, which we drank sitting on a little bench inside the shack, watching a multitude of little cuys ferreting in the straw under Santiago's bed. The surroundings were definitely rustic, but the obligatory radio broadcasted the familiar plaintive strains of a huayno from Ayacucho, picking up its signal from a station in Santa Teresa.

We then carried down through thick bush along a barely-existent trail for about twenty minutes to the waterfall. A little beyond that was the cave. Gelmond explained that the lining of the interior with sand was another sign, along with the ceramics, that it had been used for shelter at some stage. We hid most of the ceramic in a discreet spot, and took one rounded fragment for testing by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Cuzco or Arequipa.

As we struggled back up through the tangled vegetation, I commented that it was a bit like being in Indiana Jones, and we both lamented the terrible job the most recent film had made of its supposed setting in Peru. "I wanted to write a letter of complaint to the production company", said Gelmond.

According to Gelmond, I was probably the first foreigner to walk the route, after himself, as a representative of the "Independent Republic of Arequipa". With my somewhat clumsy gait that led to a couple of slips, and my complaints about being hungry and thirsty, I didn't think I made much of a pioneer. But it wasn't an entirely unreasonable supposition that I was the first gringo to pass that way: despite the proximity to Machu Picchu, some of the places and geographical features of the region don't even appear on Google Maps.

Gelmond's explained his theory that the true home of the Incas, as well as the major cultures before them, had really been the ceja de selva, the fertile fringe between the sierra and jungle that we were in. That explained why so much of the iconography and religious traditions of these cultures were based on warm-climate animals and plants. So why, I asked, had their centres of power all been based in the sierra (Chavin de Huantar near Huaraz, Wari/Tihuanaco in Ayacucho/western Boliva, and the Incas in Cuzco)? Gelmond reasoned that these were strategic sites for dominating the surrounding area, and allowed the preservation of foods that would quickly go off in the warmer lowlands.

We walked back the way we had come. The previous week, Jaime and Gelmond had continued around the mountainside and dropped down directly to Santa Teresa, but this was an extremely steep route, and Gelmond said that for all his trekking experience, he had nearly fallen four times. They had left the mule in a forest grove, as the descent was not safe for it. Given that I was now being overcome with low blood-sugar clumsiness, retracing our steps was definitely the prudent option.

Following the path on the way down, we discovered the gentle zig-zag through the long grass that we had scrambled up a couple of hours earlier. The trail was marked by mule droppings, indicating where Gelmond and Jaime had ascended the week previously. When we finally came in sight of Hugo's Lodge, lunch was about to be served, and we set ourselves on it like famished men. We had taken about six hours. It was a fascinating and spectacular walk -- but the last time I'll knowingly set out without breakfast.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Fascinating post Simon. Keep us up to date about the testing of the ceramic fragments. What a feeling to be the first gringo to walk that way.