Andrew with local woman and llamas
For my first day in the mountains I decided to acclimate gradually to the altitude and do a trip to the town of Chavin with the famous ancient ruins there. The owner of Caroline's Lodging, Teo, took me to the bus and I started along the route with another 30 Peruvians and a Spanish-speaking guide. She talked about the area, the mountains, the history, the geographic details and some general information and I understood much of it, even though it takes some straining to catch everything. Peruvians speak somewhat quickly and their Spanish is on the front of their mouths, as if they are lisping when they talk. It takes some getting used to but I compare it to learning to drive on a stick shift, because after that everything else is easy.
Later in the day I was talking to a couple from Spain and I was amazed at how clearly and easily I understood them! They agreed in my assessment of Peruvian and Latin American Spanish in general. So if I can get along here I feel as though traveling and speaking and understanding in Spain will be a breeze.
Our route lasted 3 hours. On the first part going south of Huaraz
we followed the Rio Santa that eventually runs into the Pacific ocean, creating a deep valley until it nears the coast. From here we saw some ruins of the Recauy people that came later than the Chavin culture and had many settlements in this area. There were workers excavating and doing archeological work on them so there is still much to discover.
Village life unfolded on either side of the route until we reached a broad plain with spectacular views of snowcapped peaks to the north. In the valley we had a 360 degree view of the cordillera, the blanca to the north and the negra to the south. In the valley we saw grazing sheep and donkeys, riders on horseback, and in the distance, a clear line demarcating where the tectonic plates collide, an amazing, if a bit terrifying sight. Earthquakes are a reality here and the most recent was also the worst in their history. In 1970, an earthquake precipitated a massive mudslide from Mt. Huascaran that completely buried the town of Yungay, just north of Huaraz, in a matter of minutes. Only a handful of children survived who were playing in some higher ground outside of town.
Christ of the Andes
I think close to 20,000 people died and the town was totally buried, except for 4 solitary palm trees. Other towns and cities in the region were damaged and the region is still recovering from the shock. We saw a video on the way back that showed in graphic detail the aftermath. I thought it was a bit too much especially as their were quite a few kids on the bus.
Passing east out of the valley through a narrow pass brought us to a small laguna with a postcard peak in the background. Some local women had taken advantage of the location by bringing their llamas and alpacas as a photo op for the tourists. Who could resist? I had to have mine taken too. Some of us got some mate de coca for altitude or coffee and a bathroom break, and others walked down to the lake where there was a boat that I’m sure offered a ride on the small lake.
Christ of the Andes
There was much more road to cover and the guide insisted on only a 15 minute break. She asked me if I understood everything she was saying and I said most of it. Then in English she told me we had only 15 minutes. I responded that I understood it the first 10 times she told the group in Spanish! So we were on our way, traveling over switchbacks going higher and higher until we passed through the tunnel leading us over a pass and onto the second part of the route. We started to descend to the view of a magnificent statue of Christ erected in 1901 by Italian Franciscan missionaries and known as the Christ of the Andes. In many points on the route we slowed to bypass potholes and rockslides that partially covered the road.
Patchwork fields in the valley
The views down the mountain were either exhilarating or terrifying, depending on how you look at it. One wrong move and there is no recovery, as is evidenced by the crosses marking accidents. It’s a very sobering sight. But there is no other way, and you have to trust the driver’s skill and experience and hope he is not too much of a daredevil.
Further on, as we neared Chavin, we turned north again along another river valley and began to see little hamlets and campesinos working the fields of quinoa, grain, tubers, corn and other crops. I couldn’t imagine how they tilled and planted and harvested on the steep mountain flanks but they must have a highly-evolved system. I saw that in the irrigation systems that channel water from the river to their lower-lying crops, or from mountain streams using gravity and pipes and trenches.
Chavin de Huantar site
Chavin itself is a tranquil little town and the archeological site lies right near it. The guide opted to delay lunch because it’s better to see the site with fewer tourist groups and eat later. So we proceeded right in. Our guide stopped at the model to give an overview of what we were going to see and then we went to the main plaza. She was very thorough and the tour lasted a couple hours. We saw the outside of the complex and then went down into the galleries. The Chavin were active in the coast and mountains of Peru from 900 to 200 B.C. and they conquered not through military might but through culture and arts. Later they were conquered by the warlike Moche and their civilization ended. In the earlier period they were quite advanced, as advanced as the Egyptians in many areas, and possibly even more in their civil engineering.
They also practiced astronomy and built their city on the number 7. The plaza is 49 square meters, many steps are 7 or 14 in number, and the mystical number 7 for the Chavins figures all throughout their complex. The old and new temple is a complex of 7 levels of galleries, the lowest being the earliest. There is a clear demarcation in the levels because lower down the stones are rough and uncut whereas in the upper levels they are flat and exhibit intricate carving. The bas-relief carving of anthropomorphic forms that is highly stylized reminds me very much of some art deco carvings, especially in the Omni hotel in Cincinnati. In the center of the complex is the numismatic Lanzon, a 4 meter high carved stone that was the deity of the Chavins.
Model of site
Only the priests could access these chambers. It was believed that the Lanzon stood in the center of the world and was the most important spot in the Chavin culture. Another interesting aspect of the temple are the “cabezos claves” or head keystones. These were inserted into holes in the temple walls and the heads represent jaguars, pumas, and other animals. Most are exhibited in the small museum next to the complex.
Whether I was just starving or it was truly just delicious, the semilla soup I had as a starter was excellent and I wolfed it down. It was semilla with broth and milk and flavored by vegetables and a piece of beef. One of the best soups I’ve eaten in Peru (or anywhere for that matter).
As an entrée I had the aji de pollo which was pieces of chicken and potatoes in a mild chili sauce with rice. That was very good too. I lingered in the streets waiting for the others to finish and enjoyed the quiet late afternoon atmosphere. Kids were playing in the street and parents lazily watching from doorways. Women were knitting and men talking and relaxing. I felt that if I had to do anything differently, it would be to stay in the town for a night. It was so very peaceful.
On the way back I saw the villagers on the road leading pigs, donkeys, llamas, and horses. There were young girls laughing, women doing laundry down by the river, easily spotted from higher up on the road by their brightly colored clothes.
Men were coming in from the fields, or sitting on doorsteps just contentedly observing the late afternoon unfold. I had the impression that they could easily have been there for hours, and could remain there until their wives called them in for dinner. I was in a philosophical mood and began to sink into the calm rhythm that was all around me. The bus was quiet as many fell into a nap, jolted awake when the bus slowed or swerved, only to fall back asleep. I thought about what a contradiction this way of life is to the normal American hectic pace with all its stress and pressure. What a healing tonic it would be to spend some time with these people and just let things go and live as they do. There is wisdom in their way of life and though they may be monetarily poor, I feel that they are rich in other ways.
You can read it in their faces, their gentle smiles and openness and kindness. It was deeply relaxing and very beautiful. The late afternoon sun cast that special glow on the flanks of the opposite mountains and their immensity made me interiorly thank God for his beautiful creation. I felt humbled to be such a small speck in all the grandeur of the scenery all around me.
The night fell and by the time we arrived in Huaraz it was cold and my body was aching from the long day. It was good to get a hot mug of mate de coca and relax, take a hot shower (well, ok, not so hot, rather tepid actually) and go to bed. I asked for another blanket which my hosts, Anita and Teo, generously gave me. I didn’t sleep well due to being overtired and also due to the altitude but I think I’m starting to acclimate.
It was a wonderful day.