Peru 2: East into the Andes!

To the Weazel and Doctor Ann the elegant colonial town of Trujillo seemed a veritable oasis, but the coming of dawn revealed a blanket of cold fog that reminded us we were still in the wretched coastal desert of Peru. It was time to head east into the Andes!

It is difficult for Gringos other than those who live in California to comprehend a nearly vertical landscape that dives directly into the sea, but so it is in Peru. There is little if any coastal plain along the Pacific, and the slopes above are so steep and barren from lack of rain that it is impossible for people to live anywhere except in small agricultural villages along flood prone rivers fed from the glaciers above. As previously mentioned, these small settlements are periodically “cleansed” every 25 years or so by El Nino events. Thus, such villages are ephemeral at best.

Most Peruvian cities other than Lima and Arequipa lie above 10,000 feet, so there are few places in which to acclimate to altitude. As a result, elderly foreign tourists who fly directly from Lima to Cuzco, Peru’s premier destination at 12,500 feet, often fall over dead upon arrival.

We live in Florida at 63 feet above sea level, about the same as Trujillo, so all we could do was to gasp and wheeze as our double decker bus ascended the hairpin turns of the tiny road that led from Pacasmayo north of Trujillo up and over a 10,600 foot pass to the historic city of Cajamarca at 9000 feet.

Thus far we had seen no vegetation whatsoever other than ornamental plants in public plazas, but as we ascended the Jequetepeque River we were astounded to see extensive irrigated rice paddies. We had already observed that rice is the preferred Peruvian starch, more popular even than the indigenous potato.

Shocking green rice paddies along the Rio Jequetepeque contrast with the sere brown hills. Photo by Boyer Louis via Flickr

The river itself was bone dry, for every drop was used to irrigate the fields, but about fifteen miles upstream we began to see rivulets of water in the dry riverbed and specks of green clinging to the hills. These were cacti and xeric bromeliads, the first signs of native vegetation we had seen.

By the time we reached 7500 feet the river was blue and the hills were green(ish). There were even a few trees, but these were all non native pines and eucalyptus. The setting sun illuminated the peaks as we crossed the pass, and ahead of us the twinkling lights of Cajamarca could be seen far below.

We had taken seats in the front of the bus, not just for the view, but also to make certain that in the event of an accident we would be killed immediately rather than merely mangled. An accident seemed inevitable given the size of the bus, the width of the twisting road, and the general state of disrepair of Peruvian vehicles. The good news was that the bus rarely got out of first gear and never went more than 25mph, but what about other vehicles flying uncontrolled down the mountain?

The small villages that we passed offered few services other than brake repair, for next to food and water properly functioning brakes were the most important commodity. Little did we realize that our initial gut wrenching bus ride was merely an introduction to the realities of Peruvian travel!


The city of Cajamarca. Looking down at the Plaza de Armas from the hilltop cross.

I’ve already described Cajamarca as being an “historic” city, but there I go being redundant again. Almost every city in Peru is ancient, contemporary cities having been built on the ruins of previous civilizations, but Cajamarca isn’t just old, it was the site of a clash between two great civilizations that altered the course of world history, proof that crime pays.

Here is the basic story:

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered the “new” world. To his dismay the savages therein possessed neither civilization nor wealth.

Shortly thereafter in 1509 a brutal Spanish pig farmer named Francisco Pizarro was already on a boat headed for the promised land. Word soon spread of a legendary nation somewhere below Panama that was rich in gold, so Pizarro headed south.

(It is worthy of note that Columbus discovered the Bahamas which are 4000 miles from Spain in the Atlantic ocean at about latitude 26 degrees north. Then, only 34 years later, Pizarro landed in Tumbes Peru which is located on the Pacific ocean at about 3 degrees south latitude. The distance between these two locations is about 2600 miles, and required the crossing of the isthmus of Panama and the building of new boats after arrival at the Pacific. The story is so implausible that no one would believe it if it weren’t true.

I have had the pleasure of reading Prescott’s “The Conquest of Peru”, but that was years ago, so forgive me for this muddled and simplified account.)

In 1526 he landed for the second time on the Peruvian coast to discover a remote outpost of the Incan empire. There he found evidence of gold and spread European diseases that proved most useful in the subsequent conquest.

The natives did not receive him with open arms. A relief expedition was sent to rescue him, and he was ordered to return but refused to do so and took refuge on an uninhabited desert island with 13 of his stalwart companions. After 18 months of eating dirt and licking dew off rocks he agreed to return to Panama, then made his way to Spain where he was granted governorship of the imaginary province.

In 1531 Pizarro returned for the third time with three ships, 180 men and 27 horses. Unbeknownst to him the Incan empire had been ravaged by previously introduced diseases and internecine strife during his absence.

He had no idea of what he was up against, just a rumor of a far away Sun King living in the clouds with lots of gold, so he marched blindly toward an empire with millions of subjects equivalent in size to the Roman empire at its height, and ruled by a King with vast armies of professional soldiers.

Atahualpa the Sun King actually lived in Cuzco in the far southeastern corner of Peru, a place that is legendarily remote even to this day, but he had recently murdered his brother Huascar, a rival to the throne, so he decided to take a long hot bath at Cajamarca which is very far from Cuzco on the other side of numerous 20,000 foot snow capped peaks. This was not a problem because the Incas and their predecessors had constructed many thousands of miles of well maintained roads, and Atahualpa was carried everywhere he went warmly bundled in alpaca wool and parrot feathers.

(A note on the people of Peru: There are many different indigenous tribes in Peru, but the highlands have long been dominated by the Quechua people. The Inca were not a tribe, but rather members of the ruling Quechua elite. Their civilization was built on the ruins of various older civilizations which were culturally similar but less militaristic than the Inca. When the Spaniards arrived the Incan empire was a relatively recent phenomenon.)

Atahualpa was surrounded by up to 50,000 bodyguards, so he had little to worry about when he heard that a small group hairy barbarians were approaching. He had heard stories about these strange ghost like people with white skin who could summon thunder, some of whom even had four legs (horses), so he was eager to meet them. It was a big mistake.

Pizarro, who had God on his side, attacked immediately, seized Atahualpa, and slaughtered thousands of his bodyguards, none of whom were even armed.

The Incas were new to the business of war. Theirs was a recent civilization, not more than a few hundred years old. Their predecessors only engaged in ritual combat and possessed few weapons. All Atahualpa’s soldiers carried were clubs, a few wooden swords edged with sea shells, and golden ornaments. These proved to be totally ineffective against the steel swords, shields, and armor of the Spaniards. (Read Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” to better understand these invincible advantages.)

Pizarro decided to ransom Atahualpa so he ordered a small building to be filled to the ceiling with gold, then twice again with silver. Here is the building.

It may be small but it can hold a lot of gold! Swiped from Wiki

Atahualpa was an honorable man who honored the agreement, but Pizarro was a Christian; so, after receiving payment he ordered Atahualpa the unbeliever to be burned at the stake. That seemed a bit harsh so instead he was strangled.

So ended one of the mightiest empires in all of human history. South America hasn’t been the same since, and now everyone speaks Spanish. (Except for the resident Indians who still speak Quechua when nobody else is listening.)

Later, Pizarro was slaughtered by his closest friends. (Ha!) He was such a bad ass that he was killed repeatedly just to make sure he was dead, rather like Rasputin in that respect. I have a facsimile of his skull on my mantle that clearly shows the numerous wounds.

Since then nothing much has changed. Peru is still mostly inhabited by Indians, but ruled by white men who profess to be ruled by a Jew named Jesus and his boy bonking vicar the Pope.

Wait, I take that back, Indian hat styles may have changed. You might think that cowboys like John Wayne wore big white hats, but those were nothing compared to the extravagantly tall hats worn by Quechua people around Cajamarca.

Quechua women selling produce and guinea pigs beneath our hotel room in Cajamarca.

Every market day the ladies seen above, and hundred more like them, trudge through the high Andes while carrying huge loads of produce and handicrafts. Imagine walking fifteen miles before dawn over towering mountains while carrying thirty pounds of potatoes and a twenty pound sack full of struggling guinea pigs!

The single most valuable item of commerce is the Guinea pig, properly known as the Cuy. When barbecued cuy is very yummy and not at all gooey.

BBQed cuy, taters, and onions, a traditional Peruvian feast! (Image swiped from

Needless to say, with unimaginable riches and millions of slaves it was easy to build magnificent cathedrals around the Plaza de Armas (Central Park). These were purposefully left unfinished to justify keeping the gold in Peru rather than sending it to Spain where pirates might get it. Better just to keep it in my pocket, no?

Here you see a man of God standing in front of the unfinished Cathedral. By his side is the Lamb of God, but wait, isn’t that actually a wolf?

The city of Cajamarca, though grubby by the standards of Cuzco, is not without its charms. Here is the staircase leading to the cross which dominates town.

The steps ascending from the Plaza de Armas to the cross of Santa Apalonia.

Gasp! Wheeze! Yes, it is true that the Weazel is a geezer, but at 9000 feet the air is too thin for a flatlander, so it took us several days to acclimate to altitude, and until then even the steps seen above were a bit of a problem.

Cajamarca is in a valley, but all the nearby archeological sites are located several thousand feet higher, so the only solution was to fortify ourselves with Mate de Coca (Coca leaf tea) and coca candy before setting out. Both are perfectly legal in Peru, whereas cocaine is strictly prohibited.

Our first foray was to nearby Ventanillas de Otuzco (Little windows of Otuzco), a series of funerary niches carved into the volcanic tuff.

Throughout Peru one may find the dead living in funerary niches. Actually you won’t find them because the mummies have all been stolen!

Our faithful tour guide noticed that I was dragging due to the altitude so he offered me a handful of fresh coca leaves to chew. I protested the lack of the traditional lime catalyst, but he said  not to worry, it will work anyway. Did it ever! Allow me to mention here that I absolutely hate the effect of cocaine.

That evening we had a delightful dinner in an ancient building during which Ann and I discussed various biblical absurdities. Our meal included several Pisco sours (the national drink of Peru) and various other coca buzz killing drinks, but the buzz would not die. I had been having trouble sleeping due to the altitude and was utterly exhausted, but now I had to contend with an unpleasant state of drug induced nervous anxiety that not even alcohol could ameliorate.

I actually thought I might have a heart attack. It was impossible to sleep even after my heart had calmed down, so I took half a xanax and finally went to sleep. Later that night I had an unbelievably bizarre lucid dream that I still remember clearly. This is the short version.

While wandering the desert of Galilee I saw a burning bush that upon inspection was revealed to be the pudendum of an unidentified virgin. As is my habit, I pushed in closer with my nose to part the burning “foliage” to discover that God was sitting there inside her parlour. She was a fat Gypsy woman with a crystal ball rather like the wizard of Oz. She told me that her bastard sons Ezekiel, Leviticus, etc, ran the usual Gypsy scams, pogroms, etc; whereas, Jesus was her otherwise useless autistic son who hung with a new gay crowd including John, Paul, Petereater, etc. To her surprise, Jesus’ new scam had become very popular. Who would have thought that you could make money by appealing to the poor and downtrodden?

From this I learned never to chew coca in the late afternoon, then discuss religion before going to bed!

The following day we staggered off to a much higher destination, the ancient Cumbe Mayo aqueduct located on the continental divide at nearly 12,000 feet.

The approach to the aqueduct requires passing through a ‘stone forest’ known as Los Frailones (the Friars) which can be seen in the middle of the following photo. They only look like Friars to those whose brains are addled by altitude sickness.

“Los Frailones” on the way to Cumbe Mayo

The aqueduct is an extraordinary engineering achievement. It was constructed at least 1000 years before the advent of the Incas, and crosses the continental divide. Prevailing winds make the east side of the Andes much wetter than the west, so these ancient engineers carved a stone channel to carry water across the divide, then all the way down to Cajamarca.

If the only purpose was irrigation then the simplest design would be best, but the ancient Peruvians liked to do things the hard way by carving intricate channels just to prove they could do it. Behold the otherwise inexplicable zig-zags.

Cumbe Mayo irrigation channel

In places the channel run through tunnels. In other areas they built above ground sections in the Roman style. I have no good pictures of these sections, but I ask you to consider how that is even possible without the use of mortar?

The precision of the carving was extraordinary. Volcanic rock isn’t very hard, but they had no metal tools of any sort, just flint flakes similar to arrowheads. With no better tools than these the ancient Peruvians built vast monuments all over the country. As the centuries passed they became more proficient, and a thousand or more years later their art and architecture culminated with the nearly inconceivable accomplishments of the Inca, all of which were brought low by a Spanish pig farmer with the flu.

Enough for now Kiddies. The Weazel and Dr. Ann are off to northern Alabama to attend a shindig being held at a remote wedding chapel at the end of a long dirt road. Fear not, we have no intention of getting married, it is just a suitably bizarre venue for a caving event, but we do plan to be on the look out for Elvis who is often observed at weddings in Las Vegas and but prefers the bucolic pleasures of Bamalama. The story will continue when we return, so stay tuned!