may 1, 2005 -> the pre-inca trail: peru
Llamas don't often spit, at least not in my limited experience. They do, however, whine, snort, belch and fart, and they take forever to go potty. These “carpets on the hoof” may be doe-eyed and cuddly, but they are incredibly recalcitrant – donkeys are gung-ho in comparison. You can't ride a llama, though one could easily carry you. And they prefer not to carry your heavy equipment either. ‘Llama' (which is actually an old Indian word) is a homonym for “you call” in Spanish, which seems wholly inappropriate for an animal this stubborn and aloof. They ought to be called ‘llama pero no contesta' – you call but no answer.
We had time for only one trek in Peru, so we sacrificed the crowded Inca Trail for two llamas and empty footpaths in the Cordillera Blanca. I'm not maligning the Inca Trail. Almost everyone who does it loves it. We wanted to hike it but all the places were taken. Serendipitously, our walk from Olleros to Chavin shared much in common with the Inca Trail. Our trek took three days, the Inca Trail takes four. Dead Woman's Pass, at 4200 meters, is the crux of the Inca Trail; on our second day we ascended to Punta Yanashallash, at 4680 meters. While the Inca Trail finishes gloriously with a sunrise over an empty Macchu Pichu, we ended our trek with an afternoon stroll through a far older ruin - maybe it should be called the Pre-Inca Trail.
All high school students learn about the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca. We know them for a tragic reason: these were the empires that the Spanish discovered and destroyed in the early 16th century. But sophisticated cultures do not appear from the ether, they develop over millennia. The Chavin culture – which coalesced more than two thousand years before the Incas built Macchu Pichu – is often called the “mother culture” of the Andes, as it was the first to link previously remote communities via roads, trade, customs and religion. The culture (and its most important extant temple) took its modern name from Chavin de Huantar, the small Peruvian town built near the crossroads of the old empire. This was the goal of our llama trek. That is, if we could get the llamas to join us.
I guessed that Frontino, the peevish male, would cause problems. Instead, it was lady Ginda who was the trouble-maker. Ricardo, our guide, spent most of the first day chasing her. On the second day she nearly flattened us when she bolted from behind. I tried to sneak up on her and, failing that, rushed after her. The ground speed of a laden llama is faster than you think. In the end, we had to tie the two llamas together, which rankled the camelids, but made for excellent photographs. This was, we discovered, the main benefit of the llamas. We shot dozens of photos: llamas in front of snowy mountains, crossing a stream, descending a narrow path, etc. Frontino always had a long piece of grass sticking out from between his teeth, giving him a country bumpkin look. Ginda liked to curl her upper lip so that a few uneven teeth were showing. Colorful tassels hung from holes punched in their ears. They made already silly animals look ridiculous, and I think the llamas resented it.
We saw very few people along the way, and no other tourists. Trekkers usually choose the longer, more challenging walks: the 14-day Huayhuash circuit, or the 8-day Santa Cruz trek. The seasonal grass huts of the shepherds were empty; they were conical and looked like hollowed-out haystacks. On our first night, we camped in a wide valley beneath rust-colored Mount Pukaraju (“Red Ice”). As we climbed towards Punta Yanashallash, huge mountains appeared and disappeared behind a screen of jagged ridges. Near the pass, we crossed a high mountain plateau bordered by white pinnacles. Nori was cold and unhappy when we crested the pass, but she loved the moss-covered rocks that sat like tiny tropical islands in the ice-cold tarn. This was the highest Nori had ever been under her own power, and she made me promise not to make her break this record.
As we descended towards Chavin on the final day, we walked through a series of villages sitting astride a deep, beautiful canyon. Green and gold crops covered the steep hillsides in irregular patches, with flapping yellow flags serving as scarecrows. Red-tipped bromeliads clung in clusters on dark cliffs. High above, Rurek mountain rose like an inverted icicle. We both agreed that it was one of the most beautiful valleys we had seen on the trip. Ricardo indicated a chunk of wool hanging from a nail above a doorway. “That means they sell bread here.” A corn husk indicated a vendor of ‘chicha,' the popular Andean brew whose fermentation process is started with human spit. We stopped to hand out leftover bread rolls to the snot-nosed, filthy, take-me-home cute kids that ran from the fields when they saw us. A large group of locals passed us on their way back to the villages. It was market day in Chavin. The kids raced up the hill like maniacs, while the fathers – many of whom appeared drunk – stayed back with the women and pack-horses.
The Temple at Chavin would be an impressive Inca ruin, but it is even more astounding due to its antiquity. It consists of multistory, roughly pyramidal edifices with twisting corridors and an ingenious system of air ducts and water channels. Offerings of coca leaves, candies, and coins lay in small niches inside the mazelike chambers; old beliefs and superstitions remain strong in the Andes. Deep in the belly of the main temple, we peered through an iron gate at the spectacular Lanzon – a towering knife-shaped monolith with the fanged face of a god carved in relief. In the temple museum, we marveled at dozens of ‘cabeza clavas' (head spikes). The medicine ball-sized stone heads were carved with long, square ‘necks' that were then inserted into regular breaks (every 2 meters) in the stone wall. Sleepless sentries, the frightening cabeza clavas once stared down from three meters high, encouraging fear and respect from the ancient townspeople. Today, people had slightly less respect for the temple - perhaps because so many cabeza clavas were destroyed, missing, or relocated. I laughed when I saw the signs displayed above the temple entrances: “No miccionar dentro de la galleria.” No pooping or peeing inside the gallery.
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