Adventures In Peru - Finding The Dead In The Mountains
By Vic Hanson
Living in a deep canyon in the Andes Mountains gives me lots of opportunities for hiking and exploring. One thing it doesn't provide are leisurely "walks in the park", which is fine with me. I don't particularly like flat trails, either hiking or mtn. biking. Ups, downs and curves are what make a trail interesting and enjoyable. Here you can follow the rivers up the canyon or down the canyon. You can hike down to the river or up to the mountain peak or ridge. And if you are making a round trip of it, you will be doing both up and down. There are very few level trails. Even those that traverse a mountain usually go up and down because of cliffs and gullies, as well as the fact that the villages are at different elevations. There is also no such thing here as a recreational trail, they are all either used by people and animals to get from village to field or village to village, or they were used for that in times past, during the Inca and Wari (pre-Inca) cultures. Most people here can't quite comprehend why I am out hiking just for fun, and not because I have to get from one point to another.
My favorite trails are the old ones that aren't normally used any more. Cattle, burros, mules, and a few herders use some, as they look for areas to graze; others are overgrown and unused. Because the trails were so well built, and it is quite dry here most of the year, it is usually possible to still follow the trails, and with not too much work clear them enough to make them usable. I usually carry a pair of pruning shears with me when I go hiking, so that I can do trail maintenance on these old trails. I have noticed that after I have cleared some of the trails, other people and animals have used them. However no one else seems to consider doing any trail maintenance. If the trails are used enough, that keeps them clear. If they aren't used they become overgrown. The only exception seems to be if there is a landslide or rockslide, then someone may do some work on the trail, but it usually takes a long time before they get around to it.
The whole area around Cotahuasi, the province of La Union (like a county in the U.S.), was inhabited by the Incas (technically only the top leader was the Inca, the people were Quechua, the same group of people who make up most of the inhabitants today), and before them the Wari. As a result there are ancient ruins, and trails between them, throughout the mountains and canyons. The Inca believed that the mountains were gods, and they seemed to like to be near their gods. Ridges and other high points were very popular places to build their villages, and they buried their dead nearby on other high points. This area is all volcanic, with lots of large boulders that have fallen down; many creating caves or hollow spots underneath them. There are also lots of caves on the sides of the cliffs and mountains. These were favorite burial places if they were near a village. Another method was holes dug on ridge tops, and then they covered them with rocks, sometimes level with the ground and other times making a mound. I enjoy exploring and finding hidden ruins and tombs, but I don't know anything about archeology, so I have no idea what era or culture they are from.
The problem with building the villages up high was that there was no farmland there, and usually no water. So there were trails going down to the terraced fields on the lower and gentler mountain slopes, and to the rivers or springs to get water. There is an intricate network of canals here to bring water to the fields and lower villages. These date from the Inca period or before, and are still in use today. However even the Incas couldn't make water flow uphill, although it sometimes looks like it does. I am constantly amazed and wondering about how much time and labor they must have spent hauling water up to their villages, and what they carried it in (From my research, it sounds like they used large pottery jars with narrow necks).
On a recent hike I went to a hilltop above Alluay Canyon, which is up and over a mountain ridge above Cotahuasi. Alluay Canyon is one of my favorite places here, and it is nearby so I spend a lot of time hiking there. In spite of its closeness to Cotahuasi, almost no one goes there and I consider it like my own private canyon. It is about six miles long, if you could follow the winding stream at the bottom of the canyon. The stream is just a trickle or even dry in many places much of the year, but can be a raging torrent when there are heavy rains up on the high plains at the foot of Nevado Solimana. The stream is also fed by numerous small springs along the way, but that isn't enough to keep it flowing during the dry season.
The canyon can be accessed on both ends, as well as in the middle, but it isn't possible to hike it from one end to the other, due to a large waterfall, which is about 500 feet high. It is dry much of the year, but is a beautiful sight after a few days of rain. It is possible to hike around the falls, which is the trail that I used to reach the hilltop mentioned above. It was a warm sunny morning but by the time I reached there at 1:00 pm, heavy clouds had rolled in and the slight breeze was cool. I decided to find a dark rock to sit on while eating my lunch, knowing that the rock would still be warm from the morning sun. I was on a small saddle with the ruins covered hill to my right, and a steeper boulder covered hill to my left. The ruins are quite overgrown with prickly brush and cactus, and I knew there weren't any suitable rocks on the top of the hill, so I decided to go left.
In about 100 feet I reached a very large boulder, which has a few open graves under one side of it. However the top is at quite a slant so I kept scrambling up the hillside. It seemed that all of the rocks were either white, and therefore cool, or too steep of an angle to sit on. The climb was getting steeper and I would soon be reaching a shear rock wall, but I still hadn't found a suitable spot. Finally I found a rock that looked promising, a little ways above me. It wasn't very dark but was in front of a large boulder so I figured it would be sheltered from the breeze. I pulled myself up on top, only to be disappointed in how cool the surface of the rock was. However, half of it was covered with a thin layer of dirt and that was warm, so I settled in there.
From my high vantage point above the ruins, I could see the canyon and mountain ridges on both sides. The one on the left was about 1000 feet above me and the one on the right was about the same elevation as I was at. Down past the mouth of the canyon I could see the Cotahuasi Canyon and halfway up to the high plains on the right of that was the village of Huarhua, where there are ancient salt mines. The sun was shining there and after awhile I noticed that a patch of sunlight was making its way up the canyon towards me. Soon I was basking in a bit of sun, enjoying my lunch, and thinking what it must have been like here during the time of the Incas.
On the ridge to the right were numerous ruins, including a fairly large city just out of my view, which was blocked by the mountain behind me. Below me on both sides of the canyon, were the remains of terraced fields, still visible under the layer of brush and cactus. The only water nearby was down in the bottom of the canyon where the stream was fed by a spring hidden in some almost inaccessible step at the bottom of the dry waterfall. Below this is a fern covered falls, and then the stream continues down the canyon for a few miles before either drying up or going underground. This section of the canyon is the most beautiful, as there is always water flowing, and there are numerous pools, small falls, trees and other greenery. It is very difficult to traverse this area because of the falls, but it can be done without ropes if you know where the bypass routes and old trails are.
My curious mind was wondering how much interaction there had been between the ancient villages and what their daily life was like, all the time marveling at the amount of work it must have been to live during that time. Just going down to get water would have taken about an hour, assuming that the trails were in better condition then than they are now. All of the crops that were grown down there, would have had to been carried up to the villages for storage and use. Also none of the fields in this area were irrigated. There are no water sources above the stream, and no canals coming from the area above the high waterfall.
Possibly there was more rain then, but the climate now only allows for about a three to four month growing season without irrigation. Did they also have fields down lower near the village of Cotahuasi, which can be irrigated? Did they trade with others for the products they needed? I know that people came from long distances to get salt from the mines in Huarhua. There is still a large network of old trails going in all directions from there. They had llamas and alpacas, which could carry small loads, but no horses, mules or burros. It is common even today for the people to have a couple of different homes, one in one village, and one miles away in another area. They move back and forth depending on the time of the year and the crops that are being planted and harvested. Most people live in the villages, and go out daily to their fields to work them. It is not like where I grew up in Minnesota where we lived on our farm and went into the town to go shopping or go to school.
The loss of the warm sunlight and what felt like the start of a drizzle put an end to my wonderings about the past and I got up to look around, now wondering if the rain I could see a couple of miles away on the high plain was going to come my way. I was surprised to notice a low opening underneath the large boulder right behind me; I hadn't even seen it before. I pushed aside the brush and saw a number of human bones and a few pottery pieces scattered around in the dirt. Just to the left was another opening; this cave was filled with more bones, and at least 14 skulls. I suppose an archeologist could find some of the answers to my questions by doing research here, as well as in the ruins of the small village right below me. I could only think that these were the remains of the people that I was wondering about - what were their lives like and how did they survive from season to season, year to year? Were they the ancestors of some of the people I know down in the village now? If only these bones could talk, what stories they would have to tell me!
Forgetting about the weather, I decided to continue searching for more graves up above and found a number of more sites, most with a few bones and a skull or two. There was no more pottery or other artifacts, and no pieces of clothing. However I did see a piece of coarse brown cloth on the main trail on the way up, just before I reached the first ridge. It was right in the trail and was not there a week ago when I hiked up there. It looked just like the cloth I have seen in other gravesites in the area. The tomb raiders are still active here, anything that looks like a tomb is usually dug open and the contents are often scattered around. Having reached a very steep area, and what looked like the end of possible gravesites, I turned around and headed back down. The sun even got below the clouds, warming my way before disappearing behind the distant mountain range. Other than all the stickers in my sock and shoes, in spite of wearing leather boots and gaiters, it was a pleasant hike back, arriving home just after dark, thankful I had remembered my headlight.
Where to next? A friend told me about another nearby cave with partial mummies still in it. I have also seen photos of intact mummies in a cave at the top of a mountain that is a few hours away. In my previous two attempts, I ran out of time before I found the cave. So much to do, so little time. At least I don't have a desk job!
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
If you are interested in your own adventure in Peru, check us out!
If you would like to see this article with photos, please visit my page on summitpost at http://www.summitpost.org.
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