Adventure in Peru - Search for the Dead
By Vic Hanson
No, it wasn't a failed search and rescue mission; I was just out looking for ancient tombs. Coming back from the neighboring village Oyolo last week, Brad was telling me about talking with an archaeologist who was studying the ancient Inca and Wari cultures of the Cotahuasi valley. I am fascinated by the ruins that I often see on my hikes but I don't really know what I am looking at. Is it Inca or Wari, the remains of a house or just an enclosure for livestock, or what? Some are round, some square, some have the graves in holes in the ground, and other graves have stone structures build above the ground. I was hoping to be able to talk with the archaeologist about some of these questions, and maybe even visit a site with him. I found out that the team was still here and where they were staying, so I went to see them. Unfortunately, the team leader, Justin Jennings, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, had already returned to the United States. I did get to talk to Willy, his Peruvian associate, and some of the students, who were still finishing up the work here.
I also did some research on his website and read about a place called Arcopunko, where there are a bunch of tombs built into a stone arch on the side of a cliff. It was described as being above the current village of Yumasca. I had never heard of Yumasca but started looking on my map in the general area of where they are working now, and found it right away. It is above the hot springs at Luicho, which is where the team is staying. I had hoped my friend Max could go with me, but Monday morning when I went to pick him up, he said plans had changed and he had to work. I did get directions to the trailhead from him and found out that there are two trails, one a narrow shortcut called a pitipan, and the other a wider main trail. I always like the pitipans so headed up that, starting at 9:10 am. A lady at the base of the trail said it was 30 minutes to Yumasca but it took me 45, which was a preview of things to come. When I arrived in Yumasca there was almost no one around, they must have been out working in their fields. I finally found a woman at home with a couple of young children and asked her about the ruins. She said I was on the wrong side of the village, I had to go the other way, and that it was leeeeeeejos. Lejos means far and when they stretch out the vowel like that, it means it is REALLY far. I headed in the direction she indicated and but didn't see the trail so had to ask directions again. and was told there was a wide trail leading up to the top, where the ruins are.
The man I talked to wasn't very open and friendly at first, which is something that Justin had mentioned in his article. They seem to be very protective about the ruins and don't want outsiders, especially gringos, coming in and taking any artifacts. When I assured him that all I wanted to do was look at the ruins and take pictures, he was less suspicious and gave me directions. Ten minutes later, after the trail I had been following turned into a narrow path along an irrigation ditch, I knew I had gone too far. I backtracked a ways and asked again, and a young man pointed behind me and said that was the trail. It didn't look like much of a trail, I had to scramble up a large rock and then over a wall, but it soon turned into a nice trail. I followed that until it came to a grassy area and then I couldn't tell which way it went. An old man had been a few minutes behind me so when he caught up to me, I asked him. He said he had to do something first and then he would show me. I watched him as he plugged a drain hole in a water reservoir and opened another one to send water to a different canal. All of the farming here depends on irrigation and there is a vast system of reservoirs and canals, many of them date back to the Incas. Shortly, after the man had finished his work, he led me up to the correct trail. He said his father used to own all that land but now there wasn't enough water to farm it.
I was soon up on top of a plateau and lost the trail again among various animal trails. I spend over an hour struggling up a hill, feeling very lethargic and sleepy. I'm not sure if it was from lack of sleep due to the workmen starting early upstairs above my bedroom, the bad cold I just got or the medicine I am taking for it. After a miserable time of bushwhacking on various animal trails, I finally found the main trail. I set a goal of getting to 13,000 feet and then I would decide if I should continue or turn around. Reaching that point, I realized that I would not be able to make it to the cliffs where I hoped the tombs would be, before 3:00 pm, which I had set as my turn around time. However, I was feeling a bit better and it was easier going now that I was on the trail again, so decided to try for 14,000 feet. I reached a large bump on the side of the mountain at about 3:10, hoping it would be 14,000 feet, but it was only 13,800 feet. Knowing that my 3:00 turn around time was conservative, I picked out a large rock farther up and headed for that.
At 3:30 I reached the rock, it was at 14,100 feet; at least I had reached that goal. It was tempting to continue, as I was only about 30 minutes from the cliffs, but I had forgotten my headlight so I knew I had to turn around and go down. I was making real good time going down so I took the pruning shears out of my pack and cleared some of the worst of the thorny branches along the trail. Many of the trails are not used regularly and are overgrown with wicked thorns, so I usually carry a pair of pruning shears to make the trails a little more passable. At 5:45 I got down to the junction of the shortcut and the main trail, and decided to take the main trail. It turned out that it went down a very steep and narrow canyon and was of course longer. I was glad to reach the bottom of that before dark, and then had a road to follow back to where my car, was parked at the hot springs. I arrived there at 6:30 and by this time it was dark so the timing worked out perfectly. Next time, I will need to leave earlier, make sure I have my light, and hopefully will find the tombs.
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!
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