Laguna de las Momias-Laguna de los Condores

After relaxing from our wild New Year’s this year, we tried to make plans for our last few days in town…which turned out to be a headache but it was all for the best. I keep forgetting about the way of life here…I adjust then I forget and get disappointed when people promise things and don’t follow through.

A few weeks ago we planned to go to the Laguna with Estefani and Omer (son of the owners of Hospedaje de los Condores and the land around the laguna) as our “free” guides in exchange for English lessons on the trail. Two our of our students gave us their horses for the trip (one at half price, one for free…thanks!). We were able to get the lodging waived because we are volunteers. So, roughly a $100 trip plus food ended up being $10 plus food (plus tips). Not bad, eh? Except the day before we left, Omer told us he couldn’t go because they were putting the roof on the restaurant. So we were crushed and they recommended we find a guide in town to take us (even though a week ago we confirmed everything with them and realized we only had enough money to get out of town after the trip…if we had to pay for a guide we would have been stuck in Chachapoyas again) but anyways, everything turned out all right because the wife of the caretaker of the Laguna (Elena) offered to take us with Estefani so we had an all-female crew! All the men in town were worried…perhaps our trip is a step forward for equality in the little village. Did I mention here the women are 2nd class citizens? Men ride the horses, the woman walk alongside, usually carrying a child or firewood.

The fact that it’s the rainy season luckily doesn’t mean it rains ALL the time…but it does seem to rain MOST of the time. We planned to leave at 7am, but one of our horses didn’t arrive until 8am (typical sense of time). We saddled up and began the looong journey. The horses here aren’t any of that fancy cantering kind that are in shows. These horses are TOUGH. and strong. and full of endurance. Our 3 hour horseback ride in Ecuador our horses were covered in sweat and panting. These horses barely panted and just kept on going…up through steep rocky gorges, through a muddy swamp (where one horse fell up to it’s stomach in the mud…luckily no one was on the horse at that time) and over a 3800 meter pass (almost 12,000 feet). Parts of the trail were so ugly or so steep that we got off and walked, which was a nice change and helped balance out the ache at the end of the day.

It rained on and off and we discovered that no type of rainwear really keeps the rain off except pure plastic. I had a nice hooded poncho (borrowed from a student) and not even half way to the lake I was wet…great timing for me because we started to go over the pass and I got major altitude sickness. I don’t really know how to describe it except that I feel like I’m in a bubble, dizzy and want to pee. The girls wrapped me in a chalpa (a traditional woman’s shawl, made of sheep’s wool) and a plastic bag. Estefani held my hand and we went over the pass together. The sickness passed as we went down in elevation, then it came back again. I hate that feeling. Matt doesn’t mind it but he doesn’t feel bad, just a little silly from the lack of oxygen to the brain. I ate a chocolate bar and was wrapped up and kept going down the mountain and eventually got better. Did you know they sell pills for altitude sickness? Apparently I didn’t read that part of the guidebook. I may need to stock up on them for the future.

We had a few river crossings and no one fell down, horses or people and at about 6pm we arrived at the refuge with sore throats from yelling at the horses all day (they are quite big babies and need to be yelled at to give them courage to walk forward). The refuge is nice, it’s all Chachapoyas ruins (yay!) that used to be forest and is now grazing land for the horses and cows. There’s about 4 rooms with bunk beds and a common area with a wood fire for cooking on. We made spaghetti with our new favorite avocado lime sauce and shared that while they had some roasted potatoes to share. The fire boiled water faster than I imagined and we hung our clothes over the fire and went to bed.

The next day we hiked to the Chullpas (funerary towers in the cliffs by the lake) with Elena’s husband and their child, Sandy. Sandy is 8 and can speak a little English and is full of energy and strength (she led us on the hike back to the house). During the hike we experienced rain, sun, wind and hail, not necessarily in that order or in equal amounts. The hike to the chullpas made us realize we were in the jungle/rain forest. Everything was overgrown and covered in vines. Our leader had a machete and hacked the whole way up the mountain. The hike started on a rolling ridgeline along Chacha round house foundation ruins, down a steep slope in the muck, across the river outlet for the lake, along the lakeside, then straight up the mountain. There were a few spots where there were slippery ladders and ropes to climb and a few waterfall crossings. It was a wet wonderful adventure. Their 3 dogs came with us and they are tough, too. I don’t know how they made it up all the steep parts where we needed ladders and ropes, but they joined us when we lunched at the chullpas, 100 meters above the lake.

Chullpas are funerary towers built into the cliffside. These ones were discovered in the early 90′s by some guys that worked for Omer’s family. They didn’t tell anyone at first, though, and ransacked the area and sold some of the mummies and booty to collectors. Once it was discovered by Omer’s family, the guys were put in jail and most of the stuff was recovered. In order to protect it from further looting, an Austrian woman helped fund a museum in Leymebamba to house the mummies and the artifacts. So, most of the easily accessible stuff was hauled out and put in the museum but there are still a handful of intact funerary sites in the cliffside (which are inaccessible and no one knows how the Chachas even made it up to the sites, let alone carrying their dead on their backs). The funerary sites are interesting, they are located in shallow caves with steeply overhanging rock faces above. They built some house-like structures with walls and windows and some still retain a red pigment on the walls. We’ve seen photos of what the site was like before the dead were taken down and it was FILLED with mummies, mostly in the fetal position wrapped up in burlap-type sacks. The high elevation and dryness was a perfect environment for mummification. Most of the mummies still have hair, skin and nails. One mummy we saw at the museum had the straightest teeth I’ve ever seen. Amazing…no dentists, no braces, but beautifully straight teeth. The sacks wrapped over the mummies were stitched with thread of a face shape over the face. Some skulls and bones were found in the structures of the buildings. Overall very fascinating, kind of creepy and quite beautiful. The funerary sites looked over the lake, onto the ridgeline where all the house foundations are.

The hike back was fine except for the hail storm, and we relaxed the evening with some tea and Matt and I made lentil soup to share. The next day we woke up early and left at dawn because it wasn’t raining. We made it all the way to the pass before any rain hit us, so the going was pretty good for a while. Elena’s husband is a coquero (coca leaf chewer) and he taught Matt and I the finer points of chewing coca…we needed the activator to make it work, it’s called Cal. He gave me a little bit for the trip out and I must say it’s magical. I was worried about crossing the mountain pass again, but I ate a candy bar, chewed my coca wad and had a shot of Julio’s homemade firewater (aguardiente) that had rosemary and uña de gato in it. And I crossed the pass without even a headache! Hooray! I chalk it all up to the coca. It is renowned for helping with altitude sickness. It also helps you focus, work longer and eat less. When the Spanish took over the Incas, they banned the use of coca until they realized they could use it to their advantage.

Chewing coca leaf here is different than chewing tobacco or doing coke. The leaf is used perhaps more like we drink coffee to wake up in the morning. Not everyone does it, but it’s definitely part of the culture and part of the way of life here. I didn’t feel like I was out of my head or anything while chewing the coca. I felt focused and determined to get over the pass, and I did sucessfully and safely. I felt more loopy crossing the pass the first time without anything. So I find it even more interesting that coca growing/consumption is legal in Peru and Bolivia but illegal in Ecuador. The whole coca controversy is very interesting here, and is actually dangerous in central eastern Peru, where there’s guerrila groups controlling some of the coca growing/distribution/cocaine export. Don’t worry, we’re not going to that region of Peru…but it’s much safer now than in the past.

Anyways, after the pass we encountered more wind and rain and deeper mud. At one point my horse sunk in the mud up to it’s belly (with me on him) but I encouraged my horse and screamed and kicked until he swam his way out of the mud. Estefani was very proud of me. Thank you, UConn horseback riding classes. It was exciting and scary…but these horses are strong and can go up and down steep slopes that I would fall over on. We made our way back to town, with a little bit of sun at the end of the day for a total of about an 11 hour return trip.

It was beautiful and adventurous and treacherous and tiring, but I’m glad we went. We saw amazing scenery, waterfalls and ruins. This trip is not for the comfort-seekers or the lazy. But it’s worth every minute and I’m glad we had competent guides that were also our friends. What a nice send off for our last days in Leymebamba.

Happy New Year’s!

We tried not to expect too much from New Year’s this year, which is sad because I always try to do something different or go somewhere fun. We were told there was a BIG dance in town with a live band and Estefani said she was having a party in the restaurant as well.

The evening rolled around, I taught my last adult class in the evening and we waited for the clock to toll. On a few street corners in town, people made straw dolls out of real clothes and set fire to them at midnight. We couldn’t get anyone to explain exactly WHY they do this, but everyone was excited to burn the dolls. The dolls on our corner had cigarettes in their mouths and beer bottles in hand. I’ll pretend it’s an out with the old theme. It rained, but eventually the dolls burned up, people randomly aimed fireworks (mostly in the air) and loud music was everywhere. Estefani made a little bonfire on the street in front of the house and some people came to warm up in front of it. Not believing in said party, we went to check out the dance. The music was live, but it was mostly cumbia, which is awkward to dance to. Neither Matt or I feel comfortable doing it…it involves shuffling some feet and usually not holding hands or looking at your partner.

So, we decided NOT to do the dance (the room was about half-filled with shuffling folks) and headed back to the house, where some people lured by the fire came into the restaurant and sat in chairs. Social situations in this town are very interesting. We have been to a few parties and people don’t really talk, they just sit on benches and stare at each other. Conversations do pop up, but rarely and it feels like a junior high dance. I bought a box of wine to share with Estefani and Omer, but since people showed up we shared the box among the crowd, a toast was made and the music (cumbia) was turned up on the CD player. We danced a little in a circle which was fun, then some partner dancing, then more of the bench sitting. The CD was actually a DVD played through the TV and it kept shutting off (perhaps because it was at max volume), so Omer went to a neighbor’s to borrow their CD player and 4 speakers. We figured this would take at least an hour to set up, so we went to bed instead. Apparently everyone stayed up until 5 am “dancing,” but I had an interesting evening enough and was glad to get a decent night’s sleep. At least I didn’t have to work this New Year’s eve doling out soup. I was able to spend it with my husband and watch straw dolls burn while dodging fireworks. Hope your New Year’s was good!

Merry Christmas!

I hope everyone is having a good holiday and getting to spend all that family time and share all the yummy food that we’re not getting. Christmas here is different, but I’ve learned it differs from town to town as well. In our little mountain village there’s no Santa Claus, stockings, emphasis on presents or even a family meal together. We have been told people do trees but we have yet to see it. What they do have is giant nativity scenes in everyone’s houses with lichen, moss and bromeliads from the hills. On Christmas Eve, we assumed we’d be sharing a big family dinner…but that didn’t happen. All day they worked on the house they are building above the restaurant, did laundry and relaxed. Matt and I made pepper biscuits and I boiled a big batch of beans. We weren’t too hungry for dinner, so it was okay there was no family dinner (although a bit sad). The rest of the evening made up for it, though.

Here, people are all about the hot chocolate and panneton bread. The hot chocolate is artesanal and you start with the bean. Surprisingly, freshly made hot chocolate is pretty greasy. The bean has a lot of fat in it and when you toast, grind and cook the beans, the result is an oily chocolate drink. It differs obviously by the bean and we’ve had some good hot chocolate and some not so good hot chocolate. Last night Wilma invited us to share some of her homemade hot chocolate (the best so far) and some fresh made cheese (they went and brought back milk from their cows on their farm that morning) and panneton. The panneton is, for lack of a better description: fruit cake. Except it’s like a giant tall round loaf (think bread machine bread shape) of challah style bread filled with raisins and frutillas (think fruit snacks, but more sugar, less fruit). So, what you do is rip up the cheese (which tastes like a rubbery tofu), put it in your hot chocolate and dip the panneton in the chocolate and eat that with your hands. You eat the softened cheese with a spoon. The cheese in the chocolate is pretty good. The panneton…I am not excited about-but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Kids eat it here and pick out the fruit. Every other commercial on tv is for panneton. I think it originated in Italy, but it’s huge in Peru.

Estafani told me at her home in Chiclayo, they make their own panneton from scratch. They also have a big family dinner as well, so she was a little sad about the lack of family togetherness and homesick along with me.

That evening we went to the 10pm mass at the only church in town. The service was interesting…I was worried at first because the priest was this old white guy with a microphone that talked really loud and within the first 5 minutes of the service he rapped on the altar and yelled at the children to pay attention. I have never seen that in church before—the priest yelling. I was scared. The mass went on as a normal Catholic mass and I may have to learn the Our Father in Spanish because it’s hard to say it in English when everyone around you is doing it in Spanish. The songs were fun, a guy played the guitar, there was a drum and a tamborine and lots of people singing. It was a mix of old favorites in Spanish (little drummer boy) and some regional songs that had a Peruvian traditional huaino style sound to it. Luckily, they passed out song sheets so I was able to sing along.

During Eucharist I was surprised how it reminded me of Spain. The priest came up front with the Host and everyone just mobbed him for the Eucharist. No lines, just like in Granada. After the service, a bunch of children dressed up (a little angel, a group of girls in traditional clothing, and 2 boys with canes and big suits, one with a black face to represent their African heritage and another with a mask of sheep fleece to represent an old man) and came and danced at the base of the nativity scene. They gave offerings of cheese and fruit to Jesus and they sang a lot of songs and danced and when they were done, another group of kids showed up and did the same thing. The girls had different outfits on and after they were done, they went out into the streets and visited everyone’s nativity scenes at their houses and sang and danced in front of them. After mass, we went to the Health Center where one of our students invited us to come and see the nativity and have some hot chocolate. We were greeted with some sweet white sparkling wine, a big cup of hot chocolate, club crackers and bread. By that time it was past midnight and I was exhausted and full. We waited for the pastores to come and sing to their nativity scene, then went home and tried to sleep.

I think the chocolate is too fatty for me or something, but I didn’t sleep well. My stomach was pretty upset all night from all that artesanal chocolate and panneton. I woke up worried that I was having an appendicitis attack or something, but I feel much better later on. I’m definitely not craving hot chocolate again anytime soon.

Tonight we’re going to have a little dinner with Estafani and her husband and kid to have a mini-post Christmas. I think I’ll make some minestrone soup and swimming rama…but I’m exhausted so we’ll see what I have the energy to make. Overall, it was an interesting Christmas and we got some community togetherness last night. I DO look forward to having a home again and creating some holiday traditions of our own, but obviously not this year.

End of the month, Leymebamba

Our activity has been winding down as we enjoy the stability of a home for a month. We haven’t been doing much except teaching, eating, reading, and (for me) plenty of cooking and crocheting. The weather has changed a bit and I think we are full into the rainy season. The sun is out at least every other day, but the temperature has dropped and we’ve had plenty of rain. At least the weather is cooperating with our lack of adventure. The classes are going well. Matt has lost most of his adult basic class, but his basic children’s class has doubled (due to our advertising at the school). My classes are pretty stable and we’re getting into more technical stuff in the advanced class (sentence structure, prepositions, irregular verbs…I had to relearn my 8th grade English class all over again.

Last week we were struck with a strong homesickness that was paired with both of us getting sick. Everyone in town is also sick, and they chalk it up to the change in climate, but I believe we’re all sick because after a big rainstorm, we lost running water for almost 2 days, and then randomly the water got shut off for hours while the main plaza was getting torn up to replace the water pipes. So being without water for over 24 hours is not fun (especially when we lost electricity a few times as well). You can’t flush the toilet, you can’t wash your hands, you can’t wash your produce. Did I ever mention there’s no hot water faucet? Forget about washing your dishes in hot, soapy water, ever. If I learned anything in my Safety and Sanitation class at school, it’s about the rampant spreading of fecal material that happens when ONE person doesn’t wash their hands. So I think we’re all sick because of hygiene and maybe a little bit because it got cold and rainy. But, I’ll happily take having a little head cold and stuffy nose over what I was experiencing in Huanchaco.

But we are definitely homesick and miss you all. The holidays will be hard this year, our first one away from any family except each other. I’m happy that at least we have a pseudo-family here to celebrate the holidays with and we are part of a community in this town. It would be a lot harder if we were on the road, totally alone.

Visiting the Cloud People’s Past

A few weeks ago, we took a day hike to see the ruins of Kuelep, which is famed to be just as cool as, if not better than, Macchu Picchu…minus the crowds and foreign influence. It may be true. The only buses leave our town at 3am and 5am, so we attempted to take the 5am bus. Somehow that day, there was only a 4am bus and they came to our hostal at 3am to tell us to get ready to leave. What a way to wake up. No one is on time for anything, ever, except the buses usually leave early. After a bumpy couple of hours in the dark, we arrived in Tingo, a small town on the river. From there we could be extremely lucky and catch another bus into Maria to hike a moderate trail a few hours to the ruins. It was dawn and we we groggy and thought just hiking from town would be fine. Sitting around in a tiny town at dawn was not appealing. The guidebook warns that the trail is steep, exposed and hot. It’s 9.8 km of switchbacks (just under 12 miles round-trip). The beginning of the trail followed the river and was pleasant and pretty flat, then it was up up up over around up again. It was intense but I had a new friend to motivate me up the mountain: Wheezy the guide dog. We found out later that this dog in Tingo accompanies most of the tourists up the mountain to the ruins. He was in good spirits the whole time, except for the constant wheezing. I was worried he was going to die on the hike and we’d have to carry him to town and find his owners, but he’s tough.

The hike was gorgeous. The valleys were green and beautiful with farms and forests scattered among the steep valley walls. We didn’t see one hiker the entire time up. We walked through a tiny village before reaching the ruins, which was a surprise. Two children from the village followed us for awhile and pointed us in the right direction. We could see the ruins about a half mile away. It is a giant fortress built of rock, dating to 900-1100 ad. It is on the edge of a limestone mountain and the stonework is amazing. The people who built it were called the Chachapoyas, or the Cloud People (because they lived in the cloud forest). They were around and established before the Incas, but were eventually taken over by the Incas, which was shortly followed by the Spanish.

I really enjoy their style of architecture. Round houses! It’s like living in a turret. They weren’t into metal-working like the Chimu or Moche cultures. They were not warriors, either. They were interested in agriculture and stone masonry. All the houses are made of stone and are round, with a pointed tee pee style thatch roof. Kuelep was “discovered” in 1843, but overgrown with trees and vines and bromeliads. Their ruins are found on high points on mountains and hills. Some people say it has more stones than the great pyramid of Egypt and I believe it. They were into details too, and a lot of houses have designs around the base (zig zags, rhomboids). The ruins were crazy; obviously no roofing remained but all the round stone foundations are visible and most have trees growing in the houses. Only a small portion of it is reconstructed or exposed, but it was plenty to see and I preferred to see the ruins with this jungle of a forest taking over it. They were the most beautiful ruins I had seen so far: mountain top stone houses with a view. Most houses have a sort of root cellar/hole dug into them and archaeologists believe some of it was for food storage but most of it was for burying their ancestors. Yep, the grandparents were buried in the “basement.” A few grinding stones (for making pesto, of course) were also in the houses. A really interesting thing about the fortress wall is that it only has 3 entrances and the complex is 3 times the size of a football field. Each entrance is designed in such a way to taper down and become narrower so that by the time you are close to the complex you have to enter single file. I think this was a protection against attack. It’s beautiful there, did I mention that? But eventually we had to make the return hike to town (a slow 4 hours up, about a moderate 3-3.5 hours down) to try to catch the last bus home again…which we saw leaving Tingo while we were on the river trail. We were exhausted but had considered staying in town to do another hike the next day…but after that elevation and steep hike, I just wanted to relax. We were both disappointed and after asking a handful of locals if that really was the last bus (they said yes) and trying to get a shared taxi (none) we just sat in town with Wheezy and drank the last of our water. A cop or town something arrived in town and I thought I’d ask him if there were ANY other buses coming and he said probably in 15 minutes and I heard the locals laughing and telling him the last bus came. Luckily for us, in 15 minutes another bus came in our direction and we were able to go home, shower and relax.

The following week we took a day hike to La Congona, another Chachapoyas site. This one is hikeable from Leymebamba and we were invited to go with one of our adult students (who, ironically is also an English teacher at the local school) and two of his students. The hike to La Congona follows a series of steep rocky switchbacks which reminded Matt more of logging roads than a hike through the farms. We learned that the area used to be all forest, but they logged it all to build houses (and didn’t replant) then turned the open space into pasture or farmland. It at least explains the landscape a bit better. The farms around here are so steep and up these mountains. I wouldn’t consider planting my potatoes let alone till the land, but everyone does it and most people’s farms are on average a 3 hour hike from town.

Anyways, the hike to La Congona was steep and muddy and we were going against traffic. Everyone from the mountains was heading to Leymebamba for the market, carrying babies and firewood and eggs and drop spindling as they navigated their way down the mountain in galoshes. I was having a hard enough time getting proper footing…I can’t imagine spinning yarn in that sort of footwear. Sometimes I feel like such a wimp compared to these mountain women, carrying loads on their backs, spinning yarn and their 5 year old daughters are carrying the babies. The hike was beautiful, as expected. Rolling mountains of farms and trees, cows and horses grazing, occasional chickens making their ruckus. I really like the mountains here (except that steep uphill!)

The ruins at La Congona are smaller than Kuelep, but still quite beautiful. They are on a hilltop on some farmer’s property. It’s a much narrower ridgeline than Kuelep but there’s a bunch of round stone foundations standing, some 10-15 feet high, with intact niches in the walls (for offerings? candles? somewhere to put your coffee cup?) and there’s two round buildings very close together with a stone staircase to head up to the top. I guess that’s the tower because the view is practically a 360 degree view (minus all that new vegetation) We were the only tourists there, it’s not developed at all or reconstructed and I liked the feeling of being in this lost, abandoned world. The houses here also had the decorative slate friezes and one house had a square foundation for the round house, which is very strange but shows the Inca’s presence (they build houses with corners). We enjoyed a lazy lunch and learned a lot of folklore about the town, complete with witch doctors and shamans creating trouble. Our hike back down was a little tougher as we got caught in the middle of a huge rainstorm and had to run to a farmhouse to wait it out as best as we could. The hike down was muddy, slippery and fun.