Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chavín de Huántar to Huanuco, Peru

The road to Huallanca (Huanuco). One of the best rides yet! Through pastoral highlands surrounded by incredible jagged peaks. Apart from the sheep, cattle, horses, shepherds and their dogs, I was the only one out here.

The start of the day

In the church belfry, at the far end of Chavín's Plaza de Armas, someone banging on the bell sounds like they're hammering on a 55-gallon steel drum. Hardly the musical echo one expects. I woke incredibly dry and parched, my lips actually swollen.

Following the church bell alarm, a truck drove all around the small village honking its annoying little horn. Was this to wake up the town in advance of the onslaught of tourists?

I was up earlier, around 3:30, to re-hydrate, then again at 5:00, this time awakened by a large truck or bus starting up. Suffering from another headache, took some aspirin with plenty of water. After the engine noise subsided, only roosters and dogs were heard.

Now they’re setting up the souvenir and snack carts around the square. Entire families pitch in to help.

The far end of the day, at "Hostal Huanuco", Huanuco, Peru

Nearly ten hours of riding today, virtually all on dirt; 150 miles of winding mountain roads. And some of the best riding to date!

Before leaving Chavín, I bought bottled water and a little bag of conchitas from a street vendor. No breakfast. I just wanted to get rolling.

The town of San Marcos, only a few miles from Chavín, was bustling and filled with a festive air. No tourists here. I stopped to ask directions to Antamina. After confirming I was on the right path, the men who had gathered around told me to come see their town.

I was really torn: the unknown passes lay ahead, and I didn't wan to run into the hail storms and mud Brad had experienced on this same road. The storms, if they were coming, would likely arrive in the afternoon. So, I apologized and said I had to keep going.

Climbing back out of the valley, villagers were streaming down the mountain to San Marcos. It certainly seemed I was going in the wrong direction - all the fun lay behind me!

Though very rough at lower elevations, the road broadened and smoothed out high above, until it felt I was riding U.S. Forest Service roads. And all the way up and over the pass, there are farmers and shepherds quietly at work.

Following a path recommended by Brad Houghton, in San Marcos, I took a dirt road that climbed out of the deep valley. As I was going up, it seemed like everyone was walking down out of the mountains, wearing their "Sunday Best". Many of them were walking miles, descending two or three thousand feet, to attend church, the marketplace or other festivities in town.

In the alpine valleys, I first came to a small mine, then the massive Antamina mine. It is an incredible mining operation 14,000 feet in the Cordillera Blanca: the tops of mountains are being taken down for their copper, zinc and molybdenum.

Over 14,000 feet in the Andes is the Antamina zinc and copper mine. (For my own notes: this mine is owned by Compaña Minera Antamina S.A, a partnership of four companies: Canada's Falconbridge with 33.75%; BHP Billiton PLC, a British-Australian joint venture (and the World's largest mining company), with 33.75%; Canada's Teck - Cominco Limited with 22.5% and Japan's Mitsubushi Corporation with 10%.) The mountain peaks are literally being dismantled, changing the Andean skyline. Though only in operation four years, the visual impact is already startling.

If you think this devastation has nothing to do with you and me, think again. We are the "consumers" who "demand" their product.

Antamina's mining camp in the Yanacancha Valley

Security is tight around the mine. I stopped to talk with one guard who spoke English (he said it’s required here.) “Mirochung (sp?)” explained that construction just began in 1998 and production began in 2001. At Antamina, 300 to 400,000 tons of ore are "moved" and 110,000 tons are "processed" every day.

He said 1,100 people are currently working at this site (they rotate between this and other mining sites.)

At another checkpoint, I asked if photos were allowed, and was a bit shocked to hear the reply: "no problem!"

Antamina's tailings dam. Over the 23-year life of the mine, the dam will be built to about twice its current height.

The concentrator plant (upper right) and tailings lake

On the opposite side of the mine, a wide new highway connects the mine with Conococha and serves as its supply line. I got to enjoy this road for a few miles, before my path once again took me off into the dirt.

Somewhere near the 15,500-foot Abra Yanashalla pass, I pulled over to take in a spectacular view of mountains, lakes and sky. Two shepherds, a man and woman, came and sat perhaps 100 feet away. What I assumed was their flock, was far below us. They were carrying nothing, no provisions, no water. And here I sat with a motorcycle piled high with "necessities"! What an odd picture.

I took out the bag of conchitas and a bottle of water and walked over to where they sat silently. I asked if they would like to share. "Si." The man held out his upper garment for me to pour some conchitas into, then took the bottle of water. I went back to the bike and we just looked out at the land.

Crossing a pass near Matará, just south of Antamina. I prefer this landscape.

A perfect afternoon for riding: blue skies with puffy clouds, fresh cool air and no sign of rain. I paused to watch a woman herd horses far below. She maneuvered through brush, arcing around the strays, talking to them, coaxing them in the desired direction. When one stubborn horse failed to respond, she picked up a large rock and throwing from more than fifty feet away, struck it squarely. It got the message and galloped off to join its mates.

The high country, though thoroughly-grazed, still felt fresh and pristine, very healthy. I know I could not live in these conditions, but the lifestyle here seems very pure.

Following a river canyon down toward Huallanca, gradually I began to pass through clusters of farms and then pueblitos.

Thatched-roof mud shepherds' huts on boulder-strewn slopes (lower left-center)

The strange visitor draws their attention

Couldn't make any sense of my map (International Travel Maps' "Peru South") for this region. First of all, it was too large a scale for off-roading, but even the so-called highways didn't coincide with the map. I was completely disoriented and relied totally on strangers to direct me. I knew where I wanted to end up; that was about all.

From Huallanco on, the path to Huanuco became fairly clear. Every few miles, a new town. Through each, the call “gringo!” could be heard. Usually it was children. Boys and men whistled and shouted (I assumed it was some sort of approval, but I might have been mistaken! I waved back.) The women just cast timid, and sometimes suspicious looks. Not many teeth in the smiles around here!

Predictably, in every town the dogs chased me, I think much to their owners’ amusement. As soon as one started barking, others came tearing across the landscape, aiming to "head me off at the pass." I finally realized that even if they came near enough, they would never get their teeth through my "armor", so why even concern myself? Later in the day, as the game was getting a little old, I intentionally tried to chase them, and maybe teach them to stay away from motorcycles!

Throughout the afternoon I crawled through numerous herds of sheep, pigs (the little ones quite cute) and cattle, standing in among them (and watching out for those horns!)

On one precipitous stretch, I saw the dust from a vehicle approaching a few bends ahead. But it surprised me when it suddenly came around a sharp bend sooner than expected. I dove for the hillside, coming to a quick stop, my handlebars stretching from the side of the minibus to the embankment, with maybe a few inches to spare. The driver barely missed a beat, rolling right on by. It's just a motorcycle.

I couldn't help but draw a connection between the thick powdery soil on the roads and the ubiquitous eucalyptus plantations. I've long heard that eucalyptus is destructive to topsoils. I was beginning to sense that this is true. In these groves, there appears very little other vegetation. Except for the eucalyptus, they seem quite dead.

Near Chupán, Huánuco, Peru, mountainsides sculpted by millennia of farming

At sunset, I passed through San Cristóbal, on an east-facing slope beneath the "Crown of the Inca," an incredible rock formation also known as "Lacsahuarina". What an idyllic setting for a town!

Arrived in Huanuco just after dark and paused by a popular lake on the edge of town. I was approached by a fellow who was having his car washed along the lakeshore. Soon he was my "amigo" (which, I've come to learn, means that some tip is expected.) I showed him in my "Lonely Planet" guide the hotel I was looking for. He said he would take me there.

He led me downtown to the Plaza de Armas and the adjacent "Hotel Huanuco". I gave him a modest tip. Inside, I was very impressed, until I asked the cost: 120 Soles, over $35.00! How could this be? The guide book said rooms with showers were $7.30! I returned to my bike and again looked at the guide. It was the "Hostal Huanuco", I was looking for.

I found it only two blocks from the Plaza. This was more what I expected: an old building, dimly-lighted, with a motley collection of old furniture and pictures on the walls. After rejecting several rooms, I took a second floor room with a tenuous connection to fresh air (through a screened transom above the door, and a 4" clay tile pipe through the back wall.) It was a strange, stuffy room, with barely enough space to walk around the two beds, and a tiny bathroom in which you had to carefully maneuver.

Off the Plaza, I found the "Shorton Grill", which specializes in spit-roasted chicken. For 5.50 Soles, I ordered the ¼ chicken with French fries and a soda. Very good. Plump chickens – you don’t usually see this in the platos tipicos. From my second floor seat, I could watch the kitchen staff, a study in efficiency.

After dinner, I strolled around the Plaza, taking a seat for a while, watching people pass by. The din of traffic, horns and sirens is always intrusive. It would be an immense improvement if they routed through-traffic a block away instead of directly around the square.

Security guards on the street sport tough-sounding emblems, such as "S.S." and "Commandos". Warranted or not, there is definitely a higher level of paranoia throughout Latin America.


babycondor said...

Good cover image for your book...

timtraveler said...

Would you mind writing it for me?

babycondor said...

It's already being written, by you!

E. BAIG P. said...

clear Tim, aqui already this part of your book.

claro Tim, aqui ya esta parte de tu libro.

E. BAIG P. said...

Soy Emilio Baig de Cancun, greetings

timtraveler said...

¿Un libro?

¡Ése es muchos de trabajo!


Anonymous said...

3 comments related to pastoral photo of hut (relocated here due to post consolidation):

babycondor said...

A beautiful image. Timeless somehow. Sweet.

timtraveler said...

I always like your take on things!

Genevieve said...

The timeless quality is due to the natural materials and traditional methods in the constructions.

It's the architectural equivalent of folk art.