Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Under the Shadow of Arequipa’s Holy Mountain



Under the Shadow of Arequipa’s Holy Mountain

By A. Hyatt Verrill

From Travel magazine, September 1925. Digitized by Doug Frizzle March 2010.

The Port the Pirates Couldn't Take—Temples in a Volcano's Crater—How the Incas Built a Royal Highway Two Thousand Miles Long

The following article is one of a series written for Travel on the more unusual phases of life on the west coast of South America. The last article, "Rubbing Elbows With the Friendly Chilean'' appeared in the August issue.

MOLLENDO, the last port of call in Peru might well be the last port in the world so far as appearances go. On all sides stretch sandy deserts and hills sloping inland to dreary lava mountains with no blade or leaf of green. It is a new, crude world, or an exhausted, burned out, dead universe that surrounds the place, and wide areas of white alkaline deposits on hills and desert add to its forbidding aspect, making it look for all the world as if a light snow had recently fallen.

The town itself is almost as dreary and God-forsaken as its setting. To be sure, there are a few fairly good buildings, a hotel or two of sorts, and the port boasts electric lights and motor cars, while a few gardens and the plaza support struggling, dusty leaved trees and shrubs. But the streets are mere tracks of deep sand, and there are not even the redeeming features of picturesqueness or beauty about the buildings which have nothing of Spanish architecture, but more resemble the cheap tenements of a northern manufacturing town. It is, in fact, about the last place one would visit from choice, and yet it is a very important and quite a famous town. Its importance is solely that it is the terminus of the Peruvian Southern Railway that extends via Arequipa to Puno on Lake Titicaca, and hence to Cuzco, and it is famed for the heavy surf that makes landing difficult or impossible, and also for the fact that it is the only West Coast port that the British buccaneers could not take. And, as the freebooters' failure to capture the town was due wholly to the surf, one might truthfully say that the town's claims for fame are reduced to one.

Today, those who desire to step ashore at Mollendo, or who wish to depart therefrom, must embark or disembark like so much cargo, seated in a rickety, and usually grease-smeared chair, dangling at the end of a derrick's tackle. Even this feat is often impossible for the terrific breakers dash themselves over the stony quay and bury derricks and landing place in foam and spray that is hurled higher than the waterfront buildings. Just why the seas at Mollendo should be so much worse than at any other spot along the coast is something of a mystery. But it has ever been so. At times it is fairly calm, but even in the calmest weather the surf breaks white and threatening at the feet of the cliffs, and the visitor never knows, when he goes ashore, whether or not he will be able to leave when the time comes. In the past, however, the surf has proved far more of a blessing than a curse.

When Captain Bartholomew Sharp and his swashbuckling buccaneers sailed up and down the coast in the "Most Blessed Trinity," and sacked and looted to their hearts' content, they found Mollendo's surf a far more effective defense than guns or forts. They might cannonade the place from their ship, but to land a cutthroat force through the breakers was impossible. And as they were after loot and not glory, and could gain nothing by wasting powder and shot on a town they could not rob, they cursed Mollendo roundly and passed it by. Judging from its present appearance they lost little thereby, and I, for one, cannot see why on earth they should have desired to go ashore at Mollendo, though perhaps in buccaneer days the pickings might have been better than today.

From Mollendo, one can reach Arequipa, the second largest and perhaps the most attractively beautiful of Peru's cities, by a drearily monotonous train journey of five hours across a hot and dusty desert. The only breaks in this long stretch are the water-tank stations which, surrounded by little plots of cultivated land, form welcome oases. They are striking examples of what miracles water will perform. The shifting, glaring sand seems absolutely incapable of producing vegetation of any sort, but only moisture is needed to cause it to blossom like the proverbial rose, and not only roses but every other variety of flower, fruit and vegetable grows in riotous profusion wherever irrigation is used. The only other interesting features of this trip are the sand dunes. Ever moving invisibly but surely inland before the wind, these are piled against the foothills of the Andes and gradually climb higher and higher, until they find secure lodgment among the cliffs. These areas of light colored sand far up on the dark mountain sides are striking features of the Peruvian and Chilean desert country. They are known as medanos, and unless one knows their origin and how they are formed they always puzzle the visitor.

Arequipa is a desert city, but the desert about it has been conquered, subdued and transformed into a vast garden. The city, situated at an elevation of seventy-five hundred feet above the sea, has a climate of perpetual spring and the Arequipans boast that the sun shines every day in every year. There is no question that it is a beautiful city in its quaint architecture, its surroundings and its verdure; a distinctly Moorish-Spanish town with overhanging richly carved wooden portals and balconies, elaborately wrought, iron gates and grills, narrow, alley-like streets, crumbling, flower-draped walls, and dreamy, sleepy, delightful plazas. But aside from its atmosphere and its outward aspect there is little of old Spain in Arequipa. Mantillas and high combs are reserved for fiestas, fancy dress balls and bull fights. Electric lights and romantic adventures do not go hand in hand, and radio sets are proving more entertaining than guitars. And, it must be confessed, cities of the type of Arequipa are not over clean nor attractively odorous. Street cleaning and the personal habits of the Peruvian underworld are still much as they were in the days of Pizarro, and he who wanders about the by-ways and high-ways of these cities must literally watch his step —especially after dark.

But it would not be Latin-America otherwise, and there are always other things to compensate for such short comings. In Arequipa, for example, one forgets all trifling annoyances and objectionable features as one gazes across the far-flung plain to where Mount Misti rears its snow-clad summit like a cameo against the blue sky. Wherever one looks towards the east the purple-blue, white-tipped Andean peaks loom, but Misti dominates them all, and while it is by no means the loftiest of the galaxy it appears so, for it rises in a massive, magnificently symmetrical cone from the level plain. Long ages before the Spaniards set foot on the South American continent, the Indians regarded Mount Misti with reverance, awe and superstitution. No doubt its eruptions, and the earthquakes that are frequent in the district, induced much of this feeling towards the volcano, but even the most blase and unimaginative globe trotter of today cannot look upon the mountain without experiencing a thrill and a feeling of awe akin to reverence. To the simple Indians, however, the volcano was, if not a superior being itself, at least the abiding place of spirits or gods, and within its immense crater one may still see the ruins of prehistoric temples.

On the volcano's summit is an iron cross, placed there by Spanish priests in 1677, and who, with prayers, chants, and swinging censors, most gravely exorcised the demons of the mountain, and besought the Christian God to prevent Misti from erupting again. No doubt the ancient builders of the temples within the crater were as reverent as the priests, and had fully as much confidence in the gods to whom they offered sacrifices and prayers. Who can say that the simple faith of the Indian priests and their followers was not fully as efficacious as that of the Dons and their cowled and tonsured Friars?

With all its interests and its attractions, Arequipa is but a stepping stone on the way to the hinterland and the heart of the ancient Inca empire with its wonderful ruins and monuments, its fascinating history, and the still more amazing and remarkable pre-Inca remains.

Between Arequipa and Juliaca the scenery rapidly becomes magnificent, for here the railway crosses the Andean divide. It is nowhere as awe-inspiring, overwhelming and majestic as on the Central Railway between Lima and Oroya, however, for the route is over a wide, high plateau, rather than among endless sky-piercing peaks and terrific precipices, and the highest altitude reached is less than fifteen thousand feet, or over one thousand feet less than Ticlio on the Central Railway. Juliaca, only a half hour by train from the shores of Lake Titicaca, is merely a junction, a miserable town of mud, corrugated iron buildings, and Indian hovels, and with a sorry attempt at a plaza with stunted shrubs and coarse grass which are the only forms of vegetation that will grow at this altitude. At Juliaca the railway runs north towards distant Cuzco, or by going to Puno and there taking the lake steamer, one may reach La Paz.

Although these Indians are commonly known as Quichuas, and speak the Quichua tongue, yet they are a totally different lot from the Indians of the Huancayo district. In features, color, and costume they are distinct, and while fully as picturesque, they are a more downtrodden, stupid-looking lot, and are even dirtier, than their fellows one sees in the districts reached by the Central Railway. The costume of the men consists of short trousers and a shirt of coarse homespun woolen cloth, heavy woolen socks, rawhide sandals, a peculiar form of heavy flat hat, and the inevitable poncho. Often the typical woolen cap, with earflaps that are tied under the chin, is worn, and in nine out of ten cases the predominant color of the whole costume is vivid red. The woman's costume is, when clean and new, quite attractive, and savors more of the peasant dress of Spain than of the Indian. The skirt and low-cut waist are of dark woolen cloth, a bright colored shawl or manta is worn over the shoulders, a vividly hued belt is about the waist, and the garments are often elaborately ornamented or embroidered in gaudy colors. To complete the whole there is the ever present and indispensable bright colored coca pouch and the knitted, bottle-shaped purse, while the broad flat hat is decorated by a drapery of brilliant hues that falls from the edge of the brim. These hats, which are typical of the Indians of this section of Peru, are really a most unique headgear, and are most ingeniously designed to combine utility and finery, a hat for working days or holidays, a protection from sun or from rain, all in one. A place wherein to hang his or her best hat during the intervals between fiestas never troubles these people, for wherever the Indian may be, he or she is prepared for any emergency or occasion that may arise, as far as headgear is concerned. Fundamentally the hat is merely a wide, stiff disc of straw with a round opening in the center, like a gigantic doughnut pressed flat. One side of this is covered with coarse woolen cloth which is practically waterproof; the other surface is covered with velvet, satin, or silk and is decorated with embroidery, beads and silver. In bad weather, or when the owner is working, the pan-cake-like affair is placed upon the head wool side uppermost, the loose cloth over the central aperture serving as the crown. But if the day is bright, or the wearer desires to appear at his or her best for any reason, the affair is turned other side up, thus producing a lightning change of costume, for to the Indian, the headdress is the all important matter. His poncho may be faded, filthy and ragged; his trousers may be in tatters and patched with as many colors as Joseph's famous coat, but as long as his hat is au fait he feels perfectly unconscious of other sartorial shortcomings, and properly attired for any occasion. Many of these Peruvian, as well as the Bolivian, Indians, speak of themselves as "Incas." Also, in literature, conversation and elsewhere, the present-day aborigines are constantly referred to as "Incas." In reality, however, this is a misnomer and is very confusing. It would be just as reasonable to call the Egyptians "Pharoahs," the Mexicans "Montezumas," the Italians "Caesars," the Germans "Kaisers" or the Russians "Czars." There is no such race or tribe as the Incas, for the Incas were merely rulers; a line of able, intelligent, super-Indians who consolidated a number of tribes, formed a vast empire or confederation, and developed certain arts and industries to a high degree.

Just who they were or whence they came are still unsolved mysteries. We know that the first Inca was Manco Capac, who ruled about the year 1000 A.D., and that thirteen Incas had followed in his footsteps at the time of the Spanish conquest. These were Manco Capac, Sinchi Roca, Lloque Yupanqui, Maita Capac, Capac Yupanqui, Inca Roca, Yahuar Huanac, Huira Cocha, Pacha Cutcc, Amaru Inca, Tupac Yupanqui, Huayna Capac and Huascar Atahualpa. The last was treacherously imprisoned and executed by the Spaniards, but the line was not destroyed. There are direct lineal descendants of the Incas in Peru and Bolivia today who are recognized as such by the Indians. One of these occupies the position of head waiter in a Miraflores hotel and another—Huayna Capac, is the acknowledged head and leader of a marvelous society or federation of millions of Indians whose object is to secure the rights and treatment to which they are entitled, but of which they are deprived by the governments and individuals of the republics.

But long ages before the first Inca made his appearance or rose to any prominence, the aborigines of Peru and Bolivia had developed a civilization with arts and culture that far outdid and exceeded anything ever accomplished under the Incas. The stupendous pre-Inca ruins at Tiahuanaco, the monolithic, titanic structures at Cuzco, and countless other remains are all the work of these people of whom we know nothing definite. Who they were, what their origin, whence they came are all mysteries, and though scores of theories and hypotheses have been offered, we actually know no more of these people than did the Indians whom Pizarro found under the Incas, who knew nothing of the civilization that had developed flourished, fallen, and been forgotten, centuries before the coming of the Europeans.

It is probable, however, that the race that occupied the highlands of Bolivia and Peru, and erected those cyclopean structures that still stand, was destroyed and scattered by the warlike hordes of savage Collas of Aimará blood. Wandering about, seeking new homes, remnants of the race settled here and there, forming the Yungas of the coast plain from Tumbes to Supa, under Chimu, with their capital at Chanchan, and with the sacred city of Pachacamac near Lima under Cuis Manco and Chuquis Manco. Driven from their homes about Titicaca, many also established new cities at Cuzco, Pachachaca and Urabamba, and it was these scattered tribes and nations that were drawn together and federated by the Incas. Vast indeed was this strange empire that included the present republics of Eucador, Bolivia, Peru and parts of Chile and the Argentine, an area over thirty-six hundred miles in length by four hundred miles in width, with some ten million or more inhabitants, and whose fabulously rich capital was Cuzco. What heights the Incas might have attained, to what conquests they might have aspired, to what degree they might have developed arts, industries and even science, had not the Dons arrived on the scene, will never be known. The empire was in its infancy, barely five centuries old, when the ruthless Europeans destroyed it, and yet, in those five hundred years, it had advanced far more rapidly than European civilizations advanced during a like period. Builders and masons, rather than architects and sculptors; agriculturalists and herdsmen rather than idealists and scholars, the Incan races never produced the carvings, colorings and modelling, the ceramic arts, the intricate symbolic designs, the conventionalized patterns, the marvelous textiles and the metal work of the pre-Incan people. Many of their greatest cities were mere collections of rude adobe mud houses; their finest buildings were bare, or almost bare, of decorations or carving, and the vast incalculable riches they amassed were largely acquired as taxes or tribute from their colonies. Much of the credit for civilization and art that has been given to the Incas is really due the pre-Inca races, and the most beautiful pottery, the most wonderful ruins, the most perfectly preserved mummies, and the finest tapestries and textiles which excite the wonder and admiration of modern artizans, are pre-Inca and not Inca.

It was in road building that the Incas reached their very highest pinnacle of engineering and of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. No race, not even the old Romans, ever excelled, and few have ever equalled, the Incas in this respect. From Quito in Ecuador to Cuzco, and hence to central Chile, stretched their principal thoroughfare, a twenty-foot paved road over 2000 miles in length! And though this marvelous highway ran through the roughest, most mountainous area in all the New World the Incan engineers laid out and constructed a road that our modern engineers, with all the power and labor-saving devices and inventions of our civilization to aid them, would have hard work to equal. There were endless, terrific mountains to cross, vast abysmal canyons to be spanned, peaks capped with perpetual snow to be surmounted, roaring mountain torrents to be bridged, immense deserts to be traversed and stupendous precipices to be scaled. But the Incas treated the peaks the canyons, the rivers, the Andean heights and the trackless deserts as though they had been non-existent. They tunnelled for miles through the solid rock. They filled ravines and canyons with solid masonry. They cut shelves across the faces of precipices. They ascended the loftiest divides by hair-pin turns and S-shaped curves, and they spanned torrents and broad rivers by suspension bridges with fibre cables as thick as a man's body. At given distances apart, from end to end of their amazing highway, they erected stone pillars like milestones, and they paved their road with cut stone, often overlaid with an asphalt-like surface. So well was the road constructed, so enduring the work, that even today, after centuries of abandonment, disuse and exposure to the elements, much of it remains in serviceable condition and is in daily use. Floods have undermined and destroyed the stupendous masses of fitted stone masonry that filled ravines, but above the reach of the waters the structure still stands and clings to the mountain sides. Many of the bridges, with their centuries old cables anchored to solid rock, pierced to receive them, are as strong as ever and are daily crossed by llama trains. And though, in places, the stone flagging has crumbled or has been displaced, the bituminous surface is intact and is harder than the stones themselves. Even more astounding is the engineering skill displayed by these long-dead Incan road makers. The curves are so perfect, the grades so easy and accurate, the tunnelling so admirably planned that it seems incredible that the work could have been done without compasses, chains and transits. But we know that the Incas were absolutely ignorant of any such instruments, and, strangely enough, neither they nor the pre-Incan races ever discovered the wheel. Indeed, no American tribe ever hit upon this most useful of discoveries. The Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas and the pre-Incas all cut circular discs of stone; all of them wrought discs of clay, copper, gold and silver so truly circular that they appear as if laid out with compasses; all made use of the circle in various decorations, and all, no doubt, used rollers of wood for moving heavy masses of building stone. It would seem as if they could not have avoided inventing the wheel, as if a disc of stone or wood or metal, accidentally dropped and rolling off on edge, must have given them the idea. But never has any trace of the wheel been found, either in sculpture, painting, remains or tradition. It is simply fascinating to speculate on what might have been the result had these ancient races of America discovered the wheel, and thereby had opened an endless vista of possibilities and advancement which, without the wheel, were impossible of achievement.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.