On The Great South American Desert

I LEFT Ecuador, sailing in a Chilean steamer down the Guayas river into the Pacific, and am now at Pacasmayo, Peru. I am in the heart of the great South American desert, that wonderful strip of sand which extends from the borders of Ecuador for two thousand miles southward, along the Pacific coasts of Peru and Chile. It is as long as the distance from New York to Salt Lake City, and is in no place more than eighty miles wide.

I have seen something of other great deserts of the world. From the top of the pyramids I have looked over the sands of Egypt; I have sailed through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea along the deserts of Arabia, and on the Mount of Olives have cast my eyes over the bleak wastes between Jerusalem and the Jordan; I have travelled through the rocky highlands of our arid West, and have had my eyes dazzled by the alkali deserts of Mexico; but so far I have seen nothing like this South American desert.

The origin of the Peruvian desert may be •explained by stating that the atmosphere forms the clothing of the earth, and that old Mother Earth works well only when her clothes are periodically wet. The mountains are great clothes-wringers, which squeeze the rain out of the air, and by the difference in temperature cause it to fall on the land. If we except the Himalayas, the Andes kiss the sky at higher points than do any other mountains on the globe. The chief winds which sweep over South America come from the east. I am now as near the equator as I was a few weeks ago, when I waded through tropical mud amidst the dense vegetation of the Isthmus of Panama. The sun is continually drawing up vapor from the sea, but the winds are carrying it northward and westward, and the only breezes we have are the cool dry winds which come down upon us from the Andes. These winds originally started out from the west coast of Africa. As they swept over the Atlantic they pumped themselves full of water, and when they reached the coast of Brazil they were well-loaded. As they crossed the continent, they dropped their moisture, feeding the great rivers of lower South America, and covering the land with tropical verdure. They dropped more and more as they climbed up the eastern slopes of the Andes, until they reached the top, where they left the last water there in the form of snow, so there was nothing left to make fertile the western slope.

The result is that all the water that comes down to the west coast is from the melting of the snows. This is enough to form a river here and there through the desert; and it is in the valleys of such rivers that one finds the habitable parts of the coast regions of Peru and northern Chile. There is another habitable region farther up in the mountains, between the two ranges of the Andes which run almost parallel in this part of South America; and there is a wild strip on the eastern slope, which, through the agency of railroads, will some time be one of the most productive parts of the globe.

One of the wonders of the desert is its travelling sand-hills. Just back of the shore there are great mounds, containing hundreds of tons of fine gray sand, which is always moving under the influence of the winds. The mounds are of crescent shape, and their little grains, not so large as a mustard seed, are ever rolling up, up, and over the top of the crescent, going always toward the north. They climb over hills, they make their way through valleys, as uneasy but as steady in their march as the Wandering Jew.

Here, at Pacasmayo, there is a railroad which crosses the desert on its way up the Jequetepec valley. When it was built the engineers thought nothing of the sand-hills, which were then far to the southward. The sands, however, are no respecters of railroads. They moved onward, and swallowed up the track, so that it had to be taken up and relaid on the other side of them.

In a ride on a hand-car up the valley I saw one place where a mound of sand containing some thousand of tons was encroaching upon the track. A stream of water from the river had been let in through a ditch at the side in a vain attempt to carry it away, and the men were at work shovelling the sand from the rails. As I passed I saw the sand coming down in a stream like thick molasses, and it seemed to me that it would be almost impossible to conquer it.

I took photographs of some of the moving hills. I climbed to the top of one of them fearing that I might sink down to my neck in it, but discovered that the sand was so compact that even my shoes were not covered. Some of the sand-hills are stopped on their course by the algoroba bushes, which grow here and there in the desert. The sand gathers about the bushes, almost covering them, and forming hills topped with patches of green.

The chief animals used to carry freight in the desert are donkeys, mules, and horses; the last named are sometimes used for riding. The only roads are bridle-paths, which are often covered up by the sands. This makes travelling in the desert very dangerous. No stranger does well to attempt to cross it alone. He must have a guide, who will direct his course by the stars at night and by the wind during the day. I can imagine no place where it would be so terrible to lose one’s bearings. You might wander about for days without finding anything to eat or drink. You would pass by the skeletons of animals which had been lost and died there, and, perhaps, see the bodies of some at which the buzzards were still picking. I passed the bones of men, donkeys, and cattle, and at one point stopped to rest on a pile of skeletons which had been dug from an Inca ruin and left there to bleach.

It is an odd thing that there are no bad smells on the desert. Flesh does not decay, for the air is so dry that it sucks the juices out of everything left upon the sand. In the northern part of Peru is the valley of the Piura rive. Not long since a traveller, going through this valley, saw in the cemetery an open coffin, and in it the body of a dead priest clothed in a purple shirt and white cotton drawers. The tropical sun was beating down upon the corpse, and the traveller, who was a devout Catholic, proposed to bury it, expressing great indignation that one of the fathers should be so treated. The priest of the town, however, refused to permit it, saying: ” My dear sir, you do not understand. That is the body of my friend, which I have put out there to dry, so that I may send him in good condition to his family in Guayaquil.”

It is owing to this dryness of the air that the mummies of Peru are found in good preservation. There are plenty of them in the desert, and, in excavating the ruined cities which were in existence when the Spaniards came, some of them are dug up every now and then. The mummies are usually found in a sitting posture, wrapped in cloth and tied up with strings.

All about Pacasmayo I noticed vestiges of the Incas. They are to be found throughout the coast region of Peru, as well as on the highlands. Among the most remarkable near here are the ruins of the old city of Jequetepec, which I visited. I doubt whether the reader has ever heard of them. Still, they are the remains of what was once a populous city. They are situated high above and far back from the irrigated lands along the Jequetepec river. Near them are the remains of Inca fortifications, great mounds of sun-dried bricks, about 200 feet high.

These ruins are in the heart of the desert. They cover several hundred acres; and the walls, in many places higher than one’s head, still stand, while within them the outlines of the houses can be plainly seen. In the centre of the city is a large mound, probably the site of an Inca palace or of a temple devoted to the vestal virgins of the sun. I rode my horse up to the top of this mound, and in my mind’s eye could easily re-people the ruined streets below me. All about were bits of pottery, the broken dishes of that great people of the past. Here were the outlines of a square, and there the remains of a large house, which may have been the residence of one of the rich nobility from whom the Spaniards stole their gold.

In my travels over the desert I saw the ruins of many other towns. In that acme of civilization, which makes every rood of earth maintain its man, the Indians were far superior to the Spaniards. When Pizarro came, the Inca king had, it is estimated, about 40,000,000 subjects. Peru was far more thickly populated then than now, and it undoubtedly had a higher state of civilization. Most of the people then lived on the high plateau between the two ranges of the Andes, but they irrigated vast regions of the coast desert; and even the mountain slopes were turned into farms. They had large cities and magnificent roads.

Not far back from the coast across the Andes is the town of Cajamarca, where, more than three and a half -centuries ago, the Inca king, Atahualpa, received the Spanish freebooter Pizarro, and was treacherously captured by him. When Pizarro entered the country, with a handful of soldiers and a few horses, he was kindly treated by the Indians. Atahualpa heard of his coming, and met him at Cajamarca. Pizarro asked him to dine with him, and when Atahualpa came unarmed into the palace which Pizarro by his favor was occupying, Pizarro closed the doors and captured him, while the Spanish soldiers slaughtered his attendants. The person of the Inca king was so sacred that the event paralyzed the nation, and at Atahualpa’s request war was not made. Then Atahualpa said that if Pizarro would release him he would fill the room in the palace in which he was confined with gold to a point as high as he could reach. This was agreed to, and for several weeks gold was brought in great loads from all parts of Peru. The room was seventeen feet long by twenty feet wide, and the point up to which it was to be filled was designated by a red mark nine feet above the floor. The gold was in all sorts of shapes. Some of it was in gold plates torn from the Temple of the Sun at Cuzco. There was a variety of golden basins, drinking-cups, and dishes. There were vases of all kinds, and many pieces of beautifully carved workmanship. When the room was almost filled up to the mark indicated, Pizarro ordered the Indian goldsmiths to melt the whole into ingots, and there was so much gold that they worked at it day and night for a month. Then Pizarro refused to let Atahualpa go, and after a mock trial put him to death. There is a stone in Cajamarca which the Indians say is stained with Atahualpa’s blood.

Notwithstanding that this part of the Pacific coast has had no rain for a long time, the people are expecting it this year. The reason for this expectation is that it rains almost regularly every seven years in some parts of the desert. The last big shower was in 1891; there was a shower seven years before that; and I am told that about every seven, eight, or nine years there is a period, of a week or more, during which the rain falls in bucketfuls. As the water touches the earth, vegetation springs up. After a day and a night the desert becomes green. Soon great fields of grass spring up, and flowers by myriads appear in blossom. There are plants which we in the North have only in hot-houses, and flowers more brilliant than any we know of. This vegetation oftens lasts but a few days. It has, however, been known to flourish for a month; and at its height the cattle are driven from the irrigated valleys to the desert to feed. Seeds of all sorts of plants, trees, and shrubs, seem to keep perfectly in the hot, dry sand, and to be ready to leap into life when touched with moisture. I doubt, indeed, if a more fertile soil than that of the desert of Peru exists anywhere. It seems to be as fat as the valley of the Nile, and where it can be irrigated it usually produces two crops a year. In the irrigated valleys planting goes on all the year round, and I saw corn being dropped in fields adjoining those in which it was almost ripe enough for husking.

I have never been in a land that has so many fruits. We had nine different kinds at our last dinner, all of which were raised here. There are oranges, bananas, limes, and lemons, growing almost side by side with peaches, apples, and pears. There are grapes as luscious as those of California; cherries, plums, dates, and figs. There are watermelons and musk melons, guavas and mangoes. We have the alligator pear, which has a flesh that looks and tastes not unlike fresh butter, and is eaten with salt. Then there are the palta, the tumbo, and the papaya, and in some places cocoanut and other species of palm trees. In every little town and at every railroad station are women peddling fruit, and at such prices that for a few cents one can buy all one can eat. The coffee I drink is made from berries which come from a plantation near by, and the sugar with which it is sweetened is ground out on a sugar plantation not ten miles away.

But I despair of giving a picture of these little irrigated valleys of Peru. Nature has here painted things in a way different from that which she has employed in any other part of the world. Now you imagine yourself in Egypt; at the next step you think of the highlands of Mexico; and again of southern California or of the Pacific coast of Asia. Even the sky is different. Every evening the sun sets in the waters in a blaze of colour such as I have never seen elsewhere. The tints are more gorgeous than those of the Indian Ocean, more soft and beautiful than the skies of Greece. Such colours have never been put upon canvas, and such scenic effects are unknown in our part of the world. The sun at its setting looks twice as large in the clear air as at home, and as it sinks down toward the sea the waters seem to pull it to their surface so that it assumes the form of a balloon, the lower end of which is slowly submerged. A moment later the top spreads out, and you have a great golden dome resting on the dark blue horizon. It sinks lower, and the waters then turn to gold and silver, and the most delicate tints of purple and red, which match the soft, bright colours of the sky. Last night, just before the sun went down, we had double rain-bows in the Andes, although there was no sign of rain on the coast. The air is clear, and although it is now mid-summer, the heat is not oppressive, for we have a steady breeze every afternoon.