Pacific Shores From Panama – Southern Peru

The Limari of the Chilian Line took us in a night from Callao harbour to the anchorage off Cerro Azul. Before us lay a typical Peruvian port, barren and dry, whose bleak sand hills made us exclaim: “Why have we accepted this kind invitation to spend a week in this desolate spot!”

The doctor’s boat came alongside, and presently the chaloupa of the port captain and with it a large lancia. This latter intrigued me, for, though manned by four stalwart oarsmen, it contained no cargo of any description. Its bottom was covered with a great tarpaulin on which stood two empty chairs, its sole passenger being a man in white whose bronzed face was shaded by a cork helmet. I was wondering how we would get ashore, when this man in white stepped up and, introducing himself, asked if we were not the expected guests of Señor H.

He proved to be the port agent, British as could be, of the great sugar estate for which we were bound, and soon, with our luggage, we were comfortably in-stalled in the two chairs upon the tarpaulin and were making for the shore, riding the surf until we beached some fifty feet or so beyond the dry sand. Several men waded out for the luggage; my wife was put into a chair carried by three men, while I was told to bestride a big fellow’s shoulders as he waded ashore with me. A queer procession we must have made!

Our host was down to the port to meet us, and presently, after a comforting cup of tea in the agent’s house (it was yet very early in the morning), we were put into a carrito, or little car running on narrow-gauge tracks and drawn by a fat, white mule. A Jap lashed up the animal, constantly shouting “Mula, mula,” as we sped around the promontory that gives the port its name—the Blue Hill.

In an instant the whole aspect of the country changed as if by magic, a change so startling that it fairly staggered us—the coast desert transformed in a moment from sandy wastes to broad cottonfields and acres upon acres of sugar-cane. A tall factory chimney loomed up in the distance; then a Japanese village with its temple set among the banana-trees came into view; then a larger native village; and finally the low, rambling hacienda, an extensive group of buildings painted Venetian red and enclosing two patios, one set out with date-palms and a fountain, the other planted with flowers and entwined with honeysuckle. We were taken to large and airy rooms that faced the garden and tennis-court, with, beyond, a fine prospect of the sea, calm, placid, and blue beyond belief.

It was now only nine in the morning (for we had made a very early start), and I spent the remaining hours until luncheon in walking through the sugar mill with my host. Santa Barbara is a very big plant, one of the largest on the West Coast, and thirty-five miles of railroad track feed its capacious maw. Train-load after train-load of cane, the “honey of reeds,” draws up to the factory each day to spill its contents upon the endless chains that dump them onto the crushing-mills. Like all perfected machinery of this day, no human hand touches the product until the finished sugar, one hundred and fifty thousand pounds a day, is sewn into sacks and put on flat-cars for shipment at the port.

After luncheon we started, four of us, in the carrito for Casa Blanca, a large ranch some miles distant, the headquarters of the cultivation department. Here we found horses ready saddled and soon were riding off toward an isolated hill, the Cerro d’Oro, a barren peak bearing Inca ruins plainly visible upon its summit. As we climbed its sandy heights beautiful views of the valley began to unfold themselves.

To the westward the sea glittered like silver in the afternoon light; to the north, parched and baked and blistered by eternal sunshine, the arid foot-hills lay seamed like wrinkled old mummies; but to the east, in violent contrast to this desolation, the broad Canete valley, under the fecundating touch of its river and countless irrigating ditches, bloomed into verdant fields of cane, vivid, velvety, stretching like a vast green carpet to the far foot-hills that rose, pale, ashen, and sandy, to buttress the grand Cordillera towering high into the heavens.

Upon attaining the summit of the hill there lay about us the ruins of a dead civilisation. House walls of sun-baked adobe brick, with doorways still intact; fragments of a well-planned fortress; and lower down a cemetery wall beyond which we could see innumerable human bones and row upon row of skulls glistening in the sunshine amid strips of mummy wrappings of vicuña cloth, exhumed by the shifting sand.

We rode down the other side to San Luis, and in the carrito again drove for miles through the cane-fields of the vast estate to the Nuevo Mundo. Here we found other horses and, in the now westering light, rode through hills scratched with andenes, or Inca terraces, dating from the days when that patient people, by means of aqueduct and tunnel, deflected whole rivers to fertilise their crops. These irrigating ditches are still in use, serving as models to the Spaniards.

Each hill hereabout is topped with its Inca ruins. Like the mediaeval builders, these Peruvian Indians of the coast region chose the hill tops for their settlements, thus protecting themselves alike from wandering bands of marauders and the miasmas of the coast marshes. We returned to Santa Barbara in the waning twilight, with the crescent moon and the Southern Cross to guide us.

So ended our first day at Cerro Azul.

I had asked myself in the morning, “Why did I come?” Now I was answered. This single day had given me the most vivid picture of one of those Inca valleys described by the ancient chroniclers, scarcely believable upon this rainless coast—valleys that light its desert wastes with their emerald fields wherever a torrent pours from the Andes down to the sea; valleys that support the lonely coast-towns and pro-duce the barges of sugar, the bales of cotton, the herds of cattle that are hoisted aboard the steamer at every port.

The days that followed strengthened this picture and added to its details. Each brought its little expedition.

One morning we visited the Japanese village whose picturesque little lanes, shaded by banana palms, put to shame the shiftlessness and dirt of the cholo quarter—the inevitable galpon that houses the half-breed working population of every Peruvian hacienda.

Another day we rode to the Seal Rocks along the hard-packed sands of the coast. Our horses at times galloped through the surf itself; then again we were cut off from the sea by hummocks and rocky promontories and reaches of barren sand dunes. Oh, the loneliness of this shore, the desolation of these dunes! Never a tree, nor a shrub, nor a blade of grass. Only at times the gulls fishing along the beach, or the skeleton of a pelican whitening in the sand, or a flock of buzzards hovering over a dead seal cast up by the breakers.

Yet we were following the main coast highway to Lima, a hundred miles or less to the north, though only a furrow in the sand and a single line of telegraph-poles marked its progress. Our ride terminated at Lobos Rock, where the seals lay wriggling in great families, the sound of their barking rising even above the roar of the surf. We watched them for some time, until our horses grew restless and the sun began to sink behind the rocky islets that lifted their purple heads above the sea.

We struck out for home in the short twilight of the tropics through the lonely sands, and on the way passed three cholos eating their frugal meal oblivious of the coming darkness, preparing for their long walk toward Lima, going, as they always do, by night to avoid the heat, trudging the endless sandy miles of the coast wilderness. So went the determined old conquistadores when Pizarro met Almagro at Mala, so went the Inca runners, so goes the cholo and the Indian today.

Our longest excursion took an entire day. Early in the morning we went in the carrito as far as Monte Alban, a superintendent’s ranch at the farthest limits of the estate, the scene of several Spanish tragedies. There we found horses and were joined by Señor L, son of the Vice-President of Peru, who was to be our companion for the day and whose home we were to visit later on. Our little cavalcade of six started through the village, San Vicente, whose freshly painted church and clean plaza set with gardens told of its prosperity, and out between the baked mud walls that serve as fences and are so characteristic a feature of this coast region of Peru, until we reached the hacienda of Hualcara. Here we paused for a while and refreshed ourselves in its patio garden aglow with flowers and embowered with great clusters of the pink bellissima, a beautiful vine—Japanese, I believe—that thrives particularly well in these latitudes.

In the saddle again, we struck off for the hills. In a moment the cotton-fields and the acres of sugarcane were gone and we entered a dry, parched desert, the desolation of the moon, without a vestige of life either animal or vegetable. Through this arid, stony waste we crossed a long abutment of the Sierra and came at last out above a broad valley watered by the main fork of the Canete, a valley we had not yet seen, green from end to end, traversed by long files of trees and dotted with ranches. At its upper end, just under the shadow of the mountains and commanding the pass that ascends their rugged defiles, rose an isolated cone, the key of the valley, known throughout the country as the Fortaleza—the Fortress.

As we approached it we could plainly see extensive ruins upon its summit, remains of the great Inca stronghold that defended their mountain kingdom against the invaders. But these ruins along the coast possess neither the interest nor the grandeur of the massive structures that we saw later on the interior plateaus. Built of adobe bricks, not of giant stones, they are specimens of the decadence of the Inca builder’s craft, dating as they do from but a century or two before the Spanish conquest.

We circled the hill to view them from every side, and as we returned, hungry and thirsty, two riders appeared, as from a rub of Aladdin’s lamp, leading a pack-animal with lunch-baskets. Where had they sprung from? Only a laugh from our host as in the cool shade of a willow we selected a spot for our midday meal. An old Indian brought us ponchos to sit upon from his rude cane hut near by; the birds were singing in the canebrakes, and a little stream went rushing merrily by in its mad race from the Andes to the sea.

After lunch we crossed this stream and followed down its valley, fording it a dozen times in its meanderings, riding single-file through the bamboo jungles, the tail and crupper of the pacing pony ahead appearing and disappearing as we sped along.

We finally emerged into the main Canete valley and paused awhile to visit an old bull-ring quite unique in its way. Its only gradas are a sort of balcony or loggia painted with statues of Roman emperors and with vines and the fittings of a pergola. The entire barrera, or wall surrounding the ring, is frescoed with great figures, life-size, and now partially effaced by time, depicting all the phases of a bull-fight: the picador and his horse gored by the infuriated animal; the banderilleros adroitly placing their multi-coloured darts; the lithe matador sighting his sword for the final thrust; even to the exit of the dead animal dragged out at the heels of the arrastres.

As we left the ring the four wonderful Norfolk Island pines, straight, tall, and branched like giant candelabra—the quartette of trees that make Unanue so conspicuous a landmark in the valley—raised their lofty heads before us, and from time to time we could descry the pinnacles and loggias of the beautiful hacienda rising above the intervening meadows.

We were to stop for tea at this home of the Vice-President, and presently were dismounting in its vast fore-court, where the white oxen were being unyoked from the plough and the farm implements stood neatly ranged under sheds at either side.

The great villa that confronted us was quite unlike any that I have seen—the dream of some French architect who let his imagination run riot. With its massive basement pierced only by narrow loopholes and a single entrance door, its upper terrace shaded on every side by arched verandas, its windows barred with iron rejas, its battlemented roof-line, and the elaborate spires of its porch, it is a strange combination, fanciful to a degree, like some story-book palace set in this remote valley, fortified against an imaginary foe, yet a pleasure palace withal, enclosed by its tangled gardens shaded by giant trees.

We ascended the double stairway to the broad loggia that commands a view in every direction toward the sea, the river valleys, and the mountains. The cool air of these verandas, paved with Italian marble, and of the rooms, cooler still, that surround the main patio, was grateful indeed after the glare of the road and the heat of the afternoon sun. We lingered until rather late over refreshing beverages, and the sun was already setting as we bade our host good-bye and started homeward by way of Santa Rita, another ranch at which we left our horses with an attendant and found awaiting us the now familiar carrito and its galloping mule.